In 1983, Norman Tebbit, a minister in Thatcher’s government, justified cuts to the social sciences by saying that those who study ‘the pre-nuptial habits of the Upper Volta valley’ were not deserving of money. In Tebbit’s telling, a venerable, and vital, branch of anthropological inquiry – the study of kinship – was reduced to the documentation of exotic, native antics; all very well, perhaps, but not relevant, not useful. At the time, Jonathan Benthall – the then Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute – offered a courteous and moderate response to the Cabinet Minister (reprinted in Anthropology Today), pointing out anthropology’s utility to society in general.

But, in recent years, the timbre of criticism has, I think, changed. In Tebbit’s assessment, anthropology came across as daft, but harmless; a whimsical discipline devoted to the study of unreasoning peoples. But, according to the new spirit of criticism, anthropology is itself unreasoning, and not only useless, but also deluded, and even dangerous – the undisciplined savage in the academy.

This animosity towards anthropology is encapsulated in a document recently reported on by the Guardian: a thesis written by Dominic Cummings, former hatchet man and ideologue-in-chief to the education secretary, Michael Gove. Cummings’ paper is a shoddy concoction, a rambling reflection on the future of teaching and learning, in which the author champions the notion of an ‘Odyssean’ education – a kind of heroic, roving acquisition of knowledge, with entrepreneurial associations – that would combine the sciences with the humanities. But what we actually get is something more cyclopean: a squint-eyed vision of human life determined by self-interest, genetic imperatives, and power laws. (As Keith Hart has noted, we get the statistical models we deserve, so it is perhaps no surprise that power-law distributions, with their ‘premise of extreme inequality’, should be so in vogue at this late capitalist moment.) In keeping with this vision, Cummings says that he wants students to read Thucydides and Steven Pinker, but not – I should imagine – Herodotus, and definitely not Marx, nor – god forbid – anything by French postmodernists. (Cummings makes it unmistakably clear that Derrida and co. are dehors-texte.)  

As for anthropology, Cummings – in a move that is exactly the opposite of the expansive and polyhistoric approach that one might assume to be properly ‘Odyssean’ – simply condemns it. It is intellectually suspect; in hock to a dodgy model – the ‘SSSM’ (of which, more in a moment) – that goes all the way back to Boas. Moreover, he flatly asserts that students taking such courses are wasting both their own time and our money. Here, it appears to have slipped the mind of this hectoring Odysseus that, since he is a civil servant, the British taxpayer is in fact funding his own dubious scholarship.

But where does this idea come from that anthropology is so contemptible? It owes to a particular polemic, of recent make, largely developed within cognitive science. Cognitive anthropology, in particular, along with its sister discipline of evolutionary psychology, have been raising doubts about the relevance and premises of long-standing social and cultural approaches. I have commented on this question of relevance elsewhere. What interests me here is the tone and the rhetorical tactics employed, for the critique is carried out with particular derision, and is characterized by such excess, that it amounts to a sort of asymmetric warfare: a discursive offensive – and an offensive discourse – out of all proportion to its target.

The cognitive critique centres on (what it takes to be) anthropology’s most fundamental presupposition, dubbed the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ (SSSM) by Cosmides and Tooby, both evolutionary psychologists. According to this anthropological article of faith, since human nature is so radically plastic, there are, therefore, no universal cognitive capacities; thus, nothing is innate; everything is cultural. Owing to their irrational commitment to this barren paradigm, social-cultural anthropologists have resisted the magnificent shift ushered in by the cognitive sciences. But just how plausible is this picture? Not very, I suggest. There is something shifty about the paradigm as presented, for, rather like Latourian iconoclasts, who, in smashing up idols, demonstrate that they are the only ones who naively believe in their astounding power, cognitive scientists have been monstering a model which only exists in their own imaginings.      

To see that this is so, consider the devastating case presented by Steven Pinker. In his book-length critique of the SSSM, The Blank Slate (henceforth BS) he argues that it is not merely a malign paradigm that has infected intellectuals, but that it has also spilled out into society at large, with the most diabolical consequences. Not only has it legitimized the ‘release of dangerous psychopaths who promptly murdered innocent people’, but, much worse, it has ‘led to some of the greatest atrocities in history’ (BS, x-xi). Indeed, the idea that nothing important about humanity is natural, and everything is cultural, Pinker links to a hodgepodge of modern horrors, from the architecture of Le Corbusier (BS, 170) to the killing fields of Cambodia (BS, 158). And crucially, Pinker fingers anthropologists as key culprits.

Although he allows that Franz Boas was no mere ‘blank slate’ subscriber, he states that, nevertheless, ‘Boas had created a monster’ (BS, 23), the all-consuming culture-concept, subsequently pushed to the limit and peddled by his students, Kroeber, Mead, and Benedict. This Boasian monster-concept is supposedly based on two premises: the first, that there is categorically no relationship between biology and culture; the second, that the notion of culture, because it elevates analysis towards the level of the collective, is wholly indifferent to the lives of individual human beings.

As for the latter, Pinker singles out Kroeber, and his concept of the ‘superorganic’, which clearly demonstrates, he says, ‘Kroeber’s insistence that individual human minds are not worthy of attention’ (BS, 156). And, having put the finishing touches to this sinister, straw man figure, it is, then, a simple business to suggest that such a callous idea of the primacy of social and cultural totality – an ‘anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction’ (BS, 421) – should find its ultimate expression in the gulag, and its fictional equivalent, Orwell’s Ministry of Love (BS, 426-27).  (It is, incidentally, worth noting that Pinker, in his preface, remarks that his approach ‘will be coolly analytical’ (BS, xi). But this is surely a funny way to describe a form of argument that can insinuate some sort of connection between Alfred Kroeber and mass death in the twentieth century.)

With regards to the first premise – the anthropological axiom, as Pinker has it, of the ‘absolute separation of culture from biology’ (BS, 28) – he aims to substantiate his claim by means of a handful of devastating citations (BS, 23-26). For instance, this, from Leslie White: ‘Much of what is commonly called “human nature” is merely culture thrown against a screen of nerves, glands, sense organs, muscles, etc.’ Or this quote from Kroeber: ‘Civilization is not mental action but a body or stream of products of mental exercise.’ Then there is the following from Clifford Geertz:

‘Our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions, are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products – products manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless.’

But let us observe that the quoted words, so apparently damning, in fact refute the interpretation Pinker wants to put on them. What these authors are actually asserting is obviously not that there is ‘an absolute separation of culture from biology’ – who would defend such an absurd position? – but, rather, to cite Sahlins, that while biology ‘is an absolutely necessary condition for culture, [it] is equally and absolutely insufficient’.

So, what of the second premise, that the anthropological commitment to holism entails a lack of concern for individuals? Pinker’s paraphrase of this position is that it dictates that, ‘we should forget about the mind of an individual person like you, that tiny and insignificant part of a vast sociocultural system’ (BS, 26; original emphasis). But what Pinker fundamentally misunderstands is that this claim about the autonomy of culture (or, for that matter, society) is not some dubious moral assertion about the irrelevance of individuals, nor yet a denial about the singularity of human lives; it is an elementary, analytical point about the scale of phenomena to be investigated.

Indeed, Pinker himself shows that he respects this principle when he comes to discuss ‘levels of analysis’ in science. Taking the example of language, Pinker quite rightly observes that, to study it as a totality is to posit ‘an abstraction that pools the internal languages of hundreds of millions of people living in different places and times. It could not exist without the internal languages in the minds of real humans conversing with one other, but it cannot be reduced to what any of them knows either.’ As a consequence, ‘The English language was shaped by broad historical events that did not take place inside a single head.’ (BS, 71).       

Now, compare Kroeber (writing over half a century ago): ‘the English language is a piece of culture. The faculty of speaking and understanding some or any language is organic: it is a faculty of the human species. The sounds and words are of course made by individual men and women, and are understood and reacted to by individuals, not by the species. But the total aggregation of words, forms, grammar, and meanings which constitute the English language are the cumulative and joint product of millions of individuals for many centuries past.’ (Anthropology: Culture Patterns and Processes, 63)   

In other words, in spite of all the blustering and bad-mouthing of anthropology elsewhere in The Blank Slate, here, Pinker and Kroeber are talking the same language.

In Japan, there is a well-known genre of ‘special effects’ (tokusatsu) films and TV dramas, such as ‘Ultraman’ (pictured above) which generally end in a titanic battle between colossal alien protagonists – enacted by performers in rubber body-suits, who thrash around in a Lilliputian landscape of office blocks. Something very like this shows up in the rhetorical policy employed by cognitive science in its critique of anthropology, for, in making its case, it constructs what Owen Chadwick once called ‘balloon duellists’: massively expanded, dirigible positions that crudely caricature the attitudes and arguments they purport to represent. Hence, the ridiculous picture of open-eyed, inquiring scientists versus close-minded and intransigent culture-mongers. So it is that, all the while cognitive science has imagined itself to be engaged in a righteous war against a monstrous anthropology, it has actually been wrestling with an enemy whose body is limp and lifeless, because there is no one inside the monster costume. And there never was.     


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Comment by Huon Wardle on November 6, 2013 at 4:11pm

Just another note. There is a sense in which this (the Pinkertons versus anthropology) is more a 'dialogue of the deaf' or more accurately two monologues than a case of one set of voices successfully crushing another. Sitting in a working anthropology department, the most obvious fact I see is the constantly increasing number of students taking anthropology. Many meet it first as an elective, then they decide to switch their degree from whatever it was to anthropology. If anthropology as a discipline was actually in decline, then its university profile would look much more like classical languages or even philosophy in some universities (meaning absolutely no offence to those subjects) where many departments of these prestigious disciplines with low take-up have closed. But that is not the case. In addition, interest in anthropology from this point of view keeps growing at a time when there are no mega-star media don anthropologists alive (well I mentioned dan everett and we might add David Graeber or Gillian Tett who sometimes mentions she was an anthropologist) while at the same time there is a great deal of authoritarian language directed against social science in general. I am beginning to think that it is time to 'change the narrative', as they say.

Comment by Huon Wardle on November 6, 2013 at 12:55pm

Hi Philip, first, to note that I dropped into Heffers bookshop in Cambridge recently. I hadn't been there in twenty years. I was struck by how the anthropology section which used to stretch about 12 feet by 6 had dropped to a handful of authors - as I recall Diamond was there, Danny Miller, a few others. This either means that noone is interested in anthropology any more or that the people who are don't buy their books in bookshops. I think that the kind of anthropology we might recognise as significant is no longer sold in bookshops; but maybe the issue here is that the book industry has changed and so has anthropology.

On an upbeat note, there is now a contender, Daniel Everett, in the corner for cultural anthropology. Using his Piraha research on language he has made several brutal, if not knock-out blows against Chomskian linguistics and versus Pinker. Interestingly his recipe is to mix some good empirical linguistics with a strong dose of undiluted (Ruth) Benedictine culturalism plus a heavy splash of Malinowskian functionalism. It works pretty well and in some media circles he has as significant a place as Diamond or one of the others. I notice that Diamond is considered to be a soft dangerous liberal by many in the U.S. media. Pinker is in many ways old news in this kind of milieu. What seems more disturbing in many ways is how queasily unstable a lot of the discussions coming out of the U.S. now are, including a resurgence of scientific racism as a mainstream idea (I could point to the websites lauding Ashkenazi IQ etc. but I won't).

Comment by Philip Swift on November 6, 2013 at 6:01am

Thanks Keith, it's nice to be back. Starting with your last point first, my own opinion is that, regarding the SSSM, there is nothing to rubbish, because it doesn't exist. Or rather, it does exist, but only in the minds of the cognitive scientists who cooked it up in the first place. So, the trouble with the SSSM - I think the acronym could do with an extra 'S' for 'Spurious' - is that it's based on a misrepresentation, a misreading (wilful or not), which was attributed to the social-cultural anthropological position, the subsequently confected position was critiqued, and then this critique came to be widely disseminated. So, to revise my earlier assertion, this false representation about what anthropology is about doesn't only exist in the minds of cognitive scientists, but becomes widespread - so that a British civil servant can refer to it, and so dismiss the discipline. Given the highly viral property of this piece of prejudice, it would seem to be a great subject for a cognitive case-study of the spread of memes, or, in Sperber's updated version, the 'epidemiology of representations'. (Though I prefer Lee's Nietzschean take on culture as a virus.)       

I quite agree that Bloch is someone who has managed to navigate a way between the cognitive and the cultural positions with skill. But, then again, he's had his lapses - he says in his essay, 'Where did anthropology go?', that if anthropology continues to pursue its relativist direction, it will become 'Like history...only an assemblage of anecdotes about this and that.' As someone who formerly studied history - Roman and Greek - Thucydides, if you please - I think that this is a pretty nonsensical remark about what history is - sort of, one damn thing after another.

But, of course, I get what Bloch is on about - even if, as I think, he expresses it poorly in this instance - i.e., anthropology must embrace the universal, otherwise it will become nothing. Of course it should. But, as you said Keith - referring to John's excellent reference - it's a question of Kluckhohn's 1, 2 and 3. The trouble I have is that, for cognitive science, the only number is 1, and, I suspect, for people like Pinker, the unreflected referent for that 1 is 'us'.    

Comment by Keith Hart on November 5, 2013 at 7:04pm

Welcome back, Philip! If I hadn't had my nose stuck in preparing two edited books for publication, I would have noticed your blog post earlier.

I suppose anthropology is a victim of TINA, Mrs Thatcher's and neoliberalism's mantra that there is no alternative. Anthropologists do bang on a lot about the alternatives, so that would be fair game. But it is also probably the case that Pinker, Cummings and Co are operating with a defunct straw man of what anthropology used to be, much as Malinowski pilloried homo economicus long after its sell-by date. Even early Durkheim became a neo-Kantian by the time he wrote his last book (Fournier passed off the extraordinary remark in his biography that no-one knew if D himself wrote the religion book or Mauss or an Annee Sociologique collective!). I imagine that the ghosts of Benedict and Mead figure more powerfully in Pinker's imagination than George Marcus. But my main point, which Marshall also makes now, is that contemporary anthropologists basically live in and study one-world capitalism, so that we no longer stand outside ourselves to point out the alternatives. Our problem is that the ethnographic method, now applied to stockbrokers in a Tokyo office rather than yam cultivators on a Pacific island, doesn't yield enough distinctive ideas to get us noticed. Hence the hooha about doing public anthropology and getting noticed. Also the demonisation of Diamond, Pinker and the others who do manage to get noticed.

I have just landed up at LSE which has a nest of cognitive anthropologists. This is an interesting synthesis. Maurice Bloch, whose work really is cumulatively distinguished over a long period, seems to have rediscovered the leading structural functionalists by the cognitivist route, if only because they combined an interest in what is human with ethnography. Meyer Fortes was a psychologist after all. So Maurice at least has not abandoned LSE-style ethnographic particularism after taking up cognitive science. His main line seems to be that ethnography is an irreversible improvement on philosophy. But what is the market for that?

I was very taken with John's deployment of the triadic scheme. I do think that radical answers lie in rethinking the relationship between all three. A good case can be made for rubbishing the SSSM, if not for Cummings' reasons. We have been stuck for too long investigating social divisions at the expense of universals and unique personalities. I blame it on Hegel of course for overthrowing Kant's attempt to bring the two extremes together via critique. If anthropologists did take 1 and 3 seriously, especially the attempt to combine them somehow, we would have to line up with great literature and the humanities, wouldn't we? Maybe social science is a failed model.

Comment by Philip Swift on November 5, 2013 at 3:43am

Thanks John, for those useful comments. As you point out with your reference to Kluckhohn, it comes done to the kinds of questions one is interested in - which may not, of course, be interesting questions - as well as the level or scaling of the thing under investigation.

Now, it is certainly true that Kroeber's 'superorganic' or Durkheim's 'society' can - and were, of course - criticised  for privileging the whole, at the expense of the individual. (Coincidentally enough, Savage Minds has recently revisited the debate between Kroeber and Goldenweiser, in which the latter made this point.) 

For what it's worth, van Gennep was one of Durkheim's fiercest anthropological critics, and, among a number of forceful objections, he observed that Durkheim's theory of religion - arising from Australian ethnographic materials - passed over 'the influence, formative of institutions and beliefs, of various individuals'. 

What irks me is the attempt to take, say, Durkheim's claim about the sui generis level of society and turn it into some sort of uncompromising moral assertion according to which individuals are of absolutely no value, or that psychology is of no importance whatsoever (both of which Pinker argues in Durkheim's case). This kind of critique works by turning its opponents into idiots. Now, I have no particular allegiance to either Kroeber or Durkheim, but I think it would be a pretty obvious policy, were one to attempt a critique of their positions, to begin by assuming that what they were saying wasn't just something idiotic.    

Pinker's inclusion of Geertz is a case in point. One can quite easily wave one's hand airily and dismiss Geert'z position for its fundamentalist culturalism. But, as your own quote shows, his position was considerably more nuanced than this. (Sahlins says somewhere that Geertz's early essay on 'The growth of culture and the evolution of mind' has not been properly understood, and I think he is right.) It is this attempt to efface nuance and qualification - turning certain anthropological arguments into categorical statements - that I find so objectionable. So Geertz is one of those who supposedly believes 'culture' to be everything. And yet, as he wrote (in 1966): 'Our capacity to speak is surely innate; our capacity to speak English is surely cultural.'

Thanks, Lee for making the link. The peleton of your seminar is well ahead of me, but I will try and catch up with it! 

Comment by John McCreery on November 5, 2013 at 1:58am

I wonder if it mightn't be useful to broaden this discussion a bit. One useful starting point might be Clyde Kluckhohn's observation that every human being is (1) in some respects like all other human beings —a featherless biped, etc., (2) in some respects like some other human beings —Chinese, Navaho, whatever, and (3) in some respects uniquely themselves. 

From this perspective both Durkheim and Boas were involved in carving out a space for a new kind of social or cultural explanation that would account for (2) while (1) was assumed to be constant and (3) left as a residual category. 

What has happened to the idea that this space exists? To me it seems to have followed the arc that Susan Langer described and Clifford Geertz borrowed in his article "Thick Description."

...certain ideas burst upon the intellectual landscape with a tremendous force. They resolve so many fundamental problems at once that they seem also to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems, clarify all obscure issues. Everyone snaps them up as the open sesame of some new positive science....

After  we have become familiar with the new idea, however, after it has become part of our general stock of theoretical concepts, our expectations are brought more into balance with its actual uses, and its excessive popularity is ended A few zealots persist in the old key-to-the-universe view of it; but less driven thinkers settle down after a while to the problems the idea has really generated. They try to apply it and extend it where it applies and where it is capable of extension; and they desist when it does not apply or cannot be extended.

My thesis is that during the initial period of enthusiasm for "social facts" or "culture," the zealots turned what were, in fact, useful methodological observations (see Kluckhohn above) into ontological differences and added the notion that phenomena on a certain level could be entry explained on that level with no reference to the other. Thus appeared the straw man that Pinker, a zealot for another level, attacks.

We can, of course, respond with our own zeal, insisting on ontological difference. But, I suggest, Clifford Geertz has already provided a better approach in his critique of "stratigraphic" conceptions of human nature.

In this conception, man is a composite of "levels," each superimposed upon those beneath it and underpinning those above it. As one analyses man, one peels off layer after layer, each such layer being complete and irreducible in itself, revealing another, quite different sort of layer underneath....

Suppose, instead, we adopted Kluchohn's position, that human beings resemble each other in varying degrees and that the anthropologist's task is to explore this variation and develop ideas to explain it. Thus, for example, leaving aside feral children and those with extreme disabilities, all human beings learn to speak a language. That would appear to require a universally human explanation. Some learn to speak Chinese instead of French or Swahili. To explain that requires not only a universal capability but specific accidents of birth and upbringing. The boundaries of languages turn out, however, to be remarkably fluid, with the kind of dialect and creole mixing that Lee Drummond observed in Guyana no different in principle from varieties of Spanish spoken in LA or varieties of Hokkien spoken in Taiwan. Why some variations appear to crystallise and be treasured as the defining gems of identity while others are only ripples in Heraclitus's river requires considerations of social arrangements and political power. The best definition of a language is, after all, "a dialect with an army." The more detail we want to explain, the greater the number of considerations that enter into the explanation. 

These considerations will not, of course, immediately solve the problem of those with disciplinary boundaries to defend, who feel threatened by attacks from representatives of currently more popular and aggressive disciplines. They might, however, make us the only adults in the room. 

Comment by Lee Drummond on November 4, 2013 at 9:56pm

Philip,  I’ve just added the Comment below to the Lance - Center for Peripheral Studies seminar.  Your piece on monstering anthropology is great, and highly relevant to the exchanges in that seminar.  Great photo also!



    I mean to respond to John, Keith, and Mark, but first wanted to call your attention to another “Blog Post” on OAC, that by Philip Swift on “Monstering Anthropology.”  Seminar participants have been concerned with the place of science in contemporary society and, particularly, the contribution that anthropology might make to that mega-topic.  Philip provides a fine account and critique of anthropology’s embattled status, both with respect to government and at the hands of cognitive psychology – that field’s popularity dwarf’s anthropology’s marginal role in what passes as intellectual life today (which again highlights our persistent problem of irrelevance).  As Philip describes it, “monstering anthropology” is a campaign of demonization – already marginal in policy debate and intellectual discussion, anthropology is cast as an outright villain, squandering public funds while peddling ridiculous and dangerous ideas.  If anthropologists are prone to self-flagellation (and I am certainly not exempt here), it is well to bear in mind that others, far more powerful than us, are applying their own lash with a vengeance. 

    The OAC has many “threads.”  It is heartening when they weave themselves into a fabric. 


Comment by Philip Swift on November 4, 2013 at 6:11pm

Bad form, perhaps, to offer the first comment on one's own post, but I've just got round to reading Lee Drummond's superb, savage-minded seminar paper on the OAC, with its own critique of Kroeber, so I feel I should add a sort of related footnote here (since I regrettably missed the boat on that discussion).

Drummond's criticism of cultural anthropology concerns its excessive focus on order, on wholes, when it ought to have been looking at holes, at contradictions and negative spaces. He also remarks on Kroeber's blindness to the genocide of the native populations of the Americas. All of this is powerful and persuasive. But importantly, Drummond's argument itself draws on, and tries to advance, the idea that anthropology consists in the critique of (our) values, which I take to be the intrinsic possibility of the anthropological project in general.

Pinker, of course, would be happy to see the back of an anthropology conceived along these lines. The replacement would be 'vertically integrated' discipline that would be subservient to biology - with cognitive science just below the apex. And, equally obvious, his argument concerning Kroeber has nothing to do with the latter's blindness (or otherwise) to historical genocide. Pinker means to suggest that Kroeber's ideas (he throws in Durkheim, for good measure) are in some way responsible for genocide. Actually, Pinker, in a number of places, denies that this is his argument. But if this ain't the implication, then why imply it?

But along with Pinker's negative thesis, there is also his positive one, which I didn't consider. But this accords quite well, I think, with what Lee says about American culture, for, in spite of the fact that Pinker wants to portray himself as a sort of maverick, taking on what counts as common sense (the apparent ubiquity of the 'blank slate'), his own thesis on what human nature is actually like largely accords with what a lot of people already think anyway. The idea that competition is good, Marxism bad, for example, basically amounts to a species of neo-liberalism, naturalised by means of genetic/evoluntionary arguments and cognitive psychology.

It is precisely this sort of neo-liberal vision of humanity which anthropology has continually challenged. 


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