The Relevance of Anthropology? A Marxist Response


The Relevance of Anthropology? A Marxist Response



Firefly: My friends, this man’s case moves me deeply. Look at Chicolini! He sits there alone, an abject figure.


Chicolini: I abject!


Firefly: I say, look at Chicolini. He sits there alone, a pitiable object – let’s see you get out of that one! – surrounded by a sea of unfriendly faces. Chicolini, give me a number from one to ten.


Chicolini: Eleven.


Firefly: Right.


Chicolini: Now, I ask you one. What is it has a trunk, but no key, weighs two thousand pounds and lives in a circus?


Prosecutor: That’s irrelevant.


Chicolini: A relephant! Hey, that’s the answer. There’s a whole lotta relephants in a circus.

                                                   (The Marx Brothers, Duck Soup, 1933).



Once again, anthropology finds itself in the dock, in the soup – it is irrelevant: a dead duck, a white elephant. Or so, at least, go the diagnoses. A recent, uneasy assessment was offered by Maurice Bloch, whose worry was, ‘Where did anthropology go?’ Well, wherever it went, it didn’t go very far, since anthropology has arguably been a constant goner for decades. As Ulf Hannerz has reminded us, the discipline has been ending, disintegrating, or otherwise ‘in question’ since at least the 1960s. Rather like a Barbra Streisand farewell tour, it just keeps carrying on.


No matter. The latest diagnosis comes from Pascal Boyer (in a forthcoming article, 'From studious irrelvance to consilient knowledge', which Boyer has generously posted on his website). His opinion is that the majority of socio-cultural anthropology is afflicted by a ‘plague of irrelevancy’, so that, by and large, no one listens to anthropologists any more because they have nothing to say, and further, that whatever currently passes for anthropological talk consists of a kind of free association of themes and ideas, pretty much meaningless to anyone else. Everything happens as if, asked to pick a number from one to ten, anthropology says, ‘Eleven’.


But if anthropology is infected by irrelevance, then how has it spread? It would seem that the vector is relativism. (In another place, Boyer remarks that it is anthropology’s ‘occupational disease’.) As to what kind of relativism this is, Boyer does not say, save for the following hasty portrayal: ‘each culture to its own, values are culture bound, cultural concepts are untranslatable, etc.’ But the plausibility of such depictions depends, in no small measure, on their anonymous character (for instance, another cognitive anthropologist, Stewart Guthrie, refers vaguely to ‘Postmodern anthropologists [who] decry comparativism and maintain that one can interpret only a culture at a time’). To echo Clifford Geertz: which anthropologist is it, exactly, who holds these views? At least, the relativism as presented here is no relative of mine.


Further on, however, Boyer attempts to substantiate these claims, when he gives a sketch of the style of anthropological inquiry that is apparently to blame for its current plight. This style consists, he says, of a more or less arbitrary association of topics and concepts, rendered authentic by means of pious reference to the work of some saintly past master (Foucault or Adorno, say) whose authority is untouchable. Thus, Boyer offers the following representative case of what’s gone wrong with anthropology: ‘a study of gay fathers in the Caribbean in the framework of Benjamin’s and Bourdieu’s accounts of culture, technology, and late capitalism. Steel drums and strong rum prop up the local habitus of globalized self-empowerment.’ Predictably, perhaps, this example is attributed to no one, and the general impression one gets is that he wishes to imply that research of this kind is not only arbitrary – hence, irrelevant – but also somehow absurd. ‘Try telling a biochemist,’ Boyer continues, in an attempt to emphasize the entirely fanciful nature of such studies, ‘that Walter Benjamin’s essays are a great backdrop to a description of gay fathers in Trinidad.’ Well, now I ask you one: for precisely the same reasons, why should a historian suppose that biochemistry is any more relevant to this case than Benjamin or Bourdieu?    


After all, just what is it that constitutes an adequate description? Just what it is that does becomes clear when Boyer gets round to prescribing his remedy for anti-relativist anthropology. The cure, he says is for the discipline to combine with cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and economics, to form a ‘vertically integrated’ programme of research. But verticality carries the implication of hierarchy – it is not irrelevant to observe that the term ‘vertical integration’ derives from economics. Thus, it becomes evident that management of the programme will be in the hands of naturalism, so that, what we might call, ‘control over the means of explanation’ will be given over to cognitive science and cognate disciplines. As for all the phenomena of anthropology – nationalism in Sri Lanka, Balinese cockfights, kula rings, and – if you like – gay fathers in Trinidad – all this is to be treated as so much data for the production of naturalist explanations.           


But, with regards to Boyer’s own argument, I believe that there is, as it were, a relephant in the room. It is that the approaches he promotes have their own problem of pertinence, vis-à-vis anthropology. Boyer holds, for instance, that ‘We cannot provide good accounts of human culture without placing it in its evolutionary context.’ Taken as a research imperative that would cover all cases, this would imply that a historian whose subject is the Roman Empire, or an anthropologist who works in Cuba, can’t be said to have given an adequate account of the ‘human culture’ in either case unless and until they combine their findings with research coming out of evolutionary biology.


As for Boyer’s belief that ‘Economic theory provides us with the most precise way of describing opportunities and predicting choices’, perhaps the best one can say, in the current climate, is that economists’ supposed grip on precision has slipped a bit. (Perhaps they ought to have read Bourdieu – specifically, his remarks on the objectifying allure of economic models.)


Boyer’s own area of expertise is the cognitive anthropology of religion. This is a research programme that has, I think, so far produced theories of dubious usefulness, compared to the sensational claims that have been made on their behalf. (If you doubt this, then consider that one of Boyer’s books is called Religion Explained, an assertion which, were you to read the book all the way through, might lead you to justifiably lodge a complaint with Trading Standards.) But, more seriously, since the theory is concerned with the innate cognitive capacities of human beings, part of its argument is to demonstrate how religious ideas are made up of intuitive ontological assumptions (innate notions of motion, of psychology, of natural kinds, etc.) combined with counter-intuitive concepts that violate the former in certain specific ways. It is this specific combination which makes any particular religious idea ‘catchy’, or otherwise.


In order to demonstrate how the theory plays out in practice, Boyer gives illustrations from his own fieldwork with the Fang of Cameroon. Thus, Fang people speak of a class of ancestor-ghosts (bekong) which live in the forest and can visit illnesses on people if they do not receive the proper ritual respect. Armed with the theory, Boyer argues that these ideas are striking precisely because they combine intuitive assumptions about psychology (assumed to be like people, Fang ghosts are attributed with intentionality, they have beliefs, desires, etc.) along with other assumptions which are variance with them (unlike people, Fang ghosts can’t be seen, they are capable of walking through walls, etc.). All very interesting, no doubt; but can this be said to add up to a good anthropological account, or an adequate analysis of Fang ghosts? After all, it pretty much amounts to the trivial assertion that ghosts are person-like, but invisible.


It is almost as if Boyer himself recognizes the thin dividends that such descriptions produce when he remarks at one point (in Religion Explained) that, ‘All this may seem rather banal – and as the old Groucho Marx joke goes, don’t be deceived: it is banal.’ Right, so it’s banal.           


Indeed, it is difficult to see how the adoption of this mode of description would improve what currently count as ‘good accounts’ in anthropology. To give an instance, Heonik Kwon’s recent ethnography, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, is an exceptional account of the restless and dislocated spirits of the war-dead that populate contemporary Vietnam. What makes it so good – and, unfortunately for the biochemist, Kwon does indeed mention Walter Benjamin – what makes it so good is the extent to which he allows his ethnography to inform his analysis; in other words, the extent to which he takes seriously what his Vietnamese informants take seriously. A cognitive anthropologist, by contrast, were she to follow Boyer’s own example, would doubtless treat the same ethnographic data as so many apt illustrations, props for the demonstration of cognitive theory; in other words, what the informants take seriously would instead be treated as just a bundle of ideas in their heads.  


There is one point, however, on which I agree with Boyer, and that concerns the contemporary relevance of anthropology. But it seems to me that integration – vertical or otherwise – is very far from being the answer. Right from the start, anthropology was a big tent discipline – what the OAC is, in fact – or, as the poet William Empson (quoted by Geertz) pictured it, ‘the gigan-/-tic anthropological circus riotously/[Holding] open all its booths’. But, were cognitive science to become the ringmaster, the circus would quickly fill up with a whole lotta relephants.        



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Comment by Huon Wardle on December 1, 2011 at 3:49pm

I already did, John, calm down!

Comment by John McCreery on December 1, 2011 at 3:20pm

Houn, there's a very easy way to answer my critique. Put some of the bloody evidence on the table. Even a couple of decent citations. This, "There's all sorts of evidence out there, but we don't have time to talk about it" is IMHO, the worst kind of blowing smoke. It damages, not supports your cause. As far as I can make out, you are on what is currently the losing side of a largely political battle. It's not a battle you can win by preaching to a choir. There are words for avoiding long, difficult discussions; my personal favorites are hand-waving or blowing smoke. But none refer to serious scholarship. 

If you wish to assert that there is variation in how colors are perceived or described, I will say, "Of course." Color-blindness is a well known syndrome. That women and art directors commonly discriminate colors more finely than men or copywriters are familiar tropes with more than a grain of truth to them. That languages have short, commonly used terms for parts of the spectrum divided differently from other languages? Sure, consider aoi, for example, a Japanese term for a range of colors described in English as blue-green, sometimes turquoise. There's lots of variation out there. That the symbolic meanings of colors vary from time to time and place to place? Sure, again. Consider "red" and "blue" and their use to describe different parts of the political spectrum. In American English "red" used to mean left wing; now "red states" are hard-core right. There is, nonetheless, a well-developed understanding of the neurophysiological basis of vision; one exploited in RGB, CYMK, and Pantone color definitions now used worldwide. How these facts relate to each other is a deep and interesting problem. Why not look into it more closely? 


Comment by Huon Wardle on December 1, 2011 at 1:08pm

It would be a shame if we lost track of Philip's aim here. From my perspective, I think he is right to suggest that we need to think up a set of counter-arguments or ripostes to this rhetoric. As to Berlin and Kay, what we think about them is significant but is only one issue.

First, we should accept that there is no way of resolving the debate about Basic Color Terms in this thread (OAC is a talking shop for raising, but not solving, problems). Some of the ideas you put forward here, John, such as that 'all human languages possess a small set of basic color terms' and your earlier comment that 'all human eyes... see the same range of colors' are very much questionable within the current terms of the debate - on linguistic, physiological and philosophical grounds. Kay, for example, no longer holds to the first of those propositions - the most 'basic' terms are not 'colour' terms at all in this revised view - and I indicated a quite different line of evidence vis-a-vis the second. But it would take a very very long discussion to tease out all the issues here.

Essentially, though, this isn't a discussion of B&K. I raised that book because it has been used by Maurice Bloch, and various others, for many years as the cornerstone of an essentialist view of human nature refined and given rhetorical power by the grouping Philip talks about here. One point, as Gell has indicated, is that even supposing that 'colour' perception was a kind of human 'hardware', there is no legitimate reason to extend this idea reductively as an explanation for other qualities such as religious experience.

Free the relephants, I say.


Comment by John McCreery on December 1, 2011 at 6:57am

t is not, I observe, a strong argument to say that someone has made a career of criticizing someone else. Consider, for example the career of Trofrim Lysenko, who at least had alternative theories, Michurin out of Lamarck, with which to attack Darwinism. I would add, too, that the bit Keith quotes from the Wikipedia article on Saunders


"Ordinary colour talk is used in a variety of ways – for flat coloured surfaces, surfaces of natural objects, patches of paintings, transparent objects, shining objects, the sky, flames, illumination, vapours, volumes, films and so on, all of which interact with overall situation, illumination, edges, textures, patternings and distances, making the concept of sameness of colour inherently indeterminate."

has no relevance whatever to Berlin and Kay's argument or the relevance of neurophysiological determinants of color vision. That argument depends on a number of specific claims that could be challenged with relevant evidence.

1. All human languages possess a small set of basic color terms, identifiable by their frequency of use and linguistic simplicity. 

2. Research indicates that whether the number of basic terms is two or six or seven, the locations in the spectrum of the wavelengths pointed to as most typical of what they mean are  the same across languages with the same number of basic terms, regardless of language family. 

3. Research also indicates that the number of basic color terms is correlated with social complexity, from two terms in languages spoken by small, relatively homogeneous groups to more in larger, more complex societies. 

If these propositions are, as I believe, the heart of of the Berlin and Kay argument, they can be attacked in a number of ways.

1'. Attack the criteria for identifying basic color terms by presenting alternative, and more persuasive criteria.

2'. Produce examples of simpler societies whose languages include larger than expected numbers of basic color terms or, conversely, of complex societies whose languages include fewer than expected numbers of basic color terms, or

3'. If the correlation remains intact, introduce a more subtle and comprehensive theory than the one which Berlin and Kay suggest. 

The quotation cited above does none of these things. It introduces an undefined strawman "ordinary colour talk" and then babbles on about all sorts of well known variations in the ways in which colors are differently perceived in different situations. The examples mentioned, however, are all familiar to people with a serious interest in perception, from optometrists to photographers, artists and designers of virtual realities, all of whom are able to get on splendidly, basing what they do on well-known facts about the anatomy of the eye and the neurophysiology of vision.

If this sort of hand-waving is all that the anthropologists produce, why should we be taken seriously?

Comment by Philip Swift on November 30, 2011 at 2:30am

Thanks for the comment Aleksandar.


I hope you didn't think my own piece was implying that anthropology was becoming irrelevant. Of course, anthropological infighting over theories and approaches is a game which has been going on for ages (any discipline's the same, I should think). But the argument that anthropology has become irrelevant is an argument of Pascal Boyer's, and the derisive tone of his article is what prompted my attempt at a comedy response.


Your own extensive experience of teaching which you describe encourages me in my view that anthropology is a big tent discipline, operating with plural methodologies, as Huon suggests.


My problem with the cognitive push is that it loudly and self-confidently shows off theories which are speculative at best. Furthermore, given the desire to embrace 'vertical integration', it no longer becomes a question of a debate within anthropology, because the implication of the vision appears to be that any discipline can be so incorporated. So, to use strong language, I suspect its motive to be one of predatory expansion. 


As you say, anthropology is bigger than this, but also, I think, anthropology should be big enough to take on this nonsense in other fields.      


Comment by Aleksandar Boskovic on November 29, 2011 at 10:45pm

Reading some of this sounds interesting, as well as alarming. Claiming that there is something as general as "anthropology" and that is becoming "irrelevant" sounds ridiculous. As one of my Brazilian colleagues used to say (on the "crisis talk" of anthropology) to her American colleagues: "If you have a problem, you deal with it -- don't assume that everyone else has a problem as well."


In the last decade and a half, I was fortunate enough to teach anthropology in five countries on three continents, and in four different languages. I am impressed by the way(s) in which anthropologists in different places are able to conduct research, take part in public life, and come up with critical and (usually) sound assessments. As for imagined clashes between different "parts" of anthropology ("cognitive" vs "non-cognitive"), I am reminded of what Fredrik Barth is reported to have said about the difference between "applied" and "theoretical" anthropology: The only difference is that the "theoretical" one, when done properly, is much more applicable.

Comment by Huon Wardle on November 28, 2011 at 12:25pm

Just for interest above is a link to some recent evidence suggesting that colour perception, whatever it is, is not a neurophysiological fact but rather an experiential one.


I agree about ethnography not being enough: anthropology should be methodologically plural but that means taking the argument to the reductionists. Like history, ethnography is an intellectual and aesthetic form amongst others and it produces knowledge of a limited kind. My comments weren't addressed against what you were saying Keith, more against the sense of siege that anthropologists contribute to in lists like the OAC when some of the strongest talk is about how obscure and pointless anthropology is.

Like Phillip I think that the cognitivist trend combines a large dose of metaphysical speculation with minimal evidence while resting on what is always a very successful technique in public debate - "listen, unlike you, we are doing 'science'". It works because people don't have time to read the arguments in depth, they know that 'science' by definition is smart, and they find the rhetoric comforting.

Comment by Keith Hart on November 28, 2011 at 10:49am

The critique of Berlin and Kay is a major intellectual industry and one of the key players is Barbara Saunders at the University of Leuven. The link is to a particularly good Wikipedia article which includes this summary of her position: "Ordinary colour talk is used in a variety of ways – for flat coloured surfaces, surfaces of natural objects, patches of paintings, transparent objects, shining objects, the sky, flames, illumination, vapours, volumes, films and so on, all of which interact with overall situation, illumination, edges, textures, patternings and distances, making the concept of sameness of colour inherently indeterminate". She draws inspiration from Wittgenstein and her own research among the Haida of the Northwest Coast which ought to find some support here.

No-one says what ethnography is and can do better than Huon (and Paloma). But it seems perverse to read what I was claiming for Heonik Kwon and myself as "reducing ethnography to history". Ethnography is good, but it isn't enough. I like the practice of seeing a village or monograph or novel as a microcosm or world in miniature, but it is not the world and we need other, complementary ways of approaching that topic, as Heonik has. I regret that I have moved further away from the practice of ethnography with which I started in order to sketch some of the elements that might go into thinking about contemporary world history. That is why I often collaborate in my writing with others who haven't made that move. Can we get beyond this sterile opposition that Huon admits was original to the ethnographic project, but need not be now?


Comment by John McCreery on November 28, 2011 at 8:35am

Phillip, Huon, with all due respect, I find what you say flailing against a received stereotype of what Berlin and Kay were up to instead of what they actually tried to do. What the argument comes down to is that all human eyes see, with minor variation at the extremes, the same range of colors. Subsequent work on the neurophysiology of vision more than amply confirms this. Then comes the recognition, argued by numerous anthropologists, that people in different cultures parse the color spectrum linguistically in different ways. The evidence for this claim turns out to be the observation that human languages have between two and seven basic color terms,i.e., short, generic descriptions that provides a first rough cut of how the spectrum is parceled out. In every case where this has been tested, it turns out that the terms refer to prototypical wavelengths that are measurably the same wherever the research is done. Thus, if a culture has only three primary terms, that we would gloss red, white, and black, the prototypical wavelengths will be in the same ranges of the spectrum, even if one sample is taken in Africa but another in New Guinea. Furthermore, as the number of primary color terms increases, the prototypical wavelengths will appear in predictable ranges of the spectrum for that number of basic terms.

There is, I note, nothing in this argument to suggest that human beings everywhere cannot use more elaborate and subtle color descriptions, a claim that any man who has ever gone shopping with a woman knows is ridiculous on the face of it. It is restricted to basic terms. Nor does it assert that the boundaries of color categories are rigidly fixed. The distributions overlap.

The "evolutionary" argument is a sociocultural observation that smaller numbers of basic terms seem to be associated with band or tribal level societies, the largest numbers with major urban civilizations. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the biology of vision that is homo sapiens everywhere.

I am writing this from memory and may have muddled some details. I may be trying to suggest that it does no good for their reputation as sensible scholars for cultural anthropologists to insist on the radical separation of color categories from biological constraints in a world where basic truths about color pereception are the stock in trade of everyone who studied photography, design, display technology, etc. That really sounds primitive,

Comment by Philip Swift on November 28, 2011 at 3:23am


Thanks for the comments. 

My argument - such as it is - does rather come across as if I'm advocating a policy of 'business as usual' for anthropology, which isn't exactly what I'd intended. Certainly Keith's criticism is right on this. 


Cognitive anthropology (of the type championed by Boyer and Dan Sperber, etc) has been saying for years that if socio-cultural anthropology didn't 'get with the programme', start reading developmental studies, and solemnly quoting Chomsky, then it would become irrelevant. Actually, I myself once found this stuff convincing. Not any more... A few years ago, I heard Sperber give a talk in the Anthropology Dept at UCL, where he said that he wasn't "trying to reduce what the social sciences are doing to my own interests". But I remember thinking that this denial was difficult to square with the pretty censorious remarks he makes at anthropology's expense in his Explaining Culture - there we go with those titles again. (There is, incidentally, an excellent online review of Boyer's Religion Explained by Barbara Hernnstein Smith which underlines how speculative the whole enterprise is, which is also Huon's point.)


Anyway, as is obvious, I don't think that signing up to cognitivism is much a solution. Bloch's lecture - "Where did anthropology go" - argues that anthropology ought to get back to the business of generalizing again, which sounds reasonable enough, but he also says that, if it doesn't, then anthropology risks becoming like history, " assemblage of anecdotes about this and that", which strikes me a pretty dubious view of what history is!


Boyer wants anthropology to engage with economic, cognitive, and evolutionary biological theory. I actually think he's right, but not in the way he suggests. It seems to me that anthropologists ought to be making engagements, but could do just as well by treating these theories as topics, rather than as resources. This seems to be what Kwon is doing, in part, when he examines political theory (in its Cold War cast, as well as latter-day 'third way' alternatives) in the light of his extensive ethnography. I've only read his Ghosts book. I've got the My Lai book on my 'to read' pile, and I confess I didn't even know about the third volume.









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