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 November 28, 2011 at 12:10am

One of the foundations of the cognitivist trend was Berlin and Kay's Basic Color Terms - everyone was (to use the current lame phrase) 'hard wired' for the same colours as the average Californian even though they might only have two 'colour' terms. The evidence for this has gradually faded away/had to be radically revised. Meanwhile there is now, amongst psychologists of perception at least, a new respect for Benjamin Whorf's linguistic relativist suggestions. Fodor's modular view of mind, another one-time cornerstone of cogntivism, has had to be watered down with respect to the evidence on brain plasticity. The 'meme' has turned into a internet browsing cliche.

Heonik Kwon's best encapsulation of what anthropology should be is captured in his 'the world is a village/the village is a world' opposition. Almost every social science has taken the world to be a village but of course we all know who runs the village. The potential subversiveness of anthropology lies in saying, at its best complexly and thoughtfully, that 'the village is a world' - that we can read and expand outwards from micro-social concerns to encompass the meaning of the world at large - we end up with contrasting images of the what the world is and could look like. Ethnography, as a form, is not opposed to history (maybe that opposition is where it began) it just can't be reduced to history as a form of knowledge because it is, at its best, achieving something else.

Comment by Keith Hart on November 27, 2011 at 1:29pm

Thanks a million, Phil. It's rare to come across such a great post, here or anywhere. I am an old friend of Pascal Boyer from his Cambridge days and witnessed his conversion from West African ethnographer to cognitive anthropologist and self-publicist there. The Religion Explained book was marketed in France as Et l'homme crea les dieux, evoking the Brigitte Bardot movie, And God created...woman! He has signed up for the American ideology, one of whose main planks is nature instead of history. If everything is always the same from time immemorial until eternity, we don't have to worry about the United States or France sliding down the slippery slope of history into irrelevance. Something similar happened in the 60s when French anthropologists and Marxists (who were often the same people) imported American systems theory in the form of structuralism and dumped all that German stuff -- the subject, dialectic and history. People don't realise that half of France is Americanophile.

It is not enough to preen ourselves on being smarter than the cognitive bunch or any of the others playing footsie with hard science and the economists. Nor to say that the end of anthropology has been announced many times before, ha ha! How could the serious study of humanity disappear? Even so the ethnographic paradigm is in trouble and Heonik Kwon is one of those committed to digging it out of its current spot of bother.

Ghosts of War in Vietnam is the middle book of a trilogy and the one most attuned to contemporary theory-minded cultural anthropologists. It is great, but it is only part of the story. After the Massacre is about recovery from mass death in Central Vietnam, two acts of genocide, My Lai and another perpetrated by the Korean army (Heonik is Korean). He highlights the role of kinship, religion and non-state politics in the process whereby peasants and fishermen rebuild society. He combines meticulous historical scholarship with rather summary ethnographic fieldwork, while reasserting the value of traditional social anthropology's main focus. In The Other Cold War Heonik challenges Western representations of the world in the last half century as a Cold War. Here his historical scope is much wider and addresses where our world came from more recently with a view to discussing where it might go next. He examines post-colonial theory and finds it wanting. His allies are not other anthropologists, but radical historians of the Cold War and international relations specialists.

You can't pick up one book of three, the one that appeals most to those who are satisfied with a marriage between ethnography and mid-century European social theory, and use Heonik Kwon's example as proof that we can afford to be complacent. He and I are agreed that we need to address contemporary world history somehow, that our own theoretical traditions in social anthropology have much to offer in that respect and that we must treasure the ethnographic revolution without letting ourselves drown in its involution.


Comment by Huon Wardle on November 26, 2011 at 10:44am

A cognitivist tells the anthropologists it is time to leave so he can do the washing up. Right... erm... I'm off.


Thanks Philip! it is always worth reminding ourselves that if there is one thing more redundant than social anthropology itself it is the sub-branch called called cognitive anthropology.


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