Explaining Disjunctures and Differences

Between the demolition of the Berlin wall and the fall of the twin towers, ‘globalization’ happened to anthropology. One of the most influential essays of the period (probably because it was ahead of the curve) was Arjun Appadurai’s Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy (originally appeared in 1990, iirc). As an article it is both alluring and infuriating. In it, Appadurai proposes the notion of different sorts of ‘-scapes’, a model which has been tremendously influential but which he (and pretty much everyone else) fails to develop in any real way in any future work. Similarly, Appadurai argues that we need to develop models similar to those based on chaos theory and fractals if we are to undersand the global cultural economy. As a bow to the popular science of the time this was very trendy (Gleick’s Chaos came out in 1988, when the article was being writen, I reckon) but again not something that he has followed up on — although quite a lot of people who work on social networking have done so.

For me, Appadurai is like Mahler — I recognize the genius, I understand why it appeals to some, but at the end of the day all it does is make me queasy (I should say that I am talking about his writing — Appadurai is a very nice guy in person). I began to ask myself: why does this article appeal? Or, more specifically, why did it appeal in the context of the late-80s early-90s?

Having read chronologically in anthropological theory I was struck by a couple of trends that seem to all come together in Appadurai’s essay in a way that made it exemplary of a diffuse but widely spread mood in the anthropology of the period.
1. skepticism, and more generally a lack of sympathy for approaches which aspired to, knowledge modeled on labeled science — an awareness of the power dynamics of research and publishing, the rhetorical nature of all writing, and the difficulty of creating ‘objective’ knowledge.

  1. Simultaneous to this reduction in (or problematization of) the scope of anthropology’s ethnographic ambition, an enormous expansion of its ambition. At a moment when writing an ethnography of a ‘village’ becomes epistemologically, rhetorically, and politically suspect, anthropology decided that no less than the entire planet needed to be scrutinized.

  2. Recognition that evocative writing is a serious rival to presenting ‘facts’, since ‘facts’ are in any case a paricularly kind of evocative writing.

  3. “The triumph of Stanley Diamond over Eric Wolf”: the political economic flavor of Marxist anthropology is edged out by its humanist competitor as discussion shifts towards Those Wacky Commodities Are Just Everywhere. Something about the uptake of Benjamin here.

An unfair, very quick take on Disjuncture and Difference is that it was so popular because it managed to suggest a way to study global scopes in a politico-epistemologically acceptable way. The result is rich, suggesive prove whose promise has not, as far as I know, really been fulfilled.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

23 thoughts on “Explaining Disjunctures and Differences

  1. Fascinated by Rex’s questions but feeling lamentably ignorant, I allowed dim memories of _The Social Life of Things_ to lead me to a Google search for “Appadurai social life of things,” which led me to

    http://www.shikanda.net/topicalities/Commodification_Introduction_Wim_van_Binsbergen.pdf

    the introduction to _Commodification: Things, Agencies and Identities_, a book in which several contributors to _The Social Life of Things_ join several new faces to reconsider the book’s contribution in light of the way the world has changed since it was published. That, at least, is what the blurb on the website says.

    Has anyone read this? Does anyone have any opinion concerning it? I ask because it might contain some answers to the question Rex raises, what, if anything, have people done with Appadurai’s ideas?

  2. Is Appadurai your only target in your lamenting that globalization “happened” to anthropology, Rex? Or are you happy with the g-zation discourse, but just not digging the “scapes”? I would like to hear more about your discontentedness, please.

  3. I guess I’m curious about your response to LFB’s question, too. But I think your concern about the politico-epistemological validity of globalism research is a valid one. It’s not possible to do real ethnographic research on “the world” or “globalization.” However, I found Appadurai’s idea of -scapes to be a way to get at some of that methodological problem of doing ethnographic research of globalism(s). Just take the technoscape, for instance. Looking at multi-national tech support and software usage. Or looking at the e-economies of World of Warcraft users/avatars from multiple countries. The -scapes both narrow the scope and allow for a global expansion of the subject at the same time. Maybe I’m expanding on or simplifying Appadurai’s ideas, but that’s what good and evocative essays are for. Take ‘em for what they’re worth!

    A good example of an ethnography that does this sort of thing is Gillian Hart’s _Disabling Globalism_, which tracked how East Asian (Taiwanese and Chinese) industrial practices and management changed the workers’ and working experience of South African factories after Apartheid. I’m not sure which -scape this fits into, but I think it answers Appadurai’s call.

  4. With all due respect, I wouldn’t associate Gill Hart’s work with Appadurai; to use Rex’s terms, Hart might represent a Wolfian rejoinder to the understandings of globalization being pushed by Appadurai, in that her analysis relies upon a Lefebvrian/Marxist theorization of industrial and agrarian capitalism. And I think her methodology of “relational comparison” as it’s developed in Disabling Globalization (which I’ve reviewed “here”: Rex says:

    Well I like _Social Life of Things_ and feel that it has inspired a lot of fruitful work (and of course Appadurai cannot take credit for this entirely since there are lots of great papers in there). Thanks for the link to the book, John, I hadn’t seen it.

    This post was prompted by the fact that 1) I am currently working on my own book manuscript which deals with ‘globalization’ but (hopefully!) in a way that I will find more appealing than Appdurai and 2) my experiences teaching Appadurai and, in rereading him, my own sort of curiosity that such am ambitious scope could come at a time when anthropology’s epistemological self-confidence was at such a low ebb.

    I’m not sure that Appadurai really has ANYTHING to tell us about virtual economies such as those of World of Warcraft (my second field project), and I don’t think recent work on this topic was inspired by or is connected to his research at all. However, that said I think the reason that people DO find his article valuable is exactly the reason Ted says — that is ‘inspiring’ or ‘evocative’ and opens people’s imaginative horizons.

    My fear is that what has happened to anthropology is that theory has been replaced by imaginative horizons and ethnography has been replaced by anecdote. I have nothing against imagination and anecdote (I’m a blogger!) but rather than have the occasional inspiring thoughtpiece and then a lot of decent research we now have a field in which the _dominant_ research consists of imaginative thoughtpieces. And _that_ is not ok with me.

    Appadurai focused on… well lots of things but, to take an example that crops up more than once in his work, south asian taxi drivers in New York listening to cassette tapes of sermons from south asia. I studied the social impact of a large scale open-cut mine on local people in Papua New Guinea (and vice versa). For Appadurai these commodities are flowing in mysterious and untraceable ways, for me the look and feel of the global economy is visceral and traceable — all of the plastic and metal used to make the cab and cassette COME from somewhere. And we can describe and understand WHERE it comes from.

    This is not a new idea, but I fear it is one that too many anthropologists have lost sight of.

  5. sometimes i think evocative terms, metaphors, or sexy prose are a good way to reshape our disciplinary imaginations (something about anna tsing’s notion of ‘friction’ has helped sharpen my anthropologist’s gaze).
    and i think Rex’s point #3 above is well phrased- for whatever it’s worth, Appadurai’s ‘scapes’ have caught on and grabbed attention.

    but i have also been frustrated by appadurai’s tendency to persistently invent new terms (see Fear of Small Numbers, http://www.dukeupress.edu/books.php3?isbn=3863-7, esp), if only because his focus shifts away from the social or cultural phenomenon under discussion. though appadurai suggests that globalization is a tacking back, an interrelation of global/local processes (“glocal”), in much of his work i find ethnographic specificity (or even national specificity in the small numbers book) to be blatantly lacking. the reader is left to infer that india, the place appadurai is likely most familiar with, must be the place guiding some of his very large generalizations.

    another example. in a public culture article (http://www.sdinet.org/reports/r10.htm) entitled “deep democracy:urban governmentality and the horizon of politics,” he discusses the potential of horizontal/horizontal partnerships and grassroots movements in internationalizing themselves into transnational (and powerful) networks. although he does discuss one specific urban housing alliance in mumbai, i think it is possible that his interest in moving theories of new kinds of global networking/globalization ‘from below’ forward may obscure or fog the view we get of actual people and their actual everyday tasks within the organization he is studying. furthermore, from my own work in Malawi, i am perpetually suspicious of the deployment of the word “grassroots,” and the way it can be co-opted by organizations that are long arms of the state or by people whose interests hardly personify those of the ‘urban (or rural) masses.’ perhaps this wasn’t his focus, but i think the article would have benefited from genuine ethnographic specificity and from a nod to comparative contexts or a suggestion that his case study organization may not be exemplary on either a national or global scale.

    then again, here i am still talking about that article, and about how it doesn’t describe what i’m seeing here in malawi. i, for one, do read all his stuff when it comes out, even if (like many others) i also grow exasperated while doing so.

    one last thing. at least in terms of his more current work, perhaps it is worth contemplating who his audience is. though i won’t go into exploring the contours of his intended audience(s), i think his more recent stuff is directed differently than his earlier stuff…

  6. *ahem* I feel about double about Friction the way I feel about Appadurai…. although I know that is just me…

    Crystal dislikes Appadurai’s jumping around, but I actually feel that this is what he does best — he thinks about a problem, writes something brilliant and charming about it, and moves on. That is fine with me, although I feel his Small Numbers work was not as brilliant and charming as his Social Life of Things book. Jumping around is fine. I do it all the time. But I just don’t think we shouldn’t all have taken it so seriously….

  7. bq. My fear is that what has happened to anthropology is that theory has been replaced by imaginative horizons and ethnography has been replaced by anecdote. I have nothing against imagination and anecdote (I’m a blogger!) but rather than have the occasional inspiring thoughtpiece and then a lot of decent research we now have a field in which the dominant research consists of imaginative thoughtpieces. And that is not ok with me.

    Here I am going to step up a say that I share this fear. Serendipitously I just a few weeks ago attended the last Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ) workshop in Tsukuba. Writing up my reactions to the workshop, I concluded,

    bq. I was, however, lucky to be there for Shawn Bender’s “Has Japan Anthropology Lost Its Place?” Reviewing recent books by anthropologists who specialize in Japan, Bender observed that the 1950s-60s focus on community studies has almost entirely disappeared. In its place we find studies that trace the flows of commodities and ideas across national boundaries but seem (or so it seemed to me) to fetishize their topics, replacing detailed descriptions of social structures and “the native’s point of view” with authorial interpretation from a detached, theoretical perspective.

    The question is, if we lose our grounding in detailed, first-hand knowledge of the lives of particular people who live in particular places, what are we left with that doesn’t dissolve into the endless chatter of thought pieces that suggest interesting topics but somehow never get around to satisfying answers to the questions they raise? Is thin theory instead of thick description all we have to offer?

  8. I agree with you John, and would go one further — we need to pry apart the idea that all ethnographys of flow and ‘nonlocal’ phenomena are ‘thin’ and that all ethnographies of ‘the village’ are ‘thick’. There is no reason you can’t do a thick ethnography of a flow and _plenty_ thin ethnographies of villages have been written as well. Some of my students are sure that they want to do new studies of flows of objects across cultural boundaries and so there is no reason to read old-fashioned ethnographers like Malinowski. That is too bad because if they did they would realize MALINOWSKI WROTE AN ETHNOGRAPHY ABOUT FLOWS OF OBJECTS MOVING ACROSS CULTURAL BORDERS. Sheesh.

  9. My own approach to this issue is a straight-line development of something that Clifford Geertz wrote in _Islam Observed_, that anthropologists attempt to

    bq. discover what contributions parochial understandings can make to comprehensive ones, what leads to general, broad-stroke interpretations particular, intimate findings can product. (1968:vii)

    Geertz was alluding here to the fact that if anthropology has any broader usefulness than documenting the details that ethnographers discover during fieldwork, it lies in their contributions to conversations that involve people from other disciplines: sociologists, historians, economists, political scientists, policy wonks, people who study literature and the arts, wherever relevance can be found.

    This is a theme I found amplified by Marcus and Fischer when they wrote that,

    bq. We step into a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves.

    As a practical matter, I have taken advantage of an odd career path that involved working for thirteen years for a large Japanese advertising agency to write a book for which my informants were themselves researchers employed by an institute set up by the agency to provide a 360° view of Japanese consumer behavior. That book, _Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers_, U.of Hawaii (2000), is based on an internal newsletter in which the researchers published their findings, interviews with those who did the research, and background information taken from a wide variety of sources. The opening chapter on Japan’s political economy since WWII is based largely on the work of Japanese economists to whom I was referred by a student, Ken Okamura, who was then employed as an analyst by Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.

    My current project will, if all goes well, combine social network analysis of credits published in the Tokyo Copywriters Club Annual, a data set that, should I ever get around to having it all input, stretches back to 1963, extensive reading of works by and about the top creatives who occupy central positions in the networks the social network analysis reveals, together with background information on the advertising industry during the years in question, and, then, ethnographic interviews with at least some of these key people.

    Are these projects anthropology? I’d say so. I am still a student of Victor Turner, doing my best to combine personal observations, native exegesis, and a mass of other data and ideas brought to the field from other sources. I am trying to assemble a diverse welter of information into a rich, coherent picture that makes sense of a world that has been a major part of my life, both as participant and observer.

  10. ugh. server timed out & I just lost 4 paragraphs of reply….in a nutshell I said I liked the Social Life of Things more than the “scape” stuff, found Kearney’s “transnational communities” a better example of a productive concept from the late 80s for thinking about globalization & ethnography, and pointed to a passage in Hart’s article (ref. above) that speaks to Crystal’s concerns about ethnographic specificity; Hart writes: ‘The analytical and political stakes in how we conceive of spatiality emerged with great clarity in an exchange between Arjun Appadurai and Swapna Bannerjee at the conference on Creative Destruction for which this paper was originally prepared. In support of his claim that new area studies must go beyond static geographies of land masses to focus on circulatory processes, Appadurai pointed to new forms of transnational activism, and what he called the galactic expansion of groups allying with others. In response, Bannerjee drew on her work among slum dwellers in Mumbai to point out that many residents of these areas actively oppose the sorts of alliances that local and international NGOs are forging with one another, as well as with international financial institutions and different levels of the state. “Slum dwellers know that these alliances are not for them”, Bannerjee declared. Appadurai then conceded that perhaps these questions of alliances can’t be resolved without detailed ethnographic understandings of social formations and processes at play in Mumbai’ (p. 993).

  11. bq. Appadurai then conceded that perhaps these questions of alliances can’t be resolved without detailed ethnographic understandings of social formations and processes at play in Mumbai.

    Or in living rooms in Tokyo. Serendipitously, my wife and I were invited to a dinner party last Saturday, where we and other supporters of a group now called Asian Initiatives heard reports on how our contributions to the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation are being spent and were told, in particular, about a new cause, Urban Typhoon (http://www.urbantyphoon.com/), operating in Dahravi, the biggest slum in Mumbai, some say the biggest in the world.

    Another serendipity, our company has been translating materials for Yokohama’s “Creative City” initiative, including several reports/articles concerning attempts to revitalize sections of the city previously renowned primarily for flophouses and low-end brothels.

    The intersection that struck me was the rejection in all these efforts of top-down raze-and-rebuild urban redevelopment coupled with insistence on close involvement of local people in creating and implementing development plans.

    Bannerjee’s point may already be somewhat dated.

  12. Rex, John and All, thanks for this. John, your project sounds great.

    I don’t have a problem with any of this stuff until the claims get imperial and anti-imperial. Different things are accomplished by views and analyses at different scales, as the posts on Jared Diamond and Gary Alan Fine also show.

    I’ve pondered this recently in terms of the familiar question of discipline and interdisciplinarity on my own blog. It’s hard to pull back and see big pictures from within the penetrating focus of research paradigms. It’s also hard to say anything of substance without the sort of reliable information that careful systematic spadework produces. Both are needed.

    Different dispositions and talents are also involved, which is why good careful researchers often sound so lame and embarrassing when they tack big claims onto their fine-grained studies, and why synthesizers like Diamond are often so infuriatingly careless with details.

    I do think that within the regime of entitled individualism produced by consumer and post-colonial societies it’s difficult to get people disciplined. Without a disposition to rigor, wifty generalization is an appealing fallback and it’s inevitable that the market for flashy conceptual novelties (‘scapes, e.g.) would heat up. Since this is a fad rather than a paradigm dynamic it’s not surprising that nobody took Appadurai up on developing his hypothesis; nor that he himself declined to do so, pushing onward to produce the next jargon commodity instead.

  13. Against my better judgment and despite my lack of personal experience with many of the pieces referenced here, I am going to venture a few opinions on Rex’s article and the various responses.

    1. I agree with Rex et al that the lack of performed research on the idea of scapes is somewhat surprising given our current anthropological/ethnographic climate (or at least that of the nineties), and that the practice, that in my view seems to be somewhat trendy at the moment, of forwarding many new and interesting theories with very little followup is fascinating but rather unsatisfying. (Disclaimer: at least this practice seemed trendy when I was in school and not out on my own wandering the intellectual byways of the internet for anthropological reading/discussion.) However, I feel that in any academic community there must be room for the free expression of new ideas; I just hope that anthropology and anthropologists can find a way to “center” so to speak while pushing the bounds of imaginative and interdisciplinary research, so that theories don’t become merely proposed, they are also explored in field research, interlinked with other ideas, and can ultimately join into a larger framework of understanding.

    2. In direct correlation with the above: I think that one of the most charming and useful aspects of anthropology (and the reason it is often viewed as a somewhat strange animal in academics) is that it allows for, and I would say even demands, the utilization of many different theoretical “formulas” to look at an issue. For instance, the idea of scapes in very interesting, but is only one way of dividing up the great systemic pie in order to pull out a piece and examine it. We can also look at it through the economic flow of goods (as Rex was mentioning with his plastics and metals line above) or through cultural psychology or through the movement of peoples, or, or, or… What I would hope for eventually would be the ability to bring many of these different theoretical aspects together in order to consider a social/cultural/global issue.

    3. And in pure response to Appadurai and his ideas, I have my own issue with him. Although he is, as many have already noted, extremely intellectually bewitching, some of his claims seem slightly thoughtless, yet proposed as exciting new ideas nevertheless. In the referenced book, Disjuncture and Difference, for instance, he makes the claim “…the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (in the sense of both labor and culturally organized practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility. This unleasing of the imagination links the play of pastiche (in some settings) to the terror and coercion of states and their competitors. The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order” However, I propose the question: at what time was the imagination not a player in the creation of society and the understanding of self within it? The systems of socio-cultural practices, taboos, hierarchy seem to me to be created,furthered, interacted with primarily in Appadurai’s “imagination” – or the mind. Although I do think it is important to see how societies and cultures are linking across space, I question that the framework of what we use to understand culture, society, and ourselves within it has changed (or it would hardly allow for this change to a purely “imagined” scape in so short a timespan in the greater history of our species). I also think that the tone of purely intellectual connectivity that Appadurai seems to submit to the reader is somewhat misleading, for as prior respondents have noted, though cultures may be linking attenuatedly across geographic space, there is hardly a lack of physical trade or tangible repurcussions from these social interactions.

  14. In fairness to Appadurai, he is, at most, an extreme embodiment of a tendency that has been part of anthropology for a long, long time. Review the history of the field and what do you find? I’d call it Oedipal, a tendency to reject the academic parent and substitute some new scheme of one’s own, not surprising in a field built on the mythic image of the explorer who goes where no one has ever gone before and comes back with something exotic and exciting. (Lot of mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get what I mean.)

    Add the fact that until after WWII, anthropology was a very small field, a few hundred people at most, with huge ambitions, to cover the entire natural history of humanity, the biology, the linguistics, the archeology, societies and cultures. Start dicing the field by interest and geographical area, and it is not too surprising that anthropological “schools” consisted mainly of a handful of buds with a bit of shared field experience, a teacher or two in common, that sort of thing. Even after the postwar expansion, we are talking about a field with only a few thousand active participants (very small in relation to say, clinical psychology), those same huge ambitions, new interests in places like peasant villages, urban neighborhoods, factories and corporate offices, and access via area studies programs to large parts of the world that had previously been pretty much neglected.

    But whatever, we have never been a field where people got much credit for solid replication or refinement of existing paradigms.

    The result is, of course, a lot of interesting ironies. Thus, for example, people interested in ‘scapes or the international flows of pop culture icons might learn a lot from prefunctionalist anthropologists, the historicist variety, who were trying to map the distribution of culture traits and constantly arguing issues like imitation versus independent invention (problems that are very hot again, these days, in fields like intellectual property law).

    They weren’t stupid. They had a research program. It just ceased to be fashionable for a while. Maybe enough time has passed that someone to re-discover them and build new academic brand for themselves by relabeling their ideas.

  15. One tendency in anthropology that seems new to me is for people to write suggestive and abstract essays and then, when pushed, say “of course, to really answer this questions we would need some ethnography” and then for their next project, instead of attempting to answer that question via ethnography, to write another suggestive essay.

    Sometimes I feel like the discipline as a whole is in this weird Derridian deferral of ever actually trying to find anything out and prefers instead simply to speculate on what would happen if we ever did.

  16. “Derridian deferral”! I love it. But I have a question for anyone who may be able to answer it. Is this tendency, at this historical moment, something specific to anthropology?

    I ask because it has seemed to me that the current rigors of competition in the academic marketplace must push people in this direction. I.e., you have done your research, written your dissertation, turned it into a book, all this while you have classes to teach, committee work, maybe a family or lover. Tenure or promotion review looms. The people who make the call are looking for papers in refereed journals. A clever bit of theorizing, with the right buzzwords and bows and obeisances (a.k.a., citations); you can knock that out pretty quickly. Additional research? Then having to make sense of it? That will take a lot of time, and with the crunch looming, time is what you don’t have. Spin is easier than scholarship; seems like a no-brainer to me. Or am I being too cynical?

  17. Rex, I’m in total agreement with your reading of this issue — the prevalence and privileging of thoughtpieces over down-and-dirty empirical research. While the professional pressures that John mentions certainly play a role, these apply across the board to all academics. One significant difference in our discipline is time investment that productive ethnographic research requires, and as many people have pointed out (on this site and elsewhere) this time investment is much greater if your object of research is diffuse, geographically located over a near-global span, or if your “methods” training consists of little more than reading thought-pieces like Appadurai’s (which is often the case in many anthro grad programs). Unfortunately, I think that there may also be some defensiveness/disciplinary boundary guarding at play in this trend: i.e. if we no longer have a distinctive object of study, and we no longer own ethnography (as if we ever did….), then perhaps “suggestive” writing becomes the hallmark of anthropology?

    In any case, apologies for what looks like a rambling post.

  18. John, I think you’re right that the same things are happening that used to. But they’re happening for different reasons, as you come to point out. Theoretical patricide in small, closed kinship groups has been replaced by at least two parallel dynamics. One, the shortening of commodity shelf-lives in a well-heated global marketplace of ideas, where increasingly the consumers received their entitled dispositions to short attention spans from earlier cycles of the same dynamic. Two, the emergence into entitled identity, first as groups and then as individuals, of postcolonial subjects.

    Neither of these groups is subject to discipline (I am not exempting myself from this analysis), the first because indiscipline is essential for good consumers and the second because any kind of discipline smacks of recolonization.

    Top that off with the expansion of the professoriate in mass-education regimes and its attendant growth of dedicated and complicit publication venues and mechanisms and you’re gonna get a whole lot of half-assed undisciplined crap sprayed out into the environment. The good versions of which can be really neat, of course.

    The academic market is both less rigorous and less competitive than ever before, but looks more of both to people who have been told that they’re entitled to succeed in it. Yes, spin is easier than scholarship, and its products are increasingly judged by people who got their positions the same way and are ideologically committed to that project. The blind reading the blind.

    I’m not saying any of this is bad. It’s probably the case that exactly as much or maybe more good scholarship is being done this way as ever before. There just has to be a way for careers to be made for the other 90% of the academic professionals whose real function is to wave a bit of education under the noses of the idiot children of the bourgeoisie as they credential themselves for middle management.

  19. I found myself about to write, “P.doc is certain right about the extra time that ethnography takes.” Then, however, I stopped to think. I thought, for example, of friends who do Chinese history, for whom extending their research means tackling a bunch of new texts, texts that may only be available if they have the time and money to travel to the relevant archives. Or sociologists who having explored one large data set decide to check out another than may be relevant to the thesis they are developing, but is going to require a lot of data-cleaning and re-coding first. An extra few months in the field, an extra few months in the lab running a new series of experiments? Suddenly I’m not sure that the “ethnography takes so much time” argument is as strong as I would like it to be.

    Then, I am struck, too, by the mention of disciplinary boundaries. If I depended on an academic position for my livelihood, I might get more excited about that. As it is I am free to imagine that it might be a better idea to regard disciplines as nodes connected by edges that represent various kinds of training. Thus, for example, it isn’t what a classic four-field anthropologist studies, as much as it is the fact that his training includes biology, linguistics and archeology as well as social and cultural theory, so his intellectual toolkit is stocked a little differently from that of the sociologist who read the same theory but different, more urban and Euro-American centric case studies, and was made to take statistics and survey research design. They might both wind up doing ethnographic research. Both would observe and listen to what people said; but the intellectual baggage they brought to the field might be very different. And something that those of us in Asian Studies cannot avoid, both may run into historians with far better linguistic skills and a deeper knowledge of textual traditions than the usual practitioner of any of the social science “-ologies” normally brings to bear.

    There’s a wonderful bit in this regard in the historian’s introduction to a book titled _Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China_, co-edited by anthropologist James L. Watson and historian Evelyn S. Rawski (1988). Rawski writes,

    bq. Anthropologists have made it their business to look closely at death ritual performance “on the ground”; they rarely do diachronic analysis. The cultural “givens” of the anthropologist are all variables in the perspective of historians who want to trace the evolution of death ritual over long periods of time and analyze how and why ritual may have changed…

    bq. One of th most revealing events of the conference came at the nightly presentation of slides of funerary and grave ritual taken by anthropologists at their field sites. It was startling for a historian to discover that the six anthropologists present, who had been acquainted with one another for many years, had not previously seen each other’s slides. Since the anthropologist’s “text” (the village studied) is for all intents and purposes inaccessible to other researchers, whose occasional visits cannot provide them with real access to the site, this discovery underlined the latent problem of verification. Without a counterpart to the historian’s primary sources, which can be read and checked by others, how are the anthropologists to defend themselves against charges that their analysis is a personal and arbitrary creation?

    The answer at one level is, of course, that multiple studies of Chinese villages have revealed numerous similarities in social organization and ritual behavior, and the published studies have, in effect, become primary sources available to other scholars. This, in turn, has made possible at least tentative steps toward systematic comparison, e.g., a piece I wrote a long, long time ago and published in _Ethnology_ on “Bridewealth and Dowry in Chinese Marriage” (which, to my chagrin, Google Scholar informs me is still my most often cited work). It has also (the really good news) stimulated a substantial body of work by social historians pursuing questions anthropologists’ raised back into the Tang and Song.

    The people digging deeply into the texts and the people spending their time watching and talking with people in the ethnographic present have, indeed, by talking to each other, made progress toward that goal Geertz suggests, trying to figure out what parochial understandings can bring to general ones.

    Geertz, in his way, is exemplary of the way in which I see our discipline. To read his essays is to read someone conversant with what is going on in other areas and constantly striving to see what his bits of local knowledge can add to those conversations. Thus, for example, philosopher Ryle’s twitches and winks are a useful illustration of the direction in which thick description might proceed, adding layer on layer of interpretation. The story of how the old Jew recovered his stolen sheep vividly drives home the lesson. Vic Turner had a similar knack. He wasn’t exclusively obsessed with what the Ndembu themselves could tell us about their lives. It was when he juxtaposed those lives with Dante, Norse Saga, medieval and Mexican pilgrimages that his ideas came alive and excited the interest of people in literature, theater and the arts.

    To me the saddest thought of all is not that careerism may stimulate the production of academic junk but, rather, that anthropology might undergo what, adapting a phrase from Geertz, I’d label “academic involution,” becoming irrelevant to anyone without our peculiar esoteric interests.

    But, then again, as Carl points out, a lot of this anxiety is perennial. His “wave a bit of education under the noses of the idiot children of the bourgeoisie” is nasty. Not quite as nasty though as the description I heard uttered by one of my non-anthropological colleagues once a long time ago—”casting false pearls before real swine.”

    Personally, I’d rather look for some real pearls and share them with those like-minded souls who do pop up now and again in even the dullest class.

  20. @John, Gah. I forget sometimes that my sense of humor is not self-evident, and I just loathe those facile smiley constructs that are supposed to sum up tone.

    I am myself an idiot child of the petty bourgeoisie, and as a tenured academic my position is exactly middle management. I love my students, who frustrate me in many ways but keep me coming back for more. Even though they’re mostly jocks and business majors and cannot realistically be shaken out of the functional narrowness of those worldviews, they are cautiously open to conversation with other local knowledges. Until the revolution, that’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do with our lives, I’d say.

    I’m delighted by what you say about the edginess of formal disciplines (I was more playing with the idea of discipline, in Foucault’s larger sense) and the practical differences of training that produce different dispositions and questions. The tendency to involute is inherent in ritualized group membership, of course. But the disciplines are not mutually exclusive and conversations help us all keep our brains lively, which is why I’m here.

  21. Carl, sorry, couldn’t resist the chance to pass on “casting false pearls before real swine.” I am sitting here wishing that I could lay my hands on my copy of _Tristes Tropiques_, where, in one chapter, Levi-Strauss describes students at the Sorbonne, when he was there, back in the 1930s I believe, as divided into two camps. One was made up of the hearty, athletic types eager to graduate and get on with their lives in business or government. The other was composed of pale, monk-like creatures, whose deepest desire was never to leave school. I remember thinking at the time, ah, yes, knights and monks, warriors and clerics, jocks and nerds. Some stereotypes have deep and enduring roots, indeed.

  22. “There is a quite simple explanation for the difference. The extroverts, who are studying to enter the professions, behave as they do to celebrate… the fact that they already accept a definite place in the system of social functions….

    In the case of arts and science students, the usual openings–teaching, research…–are quite different in kind. The student choosing them does not bid farewell to the world of childhood: on the contrary he [sic] is trying rather to remain with it. The teaching profession, after all, offers adults their only possibility of remaining at school. The arts or science student is characterized by an attitude of refusal towards the demands of the group. An almost monklike tendency inspires him to withdraw… into study and to devote himself to the preservation and transmission of a heritage independent of the passing moment…. In this respect, teaching and research are not to be confused with training for a profession. Their greatness and their misfortune is that they are a refuge or a mission.”

    Claude Levi-Strauss, _Tristes Tropiques_, chapter 6: “The Making of an Anthropologist.”

    Heehee! This sort of rude diagnosis is what gives functionalism a bad name. But I’m sure this doesn’t describe Rex at all… and definitely not me.

    Seriously, the proximate cause of the “derridean deferral” is to be found here. Doing the fieldwork is just a different modality of deferral since it all ends up back in the cloisters.

    Thanks for this, John!

Comments are closed.