Why don’t we think of anthropology as a form of connoisseurship any more? Is it because the word is simply to embarrassingly difficult to spell? Is it because connoisseurship has been written off in our discipline as exoticizing or objectifying? I personally think that anthropology as a form of connoisseurship is key understanding anthropology’s particularistic, idiographic approach. From Boas’s insistence on the particular to Levi-Strauss’s assimilation of the Boasian impulse to his own art connoisseurship, geeky obsession with the details has been central to our discipline. (I’d even add something about the British culture of quirky amateur enthusiasms that produced “The History and Social Influence of the Potato” but I’m afraid I don’t quite have it pegged). Connoisseurship as a process of cultivation is also about personal transformation — turning into someone who has ‘learned how to look,’ as art history textbook has it.
But somehow along the way I feel this sense of ethnographic connoisseurship has been lost in anthropology — the facts became taken for granted, perhaps, or maybe we just got freaked out about the way the metaphor of connoisseurship assumes we are consumers of art produced artists who are separate (and exploited?) by us. Obsession with the details also does not fly well in an age when what we are supposed to be doing is creating generalizing social science. So perhaps connoisseurship as a model of anthropology has drawbacks both for the politically engaged and the scientifically neutral. Still, I think we should try giving it a run for its money again.