1990, the renowned mathematician David Hilbert laid down a challenge to future generations: 23 hand-picked mathematical problems, all difficult, all important, and all unsolved. Since then, countless mathematicians around the world have struggled to solve the 23 ‘Hilbert Problems’ (ten have been resolved; eleven are partly solved or simply cannot be solved; and two remain at large). Most important, the pursuit of the solutions had a profound and fundamental influence on the roadmap for 20th century mathematics, testament to Hilbert’s foresight.
So begins an announcement about a Harvard symposium aimed at identifying a similar list of problems for the social sciences. I thought it might be interesting to poll our readers about their own ideas for a list of “hard problems in anthropology.” Does it make sense to compile such a list? What would you put on the list? What would it mean for cultural anthropologists to “solve” a problem.Are there any such problems from a previous era that we’ve already solved?
Off the top of my head, I can think of two typical anthropological “problems.” Each posing different challenges to a Hilbertesque approach to defining a list of such problems.
The first might be phrased as “What’s the matter with Kansas?” That is, why do people seem to act contrary to their own class interests? But even asking the problem causes problems. Larry Bartels famously asked: What’s the Matter With ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’, which undermined many of the premises of Frank’s book. The difficulties of defining “class interests” in the first place makes this question so much messier than a mathematical problem.
The second is more typical of contemporary anthropology and could be stated thus: “What are the cultural logics that make X actions thinkable, practicable, and desirable?” (Paraphrased from the introduction to Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship.) Having observed some phenomenon, anthropologists then collect the stories people tell about that problem and interpret them in light of our own understanding of how institutional and cultural practices shape such stories. Here the problem isn’t so much the question, but identifying under what conditions we might consider the problem “solved”? One can’t jump in the same river twice and so each anthropologist who asks such a question will very likely come up with different answers.
So what do our readers think? Does it make sense to compile such a list? If so, what would you put on it? And how would you define a problem as being “solved”? If not, might there be a better way to focus the efforts of cultural anthropology on a set of common problems?
(Hat tip to Ennis for the link.)