The twitter verse lit up yesterday over Nancy Scola’s Atlantic piece entitled “What The Big 1960s Debate in Anthropology Can Tell Us About Mitt Romney“. I’m sympathetic to Scola’s point, but I think the Internet deserves to know the truth about anthropology — which is something you don’t get from Scola’s article.
In her piece Scola claims that Mitt Romney holds essentially the same position as the Norwegian anthropologist Frederik Barth: that (she quotes Eriksen and Murphy’s History of Anthropological Theory here) “Social relationships are ‘generated,’ sustained, and changed as a result of the economic choices made by individuals, each of whom has learned to play and manipulate the ‘rules’ of a social ‘game.’” Mitt Romeny is an unappealing candidate because “it makes people uncomfortable to think about the world reduced to a series of transactions” and because worldview “misses too much of [the world's] magic and meaning”.
It’s a surprisingly academic idea for someone who is not an academic: people are not turned off by Mitt Romney because he wants to gut medicare, make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and his foreign policy is brought to you by the same guys who came up with the “lets invade two countries at once” plan that Instantly Made The World Safe For Democracy once George W. Bush unveiled it. They’re not turned off because he acts (as one commentor put it) like a robot designed by evil East German scientists to simulate a politician. No, they’re turned off because of his theoretical commitments.
Additionally, Scola’s take on anthropological history doesn’t ring true to me. According to her, prior to 1959 “anthropology had for decades been dominated by structural functionalism’s focus on society’s forms and norms”. Really? In his authoritative history After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1881-1951 George Stocking writes
Although numbering only several dozen, social anthropologists had… by 1951 established a firm institutional base. Other components of a more generalized anthropological tradition still maintained their place at Oxford and Cambridge — and within the Royal Anthropological Institute. But social anthropology was now established as the dominant mode for studying the present life-forms of non-European peoples (p. 431)
So in fact structure functionalism had been dominant in British anthropology for eight years by the time Barth got to work. Indeed, as Stocking argues,
scarcely had the archetype been realized historically than its typological unity began to fragment; British social anthropology was more diverse than Radcliffe-Brown, and it continued to thrive and to change long after he had passed from the scene. The story had always been more complex than teleological retrospect would suggest” (438)
Of course, we are only talking about Britain here. Structure functionalism never had a serious grip on mainstream American anthropological traditions, or those in many other countries. Consider Lowie’s sadly under-read History of Ethnological Theory from 1937:
The grandiloquent use of the term ‘law is most regrettable and in some circumstances leads to absurdity, as when Radcliffe-Brown writes of “a universal sociological law though it is not yet possible to formulate precisely its scope, namely that in certain specific conditions a society has need to provide itself with a segmentary [clan] organization”. Whoever heard of a universal law with an as yet undefinable scope, of a law that works in certain specific but unspecified conditions? Is it a law that some societies have clans, and other have not? Newton did not tell us that bodies either fall or rise. (p. 225)
In conclusion Lowie notes sniffily that he will wait for the steak before he is excited by the sizzle:
If every item of culture has a function, if comparative sociology has valid laws to offer, this will be of great interest to all ethnologists. In the meantime we take cognizance of the message and watchfully lie waiting for what may come in its wake. (p. 227)
And — the ‘big debate’ in the 1960s was transactionalism? That’s a relief — I thought it might have had to do with the Vietnamn War or that other little-known intellectual movement that briefly surfaced its head in the 1960s, structuralism or a new generation of anthropologist’s attempt at Reinventing Anthropology
While Scola’s article get a lot of the history wrong, it does have its up sides: for instance, it reminds us that anthropologists were interested in individual agency long before various reactionary brands of post- whatever began their work. Indeed, it is only by ignoring and essentializing anthropology’s past that they could claim their own work to be groundbreaking.
I’ll save you from a dissection of the claim that Barth’s work is Ann Randian individualism, and I certainly don’t have time to demonstrate that Barack Obama believes we ought all be automatons obeying the rules of the social order attempting to achieve our society’s goal state — I think Michelle Bachman has done enough to popularize this misconception.
Ultimately the real problem with Scola’s article is that it takes anthropological theory and shoves it into a simplistic dichotomy of ‘individualism’ versus ‘collectivism’. This dichotomy is at the heart of angloprotestant culture, which obsessively attempts to collapse these two terms into one another while always framing its problematic in such a way as to render this impossible.
Anthropology — real anthropology — involves trying to free ourselves from the cramped perspective of a single culture, not cramming different viewpoints into it. A real anthropologist would point out that labeling Obama a structure functionalist totally obscures his own faith in human agency (what sort of structure functionalist takes Alinsky seriously?). Labelling Romney — Romney, a Mormon whose entire life is built around community service – an individualist is equally impoverishing. Simplistic dichotomies make for bad ethnography. It’s just that simple.
Forcing anthropological theories into culturally-specific pigeonholes is also bad for theory formation. As Margaret Mead (or Confucius, or Hillel, or Ongka) would tell you, all humans are both autonomous and dependent, shaped by and also shaping their culture. Only a very small number of cultures find this idea somehow contradictory or problematic — the contemporary US being one of them. We’ve spent decades jettisoning our own cultural baggage and developing models of culture which aren’t shacked by the old individual-society dichotomy. The real lesson of anthropology for the election is that our intellectual horizons must be much broader than a choice between radically autonomous freedom versus submission to the welfare state. We should be using our theories to enrich the public debate — not the other way around.