The ‘big debate’ in 1960s anthropology doesn’t actually tell us anything about Mitt Romney

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.

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

18 thoughts on “The ‘big debate’ in 1960s anthropology doesn’t actually tell us anything about Mitt Romney

  1. “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’.”

    Ya, I agree. Not a great use of anthro theory.

    Overall Scola’s article is just kind of odd and abstract to me. I think one of the major problems is that she takes another author’s assessment of Romney (i.e. that he “became a transaction man”) and then acts as if that provides some deep insight into his philosophy of life. Scola leaps from the mere mention of a term (transaction) into the big discussion about anthropology, transactionalism, etc. It’s basically a really tenuous, flimsy argument. It would be one thing if the Romney was going around literally making these kinds of arguments, but he’s not. And that’s why the whole discussion falls flat–at least IMO. Not a great argument.

  2. Excellent analysis, Rex, very nicely done. The one thing I like about Scola’s article is how it points (if obliquely) to a truly magisterial critique from Talal Asad, Market Model, Class Structure and Consent: A Reconsideration of Swat Political Organisation. One of Asad’s points was that postulating models and mechanisms cannot explain what needs to be explained historically:

    If the question is now raised: what then is the mechanism which operates to maintain the class structure in Swat?, the answer must be that it is completely inappropriate to specify a mechanism in accounting for the class structure as a historical reality. There are different combinations of factors operating at different periods, which can only be revealed by historical research precisely because the process is a historical one. (1972:91)

    It’s a point that has been repeatedly lost on generation after generation of academics looking for simplistic and reductionist mechanisms to explain what can only be explained by history.

  3. Well there are two issues here. The first is the particular one of whether Barth got the details of Swat right and there is (apparently) a lot to be critical of there. The second is a general theoretical point about the adequacy of theoretical models to make sense of a reality that is complex, processural, changing etc. It is true that Barth doesn’t do historical ethnography. But his transactionalism (like Firth’s work and Leach’s work in Pul Eliya and elsewhere) was in fact the very first step towards theoretical models that could understand historical processes as the outcome of the interaction of a variety of different orders of determination, one of which is human agency. I think here of Marshall Sahlins’s work as exemplary of this approach, but there are others. But — and this is the important point — if there was one thing that structure functionalism didn’t want to talk about was history, which it saw as the purview of discredited diffusionist approaches. All of which is to say that Barth’s work was part of the _solution_ not part of the _problem_.

  4. I’m going to go with bad spell-checker.
    *Fredrik Barth.
    *Structural-functionalism.

    I have to agree with Ryan here – the article isn’t so great. Seems like Fredrik Barth has been shoehorned in to give a fresh edge to yet another article on Romney.

  5. Hi Rex, I would agree that in fact Barth is part of the solution to earlier ahistorical tendencies, and that pieces like Asad from 1972 led to an enriching of the anthropological analysis, helping to burgeon into much more history-anthropology connections around the 1980s. I should probably have specified that when I said the point was lost on “generation after generation of academics” that I’m certainly exaggerating, but more importantly that I was referring to outside-of-anthropology pundits, for indeed these are all issues anthropology has long grappled with as part of ethnographic fieldwork.

  6. We have to remember that because anthropologists said something decades ago is no guarantee that it is widely known inside the field, let alone outside it. How many of us are up to speed with the last half century of developments in ichthyology, organic chemistry, medieval history or Buddhist studies, for example? Frankly speaking, it’s a miracle that the author of the piece Rex critiques has even heard of Frederik Barth. Give thanks for the publicity and figure out how to build on it instead of critiquing to the choir.

  7. How many of us are up to speed with the last half century of developments in ichthyology, organic chemistry, medieval history or Buddhist studies, for example?

    I don’t know about you, but I know a bit about the state of these fields, certainly as they were back in the 1960s. I expect you do as well, and while modesty is always good, I’d like to hope that you know as much about each of those fields as Nancy Scola does about anthropology. Know a little about the DNA double-helix, Schroedinger’s What is Life?, and the attempted reduction of biology to chemistry and chemistry to physics? Know about the supposed dates of Gautama Buddha and the role of the Indo-Greek kingdoms and Kushan empire in spreading Buddhist doctrines along the Silk Road? Congratulations, you know as much about these topics as Scola appears to know about anthropology.

    I think it’s fair to criticise coverage like this instead of simply being happy to see a name like Barth’s in the press. In fact, breaking down popular articles is a good way to educate people who might be interested in the topic. So while it is nice to Fredrik Barth discussed in The Atlantic, it would be better if the reason were enthusiasm for the topics of his research rather than an attempt to come up with a new angle on Mitt Romney’s campaign.

    Just my view on it, of course. YMMV.

  8. Pop quiz, identify and articulate the theories of

    George Homans
    Thomas C. Schelling
    John Levi Martin

    Has anybody noticed? Are there any sociologists upset because they weren’t cited?
    Since Barth was identified as an anthropologist and the example was Afghanistan, my guess is no. More than happy to be corrected.

  9. Al wrote:

    “So while it is nice to Fredrik Barth discussed in The Atlantic, it would be better if the reason were enthusiasm for the topics of his research rather than an attempt to come up with a new angle on Mitt Romney’s campaign.”

    I agree 100 percent. It would be one thing if there was some sort of relevance with the whole transactionalism argument. But, there isn’t. In this case the “anthropology” angle is just an attempt to put a different spin on a rather bad argument.

    I don’t think getting this kind of mention in the popular press is something to get excited about. I think the discipline has a lot more to contribute than the occasional not-so-great nod in our direction. Yet another reason why more anthros need to actually be the ones who write the anthropology for wider audiences.

  10. Gentlemen (Ladies, too, if any here are taking an interest in this thread), allow me to call you attention to the Wikipedia articles on Frederik Barth and George Homans. According to the first, his work on the Swat Pathans was published in 1959, his last major book, on Balinese cosmologies, in 1993. Homans The Human Group was published in 1950, and it is Homans who is usually cited as the father of transaction theory. I remember being made to read Homans, but that was back in the late 1960s. I know that his reputation survives because John Levi Martin’s Social Structures, which brings considerable rigor to the program Homans outlined, won the American Sociological Association’s 2010 theory prize. Have any of us here besides me heard of either Homans or Martin? If not, why would you expect that anyone outside of a few anthropologists would be seriously familiar with the works of Frederik Barth?

    I agree with Ryan’s conclusion and with Rex’s original critique. What I don’t understand, except that the blog is here and the audience is receptive, Rex’s critique is addressed to the choir at Savage Minds instead of the editors of The Atlantic or the comment threads on its blogs. Were I doing fieldwork, my notes on these events would be along the following lines.

    Once again the natives are excited by a mention of their tribe. Once again they are beating their drums and complaining to each other how badly they are misunderstood. Some claim that what was said by the member of the tribe cited in the article was not only incorrectly interpreted but was also irrelevant to the argument the author advanced. Nods of pious satisfaction all around.

  11. Have any of us here besides me heard of either Homans or Martin? If not, why would you expect that anyone outside of a few anthropologists would be seriously familiar with the works of Frederik [sic] Barth?

    I should bloody well hope the anthropologists here have heard of George Homans! After all, he wrote a book on marriage alliance with David Schneider’s (probably entirely nominal) assistance. The work, and Needham’s Structure and Sentiment (his book-length response/smackdown to Homans), were set texts for me. So yes, I’m familiar with Homans, as I expect most anthropologists are. As for transactionalism, I’ve always understood it to have originated with Weber, at least in essence. The Atlantic article just came across as another one of those pieces using Marx and Weber to represent different sides of humanity, but replacing them with lesser-known scholars.

    As for Martin, I had only ever heard his name, but The Explanation of Social Action is on my amazon wishlist. Good, is he?

    Either way, it’s fine to gripe about these things. There are certainly more productive things to do, but complaining is a natural response. Reading through some of Scola’s other articles, by the way, it turns out that some of them are rather good. It seems like this one was duff – an attempt at a new angle on a topic saturated by media coverage that fell short. That’s all. Again, your mileage may vary.

  12. Al, you might like Martin’s Social Structures. I have only read part of it. Appears to be an attempt to move the idea that institutions are crystallizations of interactions from metaphor to something closer to rigorous formalization. Looks promising because computational models of crystallization created for physics and chemistry are getting pretty sophisticated, suggesting the possibility of moving from “that sounds interesting” to testable hypotheses.

  13. Since Barth was identified as an anthropologist and the example was Afghanistan, my guess is no. More than happy to be corrected.

    Pakistan, actually. Though as the Swat Valley is located within Pashtunistan as divided by the Durand Line yours is an understandable error.

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