Argue with people, not abstractions

It is the simplest thing in the world to do, but so often we fail to do it: argue with actual people, not abstractions. And yet when we end up taking issue with an idea, a concept, a school, or a theory — rather than the actual people behind them — almost invariably the level of the conversation drops.

A good example of this can be found in Chris Gregory’s recent Anthony Forge lecture. Its difficult to overstate the respect I have for Gregory’s work, and I enjoyed reading the published version of his lecture. In fact, In my own work I’ve tried to undertake the sort of comparative political project that (I think) he’s calling for in the lecture.

But Gregory’s piece is marred by  his attack on ‘the culturalists’ who are criticized and even occasionally named but rarely quoted. Can we really call Arjun Appadurai a particularist uninterested in comparison, as Gregory suggests? I don’t think so — if anything, his fault lies in a scholarship that is miles wide and inches deep. At his best, Appadurai generated fruitful frameworks for comparative work such as his essay in Social Life of Things or (if this sort of thing floats your boat) in “Disjuncture and Difference”. It’s hard to credit Gregory’s critique of ‘culturalism’. It may be that he has a point. But its hard to find him convincing because his engagement with the position he criticizes is so vague.

Another good example of this comes from the HBD crowd currently supporting Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. For them, the great enemy is ‘Cultural Marxism’ which is allied with ‘Creationism’. Its difficult to understand what, specifically, they mean by Cultural Marxism, and even harder to find people who actually identify as Cultural Marxists. They appear to have taken a term loosely designed to cover the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools (institutional identities with a genuine and identifiable network of scholars) and applied it to primatologists like Augstín Fuentes. Its sloppy and embarrassing, and proves the point that, in the current debate over race, the problem is not that social scientists haven’t read enough biology, but that biologists haven’t read enough social science. The result is that they spend their time attempting to understand the relationship between biology and culture, while denouncing so-called ‘Cultural Marxists’ like Alan Goodman…. who is studying the relationship between biology and culture.

Now, there are reasons to separate someone from their argument and take issue with an abstraction. Its much more polite and less confrontational. That is one reason why I often begin seminars getting students to critique positions rather than people — it is easier to build solidarity in a seminar that way. Its also sometimes the case (for instance in academic philosophy) for positions to be so explicitly fleshed out that they can be discussed in the abstract without reference to who holds them. And even if abstractions are vague at times, it can still be useful to compare and contrast them, for instance at the beginning of a literature review if you are going to orient the reader.

But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for close reading. It can be bruising to receive them, but it is much better to have a clear and accurate sense of where you stand with people than it is for you to talk past each other — or have them dislike you for things you don’t even believe. Giving people’s words and arguments the attention they deserve is the best way for you to improve the quality of your own understanding because you have no option but take seriously what the other person is saying. When done calmly and respectfully, it is also the best way to move towards agreement.

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

6 thoughts on “Argue with people, not abstractions

  1. Bravo! But then I am in a position to say that, not having to worry about whether naming names will offend people who can ruin my career. I don’t have to worry about not being able to say, “Of course, I didn’t mean you.”

  2. On further reflection, I also note that attacking a generic straw man is the very essence of political discourse, particularly in today’s USA, where parties are so polarized that any compromise is regarded as a betrayal. The habits in question provide fodder for the 24-hour news cycle but do little to advance solutions to serious problems in need of serious debate. It is sad, but perhaps predictable, that contemporary scholarly discourse now perpetuates the habitus so brilliantly described by Alexander Hamilton in _Federalist 1__ (slightly amended) below:

    “Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The [proposals] offered to our deliberations affect too many particular interests, innovate upon to many local institutions, not to involve in [their] discussion a variety of objects foreign to [their] merits, and of views, passions, and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.”

    The “plan” in the original, here replaced by “proposals” was the Constitution of the United States of America, a great document not quite good enough to prevent the Civil War.

  3. the problem is not that social scientists haven’t read enough biology, but that biologists haven’t read enough social science.

    As if the HBD crowd is actually made up of biologists…

  4. I have issues with Wade’s book too, but isn’t your abstract strawman attack on “the HBD crowd” an example of precisely the style of argument you’re supposedly CRITICIZING?

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