Storkist Logic: Its threat, and how anthropology can avoid being crushed on both sides

I recently wrote a short piece for a small panel in Honolulu. I realized that we talk a lot on SM about the relation of anthropology and ethics, and that I had never figured out my personal position on this. This paper is my first stab at a public presentation, and it can be “here”: Honestly, I am not entirely happy with it, since I consider to be straightforwardly Weberian and too heated at times. But I thought I’d post it here since this is an ongoing topic at Savage Minds…

When Chris first emailed me about presenting on a panel about threats to the academy, the first potential threat he mentioned was “the right wing.” I immediately thought of “this cartoon”: from Tom Tomorrow’s strip “This Modern World.” “They know they don’t stand a chance against our relentless STORKIST LOGIC” announces one character. Please go ahead and “read it”:

What idea does Tom mean when he writes about “really, really stupid ideas that infect the political mainstream?” An obvious first guess is Christianity. This is, after all, a religion whose origin story involves three supposedly wise men following a star to barn where a woman who’s never had sex before is about to give birth to someone who is his own father….

Honestly, what can one say about ‘fundamentalists’ who seek to emblazon the ten ‘commandments’ all over civic spaces, despite the fact that they cannot read them in the original language they were written in and follow only seven out of ten (points off for graven images, a false sabbath, and no rigorous monotheism)? You’re all teachers – think about that for a second. Seven out of ten. That’s a C minus — if you’re charitable.

But this is unfair. As Michael Warner (and Vincent Crapanzano, and Susan Harding) point out, fundamentalists do read Torah, just in a very particular way. And I can speak personally when I say that I include three Christian priests (ministers? I’m not sure what to call them) as role models whose profound selflessness and agape is indeed admirable. No, I think that the “really, really stupid idea” that Tom is pointing out is the storkist logic itself.

What, then, is storkist logic? By this term I mean a certain tendentiousness, a confusion of facts and values which flies in the face of logical scrutiny and empirical examination (I’m simplifying here but hey, I only have fifteen minutes). Now, there’s no accounting for taste (or faith) and there’s nothing wrong with having strongly held preferences or values – we all do and, as I’ll explain in a second, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But the danger of storkist logic is that it cannot separate the realm of empirical from the realm of the moral – indeed, its danger is the way that it twists the former around so that it will support or disguise itself as the latter. This confusion of the two realms is what Tom Tomorrow is talking about when he talks about the ‘war on rationality’.

Obviously, the people exemplified by proponents of “intelligent delivery” threaten the liberal, secular and humanist values which are fundamental to democracy, and I think this is bad thing. I’m not uncritical of our political system (to put it lightly!) but at a general level I do agree with Churchill’s quip that it is “the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.” Intelligent Delivery’s storkist logic also threatens the academy by jeopardizing the free and rational inquiry that is our specialty and which the general public considers simultaneously boring and indispensable.

But anthropology is in danger of being crushed by two forms of storkist logics – that of “Intelligent Delivery” as well as its own storkist logic. For anthropology is guilty of its own tendentious conflating of analysis and normative judgment in a way which is formally identical with the storkism of the right wing, even though in substance its valuation of diversity and tolerance is reversed. I am referring here to “NPR anthropology.”

NPR anthropologists have been mocked by Vine Deloria Jr. and other indigenous peoples from time immemorial for their naiveté and bleeding heart liberalism, but I believe I may be the first person to connect this attitude with a radio station – the National Public Radio whose syndicated color spots feature heartwarming stories of Jewish women donating kidneys to black men, and so forth. Equal parts unreconstructed populism and uncritical thirdworldism, NPR anthropology is a lifestyle filled with foreign movies, world music, and an aspiration to activism.

Now, as Weber (riffing off of Goethe) pointed out, its not unusual for certain kinds of people to have an ‘elective affinity’ for certain areas of inquiry, and it is only natural that this lend a certain ‘character’ to the discipline, but I disagree with those who would argue that anthropology has a ‘moral core.’ The idea, on this account, is that anthropology by itself teaches that ‘all cultures are of equal worth’ that ‘we should all try to get along’ and that ‘difference is a good thing.’ The problem with a ‘moral core’ argument is that it confuses the values that we hold dear as humans with an analysis, description, and explanation of humans as they exist in the medium of culture. And believe, as Shils’s akward translation of Weber put it, “the professor should not demand the right… to carry the marshall’s baton of the statesman or reformer in his backpack.”

Now obviously, valuing cultural difference will make fieldwork easier — but this is a methodological imperative, not a moral one. Similarly, there is a historical relationship between progressive politics and the Boasian research program, but that is different from there being an inherent political agenda to the disciplinary logic to anthropology – after all, anthropology and colonial oppression also have a historical relationship, but few today would argue that anthropology contains a disciplinary imperative to dispossess indigenous people of their land.

Nevertheless, my students complain regularly to me about professors who use the lectern as a bully pulpit to put forth their own viewpoints about recent political events. Equally, I have heard more than one person argue that teaching anthropology is itself a political act, and that it is the job of the anthropologist to convince their students that other ways of life are worthwhile. Often militaristic metaphors of ‘combating’ and ‘fighting’ bad beliefs are used. One colleague of mine recently suggested that fundamentalist Christian students studying adolescent homosexual initiation amongst the Etoro ought to be graded down if they considered anal sex with a twelve year old immoral.

Knowledge, as Foucault, once remarked, is for cutting, and while the anthropology might be particularly well suited to document the continuing history of colonialism in Hawai’i, kanaka maoli don’t need us to tell them it’s wrong, or our permission to stick the sharp end of our ethnography into whoever they wish. And when tourists past protesters on the steps of ‘Iolani palace, they are confronted with the visible manifestation of a demand for autonomy and self-determination which holds them answerable to the own values they derive not from our libraries, but from their own hearts. Similarly, I don’t think there’s anything inherent in describing and understanding Etoro initiation that leads me to judge it good or bad—I can do with values that I get from somewhere outside anthropology. And while I would grade down a student paper that spent its entire time denouncing homosexuality, I would do so not because anthropology teaches their judgment is incorrect, but because it’s not anthropology’s job to care one way or the other. We’re knowers, not judgers, and students who spend an entire paper judging simply aren’t following directions.

Anthropology relies on an internal disciplinary logic, of course, but I wouldn’t call that logic moral. Just because morals often rely on criteria, does not mean that all criteria are moral. Both the commandments “do not kill” and “all of the nails we manufacture in this factory should be three inches long” imply a judging of things in the world according to rules, but I think murder is immoral in a way that a two inch nail is not.

Ideally, academe is a place where scholars convince each other of their arguments through force of evidence and reasoning (including here rhetorical power) without regard to their interlocutor’s personal political beliefs. Indeed, the value of social science argumentation is that you can use it to convince people of points even if they have a different ethical commitment then you do —indeed, we value it exactly for its ‘disinterestedness’ in this regard. Obviously, social scientists are aware of the way their findings will be used in policy debates, and of course there is such a thing as lying with statistics. But my point is that, as Weber pointed out long ago, there is something ironic about the structure of commitment and objectivity in social science research. You may be passionately interested in ending racism, but if you value anthropology’s ability to lay bare the cultural structures that support it, the same values that lead you to anthropology demands that you set them aside once you arrive. If you don’t you’ll appear hopelessly partisan. Thus, anthropology doesn’t have a moral ‘core’, it is a space evacuated of morality but surrounded by it on all sides. Like a submarine full of sailors who love the water, anthropologists know that even a small puncture will cause their one small good spot of habitation to implode in a very nasty way.

Teaching anthropology as a moral science also has an air of condescension to it. For generations professors have been convinced that the plebs would be improved morally if they just read books that academics thought were good. Originally this was ‘the classics,’ but more recently Martha Nussbaum (who I deeply respect but in this case disagree with) has argued that reading Richard Wright is automatically morally improving. Anthropology’s sense of itself as a reformer’s science stems from a misplaced self-certainty which has a genealogy of elitism and classism.

Anthropology’s storkist logic also results in a lack of clarity about an anthropologist’s personal morality itself. Too often NPR anthropology results in a “laundry list morality” — a set of political commitments that have accumulated over time and which have little or no coherence except, perhaps, for a certain fortuitous alignment in the 1970s. A mere list without an underlying normative basis is no good in judging hard cases or in making sense of morally complex situations where there’s more than meets the eye – for instance, in the Amazon, where for years indigenous groups have worked with first world environmental groups to gain control of their land from the Brazilian government, only to lease it out to miners who turn it into a moonscape. What happens when indigenous autonomy is no longer aligned with environmental imperatives? Who is being taken advantage of when these leases are issued? The usual suspects are no longer available to play their roles of allies and enemies in the way a laundry-list approach might suggest. Because NPR anthropologists storkishly collapse their research perspective and their personal ethics together, they loose the clarity that comes from separating the two and bringing their moral intutions into the open where they might be clarified.

Finally, and ironically, NPR anthropology’s storkist logic undercuts its own aspirations to public influence. The public expects professors to be prudent, judicious, and impartial when educating their children and appearing in their newspapers. When anthropologists argue that their discipline is inherently critical or destabilizing they loose their public legitimacy as professional knowers of humanity and we invite themselves to be treated in exactly same way that they treat creationists whose ‘scientific’ arguments are transparently derived from their religious commitment — a sad end for a discipline obsessed with its ‘relevance.’

And indeed, anthropologists are increasingly being treated this way today. NPR anthropology’s storkist logic is being crushed from the other side by those who want to ‘speak truth to culture.’ I mean here the ‘Consilience Heads’ – enthusiasts for evolutionary psychology, E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology, Jared Diamond’s geographical determinism (which is undergoing yet another wave of popularity), and new forms of racial discourse emboldened by the dissection of the double helix. These people believe themselves to be even more free of storkist logic than anthropologists are. They read their morality directly off of nature and argue that dispassionate, scientific inquiry is the best way to learn more about our place in it. For them, the concept of culture and the ‘political correctness’ of anthropology (as well as a straw man they call ‘cultural studies’) practices a misguided and obfuscatory left-wing censorship against the forces of enlightenment. Alan Sokal’s hoaxing of Social Text in 1995 and his later book with Jean Bricmont is a good example of this trend.

Consider, for example, a recent paper by Greg Cochrane and his contributors. It found that there was a genetic link between Christianity, stupidity, and farming – excuse me, between ‘Jewish intelligence’ and ‘banking.’ Many people argued that the paper’s argument seemed to be better explained by the historico-cultural context that produced its authors than the data they cited in support of it. The scientistic backlash against this criticism was quite strong. “Why can’t this question be asked?” they demanded. I mean who knows, maybe black people are better athletes than white people – why not Or, to take another example, why can’t the President of Harvard — in the spirit of free inquiry – inquire into the biological differences that make men smarter then women? This sense of speaking truth to culture in the name of reason is best summarized by the list of do’s and dont’s posted on the widely-read website Gene Expression. The “do’s” include ‘respect for others, always wonder what-if [sic] you were wrong, challenge your intuition, and cite facts others can check’. The “don’ts” include ‘partisan hackery, political correctness, and social constructivism’. And of course, these are the people who receive attention in the press for speaking “in the name of science.”

I feel that anthropologists do their job best when they confuse the different hats that they wear least. The fact that humans live in the world means they can never be ‘objective’ in some sort of cosmic sense, and that is something most of us have gotten over. But this doesn’t mean that some very strong and valuable form of judicious neutrality is achievable in human relations. We needn’t restrict ourselves to the natural sciences when we look for models of this sort of behavior — think, for instance, of the values of prudence and phronesis that were central in antiquity. Getting clear on the separation of our research findings from the personal motives that got us into anthropology will strengthen our ethnography and clarify our ethics. It will allow us to understand how our ethical commitments and disciplinary logic articulate – for while I have argued that they are distinct, I would never argue that they are not intertwined.

Anthropology feeds data and models to our sense of right and wrong even as our values guide our selection of research topics. It provides the picture of the world, we provide the ethics to judge it. If we as humans value tolerance and we are told that Muslims are intolerant, we will treat Muslims in a certain way. But once we learn more about Islam and get clear on what we mean by ‘tolerance’, our attitudes towards Muslims will change – not because anthropology ‘teaches us to be tolerant’ but because we have deployed it to address a problem that is of interest to us.

As we struggle both to understand and judge events on our island and around the globe I feel that a judicious anthropology—one disabused of comforting notions of scientistic objectivity, but still self-confident in its analytic power— provides a rock upon which our own moral action may be based. But to go further—to tell others not merely how the world is, but to tell them how it ought to be —would give us a voice whose self-certainty and lack of humility would be opposed in form but identical in its poise with those who, as Tom Tommorow put it, wage a “war with rationality.”


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

14 thoughts on “Storkist Logic: Its threat, and how anthropology can avoid being crushed on both sides

  1. I know Rex has made the destruction of my morality argument a life goal 🙂 so it may come as some surprise that, by and large, I agree with the general gist of what he’s saying here. There’s a few points I need to make, though:

    a) This post is, in large part, a moral argument about how anthropological research should and should not be conducted.

    b) The argument that “The fact that humans live in the world means they can never be ‘objective’ in some sort of cosmic sense… is something most of us have gotten over” is misleading. True enough, most anthropologists are not wholly paraliyzed by the inability to live up to some “vulgar” notion of objectivity. But this in itself raises an issue that is very important, at least from an “anthropology of anthropology” standpoint — what do anthropologists do in lieu of being objective? Not what *should* they/we do, but what *do* they/we do? My whole focus on morality and its multiple intersections with anthropological practice is aimed at exporing this in some way. Rex’s take — the anthropologist as neutral knowledge manufacturer — is one perspective, although it remains to be delineated how this perspective has been realized in anthropological practice. Another take, elaborated by Sol Tax in his development of the “action anthropology” approach, is that anthropologists are, by the nature of both our research subjects (human) and our selves, always already implicated in the processes we are describing. Tax called it “participant interference” — interference understood not as imagined violations of some Star Trekian “Prime Directive” but rather, in my understanding, in the Foucauldian sense that there is no position outside of society from which to observe society. My current research is, in part, an exploration of how this perspective is reflected in the practice of those who hold it — alas, I have no conclusions to relay at this time.

    3) The notion of anthropology as “a space evacuated of morality but surrounded by it on all sides” sounds good but I’m having some trouble grappling with it. My first response is that a moral- or value-free space takes a lot of doing to create — and that doing is an act of power. The act of conducting anthropological research is itself a series of moral negotiations (“morality” here operating at a somewhat different level than what I had in mind in my earlier ruminations on the subject) — as Nancy would and has said, the people we study aren’t naturally falling over themselves to be studied. But this, I gather, is something different from what Rex is saying — if I understand properly, Rex is referring to the production of a body of knowledge that is itself free of the “taint” of morality. I doubt very much that this is achievable in practice, but more than that, I do not know (and when I say I don’t know, I mean I really am still sorting this out for myself, ntot aht Rex is necessarily wrong) that this is even desirable in theory. My more direct concern, though, is that to arrive at this “amoral space” requires setting so many things aside that the knowledge that occupies it is so removed from the real world as to be useless. Again, I don’t know — some further exposition by Rex on what is meant here might be useful.

  2. I basically agree with Rex’s aggressive Weberianism here. However, this post does require an emendation. The morality of anal sex with a 12 year old is basically irrelevant to understanding (or condemning) the initiation practices of Etoro because those practices do not involve anal sex. To wit: “[Insemination] is accomplished orally. The boy maniuplates the man to the point of ejaculation and consumes the semen. The above effects [of maturation and masculinization] are only realized through ingestion…” Kelly, Constructing Inequality, pg. 156.

  3. I support what I take to be Rex’s strong Weberianism here. However, this post does require an emendation. The morality of anal sex with a 12 year old is basically irrelevant to understanding (or condemning) the initiation practices of Etoro because those practices do not involve anal sex. To wit: “[Insemination] is accomplished orally. The boy maniuplates the man to the point of ejaculation and consumes the semen. The above effects [of maturation and masculinization] are only realized through ingestion…” Kelly, Constructing Inequality, pg. 156.

  4. Egg on my face. I’ve been experimenting with teaching Sambia, Kaluli, and Bedamini in my classes every semester, and got confused in the post as to which form of insemination was which, since each group has different methods of insemination (that are also strong ethnic markers). I got them confused in the paper — although I don’t in class.

  5. Hmm. Sounds a lot like Meera Nanda’s argument, about which I have very mixed feelings. I believe in rationality, and rational discourse, so arguments like that made by Rex and Nanda sound senseible to me. Nor do I deny that there are NPR anthropologists, or what Nanda calls “postmodernist supporters of ethno–sciences,” which I find troublesome.

    At the same time, I also feel that such characterizations fail to do justice to the explanatory value we gain from meta-critiques of scientistic discourse. While there is a need to reply to books like the Bell Curve in their own terms, there is also a need to realize that nearly every decade another book like this gets published and Anthropologists are once again called upon to attack these ideas. At some point we must examine the larger questions of why there is such a desire to create scientific arguments that proclaim the genetic inferiority of those less fortunate (or the “progressive” version which explains inferiority as a matter of environment). I deny that such investigations are simply moral arguments – I think that they are part of the very heart of social science, and what makes it different from the empirical sciences. I would say that ignoring the political and moral ramifications of asking certain types of questions – or why certain types of questions get asked with significant regularity – would be bad social science.

  6. I just read Nanda’s article, and while intriguing, I don’t really think it can apply to anthropology, for the simple reason that it is our job to explain culturally-bound views of the way the world is irdered as clearly and honestly as we can — and not to evaluate the accuracy of those world-views in relation to the “real world” (as described, Nanda implies, by Western science). Nanda is primarily concerned with how people *should* look at scientific knowledge, but anthriopologists have to be first and foremost concerned with how they *do* look at such knowledge.

    Nanda’s argument is also deeply flawed — with exactly the same problem she is troubled by in her take on “constructivist” views of science. Constructivists, she argues, defend a relativist position because it furthers their political aims. Instead, Nanda argues we should adopt a scientific universal stance — because it furthers our political aims. What she noticably does *not* argue is that we should back the universalist stance because it is a more accurate way of describing the world in which we live, in every case. If the universalist position is relevant only to certtain situations, then… well, then it’s relativistic.

  7. There’s not much to add given the strength of Rex’s post, but I remain bewildered as to how any of those who are holding to the “moral core” position even begin to think they have a leg to stand on.

    Oneman’s reply for example, for which his response a) seems to return to some sort of metaphysical cant, whereby all arguments are rendered moral (the analogy to creationism here really is rather apt). His response in b) suggests that he has no evidential basis for holding these opinions:

    My current research is, in part, an exploration of how this perspective is reflected in the practice of those who hold it—alas, I have no conclusions to relay at this time.

    Yet in c) disregards the qualifiers he adds in a previous sentence:

    My more direct concern, though, is that to arrive at this “amoral space” requires setting so many things aside that the knowledge that occupies it is so removed from the real world as to be useless.

    Which appears to be entirely baseless when neither Oneman, nor any of the proponents, give any reason to conclude that there is a “moral core” (which, in this context, speaks to the difficulty or otherwise of the construction of the “amoral space” described above); neither does Oneman show that a critique of the anthropological method using a moral approach (whatever that is) is worthwhile, tractable, or even possible.
    So on what grounds, exactly, should this “concern” be taken seriously at all?

  8. Tigerbear blames me in “a” for saying what I’m saying — that is, there is a moral component to every argument. As soon as the word “should” pops up, you’re making a moral argument. You can take Rex’s viewpoint that science provides data which informs moral argumentation but which is itself amoral — there’s plenty of precedent for this position, but I think it is untenable. I realize my position is not unassailable, but you’d better have a better argument than “is not”!

    In “b” my unwillingness to present conclusions on a project I am in the preocess of researching is taken as an absence of evidence. I am not sure this charge merits a defense.

    The “amoral space” in “c” has nothing to do with whetehr anthropology can be fruitfully thought of as being undergirded by a specific set of moral beliefs/practices or not. It really has little to do with anthropology per se — my argument is that the claim that *anything* (at least in terms of human behavior/knowledge) exists outside the sphere of morality is problematic, and if, in fact, anthropological or any other sort of knowledge does exist in this amoral space, it needs explaining how this amoral space came to exist.

    I suppose it bears repeating that my argument is not that anthropology *should* live up to a certain set of moral precepts, but rather that, in practice — and I have to leave open the question of whether this is necessarily so, as say a function of humans doing research on humans — anthropology demonstrates a certain set of moral attitudes. I cannot see why it would be problematic to wonder what values inform anthropological practice, but apparently this makes me the wooliest of wooly-headed idealists. Fortunately, I can live with that.


  9. Umm.

    The difference between this “should” and “is” in terms of anthropology’s moral core is that there is a difference between the “moral core of anthropology” if such a thing exists, and the “moral core of a particular subset (in time and place) of actual anthropologists.”

    Unless you’re going to shield yourself with a wealth of no true scotsman fallacies, sooner or later you’re going to have to face up to the fact that the colonial anthropologists so frequently decried by modern anthropology were still “anthropologists.” Yet, they didn’t share the modern “moral core.”

  10. Oneman in response to a) well, look, since the “moral core” is something you’ve proposed, people who just don’t see where you’ve got this from aren’t obliged to provide evidence that it isn’t there. Saying that those who hold other opinions say: “no its not” produces a false equivalence between the two positions. Where is the evidence of a moral core? That’s what I’m waiting for.
    I mean, I’m still waiting for a coherent definition of a “moral core”. So far it appears to wash back and forth between a strong position: “there is a disciplinary moral core of various positions on various issues to which we hold and agree with, which positively informs what we do” (an active, activist moral core) to the weak position “anthropologists can be considered, as a group, to hold a set of moral positions due to their training, similar social status, and similar interaction as academics, which changes over time and can be profitably studied” (a descriptive moral core). Where in the murky moral seas does the definition lie?

    The point of my response to b) and c) speaks not of the amount of evidence you have, but to the conviction to which you hold the position that the moral core is both there and important, given the paucity of evidence. You appear to claim that there is a “direct concern” that an anthropology derived from an “amoral space” would produce knowledge ‘so removed from the real world as to be useless’. That is an incredibly strong negative statement to make. You’ve provided no evidence why that should be taken seriously, apart from your conviction that there is a moral core.

    Patrick writes:

    Unless you’re going to shield yourself with a wealth of no true scotsman fallacies, sooner or later you’re going to have to face up to the fact that the colonial anthropologists so frequently decried by modern anthropology were still “anthropologists.” Yet, they didn’t share the modern “moral core.”

    I’m not certain colonial anthropologists could be said to share any sort of “moral core”…

  11. Heh, “take what you can grab and put it in a museum, subjugate the natives, and the devil take the hindmost” is a moral core. No one said moral cores have to be *good*.

  12. Oneman confuses his narcissism with my narcissism — I assure you that the navel I’m gazing at in this post is mine, not his 🙂 I don’t think this post is about Oneman’s argument, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a coherent argument from him. Or rather, to the extent that he has, it is an uncontroversial one.

    The ‘strong’ moral core argument which I made was largely for the benefit of my audience — anthropologists in an activist department who held a conference about ‘threats to academia’, by which they mean ‘the right wing’. My point was for them to remove the beam from their own eye before they continued.

    A ‘weak’ moral core argument is not about a disciplinary ‘core’ at all — its about the elective affinities of anthropologists, an ‘anthropology of anthropologists’. Indeed, the ‘reflective imperative’ that anthropoligsts feel necessary to be aware of their own biases is a corollary of the ‘weak moral’ argument. I think we’ve all agreed that there is such a thing, it’s uncontroversial, and a fascinating topic. I mean it sounds like oneman is interested in studying the culture of anthropologists — this is an unremarkable an unobjectionable project. Although it is an interesting one and he has some competition — George Stocking wouldn’t stop talking about Sol Tax the last time I talked to him 🙂

    The argument that any time you say ‘should’ you are making a moral argument is, I believe incorrect. See my remarks about the difference between murder and three inch nails. Similarly, as I say very explicitly in the paper, there is an articulation between disciplinary logic and personal morality that is interesting, but just because something touches morality does not mean it is itself moral. Two things can be connected without being the same thing. Oneman says I fear the ‘taint’ of morality, but this is putting words in my mouth — I never used the word ‘taint’ and as I (and Weber) note, the relationship of morality to social science is ironic because detachment is fueled by, not anitpathetic to, a passion for and an engagement with life. I agree with him that life — including anthropology — includes moral negotiations. But, to repeat, just because something is connected with something else does not mean that it _is_ something else.

    I think Oneman has trouble with the image of an amoral space because he imagines it to be 1) outside morality and 2) so removed from everyday life as to be useless. I tried in the metaphor of the submarine to fight this association of judiciousness with attachment (I also cited notions of prudence and phronesis hoping people might be able to latch onto these). The key to the metaphor is that the amoral space is not ‘outside’ moral argument, but ‘within’ it, and that it is the process of social life that creates a demand for someone to stand back from debate and give them the straight dope. Think, for instance, of how detached from public discourse ‘objective’ reports that hetersexuality is inherent in human nature — not very. Or what the likely economics effects of closing a military base is, or studies of the efficiency of disaster relief foundations. Again, the choice of topic is given by the values of the researcher, but the more ‘value free’ the research is, the less partisan and the more judicious the result is, the more likely its power to convince.

    Finally a note on good arguments — they are, as Habermas put it, ‘weakly binding’. Appeals to emotion, loyalty to group, and rhetorical force almost always trump good argument. Let’s not kid ourselves — we are talking about arguments that are convincing, but hardly the most commonly or most effectively made.

  13. Patrick says:

    The difference between this “should” and “is” in terms of anthropology’s moral core is that there is a difference between the “moral core of anthropology” if such a thing exists, and the “moral core of a particular subset (in time and place) of actual anthropologists.”

    Fair enough. As I think I’ve said, I’m trying to get at a way of talking about this, not declaring a universal Code of Anthropological Morality — and I do find myself slipping back and forth from the universal to the particular rather more than I’d like.

    Unless you’re going to shield yourself with a wealth of no true scotsman fallacies, sooner or later you’re going to have to face up to the fact that the colonial anthropologists so frequently decried by modern anthropology were still “anthropologists.” Yet, they didn’t share the modern “moral core.”

    Here I must object. Although I agree not all of the elements I tentatively listed before apply equally across time and space (suggesting a need for refinement, not a complete break from one point in time to another), there is a great deal of continuity between colonial anthropology and the present — or else, it wouldn’t matter to bring up the shortcomings of colonial anthropology, would it? What’s troubling about the work of folks like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski and the BIA anthropologists and the WRA anthropologists and Murdock and so on is that, by and large, they espoused pretty much the same values that most modern-day anthropologists do. They saw their work (and I feel it is proper to give them the benefit of the doubt that their representation of their work accurately describes their goals and motivations) as actively working against oppression and generally making life better for the people they studied. Obviously their work didn’t end up achieving these goals, which is why I think it’s necessary to question the values we bring to the table and wonder if — and if so, how — they can be made to serve a master other than colonialism and its post-colonial descendents.

    My research subject is Sol Tax’ Fox Project and the development of action anthropology. Now, Tax held a position very much in line with Rex’s position above, as late as 1945 — scientists produce knowledge, administrators use knowledge. However, in 1948 he reversed his position entirely, endorsing a program of conscious interference in the sociocultural life of the Meskwaki with the goal of improving their living conditions — while at the same time holding to the commitment that such a project could produce valid scientific knowledge. While as of yet I really cannot determine whether any real improvement in Meskwaki conditions came about because of these efforts, the ethnographic data that emerged — produced under conditions of intense politico-moral engagement — does not seem to suffer for it. In fact, much of it is pretty similar to much of the rest of the work at the time — that is, it looks like typical functionalist and culture-and-psych work of its time. This suggests to me one of two things:

    a) Good research can be done regardless of the moral and political positions of the anthropologist in the field — which would in turn suggest that method and theory trump researcher bias, which would be surprising but certainly reassuring for those among us who feel anthropologists should take their subjects’ sides against oppression, domination, etc.

    b) The Fox Project produced work similar to other research projects of the day because it was informed by the same set of values — differing only in making explicit those values and their involvement in the research.

    Now, Rex and others might suggest that while there may well be values involved, they are not *moral* values. Perhaps — perhaps I gain nothing by expanding a definition of morality to encompass things like academic honesty, protection of sources, and the necessity of three-inch nails being three inches long. I’m not sure about this — as I suggested a long time ago, anthropology wouldn’t continue to be practiced unless someone felt that it did something good for society. While in theory someone could produce anthropological data solely for their own amusement, funded from their own pockets (and of course there were such people, and they are precisely the people Patrick derides above — “take what you can grab and put it in a museum, subjugate the natives, and the devil take the hindmost” — and it bears noting the opposition to their work has traditionally been expressed in moral terms), in practice we are quite often engaged in demonstrations of the utility of both our data and our discipline as a whole. Now, this doesn’t mean that anthropologists nor our funders are uniform in their assessment of what the good of anthropology is…

    Maybe this is an uninteresting point — certainly I expected some controversy, but over some of the values I set forth as those informing anthropology, not over the notion that values and practice are imbrecated at all.

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