A reformer’s science?

Anthropologists of our discipline’s long history of engagement with social and political activism of varius forms often invoke anthropology’s status as the “reformer’s science.” The phrase floats around a lot. Not everyone who uses it knows the origin though — the closing chapter of Tylor’s ‘Primitive Culture.’ And even those who know the origin of the phrase often don’t know the original quote that it’s taken from:

To promotors of what is sound and reformers of what if faulty in modern culture, ethnography has double help to give. To impress men’s minds with a doctrine of development, will lead them in all honor to their ancestors to continue the progressive work of past ages, to continue it the more vigorously because light has increased in the world, and where barbaric hordes groped blindly, cultured men can often move onward with clear view. It is a harsher, and at times even painful, office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction. Yet this work, if less genial, is not less urgently needful for the good of mankind. Thus, active at once in aiding progress and in removing hinderance, the science of culture is essentially a reformer’s science.

I think maybe some people who throw around the phrase “reformer’s science” don’t realize just what this phrase meant to Tylor — the elimination of old, outmoded bits of archaic culture in his society and their replacement by shiny new bits of Victorian culture. In fact, as Stocking points out, Tylor saw culture as a mass noun you could have more or less of, not something that came in plural form as distinct orders of meaningfullnes. As far as Tylor was concerned, people from the empire’s periphery weren’t from ‘different cultures’ they were ‘primitive’. I suspect Tylor’s sense of anthropology’s ability to ‘destroy’ cultural difference in the name of a universal civilizing mission is not what most anthropologists who speak of anthropology as a “reformer’s science” has in mind.

The lesson I take away from this is that strong moral certainty is like a large, prominently placed tatoo — it seems like a good idea at the time, but how will you feel about it in hindsight? If you are down for the long haul, then well and good. But maybe someday — perhaps within the course of just one career — this sort of zeal will no longer seem the bold gesture it originally was. This isn’t to say that I’m against moral certaintly or ethical commitment — I just got done with Yom Kippur, after all — but it is to say that a certain sort of “Burkean existentialism”:/2005/07/04/bound-by-recognition/ may be the way to go in many situations. Aided, of course, with a good dose of historical awareness of the history and pedigree of some of the labels you throw about.


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

4 thoughts on “A reformer’s science?

  1. IgNobel: The new inquisition of ultra ortodox scientists

    IgNobel represents a new campaign to discredit unusual scientific achievements, which perhaps in the future will be useful for the advance of science.

    This new scientific inquisition, a parody of the Nobel Prizes, is
    very dangerous. In fact, it is used, in some cases anti-ethically, to attack and ridiculize honest and prestigious scientists who curiously have published
    their scientific articles in peer-review scientific journals!!!

    My question is:
    Should the IgNobel group receive an IgNobel prize?

  2. Eh, I get your point is somewhere else and that the anecodte is a bit rhetorical, but from what I remember of Stocking the point for Tylor was less about ‘civilizing’ the ‘primitives’ (though he did indeed think they were ‘primitives’) and more about eliminating ‘crude old culture’ from the ‘civilized’ people of England. In other words, he wanted to advance Rationalism versus Spiritualism. So, the “reformer’s science” is really more about Victorian society than the colonies, per se. In this sense, “reformer’s science” could arguably be similar to something like Margaret Mead’s famous works… an examination of the ‘Other’ as a critique of your ‘own’ society. This can also be problematic, but I think not necessarily related to a critique of Tylor’s evolutionism…

  3. Actually I guess its more like the inverse of Mead, and in that sense I get your point. I still don’t think it has to do with ‘reforming’/’civilizing’ the ‘Other’/’Primtives’/etc though (here anyways, other places perhaps), but more about using ethnography as mirror to reform ‘our society’. Though, of course, the ‘primitive’/mirror concept was just a construction of Victorian anthropologists, but alas…

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