On Anthropological Explanation

A while ago I blogged — perhaps too obscurely — on “how anthropologists explain things”:https://savageminds.org/2005/09/08/the-conflict-of-interpretations-redux/. At the time I was trying to clarify out loud what I thought was going on when anthropologists talked about Guns, Germs, and Steel. A similar issue has come up with “Steve Levitt’s Freakonomics“:https://savageminds.org/2006/01/05/sticky/ and my comment on it kept growing until I figured posting it as a stand alone entry would help discharge my duty of writing for SM.

Economists and many other people (perhaps most other people) think Levitt holds the position he does because of the force of that position — that is well argued, accurate, true etc. and when they disagree with him they do so by attempting demonstrate his position has less force than he thought. But anthropologists argue that Levitt (who is standing in for everyman here) and his position can be explained by an enormous array cultural factors, many of which he might not even be aware of, which influence how he thinks and feels.

This is not a new idea. Aristotle remarks in his rhetoric that whether something is true has only a small part in whether people believe it or not. It has to appear to be true. In fact, even though something might be true, people might believe that it is true for the wrong reasons. Anthropologists that arbitrary, conventional, enduring systems of meaning inform people’s opinions, and that we can explain human behavior — including Leavitt’s — in terms of them. To be believed, as Ricoeur put it, ideas must have not just a resemblance, but a semblance of truth.

Consider, for example, the intelligent design controversy: in terms of evidence and argumentation there doesn’t seem to be much going for ID advocates. And yet so little of the vast waves of debate in that controversy can be explained merely by reference to the details of natural science — the strong reactions evoked on BOTH sides (especially the scientists!) indicates that there is a sui generis domain of meaning (with a highly affective component) here which cannot be reduced merely to issues of scientific accuracy.

This is why anthropologists groan when we read of yet another study investigating the possibility of Jewish intelligence, black athletic aptitude, and so forth. There are many, many (many) good arguments about why these beliefs are false. But for anthropologists whether they are true or false is beyond the point, because we can explain why people consider them true or false without regards to factors other than their truth or falsity.

Some will consider this either patronizing or a denial of the ‘coevalness’ of the people we study — this charges, for instance, a very live issue in the relationship between indigenous people in the Pacific, where I live and work. On this blog the anthropological tendency to explain people’s behavior with reference to their culture is usually glossed by the privileged white first worlders that we analyze merely as intellectual dishonesty. I am not sure what to say about this except that it is just in the nature of social scientific explanation that sometimes you are right and the ‘native’ simply isn’t very good at self-diagnosis. But Levitt would have to agree with me, since when he tells gun control activists that gun control doesn’t make the country safer and they strongly disagree with him, he is inhabiting the same position of epistemic authority that anthropologists claim for themselves, albeit in another realm of explanation.

To be sure, there are many other ways of doing anthropology out there — in the Pacific, again, we are experimenting with giving up the epistemic authority that we have over Pacific islanders and seeing what happens. But if you think sociocultural explanation is what anthropology does (and I’m sort of on the fence myself), then I think you should also be ready to weather the storm of dissatisfaction from your research subjects.

The other storm that you ought to be able to weather if you take this position is that you need to be able to demonstrate that you know of what you speak. As Micaela di Leonardo points out, although anthropologists always implicitly write for a ‘home’ audience in fact they are themselves merely ‘natives’ to their home country, and do not have the reflexive understanding of it that comes from prolonged study and research specialization. Like probably every other contributor on this blog when I read about Freakonomics, I inwardly groan. But my specialty is Papua New Guinea, not American economists. I have a very strong suspicion that I know why Levitt wrote what he did — but then again so does he! The danger of sociocultural explanation is that when backed by anecdote it threatens to turn into partisanship. Which, again, depending on who you are, you might not think is a bad thing.

There are complex issues here that I’ve set to one side — for instance, whether it is really such an easy thing to distinguish between ‘truth’ and ‘the appearance of truth’ and how to reflexively ground anthropological knowledge in light of what I’ve just said about how rarely people believe things because they are true. These are in fact my favorite topics and maybe I’ll talk about them more in the future.

Frankly I still do not understand where Ozma stands in regards to all these issues. My point is simply that anthropologists sometimes explain other academics’ writing in terms other than those academics’ professed reason for believing what they believe. In doing so they are not being small-minded or cynical — they are, rightly or wrongly, doing what anthropologists do all the time. And that, in itself, is not something that can automatically be dismissed out of hand.


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

36 thoughts on “On Anthropological Explanation

  1. “….how to reflexively ground anthropological knowledge in light of what I’ve just said about how rarely people believe things because they are true….”

    The legitimacy of “….what anthropologists do all the time” –or rather your version of anthropology–depends on the success of this attempt, of course. Perhaps more reflection on the difficulty of such ‘reflexive grounding’ will induce greater modesty in member of your ‘tribe’.

  2. I agree that all of this entry relies on precisely the sort of grounding you mention. But I think if anything anthropologists spend endless amounts of energy worrying about their epistemic authority! The strong program of explanation I’ve outlined here is, if anything, probably seen as scientistic to most sociocultural types (although not, I’ll wager, to archaeologists). And if you have a problem with this, then you probably have a problem with political scientists, economists, demographers, etc. etc. — which of course is not necessarily that uncommon a problem to have!

  3. I sense that in regard to these issues, Rex and I are on the same page. In a chapter on Japan in Ray Scupin’s recently released Peoples and Cultures of Asia, my wife Ruth and I (mostly me in this part) write,

    What is Japan to you?
    • Famous brands: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Sony, Toshiba, Sharp. How many more can you name?
    • Entertainment: Manga, anime, idoru, video games, a setting for science fiction novels or thrillers?
    • Fashion: Issey Miyake, Kenzo, Comme des Garcons. Have you ever worn their clothes?
    • Tradition: Zen, swords, shrines, temples, martial arts, tea ceremony. Does anything else come to mind?
    • Exotic food: sushi, sashimi, sukiyaki, tempura, Cup Noodle. What else?
    • The world’s second largest economy: A market where brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and KFC have been part of the landscape for generations and newcomers like Kinkos, Toys R Us and Starbucks have done very well, indeed. Are there still opportunities there?
    • A nation in search of a role: With a constitution that renounces war and the second largest military in Asia, what role should Japan play in global politics?

    If you feel confused, you aren’t alone. As consumers and scholars, business people and diplomats, individuals who deal with Japan see Japan (in Japanese: Nihon or Nippon) in different ways. Japan is always changing, and so are the perspectives of the authors who write about Japan, including the anthropologists.
    Doing Fieldwork in Japan.. . brings together chapters by twenty-one scholars. The topics on which they did their research are as varied as the individuals who chose them. In the order in which they appear, they include Japanese teenagers who hang out in Harajuku, Tokyo’s teen fashion Mecca; radical student movements; a rural community in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands; a new religion reinterpreting Buddhist belief and practice to meet the needs of modern believers; an ancient but still thriving pilgrimage on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands (think Chaucer in a tour bus); a bioscience institute located in Osaka, the commercial heart of Kansai, the southwest of Japan; the impact of JETs, participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, on English-language education; the prosecutors office in Kobe, which along with Osaka and Kyoto is one of the three major cities in Kansai; security policy making by the Japanese Defense Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs; NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster; a quantitative study of women in the labor market and why men’s wages are so much higher than women’s; the impact of mine closure on a coal-mining community in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands; Japanese bureaucrats responsible for addressing the problems of the elderly, a rapidly growing segment of the Japanese population; Japanese foreign aid (Japan being one of the world’s largest donors); modern Japanese social history, with a focus on the Japanese labor movement; enka, an old-fashioned but still popular music genre, whose role in Japanese popular culture resembles that of Country and Western in the USA; two corporations, a lingerie manufacturer and a foreign multinational in the financial services industry; the creation of tradition in a changing Tokyo neighborhood and Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market; the betwixt-and-between lives of reverse immigrants, Japanese-Brazilian workers in Japan; and another study of a rural community that led to a long and distinguished career, leading to an award from Japan’s Emperor.
    This list is long, but it still contains only a sample of what it might contain. Where are the studies of bar hostesses and geisha, kindergartens, bikers and bankers, blue-collar workers, the homeless, the aging, the comics, the artists, the shamans, the celebrities who make up the geinôkai (the world of the tarento, “talents,” performers and personalities who appear on TV, in movies, in ads), the potters, the fishermen, the cops, the gangsters, the juvenile delinquents, the baseball players, the sumo wrestlers, the account executives and art directors who work for advertising agencies, the women who get out the vote for local politicians, the mothers, the office ladies, the young women who travel overseas in search of handbags, love, new careers and new selves? The list gets longer every day.
    Note, too: When we study Japan, we do not have the luxury of studying the lives of people who inhabit an isolated corner of the globe and, so far as the rest of the world is concerned, have nothing to say about how we describe their behavior. We study the lives of people who are often as highly educated and may be more wealthy and powerful than the anthropologists who struggle to understand how they think, feel, and behave. No place on earth illustrates more vividly the anthropological predicament that Marcus and Fischer describe so well: “We step into a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves.”

    What we are trying to shatter is the assumption that the anthropologist is a privileged, God’s-eye observer, whose analysis enables her to speak for a group of which she is not a member.

    Does this mean that the anthropologist now has nothing to say? Not at all. The intimacy and duration of traditional fieldwork are an opportunity to do better than average exploratory research. If the anthropologist is good at what she does, she may even develop insights of which both natives and others—both caught up in their daily routines and lacking the privilege of a year or two to stand around and ask whatever questions come to mind—were unaware until she discovered them. But, as Clifford Geertz writes in Islam Observed, insights discovered in fieldwork microcosms cannot be validated there. Their value, if any, will be demonstrated when they are taken up, tested and further developed by scholars in other fields. And, as Marcus and Fischer point out, these scholars may include natives who also happen to be highly qualified in their fields. To converse with them is sensible. To try to speak for them is ludicrous.

  4. “On this blog the anthropological tendency to explain people’s behavior with reference to their culture is usually glossed by the privileged white first worlders that we analyze merely as intellectual dishonesty.”

    First: But, when an anthropologist critiques a science in terms of cultural explanations, without adequately (or even at all) addressing the alternative hypothesis that the belief is seen to be true because the evidence for it is compelling, isn’t intellectual dishonestly an accurate critique?

    Second: If an anthropologist decides that he’s not going to address the accuracy of a belief, but rather the reasons for why it is believed, and concludes that the belief is held by the believers in question for political reasons, and a critic responds that the anthropologist holds *that* belief because he’s a member of a certain (very bad) portion of the political spectrum, isn’t the critic, you know…

    doing anthropology?

    Person A: You belief X because you hold sublimated racial resentment against people of blah blah blah reflexivity blah blah Boas blah blah blahety blah you are an ignorant conservative so who cares whether X is true the point is you are a very bad man, which also justifies me not believing X.

    Person B: No, YOU believe Y because you are a member of the loony academic nutballs of america blah blah blah Horowitz blah blah blah I’m putting you on my Discover the Network O’ Evil site next to Hermann Goering so who cares whether Y is true the point is you are a very bad man, which also justifies me not believing Y.

    These look like very similar people to me.

  5. Rex:

    “….if you have a problem with this….”

    Well, no, this problem is all yours; your ‘tribe’ owns this problem.

    “….anthropologists spend endless amounts of energy worrying about their epistemic authority.”

    Yes, a great deal of time is spent on this problem. But, just as in class, there are no ‘A’s’ for mere effort. What counts is the extent of progress on this problem–and all that cogitation has yielded precious little, I fear. Which is to say, the failure to construct ‘reflexive’ accounts calls into the question the coherence of your enterprise.

    “….you probably have a problem with political scientists, economists, demographers….”

    Well, again, no. You conflate the distinction between necessity and sufficiency. The epistemic authority of these disciplines–or, for that matter, anthropology–does not necessarily require the sort of account you’re peddling. Such an account is sufficient, certainly, to underwrite the epistemic authority of these disciplines; sufficient, but not necessary.


  6. Patrick has raised an important issue here. How, after all, do we tell the difference between substantiated analysis and mere expression of opinion, where the latter may be defamatory?

    My own thinking on this issue is largely framed by some observations by Noam Chomsky, the model provided by Victor Turner, and, most recently, by Soft Systems Methodology as described in the works of Gerald Weinberg, Peter Senghe, and Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes. In this comment, I focus on Chomsky.

    In Syntactic Structures Chomasky discusses three models for scientific method. In the first, scientific method is described as a Discovery procedure; the input is data and the output is Truth. (This is the impression I was given in my elementary school science classes.) In the second, scientific method is described as a Decision procedure; there are two inputs, data and a theory, and the output is a decision, the theory is Right or Wrong. (This is, the anthropologist observes, the implicit model of much debate on the Internet or in the mass media.) In the third, more historically realistic approach, the scientific method is described as an Evaluation procedure: there are at least three inputs, the data and at least two theories. The output is a judgment that, given these data, one theory is superior to the other. (This, says Chomsky, is the way in which science actually works. The commonest example is statistical inference in which the hypothesis being tested is compared to the null hypothesis that the data are random.)

    Consider, for instance, our discussion of the Levitt abortion-reduces-crime thesis in Freakonomics. I doubt that any of us believe that Levitt has used methods that take a bod of data and automatically produce the Truth. Some of us appear to believe that they can make a Right or Wrong Decision based on the motives they ascribe to the author, arguing in the style that Patrick so deftly caricatures. What, then, of those who suggest that there may be other, better theories?

    That this is a possible claim is a given in the Evaluation model; better theories may exist, new data may change our judgments. The difficulty is that without clear specification of what the alternative theories are there is no way to determine whether they are, in fact, superior to Levitt’s hypothesis, given the data in hand.

  7. Re: “On this blog the anthropological tendency to explain people’s behavior with reference to their culture is usually glossed by the privileged white first worlders that we analyze merely as intellectual dishonesty. I am not sure what to say about this except that it is just in the nature of social scientific explanation that sometimes you are right and the ‘native’ simply isn’t very good at self-diagnosis…”

    I would say that it is intellectual dishonesty. I on this weblog I see little or no attempt to explain people’s ideas and behavior with reference to their culture. I see, instead, declarations of the form: STEVE LEVITT RACIST!! JARED DIAMOND RACIST!! EMILY OSTER RACIST!!

    For attempts to account for economists’ ideas and behavior with reference to their culture and institutions, and other factors, you might take a look at two papers by Marion Fourcade-Gourinchas:

    “The Rebirth of the Liberal Creed: Paths to Neoliberalism in Four Countries.” American Journal of Sociology. 2002. Vol. 107(9). (November). (with Sarah Babb) http://sociology.berkeley.edu/faculty/FOURCADE-GOURINCHAS/fourcade_pdf/AJS_Final.pdf

    “Politics, Institutional Structures and the Rise of Economics: A Comparative Study.” Theory and Society. 2001. Vol. 30 (3) (June). (2002 Best Article Award, Section on the Sociology of Culture of the American Sociological Association.) http://sociology.berkeley.edu/faculty/FOURCADE-GOURINCHAS/fourcade_pdf/T&SFinal.pdf

    Not that I think that everything Marion has to say is correct. But what she has to say is smart, thoughtful, serious–and intellectually honest.

  8. I think there’s something to this point, but you paint anthropology a bit broadly in one respect and in another respect you attribute to anthropology as a discipline something which is more widely distributed across contemporary social science epistemology.

    On the latter point, what you’re really describing is just a particular case of logocentrism, and all social science has a logocentric character to it, that is, a tendency to assert that very few social or cultural phenomena are what they appear to be or are commonly taken to be, that the “truth” of the phenomena lies below the surface and is visible only with specialized tools of inquiry. That’s the argumentative structure of Freakonomics as much as anthropology. You could be quite bland about the reason for this, that it is mere self-interest (e.g., if the social world is in fact self-evident, who needs academics?) or deep (that this logocentrism is the key to the generativity and ‘truth’ of modern knowledge-production, or that it is the characteristic epistemological technology of Western domination, or any number of other variations.)

    You paint anthropology too broadly in the sense that you shove off to the side those branches of anthropological writing who approach the question of “what causes this visible behavior or phenomena” largely as social scientists in other disciplines might, not as a generic epistemological crisis that undercuts the truth-value of all of what is said or practiced in a society, but as something to be investigated anew in each particular case, around which concrete evidence has to be mobilized in advance of an interpretation. You’re right that there are anthropologists who would make a general assumption that any given statement, text, practice, or ritual is a mere surface for a deeper reality; there are many who would not.

    These are relative quibbles. The real issue is something of what Patrick raises: that an indiscriminate assumption that what is said in any given social setting is empty of truth-value, that the truth of a statement, text, representation, practice, what have you, is always and invariably hidden from sight and sometimes even veiled to the speaker or actor, becomes as much of an epistemological (and ethnocentric) problem as any epistemological condition it sets itself against. It raises all sorts of questions: what is it that permits the anthropologist to see the underneath of things, to see past the visible? Methodology? Superior personal insight? Alien or outsider status? It implies that any discipline or knowledge-practice that concerns itself with interpreting the actual communicative content of expressive culture is profoundly wrong-headed; this is a back-door kind of functionalism, that assumes that all texts, practices, discourses are only the visible tip of deeper social structures and instrumentalities, and useful only as a signpost to those depths. (e.g., that the visible text is a mere indicator of sociocultural alignment, and its hermeneutics useful only as a sign of that alignment).

    This is also a perspective that in actual practice anthropology condtionally exempts itself from, even after the “reflexive turn”, in that taken seriously, this view of knowledge-production should lead to a grinding halt to all attempts to proclaim the positive production of actual knowledge with truth-value. The only question in this view that one should have of an academic text, even (or especiailly) an academic one, is, “What does this tell me about this author in sociocultural terms? What struggles within the author’s own society, what institutions, are being buttressed or supported with this text?” In practice, that is not what anthropologists do to each other professionally, save with a certain amount of fretting about methodological reflexivity. If this is the justification of Ozma’s critique of Levitt, I think you’d have to acknowledge that the kind of critique Ozma offers of Levitt she would only offer of texts she opposes. In the case of a “good” work of anthropology, would she rise to say, “The reason this work of anthropology is good is that the author is part of righteous struggles for justice within the author’s own society, and because of the author’s existing social identity?” If the explanation you offer is something anthropology only does to exotic Others (whether non-Westerners or economists) then it’s not a serious epistemology, it’s just garden-variety academic one-upmanship, assigning the right to make a critique to oneself that one also exempts oneself from, or offering a “deep” and generalized explanation for a singular case of problematic intellectual practice.

  9. I feel unenlightened. The explanation I prefer for your complaints is not that they’re apt or true on their face but that you’re resentful of the success of Freakonomics.

  10. Instead of a critique of my critique of Freakonomics, what I would like to hear — but have not heard, except from the inimitable Dr. DeLong, is a defense of the book. Up to the moment what I have seen is a meta-critique of my critique of a book that strikes me as indefensible, but –otherwise — very cautious (and extremely verbose) refusals to take a proper stand. I’m looking at you, Rex and Tim. Either the book is a defensible production or it is not. Ozma’s stance: not.

  11. I’m a little uncomfortable with the way anthropology is being positioned here, as if training doesn’t “count” somehow. By the time anthropologists begin to do serious research, they’ve spent a half-dozen or more years reading not just postmodern theory and Marx but ethnographies set in dozens of different societies. This training is not just to learn style! Comparison — even the often tacit comparison between one’s subjects and one’s self — is and has always been a central practice of anthropological description. The anthropologist’s training is supposed to stock her or him with a range of cultural knowledge with which s/he brings to bear on the particular field or research situation.

    But anthropologists are being described here as if they (we) were just folks sitting on the stoop blowing the breeze about “tha govermint”, “tha ‘conmy”, “culcha”. Rex may not feel super-confident about it, but his education — if it was anything like mine, ans I suspect it was — included significant training to identify and understand economic and biological determinist works like what I understand Levitt’s to be. What I’m getting from a lot of this discussion, though, is that when it comes to work outside of our narrow specializations — New Guinea for Rex, American Indians for myself, India for Kerim, Japan for John McCreery — the best we have to offer is opinions, and self-serving opinions to boot.

    Now, I’m not saying that anthropologists are always right and that economists are always wrong. But I think there is something to be said for the wider focus of anthropological inquiry, which can often contextualize and extend the narrow focus of work like Levitt’s. That Levitt’s arguments share many features with arguments dating to the 19th century is, I think, significant — and clearly Levitt doesn’t see them (or else he’s acting in very bad faith indeed when he calls his work “freakish” in relation to what’s come before). That Levitt’s students are “of a sort” is also, I think, significant, and well within the scope of anthropological understanding — and the argument that “oh, a couple of his students just happened to do work like his” a little disingenuous.

    Burke’s argument is well-taken, but I think entirely off the mark. It’s not that public meanings are never right, but that they’re rarely the whole story. A public statement may well have “truth-value” *and* an anthropologist may well find all sorts of different and even contradictory “truths” behind it. Again, while anthros don’t hold a monopoly on the ability to contextualize and interpret what Burke calls “surface” behavior, we don’t go at this interpretive work entirely unprepared. You may disagree with the way a particular interpretation is constructed, which is fine — the anthropological emphasis on “thick” description is, in one sense, an implicit recognition of the possibility of different interpretations — but I don’t see how that invalidates the exercise of interpretation altogether. Again, anthropology has, among the social sciences, particularly close ties to the humanities — it’s not as if we’re pulling stuff out of our… hats.

  12. I agree that you’re not pulling stuff out of your hats: that would sink my work as well as yours were it so. I’m just suggesting that Rex’s apologia on behalf of anthropology as a whole basically allows anthropologists to legitimately avoid having to engage any communication or text in terms of its content, in terms that the text itself offers. If you want to insist that anthropology as a discipline doesn’t do that casually or from fixed positions, then you’d have to judge Ozma’s critique of Levitt a not particularly good example of anthropological thinking about what lies in the underneath of a text, given that she makes extremely strong assertions about what lies underneath based more or less on a will-to-interpretation. I also think that if you want to insist anthropology doesn’t do this casually, you have to not to it indiscriminately: in other words, you have to treat analytic, argumentative, scholarly (or other) texts with respect in terms of what they actually say and claim and demonstrate, and not simply “read past” their communicative content. Anybody who has done ethnography knows that sometimes some text or practice that a researcher takes to be something other than what it presents itself as turns out to be just what it seems to be, whether what it seems to be is relatively banal and simplistic or what it seems to be is complex and subtle.

    Ozma, my summary would be that I think there’s a good deal in Freakonomics that’s of interest. Your standard of indefensibility would make a vast array of writing indefensible and undiscussable in terms of potential value. It’s hard for me to not offer that response as being partly about the way you open or frame the discussion, because it almost doesn’t seem worth it to really get into the substance of the book with you: you’ve set up a conversation with extremely fixed axiomatic premises at the outset, where for example, data about birth name choices, which exist and are pretty rigorously kept and have a relatively deep history and which have what look to me like real patterns, aren’t worth discussing as such, that the only thing that catches your eye is what you regard as Levitt’s indefensible tone. That’s the odd paradox here: you seem unhappy that the major response to you is either a metacritique or an indictment of your tone, but much of your complaint with Levitt is about how he says what he says, about the topics that interest him, and your presumption of motives behind that. If I respond by saying, “Well, the subjects he’s interested in are interesting, the data is interesting, and the ‘incentive theory’ of human agency, though painfully reductive, can be ‘good to think'”, I don’t think the resulting discussion is going to be about that response. If I say, “I think the data collected by the bagel businessmen about his clients is very interesting, and Levitt has interesting ideas about it,” I’m up against your indictment of Levitt as a racist sleazebag. And so on. You’ve constructed in your reply to Levitt a “circle of we”, engaged in a particular conversation and in praxis about race and gender (and implied that this circle of we consists of most people in North America); it puts the onus on anyone who might reply to either come inside the circle as you’ve drawn it or to stand outside it. If I don’t accept anything about the way you’ve drawn the conversation at the outset, it’s hard to know how to start a substantive reply: the major reply is necessarily a meta one from the beginning.

  13. Well a lot has gone on in these comments. First: strong explanation. Several people picked up on the fact that a strong program in anthropology as an explanatory science shares certain assumptions with other social sciences, and is thus vulnerable to all of the criticisms that can be made against them. Thus John preemptively attempts to defend this conception from charges of hubris by advocating a ‘humble program of explanation’ and not surprisingly, I agree with him on this. Kumar points to the lack of reflexive grounding for a strong explanation which I also noted when I closed the post. I’m not sure one couldn’t be provided, but it is certainly true that I didn’t do it in this blog entry.

    Second, there were issues of scope. Tim and Kumar point out that there are lots of different kinds of anthropology out there, not all of which favor strong. I’ve already agreed with this in a previous comment, where I’ve noted that in fact most sociocultural anthropologists probably wouldn’t accept a strong explanation approach. Trying to read between the lines I am guessing that Tim, the historian, recognizes the value of an ‘idiographic’ approach rather than the ‘nomothetic’ approach that I’ve described here — that is to say, one that recognizes the value of an explaining in detail the particularity of things rather than seeing them as instances of general law-bound processes. This is the argument of history and science and not about to be settled anytime soon, although there are people (the Annales school, and Tim himself, I suspect) who attempt to bridge these approaches.

    People like Brad and MT just prefer to have low opinions of anthropologists… or perhaps the staff of Savage minds?… or perhaps just some of us…? It’s hard to tell.

    Third: “the danger of sociocultural explanation is that when backed by anecdote it threatens to turn into partisanship” — this is the thing that people have fastened on to in comments. Brad, Patrick, and Tim all seem to be saying “We don’t have a problem in principle with explaining other people’s behavior (modulo the issues raised above) but that is not what we have seen on this blog — what we’ve seen is just garden-variety academic one-upmanship.” Oneman reacts to this, arguing that anthropologists are highly trained and that the discipline is not without value. I agree with him, but the counterargument that will probably be made is “We agree, but alas, people with Ph.D.s are not immune to stupidity — we don’t have a problem _in principle_ with explanation, but what we’ve seen is garden-variety academic one-upmanship…” My point was that there is something worthwhile about a strong explanation approach, and anthropology more generally, and that we shouldn’t overlook that regardless of what you think of me or any of the other Minds.

    Finally, Ozma explicitly asks me to defend Levitt’s book. I can’t do so because 1) I haven’t read it 2) when I heard about it I had more or less that same feeling that she did, except with like one million times less emotional intensity. So I’m not in a position to defend a book I haven’t read and, from what I can tell, I probably wouldn’t think highly of if I did.

    However, Ozma’s request that I (as I might describe it) play the ‘rational argumentation’ language game is telling. When all of this began I indicated that we liked playing this game. Her own posts were a mix of this and some less fun ad hominem type of stuff, and I — like many others — urged her to stick with the argumentation. The response was confusing (my requests for clarification have not been met), but he fact that she wants me to defend the book indicates that arguments and good reasons keep on sneaking in there even if you’ve decided that they’re not approriate for dealing with Levitt’s kind (as she may have, again I’m not clear). If she thinks they’re _not_ then… I’m not sure what I am supposed to be defending Levitt _from_.

  14. MT just prefer to have low opinions of anthropologists… or perhaps the staff of Savage minds?

    I don’t think I was unclear.

  15. Tim: I certainly don’t think Levitt’s work is “undiscussable”. I think it needs to be discussed, and that that discussion needs to be contextualized within North American social and political history (which is not the same thing as saying race and gender is interesting only to North Americans — the Levitt intervention is, however, an intervention into a particularly North American and specifically U.S. way of thinking about racism and feminism). In that context, I think its avowals of disinterestedness are unconvincing — and that it is perfectly legitimate to challenge the book even without personally investigated the abortion-crime data, or invented a competing account for what it purports to explain.

    Your objections about tone (and this goes for Rex as well), and my drawing of an exclusionary “we” circle, sound — not coincidentally — very much like the objections so often heard within the United States about anti-racist and feminist discourse in general. That is: “if only it weren’t so strident, if only its tone was less angry, if only it were a little more inclusive, but sadly, because of those factors — NOT, heavens no, because of the content of what it is being said — it’ll never be persuasive”. (if you recall, we’ve had this discussion before, on your blog).

    So, again, I don’t think Freakonomics is defensible (and here I am obviously not talking about stuff like the bagel sales and sumo wrestler examples, which are unobjectionable but not the headline themes of the book). Discussable, yes; defensible, good god.

    The question, for me, is whether I made a mistake in thinking SM was the right forum for that discussion. There are a lot of political blogs out there, and I think it’s a good thing that ours is more discipline-focused than politics-focused. But there is a bleeding-edge problem, between the life of the mind and life in the world, that periodically crops up. Some themes provoke it more than others. I cannot react to Freakonomics as an anthropologist and nothing but an anthropologist (my criticisms of it on that score would have to do with what I think is impoverished about a rigid “incentives” model of human behavior and social action). My read of Freakonomics is not – and cannot be – that of a dispassionate, disembodied observer occupying an abstract vantage point (though I do think that position — however “invented” — can be vital to scholarship) *but also*, and in this instance primarily, as a partisan participant in the life of my own culture/society/political milieu. This is, in my view, the most appropriate approach given that the book positions itself as an intervention into that arena.

    However, perhaps SM is not the place for that. I will say I continue to be surprised at the strength of the negative reaction to my reaction – which I do not believe is motivated by objections to the form of my criticism, but instead by objections to its substantive content. It’s been illuminating, if deeply disappointing.

    a final thought: it’s a little weird to be discussed in the third person in context of a conversation of which I am (putatively) a part. I wonder what *that’s* all about, but will refrain from speculation.

  16. Re: “That Levitt’s arguments share many features with arguments dating to the 19th century is, I think, significant…”

    I want to call an intellectual foul here. Levitt’s stuff on abortion and crime supports the argument: “A better society is one in which women control their own fertility and have their children when they think they can raise them well.” That does not “share many features” with the argument dating to the nineteenth century that: “A better society is one in which the genetically unfit are sterilized before they can reproduce.”

  17. AS I understand Sanger’s eugenicism — which was, I believe, only a small part of her overall work — the poor should be given access to contraceptives to prevent them from overbreeding. This would relieve a big burden on the poor themselves, at a time when death in childbirth and infant mortality rates were high, but would also remove the defects or lacks that make people poor from the gene pool. Sanger argued exactly what Levitt argues, that women should be able to control their fertility to prevent burdening society with more poor people. The argument for sterilization was an extension of that argument (one that I doubt Levitt will argue for…).

  18. Re this latest round, I have to give a point to Brad. Nothing I can recall from Freakonomics makes any genetic or racial claims at all. Brad is correct to call foul and point out that the thrust of the argument is that, ““A better society is one in which women control their own fertility and have their children when they think they can raise them well.” This is perfectly consistent, moreover, with economists’ free market bias in favor of people making their own individual decisions.

  19. “However, perhaps SM is not the place for that. I will say I continue to be surprised at the strength of the negative reaction to my reaction – which I do not believe is motivated by objections to the form of my criticism, but instead by objections to its substantive content. It’s been illuminating, if deeply disappointing.”

    Nice. Real nice.

  20. “What substantive content?”!?!

    I can see that the conversation became abstract and untethered from the original point, but Ozma’s critics contributed to this as much as she did.

    Ozma original point, her content, was quite clear. Levitt claimed to prove something he did not. He claimed that legal abortion reduces crime rates, and that he had the proof. Ozma saw this as unproven, though certainly discussable as a concept. Levitt’s claim of truth for the concept is “garbage” in the sense that it ain’t necessarily so, but he doesn’t seem to care.

    And it’s a problem that he doesn’t seem to care that he’s claiming truth for a concept that powerful political conservatives like Bennett now find useful to support their arguments about race.

    I see that the conversation moved on into abstraction about epistomology and reflexivity, but if we are discussing what Ozma said about Levitt, there is plenty of substantive content to consider. Pretending that there isn’t is an easy way to avoid the debate on the table.

  21. John Fulton writes: “Ozma[‘s] original point, her content, was quite clear. Levitt claimed to prove something he did not. He claimed that legal abortion reduces crime rates, and that he had the proof…. Levitt’s claim of truth for the concept is ‘garbage’ in the sense that it ain’t necessarily so, but he doesn’t seem to care.”

    Steve Levitt writes: “Donohue and Levitt (2001) report a number of pieces of evidence consistent with a causal link between legalized abortion and crime, a hypothesis that to my knowledge was Ž rst articulated in Bouza (1990). The Ž ve states that allowed abortion in 1970 (three years before Roe v. Wade) experienced declines in crime rates earlier than the rest of the nation. States with high and low abortion rates in the 1970s experienced similar crime trends for decades until the Ž first cohorts exposed to legalized abortion reached the high-crime ages around 1990. At that point, the high-abortion states saw dramatic declines in crime relative to the low-abortion states over the next decade. The magnitude of the differences in the crime decline between high- and low-abortion states was over 25 percent for homicide, violent crime and property crime. For instance, homicide fell 25.9 percent in high-abortion states between 1985 and 1997 compared to an increase of 4.1 percent in low-abortion states. Panel data estimates conŽ rm the strong negative relationship between lagged abortion and crime. An analysis of arrest rates by age reveal that only arrests of those born after abortion legalization are affected by the law change. A number of other studies confirm a link between abortion and crime.9 Reyes (2002) reports somewhat smaller, but still substantial estimates of abortion on crime using U.S. data. Sen (2002) Žfinds a link between abortion and crime in Canadian data that mirrors the U.S. experience. Pop-Eleches (2002) documents the effects of an unexpected abortion ban imposed in Romania in 1966. Extrapolating the conservative estimates of Donohue and Levitt (2001) to cover the period 1991–2000, legalized abortion is associated with a 10 percent reduction in homicide, violent crime and property crime rates, which would account for 25–30 percent of the observed crime decline in the 1990s.”

    John Fulton goes on to write that Levitt’s *real* sin is that: “[Steve Levitt] doesn’t seem to care that he’s claiming truth for a concept that powerful political conservatives like Bennett now find useful to support their arguments about race.”

    I think that speaks for itself.

  22. Levitt’s sins are between him and his diety. But had I tried to enumerate them, my comment would have been a different and longer one.

    My point, which didn’t seem to interest you, is that Ozma provided substantive content in her original posts and her comments. Claiming she has none is a failure to engage, as well as insulting to her.

    I’m cheered to see that Levitt included one long paragraph of citations supporting his beliefs. It shows he’s making an effort and that we should feel free to engage him as a fellow writer. Yet it still fails to prove that other explanations for crime rates are always secondary to the primary one of abortion rates. Humans have a long history before medical abortion techniques were invented, and if crime rates never varied in that time, I’ll eat my hat.

  23. Ummm… Can you read?

    Steve Levitt writes: “legalized abortion is associated with a 10 percent reduction in homicide, violent crime and property crime rates, which would account for 25–30 percent of the observed crime decline in the 1990s.”

    John Fulton writes: “Levitt… fails to prove [his claim] that other explanations for crime rates are always secondary to the primary one of abortion rates. Humans have a long history before medical abortion techniques were invented, and if crime rates never varied in that time, I’ll eat my hat.”

  24. Insult people much, Brad?

    “is associated,” coincidence is not causation smart guy.

    Just because Levitt makes an argument for his beliefs doesn’t make them true.

  25. John:

    Your reading of Levitt is incorrect. The chapter in question does not make an argument that abortion rates are a single-cause or overwhelming primary explanation for falling crime rates. I’d agree that Levitt’s economism is not where my personal preferences lie for explanations of complex social phenomena, but your characterization (and Ozma’s) of what he actually says is exaggerated or misleading. The chapter in question reviews a range of explanations for falling crime rates, argues that there is no quantitative data to support some which are commonly (in popular or expert discourse) given credit, but also agrees that a number of common explanations are sound and supported by data, to which he adds the factor of abortion rates.

    Where Levitt is strong, in my view, is when he stacks up his explanations against explanations that operate within similar paradigms using similar evidence, whether those explanations are a kind of common-sense among wider publics or are competiting explanations offered by other economists and political scientists. If you accept the evidentiary, methodological and intellectual premises of such disciplines even to some extent, then Levitt’s challenges to conventional wisdom are often very strong. If you don’t accept some of those premises, then Levitt is no more persuasive than many other scholars. This is why the conversation (I think properly) goes to abstractions and metadisciplinary principles, but why I think Ozma and even Rex can’t take the positions they’re taking without being inclusive in ways that they might not intend or desire. For one, you can’t undercut him on deep methodological grounds if you like what he has to say about the bagel salesman but not what he has to say about abortion.

    In the evidentiary domains that Levitt is operating, I don’t think Ozma’s original post actually had a great deal to offer as a substantive rebuttal to his work on abortion and crime: she mostly insisted on the deep foundational illegitimacy of his argument on crime rates and imputed deep instrumental motives for that argument. I think if you want to claim substantive rebuttal here, you’ve got to be able to wield the same disciplinary apparatus and methodological tools or explain why you regard work arguing against Levitt within those traditions as being persuasive. It’s not enough to just say, “There’s a study that disagrees with the study that I disagree with”. That’s the game of dueling expertise that already disfigures public-sphere debates about technocratic, economic and similar policy problems. One group of partisans gets their expert, the other group gets a different expert, and then the most you can do beyond that is a kind of bean-counting, where whomever has the seeming consensus wins the day.

    I don’t mean to say that a non-expert can say nothing substantive: quite the contrary. I think it’s possible to roll up your sleeves and read through scientific work on global warming and make some generalist evaluations of the claims being made. I’m not a psychologist, but at a certain point in past research, I hit a comfort level with saying where many canonical psychological studies of the effects of television on children were flawed even in their own terms, let alone within the methodological paradigms I myself tend to call on. I think you can get to this point pretty quickly with a great deal of weakly formulated evolutionary psychology (which is most evolutionary psychology).

    I think that’s what a substantive reply to Levitt that claims to refute his claims in the terms they’re offered has to look like,and that such a reply has to come without assumptions of the instrumentalities or motivations behind Levitt’s claims. That comes later, and only if you can (or others can) demonstrate the overwhelming and transparent spuriousness of the arguments being made. Rex in this post seems to be saying the opposite: that the claim about underlying instrumentalities or purposes can be made preemptively, in advance of trying to understand the discourse in its own terms.

    That’s an abstract way to formulate the discussion. The simple version: don’t caricature what the guy actually says. Even what he actually says is highly debatable both on its specifics and on its methodological generalities, but it pays to turn the invective dial down a notch or four.

  26. “One group of partisans gets their expert, the other group gets a different expert, and then the most you can do beyond that is a kind of bean-counting, where whomever has the seeming consensus wins the day.”

    in other words, how social scientific knowledge advances.

    Tim — you real point seems to be repeated iterations about how you want the “invective” turned down. This is a way, as I have said again and again, of refusing to take a proper stance and of phrasing substantive objections that you might wish to disavow (or about which you are fundamentally conflicted) in the form of objections about style.

  27. How much more substantive can I get? You ignore most of the content of Freakonomics, offer a thin substantive reply on the issue which most concerns you, and simplify Levitt’s already (to my tastes) simplified argument. On the question of whether abortion rates have the effect on crime rates that Levitt claims, I’m unpersuaded by his argument in terms of his general methodological perspective and in the specifics of his claims. That’s all. What you then go on to conclude about the book, its author, its readers from being equally unpersuaded is what I object to. That I am dubious about Levitt’s claim on this issue is all that I am. I disagree with him. I don’t see that disagreement as a reason to call him a sleazebag and assume that everyone reading the book is a no-goodnik. That’s why I focus on this. If you’d posted an entry where you said, “Substantively, this guy is wrong on this point, and here’s why”, there wouldn’t be any disagreement. That is not what you posted.

    Even with a book as awful and instrumental as The Bell Curve, most of its critics took the time first to demolish its substantive arguments and evidencein the terms those arguments were offered, and second, to not just criticize the motives of its authors merely from the content of the book, but by actually going out and examining their institutional, sociological, and political projects, their network of collegial relations, and the allied discourses that preceded and followed on the book. If you’ve got anything like that to say about Levitt, I’m certainly prepared to be convinced that as a mere reader of the book, there’s something I didn’t know about him. If all you’ve got is garden-variety inferential claims about discourse, that because you perceive an alignment between his book and many other things you object to, said alignment exists, then I am unpersuaded by your substantive claims, as I am by most such attempts to name discourses associationally, without any of the details of intertextuality that make such namings persuasive ethnographically and otherwise.

  28. Tim: Thanks for the thoughtful and lengthy reply. My point again was simply to argue that Ozma had said something of substance, and that claiming otherwise wasn’t very helpful.

    I’m actually not stepping into the ring here to oppose Levitt. I simply found what she had to say as interesting and coherent as what Delong and others had to say. My comment was meta-blogging, rather than an argument against Levitt. I actually did no reading of Levitt in this case, my reading was of Delong and of the rest of the thread.

    Perhaps Levitt’s argument is supported by evidence that more easily convinces those that share a similar paradigm. It isn’t really for me to say. As someone who puts a lot of stock in the evidence derived from fieldwork and participant-observation, I see Levitt’s claims about crime and abortion rates as intriguing, but in no way conclusive. Statistics on social behavior are easy to compile, and are a good starting point for social and cultural research, but leaving them as the final conclusion without looking at actual people seems premature to me.

    I respect demographics, and think they can reveal truth, but we are dealing with an area (discussions of race, crime and reproductive rights) too freighted with our social assumptions to be simply clarified by any set of numbers.

    Your ideal refutation of Levitt, if I understand you, is one that deals with him on his own disciplinary territory. That’s surely correct, but he has written a popular text meant for a wide audience, and so he has to encounter any number of responses from non-economists. It’s easy to say that other paradigms than his own are predisposed to have a problem with his methodology, but I don’t see methodology as the main problem here. He’s making statements about issues (race, crime and abortion) that have all sorts of baggage attached whomever tries to analyze them. The issues come prepackaged with instrumentalities and motivations, so of course Levitt samples from those in discussing them. Any honest discussion is honor bound to take on the possible motivations these issues bring with them.

    As for Ozma being substantive: this is a blog after all, and I feel her post and comments met the local standards of discussion, whether they ideally refute Levitt or not.

  29. John Fulton — I *love* that line about “ideal refutation”, and plan to steal it for future use.

    This actually circles back to what I’ve been saying again and again again to you, Tim: you say, over and over, that you don’t like the *form* of my argument while (implausibly, in my view) insisting you are agnostic as to its content. Brad DeLong has the considerable virtue of being much less coy about his own position — or, to put it in a fashion more apropos to *his* mode of argumentation, of admitting that he wants to bite when you poke him.

  30. Read my blog, Ozma. The form and practice of argument in the public sphere and in academic life is a long, persistent concern of mine. This does not make me unusual in the context of academia: that’s one of the major defining features of academic writing, both in the public sphere and in our own disciplines: a concern for how we say things as much as what we say. I’ve also been clear about what I think about Levitt: some things of value, some problems. If I had more to say, I would say it. I’m not understanding why that makes you assume I am hiding some secret opinion.

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