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.