Here’s a question I think about a lot: Is knowledge cumulative?
It strikes me as an important question for how we think about the work that we do. Are we simply making utterances in an ongoing dialog, utterances whose echo will quickly fade, or are we adding to a general storehouse of knowledge which benefits from every additional sand of grain? I think how we answer this question underlies some of the differences between activist anthropology and what we might call “pure research” anthropology.
An activist thinks about her research as an intervention in an ongoing debate. While doing good research is important, even more important is the way that research might impact the contemporary political climate.
The “pure research” anthropologist is willing to spend their time on an obscure topic nobody is much concerned with at the moment because they are contributing to the expansion of human knowledge.
Of course, the reality is more complex than either of these caricatures. Work which is considered progressive at the time might be appropriated by conservative causes, while academic fashions may mean that the contributions of esoteric research lies in obscurity for decades or centuries before once again coming to light (i.e. when Rex blogs about it on Savage Minds).
While the promise of Google Scholar seems to speak to the fantasy of cumulative knowledge, there are some mitigating factors that must be taken into account:
For one thing, the overwhelming and exponentially increasing amount of knowledge means that there is simply more written than any one person (even Rex) can every possibly hope to read. True, the knowledge might be out there to be discovered – but if nobody is reading it what does it matter? The rise of national anthropologies further aggravates this problem, as more and more work is being produced in more and more languages with very little of it ever being translated. Another mitigating factor is the rise of corporate anthropology. More and more work is being done for private consumption and the owners of that knowledge do not wish to share it. Maybe one day it will enter the public domain, but how long will that be? And third, as I already mentioned, what we read is greatly shaped by ideology, politics, fashion, and the influence of a few trendsetters. Entire branches of anthropological knowledge now lie in obscurity because only a few readers will be willing to dig through their outdated paradigms for a few drops of useful data.
Even more importantly, our institutions have a tendency to promote certain kinds of work. For instance, it seems that every few years a new book gets published along the lines of The Bell Curve, catering to the racial ideologies of contemporary American society. This means that even if the general storehouse of knowledge is constantly growing, there is not necessarily a concomitant progress in our understanding of these issues. We seem to have to continually make the same points in new ways: Boas, Montagu, Gould, etc. each refashioning the same basic points. Using new data, to be sure, but it is hard to tell if it is two steps forward and one step backwards, or the other way around?
Finally, even those scholars that promote what might be called a “pure research” approach rarely claim that anthropology can be thought of in the same terms as empirical science. Now, there is no reason an interpretive approach to anthropology would require one to adopt an activist approach – for the very reason that there is no clear connection between any one interpretive position and a particular course of political action; and yet, this position seems to concede that anthropology is little more than an intervention into current discourses. Surely this position implies that the nature of this contemporary intervention is therefore more important than some abstract scientific model in which our research simply adds to a general storehouse of knowledge?
The funny thing is, even though I sound like I come down on one side of this question, I really don’t. I am actually profoundly ambivalent about these questions which is why I’m willing to put my half-assed musings up on the web. At some level I think my position can be described as wishing knowledge were cumulative and acting to realize this ideal (e.g. by advocating Open Access), but not really believing that it is truly attainable.
I’m sure anyone who has ever written an anthropological monograph has thought about these questions, and I’m curious to read what everyone else has to say about the matter!