Two Styles in the Practice of Theory

In her comment in a “recent post”:/2007/01/06/pop-quiz-who-made-this-diagram/#comment-46735 Lilly Hope mentions the distinction betwee Marshall Sahlins and Michael Silverstein as anthropological theorists. Both of these people served as members of my dissertation committee, and Sahlins was my chair — as a result I have more than a passing acquaintance with both of their works. But Lilly Hope’s comments struck me as a little odd and I think that was because of the fact that we went through the same department, but at different time. I think that comparing Sahlins and Silverstein as theorists can tell us a lot about how anthropological theory is done and some of the main tendencies within it — after all as long-time colleagues Sahlins and Silverstein have influenced each other and their work is in some sense variations on a common theme.

Lilly writes that Sahlins has “a fluid style” and “a more-or-less universal and ahistorical model of how (social) structure happens” while Silverstein has “a more rigorous and richer model” While it does strike me as odd to someone who pioneered the field of historical anthropology ‘ahistorical’, I don’t want to quibble with Lilly’s comment so much as I want to do violence to the comment by wrenching it out of context and using it as a springboard for my own thoughts on the topic… 🙂

Throughout his career Sahlins has been, above all, interested in ethnography. I think that people who read his shorter works as ‘theoretical’ texts often overlook this fact. People tend to read Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities rather than Anahulu or Original Affluent Society rather than Moala. In contrast, works by Silverstein tend to be much more programmatic and often include the minimal amount of data necessary to make the point. So for instance, Sahlins has been publishing continuously on a wide variety of Hawai’ian and Fijian material while Silverstein has been using the same 50 second clip of transcript for the past twenty years.

Not it is important not to overdraw the contrast or harsh on Silverstein. Sahlins has recycled the Cook stuff and Silverstein has done work on native North America, aboriginal Australia, and political discourse in the US. Still the point I am trying to make is this — do we have a sense of what a ‘Silversteinian’ ethnography would look like such that we could compare it with the many examples that Sahlins provides us? To the best of my knowledge, we have no published ethnographic monographs from Silverstein to serve as an example.

This brings us to the issue of imitatability. If faced with the argument that Silverstein offers theoretical pronouncements but not extended analysis you could point out how Silverstein is part of a broad theoretical movement in anthropology today which includes numerous authors (Baumann and Briggs, e.g.), students, conferences, and so forth. To that extent you might say that people are writing ‘Silversteinian’ work all the time and that his unique take — and certainly his unique vocabulary — have flavored (tainted?) whole cohorts and that given this state of affairs there is a division of labor in which it makes sense that he ‘does theory’.

Sahlins, on the other hand, is notoriously individualistic and does not like being pinned down or described (in fact I am sort of afraid this description of his work will piss him off!). He has never — to the best of my knowledge — encouraged or even tolerated imitators. So if we were to use my earlier “typology of academic departments”:/2006/02/14/factory-lab-guild-studio/ Silverstein tends more to the ‘lab’ model (detractors would say ‘factory’) while Sahlins falls pretty squarely in the ‘studio’ end of the spectrum. It is ironic, but despite (or because of?) his enormous influence on the field, it is hard to imagine what a “Sahlinsian” monograph would be like since the only person who could write one would be Sahlins himself.

The question of influence also leads to style. While Sahlins can be intimidating to undergraduates, he is renowned as a prose stylist. People love Islands of History because it is well written. This is what has given him a wide readership both in anthropology and in its adjacent disciplines: it is a pleasure to read his work. He is also funny.

Silverstein, on the other hand, writes in an austere, technical style which can be really impossible to read. Those who have Pierced The Veil report being bathed in a golden light and having ecstatic visions of a unified theory of social life, while many consider his style obstructionist. Even I, who have have drunk the Silverstein koolaid, have to admit that I find it hard to justify Silverstein’s prose to those who have not studied with him. And indeed, his work has reached a much smaller audience than Sahlins. Even more recent work by Silverstein which is actually written in English is still sufficiently idiosyncratic in style that it prevents uptake in the wider scholarly community.

So is Silverstein’s approach to data “richer and more rigorous” than Sahlins? Perhaps, if ‘richer and more rigorous’ means ‘more easily to recognizable as “scientific” given the authority our society places in the hands of the natural sciences (and not the humanities)’. But many — including Silverstein himself, I reckon — would say that the sort of humanistic, fine-grained ethnography that Sahlins practices is pretty darn rich and rigorous.

In fact in some ways I think Silverstein plays Radcliffe-Brown to Sahlins’s Boas. It is easy for us to teach Radcliffe-Brown in theory courses because he is so explicit about what his theory is and how to do it. Even though we rarely read his ethnographic work itself, we do read exemplary works by his students. It is much harder to teach Boas and the Boasians because they never tell you what they are doing — they just do it.

One of the results of this, as Regna Darnell reminds us in her work, is that there has been a certain ‘forgetfulness’ of the Boasians. The image of The Bad Old Days when anthropologists has an undynamic, ahistorical model of cultures as internally homogenous, externally bounded entities is really a critique of hard-core British structure functionalism, not the Boasians. To a certain extent I feel that the same thing is happening to our collective memory of the rich, rigorous, and deeply humanistic anthropology of the late seventies and eighties. Inimitable, the style of analysis practiced by people like Sahlins and Munn (to take just two Chicago examples) has, I feel, been forgotten because it is harder to teach and practice than more openly programmatic approaches. So who knows who future students will consider ‘their influences’? Perhaps in the end the humanistic streak in anthropology will fade away into the memories of those that Were There for it. This is a pity because I feel that very thing that made these approaches difficult is also what made them worthwhile — the imaginative, elegant, insightful ethnography that they produced.


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

15 thoughts on “Two Styles in the Practice of Theory

  1. Lucid, convincing, should expanded into an article, could well be a classic. The description of Sahlin poses a particularly interesting problem: What is it to write rigorously without the conventional scaffolding of science: either experimental, statistical or linguistic.

    That’s a question I posed in the only article of mine ever to make it into American Ethnologist, where the problem is the uses of language in a Taiwanese Daoist healer’s exorcism. There I write,

    Like Kapferer (1991), I, too, attempt a middle way between structuralist/semiotic approaches and the process/performance orientation of Victor Turner (see, for example, 1969). From both I take a sharp focus on aesthetic detail, that “logic in tangible qualities” (Levi-Strauss 1969:1) which keeps ideas from floating free in pure abstraction. From Turner I take particular concern for the sequence in which the steps of he ritual drama unfold. Accounting for sequence as well as type–what linguists call syntagmatic as well as paradigmatic relations–in the properties of ritual language adds force to interpretation.

    Detail and sequence have been my touchstones for rigor in qualitative analysis ever since.


    Kapferer, Bruce (1991) A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

    Levi-Strauss, Claude (1969) The Raw and the Cooked. John and doreen Weightman, trans. London: Jonathan Cape.

    Turner, Victor (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  2. I saw Lily’s “comment”:/2007/01/06/pop-quiz-who-made-this-diagram/#comment-46735 to Strong’s post about the Silverstein diagram (“here”:/2007/01/06/pop-quiz-who-made-this-diagram/#comments), and was also provoked to think about the differences and similarities between Sahlins and Silverstein—and ended up thinking along lines very similar to Rex, although focused on the question of how each understands “culture” and the nature of their interest in it.

    What I came to was that some of the differences had to do with the difference that Rex noted between Silverstein’s interest in describing in general terms the way action emerges in time in relation to what Lily (following Silverstein) refers to as “relatively perduring understandings” (what the rest of us usually call culture). Sahlins seems to me to be only intermittently interested in that sort of model building—one of the best examples in his work of such modeling is the notion (discussed extensively in the last chapter of _Islands of History_) that one of the ways cultures change is when signs are “risked” in acts of reference: they are applied to new things (partly as a way of comprehending those things), but can thus change in value as the qualities of the things referred to become part of meaning of the sign with which we refer to them. Thus ( _Islands_ 149) _tabu_ is used in the regulation of trade, and the idea becomes “objectified as a commercial and proprietary right”—This is Sahlins in a very Silversteinian mode, but mostly his interest is not in constructing a “more-or-less universal and ahistorical model of how (social) structure happens” (Lily’s words, which _do_ work for Silverstein’s project), but in describing particular histories—untangling the complexities of cause and event in particular places and cases, with special attention to the ways in which these are ordered by the sorts relatively perduring understandings that actors bring to their participation in events.

    In Boas’s terms Sahlins would more of a geographer, Silverstein more of a physicist (see Boas’s “The Study of Geography” in _Race, Language, & Culture_). The difference in interest may be related to a difference in scale and subject matter as well: there is more implicit interest in describing the particularities of why Hawaiian’s were interested in brightly colored cloth (vs Northwest Coast Indian interest in Hudson’s bay blankets—see Sahlins’s “Cosmologies of Capitalism” reprinted in _Culture in Practice_), than there is in the status contest of two Chicago grad students (Silverstein 1998 “The Improvisational Performance of Culture in Realtime Discursive Practice.” In _Creativity in Performance_, edited by R. K. Sawyer). Moreover the general theoretical point that Sahlins is making—that the culture _qua_ relatively perduring understandings that actors bring to events matters crucially for things like economic activity and political struggle—is undemonstrable except in terms of the particularities of different situations.

    Whereas for Siverstein the important thing is the argument that culture doesn’t so much exist as a set of meanings somewhere but is knowable only as invoked:

    bq. By this account, ‘culture’ exists only by virtue of its being invoked—indexically called into being—primarily in discursive action . . . .This means that anyone can know about culture only by studying language-in-use as a form of social action . . . . Further, culture has continuity beyond the microsociological moment of its invocation only as it perdures, with gradual consequential change, in a macrosociological order of virtual communication over multiple, improvisational, invocational performances “of it.” [Silverstein ibid]

    This makes sense but it leaves a lacuna in Siverstein’s work: there is no real attention to the question of how to describe a particular culture—as Rex says, no fully developed ethnographic accounts. The different goals also have something to do with the ease of replication (or perhaps with whether influence is easily recognizable). “Theory” in Silverstein’s case, consists of describing and refining the model. Someone else can use it by showing that indeed the model describes a different empirical situation, and we can recognize that they are doing it by the jargon they use (an intended careful semantico-referential function-sub-1 use of language that in practice amounts to a clear indexical, i.e. function-sub-2, usage). As I noted “here,”:/2007/01/06/pop-quiz-who-made-this-diagram/#comment-46646 for Sahlins, theory works best by pointing to certain kinds of ethnographic facts as possibly important (it’s a colonial context, is there a “structure of the conjuncture” here?) but the point is as much or more to understand the particular situation as it is to elaborate the model.

    That said, there is something unsatisfyingly abstract about understanding structure mainly as a Saussurean structure of differences (as Sahlins generally does, at least explicitly): For one thing it doesn’t tell us anything about how people acquire culture or much about how they bring it to bear on particular situations. One of the ways I resolve this to think about structures as being implicit in certain genres of practice—a way of looking at cultural particularity that already points to the ways it is discursively invoked. By describing those genres, and the meanings implicit in them, one can then describe a culture. Seeing culture as a collection of things in this way (rather than as a unitary system) also makes the question of cultural unity an empirical one rather than a logical necessity, opening up the possibility of seeing the “unit cultures” of classic anthropological description as neither ethnographic fantasy nor human universal, but as one of the ways human semantic and social fields might be organized (an thought I owe to John Kelly, though he made the argument in somewhat different terms). Two further thoughts (to wrap up this too-long comment). First, that in Sahlins’s actual descriptions of particular situations, he often describes culture in ways that go beyond conceiving of it as Saussurian structures precisely because by trying to see how it shapes history he is describing it as invoked, in language use (and other meaningful social action). Secondly that sometimes Saussurian oppositions do capture something about the way people understand the world, since they aren’t really always so abstract as Saussure (or Levi-Strauss) imagined them, but are implicit in the built environment (the Kabyle house anyone?), or ritual scripts that deploy such simple poetic devices as repetition with variation.

  3. Just wondering, Rex, which “50 second clip of transcript” are you claiming that Silverstein has been using “for the past twenty years?”

  4. I am going to step lightly here because I don’t want to be overly critical of things people do at professional meetings because I know that this is not always the best most polished work but

    At the AAA meetings this year I saw an appallingly bad paper by someone using Pierce by way of Silverstein to explain how people interpret, think about, and talk about certain sounds. The memory of that paper makes me think that an interesting thread of this discussion might be how people think with Silverstein and Sahlins when it comes to their own empirical evidence / data / ethnographic information, whatever you want to call it.

    There seems to be a form of imitation when some people use Silverstein that makes their work impossible to understand. And I don’t find Silverstein impossible to understand – simply hard-going when reading it and then when I get it, I get it – but some of his fans use his ideas in ways that bludgeon their own research into nothingness. This makes me sad because you can often tell that embedded in the imitation-laden muck there is really good stuff.

    And allow me, if you will, to try and connect this thread to the Gajdusek-off from a week ago. It is exactly the sort of fixation on ‘fame’ and / or notoriety that I was trying to critique in my comments about how many academics think that intelligence is a moral virtue per se. I see this fixation as part of reason behind the endless imitation of Silverstein and other stars in the discipline.

  5. The one on page 624 of “Cultural” Concepts and the Language-Culture Nexus (i.e. Silverstein 2004) which is also reprinted in Improvisational Performance of Culture in Realtime (1998) and On The Pragmatic Poetry of Prose (1985). Perhaps it is just my imagination, but I also remember (incorrectly?) this diagram appearing in numerous editions of the “MSLV Grey Literature” of papers which circulate informally but are not generally published.

  6. Interesting! Of course, Sahlins is also an enthusiastic recycler of his own data, theories and jokes, so I’m not sure where the contrast lies.

    I can, however, confirm Sahlins and Silverstein’s very active presence at Rex’s defense… I even remember when Rex quite solicitously asked Silverstein’s permission to describe his own project as a ‘natural history of discourse’ (an Anthro dept workshop around 2003).

  7. Well as I say in the entry, it is important not to over-draw the contrast between Sahlins and Silverstein. It is not as is Sahlins did something new in every work and Silverstein one did one thing over and over again. Still I think in the case of Sahlins we have a clear case of him working through a variety of different ethnogrpahic materials through time, whereas with Silverstein we see the same exemplars being used (often taken from the work of others) again and again as the theoretical position evolves.

    Take the Captain Cook stuff — the first reference that I know to this is in 1976 (iirc) in the “State of the Art in Sociocultural Anthropology” article. We then get the monograph 1981 (Historical Metaphors) and a series of essays, only partly about Cook, in 1985. The final Big Book of this period is Anahulu (with the exception of 1995 How Natives Think, which was a response to outside stimulus).

    We then get a period of work on “the economics of developman” that comes through in a series of essays. At the same time we get important statments on Fiji developing the strucutral-historical model of the 80s in Return of the Event (1990), Discovery of the True Savage, etc. and now with Apologies to Thucydides, which incorporates work on the Greeks, Elian Gonzalez, and baseball.

    All scholars reduce, reuse and recycle and of course there are continuities in their work because they are biographically continuous beings. but in light of all this doesn’t it seem like there’s a contrast to be had here?

  8. I agree with Rex here. I noticed the same thing about Victor Turner that he notes about Sahlins. Turner is never simply developing a theoretical framework, let alone simply applying one to a bit of favorite material; the ideas evolve through working through new cases that suggest the usefulness of developing the ideas in new directions. You can see the hermeneutic spiral returning to old themes but also moving steadily upward. The thinking never escapes into pure abstraction or gets stalled in critique for critique’s sake.

  9. bq. doesn’t it seem like there’s a contrast to be had here?

    Geographer v. Physicist anyone?

  10. uh…. _yeah_. That was the point of the Boas/R-B contrast.

    Boas : R-B
    Idiographic: Nomothetic
    particularizing : generalizing
    geography : physics
    mds : mslv

  11. Anyone here but me aware of Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines? The blurb on the back reads,

    Chaos of Disciplinesuses fractals to explain the patterns of disciplines, and then applies them to key debates that surround the social sciences. Abbott argues that knowledge in different disciplines is organized by common oppositions that function at any level of theoretical or methodological scale. Opposing perspectives of thought and method in…. history, sociology, and literature are…radically similar; much like fractals, they are each mutual reflections of their own distinctions. Abbott extends this concept to social structure and moral action in the book’s closing chapters. He demonstrates how self-similar social structures arise, considers their implications for individual experience and solidarity, and then shows how self-similarity makes sense of the debate over politicization in academia; ultimately, Chaos of Disciplines contends that the political wars in the humanities and social sciences involve far less disagreement than we think.

    Which doesn’t for a moment reduce the narcissism of small differences to which Freud points, a tendency exaggerated, I believe, in crowded job markets.

  12. I have found this discussion pretty erudite and interesting. I tend to agree with John here about how contrasts are over-drawn between perspectives in anthropology. (I do not refer here to the very sensitive discussion which Rex et al. have been having about S & S.)

    It’s interesting to note perspective: the degree to which fractures between perspectives appear large or small depends in part on where you are standing. There are notorious divisions (of theoretical, political, and obviously personal kinds) within anthropology departments, say, within the U.S. For people in those departments, I think they are often very real and important and get elaborated in highly formal (journal papers) and less formal (I dunno, small talk) ways. But for people *outside* those departments, the divisions that are reported often seem irrelevant: from outside, everyone seems to be basically on the same page.

    Mohawk: Just a quick thought regarding the theoretical imitation to which you refer. So much of anthropological theory is embedded in unique rhetorical styles. Often the imitiation of rhetoric or discursive style then seems to pass for the elaboration of theory or analytic. Usually this is unfortunately, because those styles are not infrequently irreplicable. I point readers to the discussion of Bill Maurer’s Mutal Life, Ltd. that was had here at SM a while back.

  13. The idea that contrasts are overdrawn belongs to Andrew Abbott or, at least, to Andrew Abbott as interpreted by the author of the cover blurb I cited. My reason for pointing to Abbott was not to overemphasize this claim, but instead to note that Abbott has theorized extensively about the sorts of social processes involved when scholars set up contrasts between academic factions or schools that may, over time, harden into disciplines. The fractals from which he takes the imagery used in his theorizing are mathematical objects with the property that the same shapes reappear at every scale from the smallest to the largest. Abbott observes a similar condition in what he calls the chaos of disciplines.

    Suppose, for example, that Sahlins vs. Silverstein are taken to exemplify an opposition between ethnographic storytellers and constructors of analytic diagrams. Abbott’s theory predicts that if schools form among the disciples of these two founders and they, too, split in the next generation, the splits within those schools will involve the original opposition. The storytellers will split between those who just tell stories and those who incorporate diagrams in pursuit of analytic rigor. Meanwhile some of the diagrammers will start incorporating stories into their presentations while others elaborate diagrams in increasingly abstract forms. Similar, albeit now more subtle splits, will appear in the third, fourth….nth iterations of the process.

    How empirically valid Abbott’s theories are is subject to debate. Just thought, however, that they offer an interesting perspective on the debates here, which seem focused on the oppositions that appear within a single generation.

  14. There is certainly a way to narrate the history of structuralism as a series of ‘fractionation attacks’ in which The Young ‘Uns accuse Sahlins of being ahistorical and ignoring power, practice, etc. about twenty to thirty years after he, you know, accuses structuralism of being ahistorical and ignoring power, practice etc. (or at least , of pointing out that structuralism is capable of accommodating these things). But I think the inheritors of the other half of this dichotomy are the ‘post structuralists’ who have (for good or ill) drifted off into what L-S used to call “Cloud Cuckoo Land”

  15. Where would you put Mary Douglas in this scheme?

    I’ve just picked up her latest book, which is a slim volume, Thinking in Circles, about ring structures in stories, from the Old Testament and Homer to Tristram Shandy. Here her work is primarily analytic and descriptive, showing that certain (non-obvious) schemes exist in well-known tales.

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