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.