One of my jobs in my department is to create a new “theory course” for cultural anthropologists to supplement the core course that we currently have but that doesn’t cover the “hot theorists” that students want to read but which we can’t cram into the one semester of theory we currently offer. As a result I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to teach “anthropological theory”
Recently I’ve been thinking about theory for a different reason — I picked up a copy of the second volume of The Essential Edmund Leach which features a long final essay which is the closest that the mercurial Leach ever came to sketching out his ‘big picture’ of what anthropology is and ought to be. The essay was disappointing to me. It’s not surprising that a fox doesn’t do very good at playing the hedgehog, but what I didn’t like about the essay was the partial and even distorted way that it addressed the history of anthropological theory.
One thing that I’ve been thinking lately as I’ve thought about both Leach and my own attempts to create a ‘theory syllabus’ revolves around the difference between what I might call ‘history of anthropology’, ‘anthropological theory’, and ‘theory’ in a plain sense.
This distinction may not make a lot of sense at first. In fact I think that the history of anthropology and anthropological theory only recently differentiated out of our anthropological tradition. As a small and young discipline, anthropology has developed a tradition in which genealogy, history and theory were all interconnected: I studied with X, who studied with Y, who studied with Boas/Radcliffe-Brown. Theory in this case meant learning the ideas of schools and figures and understanding how the cohorts that replaced the founders adapted these ideas into their own unique position. Thus we learn that Evans-Pritchard, for instance, started as a structure functionalist but then added his own humanistic deviations — a move which opened the doors for the British reception of structuralism in the works of people like Rodney Needham and Mary Douglas. ‘Theory’ thus combined with the Oral History of our discipline — analytic stances and steamy personal detailed combined in a single teaching.
As a unique approach to human knowledge, and as a way of approaching a body of literature I am quite fond of this approach. However, it is important to note what it is not — namely, a serious and scholarly history of anthropology based on the use of archival sources, the contextualization of thinkers in their historical epic, and so on and so forth. It is one thing to hear tales of Julian Steward’s hypochondria from your advisor who was Steward’s student. It’s another thing to read Virginia Kerns’s biography of Steward — or to write a similar work.
And this more fleshed out and properly historical endeavors is quote different from ‘theory’ in the sense of a set of systematic propositions that represent and synthesize research findings. Many anthropologists of a more humanistic or particularistic bent may not be very interested in establishing this sort of theory. But it is important to note that those who are tend to present it as divorced from history. An intro biology textbook is a not a history of ideas about biology — it represents What We Know Now About Biology.
Although I am personally steeped in the Anthropological Theory, more and more these days I find myself wanting to delete this line from my CV and replace it with “History of Anthropology” or “Intellectual History” as a specialty. And I want to present my own interest in the history of our discipline more in terms of being up-to-date with ‘theory’ than with ‘anthropological theory’ which I feel is undervalued in a world where our discipline is increasingly being called to stop its unique and productive straddling of the humanities and social sciences and choose to imagine itself one way or the other.
This approach has drawbacks. To wit, it is not enough simply to read Durkheim in an ‘anthropological way’ — one must also put some serious work into understanding the history of the French academy in that period, and so on and so forth. It is a less parochial, but more demanding, approach than just doing ‘Anthropological Theory’. And above all, disambiguating anthropological theory into history on the one hand and anthropology on the other forces us to confront serious issues about why our students are being made to read this stuff in the first place. Making grad students read ‘theory’ is understandable, but many of us are loath to decontextualize anthropological knowledge in this way. Many more of us feel that the history of our discipline is important, but why our grad students should be turned into historians of their discplines is not at all clear. Thoughts?