History of anthropology, anthropological theory, and Just Plain Theory

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?


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 rex@savageminds.org

27 thoughts on “History of anthropology, anthropological theory, and Just Plain Theory

  1. As an undergrad taking a History of Anthropological Theory Course, I can say that this post is very interesting. The ideas brought up should make for a nice disscussion in class next week. Thanks.

  2. Is it too simple to say that you’re making an “empiricism” vs. “post-modernism” point? That “just plain theory” of the grand old sort is a legacy of (Western/male/white/etc.) empricism and that the situated, contextualized, (history-of)-theory you’re suggesting here is what we must learn now that we live under a rent (i.e., torn, not borrowed) theoretical canopy?

  3. This is frighteningly close to my own (Top Secret) take on history of anthropology. The problem as I see it is that historians of anthropology generally (with some exceptions, mostly in the Stocking tradition) have focused on the progression and transmission of ideas — this guy influenced that guy, etc. What’s largely missing is any focus on the practices that are supposed to inform anthropology — not just in the field, though that’s important, but in the institutional settings that we do much, if not most, of our work. There’s also been a tendency to ignore social context — not so much the “big picture” stuff (e.g. there’s plenty that talks about anthropology in the context of colonialism, for example) but on a smaller scale. What happens is that too close attention to historical detail tends to get dismissed as “biography” — a strange situation in a discipline a large part of which has been formed through collecting life histories of our subjects. In short, the more ethnographic anthropological history gets, the more it seems to be dismissed as “not anthropology”.

    The introductions of my book and of my dissertation, both in progress, deals with this at greater depth; once I have either in a more finished form, maybe I’ll post a summary to continue this discussion. (And I’m sure the feedback will do me good.)

  4. Oh, one more thing: “why our grad students should be turned into historians of their discplines” seems to me to be the same reason that we don’t just say “people in Africa cut women’s genitals” or “people in India abort female fetuses” or whatever — we lay out the whole (or as much as we can) social and cultural context in which those beliefs and practices are situated. Anthropology is grounded in the notion that ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, that they arise from and emerge from (and shape) particular historical and ethnographic contexts. In other words, it’s simply good anthropology.

  5. I think your glossing of these differences doesn’t quite hit the spot in terms of assessing the ways in which ideas about theory have intersected with ideas about anthropology, in terms of encompassing the unique reflexivity that has from the very beginning been built into the discipline. It seems to me that ‘theory’ has always been part of a broader epistemology which included ethnographic data, and later ethnography itself. There’s that great theory-buster, fieldwork. As A.B. Deacon who worked with Haddon at Cambridge in the long shadow of Rivers, wrote as a phd student from the field in 1927, just before he died of Blackwater fever:

    “…I realize more and more that I have only the vaguest idea of what is meant by ‘sociology’ and ‘social psychology’ [Rivers’ métier]—at least as practical sciences in which research is to be done. It is so different in physics and chemistry—there you have a vast structure of really beautiful theory, experimentally verified in enormous numbers of ways, and as undoubtedly true, I suppose, as anything of the kind one can think of—so research has a great theoretical searchlight, there is coherence and direction. Here (in ethnology) it is all a mess—I suspect most ethnologists are bad historians, or bad psychologists, or bad romanticists.”

    (Letter from Deacon to Margaret Gardiner, kept in the Haddon Papers in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, reproduced in Gardiner 1987: 44 – 45)

    It does seem that part of the anthropological rites of passage is the moving towards theory as one moves away from fieldwork…

  6. Rex–

    At one point you contrast `theory’, in the historically-informed sense you contemplate in this post with the sense of `theory’ one encounters in disciplines like biology (i.e. What We Now Know about X). I am curious if you think it would even be possible to construct a course on anthropological theory in the latter sense, and if so, what kind of material it would cover? In other words, do you actually see that viable alternatives exist to the historical approach to theory you discuss in your post? Certainly all the courses on `anthropological theory’ that I have taken made the intellectual history of theory their organizing theme.

  7. Thanks for the comments all.

    RBL suggests (I think) that contextualizing anthropological theorizing could be imagined as a critical move that deflates the pretensions of socially privileged theorists. This is certainly one way to deflate white guys, I suppose. But sociology (RBL’s metier (I know RBL IRL)) has always aspired to Theory and only now recently come to grapple with genealogy. Anthropology, in contrast, has alwaysdone genealogy and has only periodically sought to construct a decontextualized and generalizable theory. Crisis of confidence, after all, is the rule rather than the exception in anthropology…

    Which takes me to Haidy’s important point that anthropological theory must be understood in terms of the entire (as it were) anthropological experience. Specifically, anthropologists have typically imagined that field research (rather than genealogy) deflates the pretensions of generalizable theory. This is part of a wider stereotypical patterning of anthropology as revelation and personal transformation. This is true, and that approach is valuable, but (as I said) it seems to me that this distinctive take on knowledge of the self and the other is having (more and more?) difficulty demonstrating its value in today’s ‘academic marketplace’.

    There are many reasons for this — one of the key being (as Haidy’s quote points out) this approach to anthropology is premised on a paradigmatic field experience which involves the confusing sojourn of a priviliged white subject to their black colonial dependency — today different kinds of fieldworkers do fieldwork in different kinds of places. Indeed, some might actually believe our fieldwork resulted in us actually learning something that is important, not just about ourselves and our ‘natives’, but which might be applied to other times and places as well… 😉

    I agree with Oneman that there is a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of anthropological history to get done (although I refuse to somehow blame Stocking that he ‘only’ managed to create an entire subdiscipline and explore one or two of its modalities). However I’m not sure the fgc example is apposite. A ‘just plain theorist’ might ask: is it good physics to make first year grad students read Newton as part of their training to use the particle accelerator?

    Finally, to answer lmichael’s question: I can imagine trying to summarize what I think the state of the art is. But note how much more scary that sort of approach is than a genealogical one — it requires you to take a stand on what _you_ think is true rather than eluding this commitment and simply explaining the history of what others have done…

  8. “I can imagine trying to summarize what I think the state of the art is” – I can’t, but it’s nice that there are profs out there who could make the current theoretical landscape seem less fragmented than it often appears. Nonetheless I’m not persuaded by your physics analogy – first year physicists might not need to have ‘read’ Newton, but it would help if they were familiar with the laws of thermodynamics. The point being that anthros build on data that is not experimentally repeatable, so unlike Newton, Malinowski’s data is inseparable from his writing. Given that, I don’t know how you could expect someone to understand Clifford/Marcus without having read some Geertz/E-P, or E-P without Malinowski. I just can’t see how you’d teach anthro theory divorced from its historical context.
    And I’m very glad to have found this site and the Open Access stuff. Thanks.

  9. Oh sorry I misread the parenthetical expression…!

    …actually I’ll blame your beard for muffling the sound 🙂

  10. Mrph birngle dullou…

    Oh, excuse me, my beard — it gets in the way! What I was trying to say is that, yes, I see Stocking as important precisely for the level of historical detail that he incorporates into his explanations of where ideas came from. But what’s telling, I think, is that while Stocking is fairly widely read, his work — and especially the work of those who have followed in his footsteps or built on his foundation — is pretty far out of the anthropological mainstream. Even he describes himself as an “historian” who more or less just happens to take anthropology as his subject. Frankly, I find that a little baffling, especially when actual historians like Carlos Ginzburg or the Annales folks seem to be accepted as closer to the anthropological mainstream.

  11. Let me register a dissident or at least divergent opinion here. At the undergraduate level, required courses on the history of anthropology are, with occasional exceptions related to brilliant teaching, usually considered a form of penance by students. Nearly 20 years ago, my department liberated students and ourselves from this requirement when we figured out that an undergraduate major needn’t be a PhD program in microcosm. It can be something quite different–and arguably should be, because most of our majors end up in business, the professions, and education rather than anthropology. (We still place about one student a year in doctoral programs, and we’ve found that the less our program resembled its grad-school counterpart, the more attractive our majors have become to good anthropology programs.) So as card-carrying members of that increasingly rare breed of department that contains both anthropologists and sociologists, we invented a Social Theory course focused on Big Ideas shared by both disciplines. The course is taken by majors in both fields, a more efficient use of staff. To make that work, of course, we have to push a lot of second-order theorists to the margins. And whoever is teaching the course has to stretch mightily to cover major figures in the companion discipline. I found my own efforts to cover sociology incredibly rewarding: I discovered the pleasures of Simmel, Mannheim, Merton, and Mills, among others.

    This approach has limitations, but it has given me–and, I hope, the students–a better sense of the overall shape of Western social theory, as well as its major achievements and inadequacies. I love the idea of a practice-centered approach to social theory as discussed earlier in this thread, but it would be hard to reconcile with a course like this, which is more or less obliged to take a history-of-ideas approach.

    Alas, when I teach Social Theory, I often pick the 8:30 am teaching slot, so the course is still considered penitential by students.

  12. I benefited a lot from learning how to do careful readings of individual thinkers. In college I took one course where we spent an entire year just reading David Hume. Now Hume isn’t of much use theory-wise when writing about anthropology today, but the training I gained in learning how to think carefully about someone’s thought has been invaluable. All too often “theory” courses attempt to cram too much in and just become a superficial survey, an annotated bibliography. I think it is much more important to learn how to think about theory, to understand how theory relates to anthropological practice, than to attempt to “know it all” in a year or a semester.

    This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have survey courses, it is important to have context and genealogy, but I would personally structure such a course around those theoretical issues which I struggle with in my own work, rather than trying to come up with something definitive for the discipline as a whole. For instance, I might take the relationship between synchronic and diachronic analysis as the basis for such a course, looking at the back and forth between structuralist and historicist approaches to anthropology and how the discipline has struggled with the question of history. Or another course might focus on the changing notions of “community” in anthropological thought. In either case, we could cover huge swaths of the discipline’s history while remaining focused on a particular problem.

  13. Over on Anthro-L, a thread has been started by a biological anthropologist bemoaning his subfield’s increasing isolation from classic American four-field anthropology. Another contributor notes that many linguistic anthropologists feel the same way. I was moved to reply as follows, which may have some relevance here.


    It is not, of course, accidental that it is precisely those subfields that are most scientifically grounded (in the sense of being based on established research methods that generate reproducible results) that have been most ostracized as social and cultural anthropology have swung away from science toward literary models, where “theory” means only sets of assumptions that loosely guide interpretation, there being no generally accepted methods for judging when one theory is better than another.

    Which is not to say that one should throw out postmodernism’s baby with the tepid bathwater in which it too often floats.

    The critical recognition that the grand narratives of traditional social and cultural research mostly reflect the excessively narrow perspectives of mainly privileged white, male researchers was long overdue. So was recognition that most of the “theoretical” terms used in social and cultural analysis are highly ambiguous and polysemic, with usage varying dramatically from one researcher and context to another. So was the realization that, at the end of the day, anthropologists are writers, either writing in ways constrained by the genre conventions of the times and places in which they publish or rebelling against them in various experimental ways.

    What we really need to move beyond the binary opposition of science/modernism and literature/postmodernism is a new synthesis that combines the best of both, while also modestly recognizing Aristotle’s point that the mark of an educated man is to demand no greater precision in argument that the subject matter allows (so that, for example, in his prototype, it makes no sense to demand of political orators the precision required of mathematicians). Those who fancy themselves adherents of science will have to give up the absurd claim that elegant theories restricted to the low-hanging fruit of easily described data amount to universal superiority whatever the question at hand. Those who fancy themselves insightful humanists will have to give up the equally absurd claim that all theories are equal, since where science applies, its theories are demonstrably superior. Good liberal education will have to train students to assess the questions before them and the data available to them and choose the forms of understanding most appropriate for them from the intellectual toolkit their education supplies. Anthropologists who claim a four-field competence will have to be conversant (if mostly amateurish) with every tool in the kit.

  14. John I guess my feeling is that anthropology as a discipline has historically managed to avoid getting split apart into several of the typical binaries, but that it is getting harder to maintain this distinction. Although it might just be me.

    Michael: you write “undergraduate major needn’t be a PhD program in microcosm. It can be something quite different—and arguably should be, because most of our majors end up in business, the professions, and education rather than anthropology.” Uh… as opposed to graduate programs where 90% of all grads go on to become professors….? Concern about where grad students ‘end up’ probably contributes to the view that ‘theory’ is unnecessary if grad students don’t go on to enter the academy.

  15. Rex: On a personal note, I have to say that what attracted me to anthropology was the way it straddles multiple disciplines, becoming in the process what I learned from Victor Turner to call a liminoid phenomenon. Plus, of course, the fieldworker’s vision quest as a form of self-testing.

    It may be because my training at Cornell was largely derivative of British social anthropology that I find myself in harmony with Michael’s suggestion. I might call myself an anthropologist and go off to do research in places off the map of more conventional social sciences focused on Europe and America; but when it came to theory, the must-know guys were Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Freud and Simmel. One also learned, of course, that Kroeber and Leslie White believed in something called the superorganic, Julian Steward was an evolutionist, Kroeber and Kluckhohn had surveyed 157 definitions of culture.

    But those sorts of information were, in Joe Levenson’s memorable phrase, “of merely historical interest.” They had no significant bearing on planning for research, which for those of us then doing China studies, was largely framed in the tradition running from Radcliffe-Brown through Meyer Fortes to Maurice Freedman, the major alternative being urban studies and/or geographical modeling a la G. William Skinner or historical demography a la Arthur Wolf.

    Of the folks who were then the leading edge of the field as I was learning it, the biggest influences on my thinking were Max Gluckman, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss. Clifford Geertz was also important, but largely, in my case, because while I was persuaded of the need for “thick description,” he never provided a recipe for how to do it. That I got from Victor Turner.

    Then, of course, came fieldwork and the shocking realization that while Turner had worked with people who live in grass huts in communities of a couple of dozen inhabitants who spent most of their time in plain sight out of doors, my wife and I were in a Chinese market town of 35,000 inhabits, who lived behind brick walls and included a sixteen-year old Rotary Club exchange student from Illinois, spending a year with the family of a local doctor. Our first night in our “field site,” we went to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the local movie theater, with exoticism added by the beetlenut spit on the floor and the bats twittering in the rafters.

    That is one reason when I think of anthropological theory I always recall what Turner wrote in “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors” (In Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell U. Press 1974, p. 23.

    In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributred through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.”

    Rereading this passage I find myself wondering if it would be possible to construct a theory course that combined theorists’ ideas with ethnographic examples in which they do seem to illuminate what is going on….

  16. Rex, to respond to your point about the vexed link between theory and career tracks: Anyone who receives a doctorate in anthropology should have a strong foundation in the history of the discipline and its main theoretical currents, regardless of his or her ultimate career. But a different approach is defensible in undergraduate liberal-arts contexts, where the focus shifts from disciplinary particulars to broad skills: critical reading, thinking, and writing, learning a disciplined approach to research, and appreciating the complexity of the social world in a range of contexts (geographical, occupational, etc.). I’m not contending that students who receive BAs should be grossly ignorant about the field in which they receive their (modest) certification. I simply see no necessary reason why the structure of anthropology doctoral programs–with respect to theory or anything else–should be the default model for their undergraduate counterparts . . . though it’s not clear to me that even anthropology doctoral programs have much structure these days! [BTW, my comments apply largely to North American higher education. In other parts of the world, the BA degree often implies a higher level of disciplinary specialization, so different considerations would apply.]

  17. What a provocative thread. It’s filled me with questions big and small. Here are some of the latter.

    Who are these “hot theorists”‘ that students want to read? And why should what students want be of any consequence to the development of curriculum? (Oops, that’s actually a big question, nm.)

    Don’t you consider Leach’s 1961 essay “Rethinking Anthropology” a treatment of his “big picture” view of what anthropology is and ought to be? His concern there with generalization and critique of comparison as “butterfly collecting” seem relevant.

    As the thread began with his mention, I thought there might be some interest in Dr. Leach’s syllabus for Principles of Social Anthropology from the 1951-1952 academic year at LSE. There Leach describes the general topic for Michaelmas term as: “The historical background and basic concepts of modern theory in Social Anthropology;” and for Lent term as “The application of theoretical concepts to the anthropological field situation.” Would such a strategy of topic definition work today, instead of taking on the daunting, difficult-to-define task of teaching “anthropological theory?”

  18. why should what students want be of any consequence to the development of curriculum?

    Jenny, that is a big question. How would like to ask it?

    1. As a marketing question? Assuming that treating students as consumers is the way to attract them to classes and earn good student evaluations (both of which may be essential for anthropologists’ holding on to academic jobs)? Or

    2. As a pedagogical question? Assuming enough consensus on core values, concepts and methods to focus attention on how best to communicate them?

    It seems to me that our slipping toward 1. reflects the very real fragmentation of our field. I am old enough to remember one of my teachers Jack Roberts (at Cornell, late 1960s) telling me that he could remember when the whole of the American Anthropological Association could meet in a ranch house outside of Tucson. Back then any new book was a must read, and the notion that everyone would keep up with work in all four fields wasn’t unreasonable.

    By the time of my graduate training, I had my hands full with social anthropology and East Asian Studies. I took courses in linguistics and and one course in the Archeology of China because I thought I needed some breadth. Never did get around to doing a full-fledged course in physical anthropology. Later, when I had to teach intro, I scraped by with what I’d picked up in anatomy and biogeography courses taken as an undergraduate, to supplement what the intro texts had to say.

    Now it’s not uncommon for me to run into recent graduates of different programs and discover that the overlap in what they’ve read is very small, since what they read depended on the texts their teachers assigned them…And folks who specialize in East Asia at Cornell or Michigan wind up with very little in common with people who do Africa at Chicago or Latin America and U. of Texas. Once you get past the obligatory bits of Malinowski, Boas, Geertz, Levi-Strauss that most everybody still pays lip-service to, the authors seen as essential predecessors diverge rapidly.

    Or that, at least, is the way it seems to me, an exile from the ivory towers, who peers over the walls now and again.

  19. Briefly:
    Michael: on undergraduate education, I agree with you. I also agree with you on graduate education, but I can see the other point of view which would say “if anthropology is a _science_ then why do we need a strong foundation in the history of the discipline? How many biochemists take a history class as their CORE course in grad school the way anthros do”? See this other mindset I’m getting at?

    Jenny: Thanks for the syllabi! Do you have any more :?) Rethinking Anthropology is a seminal essay but the one I mentioned is more explicitly historical and incorporates the additional decades that Leach had to think things over in the course of his life.

    Your suggestion that we think about “topic definition” is fascinating. I think a lot of departments already do this (although we don’t describe it in the way you do), but in the context of offering different courses — thus we have the methods course, the theory course, etc. etc. I guess the question that your question raises in me is why it is the Theory course that is typically given pride of place in a department’s (or at least the ones I’ve been in) offerings rather than another course.

    As a matter of fact I can imagine an interesting reconfiguration where you might have ‘writing ethnography’, ‘doing fieldwork’, ‘theory’ etc being rearranged and having the different aspects of the research process being foregrounded in different ways. Hmmm….

  20. Alas, no more Leach syllabi, though I do have several handouts from that particular course (complete with my father’s doodles) and a number of other such syllabi, most of which are titled “Ethnological Theory,” I now notice.

    I’m still keen to know who are these “hot theorists” students want to read? My usual suspects might be out of step, so I’m curious.

  21. It seems to me that Michael B is right on the money about the need to offer undergrads a synchronic as well as a diachronic theory class (a series of topics, deploying selections from the classics and new material together, rather than a history of thesis, antithesis, thesis, etc.)– not because the historical approach presents students with an overwhelming amount of information, but because it too often focuses on a whole lot of discipline-internal criticism before giving them much reason to care. Lots of students come away with the Totally False impression that anthropologists just like to argue with one another and don’t have anything clear to say.

    Anthropologists are always talking about the need to communicate anthropological ideas to the world outside, and intro classes for undergrads are the number one way to do this. The goal of intro classes, as I understand it, is that twenty years down the line, students will still be able to ask anthropologically-informed critical questions when consuming news, policy, ideas, etc.

    Designing a class for students is good pedagogy, not necessarily a concession to the marketization of pedagogical relations. It is also good strategy: the pragmatic-minded students through whom anthropology could make the most difference–i.e. future policy-makers–are often the ones who find the historical approach most boring, and end up taking quantitative, “fact-filled” sociology courses to fulfill their social science requirements. (I TAed one of these and all the students said they would never take an anthro class).

    Seems to me that the best thing would be to offer both courses, perhaps in succession–first the ideas and big topics, and then the history for those students who are considering the field as a major.

  22. lmichael says:
    At one point you contrast `theory’, in the historically-informed sense you contemplate in this post with the sense of `theory’ one encounters in disciplines like biology (i.e. What We Now Know about X). I am curious if you think it would even be possible to construct a course on anthropological theory in the latter sense, and if so, what kind of material it would cover? In other words, do you actually see that viable alternatives exist to the historical approach to theory you discuss in your post? Certainly all the courses on `anthropological theory’ that I have taken made the intellectual history of theory their organizing theme.”

    I don’t know what would be feasible, but I see it this way: There is the psychology of the individual mind, both the conscious and unconscious(belief, motivation, will), the imposition of the rules and culture of the family, the group, the nation, the world. The ostensible theories of dominance, prestige, justifications for leadership. The hypocrisies. The self and group deceptions. Denying the facts to maintain an internalized reality or belief system. Methods for maintaining the beliefs of the group in the face of contradictions. How does the individual get what he wants(what does he want). How does the group on each level of size and organization get what it wants. What factors and mechanisms promote altruism? The entrenchment of meaningless gestures and dead metaphors. Y’know, if someone were organizing from outside the Earth, they would remove people from flood plains and deserts and move them to habitable areas. Why can’t we do this. What is the theory of such folly? National boundaries why: allegiance to family–>allegiance to group–>nation.

  23. I’m no Rex, more like a pawn, and in this pawnage I have taught the intro anthro in various contexts, many “non-conventional,” and in these endeavors I have found a friend in Carol Delaney’s 2004 textbook “Investigating Culture” which teaches theory as method rather than historical edifice, organizing the material as a progressive investigation of this-here cultural experience we are having getting ourselves highly educated.

  24. I am new at this blog, actually new at blogging. Forgive my English, but it has been growing rustier. I am professor of anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires. Things are organized differently up here. I will neither speak about Anthropology in Argentina (I said Argentina -or rather Buenos Aires- not Latin America), nor about the Anthropology degree (suffice to say this is not a B.A program, but a 6 years Licenciatura degree, including a thesis…).
    Instead, I want to focus in the discussion about what, how, and on the basis of what justifications teach History-Theory of Anthropology. In fact, we teach a “Historia de la Teoria Antropologica” for “undergraduates”.
    First, an important organizational trait, the “we”. Courses are “delivered” to students from “catedras”, a team of professors -in our case about 10 or more- delicately hierarachized from the apex- The Chief of the Catedra- to the last pawn -the Ayudante of Second Category, generally a student. We teach simultaneosly, like an out of tune orchestra: one day the Chief gives his lecture sketching the main traits, the rest of the days, different “ayudantes” “go through” the texts of authors in classes ranging from 20 to 60 students. Needless to say, almost no student reads the materials beforehand. Besides, as it is almost commonplace everywhere, none of the members of the catedra is engaged in research practices in the history (of) anthropology. Bear all this in mind, when responding to my comments, if you do so.
    I am interested in renewing the syllabus we teach. This syllabus was mainly devised by the early eighties, bearing the traces of seventies marxism in some units, and in the way of thinking the quality of the interfase theory and ” social context”. Of course, today nobody dares to shows a mechanicist attitude, say, Malinowski=Colonialism. We are all posty, now. Yet, this is also an ideological gesture, for nobody is interested in taking his or her time to make it explicit in what senses Malinowski is connected and not connected to Colonialism. And more, to build from that “theory of the history of theory”, a pedagogical and didactic strategy. For the last 5 years, we have been lumping togheter authors and commentators on an ad hoc basis -I like this author, this commentator is in vogue, etc. This results to me incongruent (though not to the students who are unaware of our sense of incogruence). Now, I want to share with you the following theoretical, pedagogical, didactic model, and wait for any commnet it may arise.
    I ve been thinking, through my readings in theory, history, history of theory, theory of history (distribute anthropology in the terms…), that I want to teach three levels of the Ding. I saw them as methodological levels of inmmanence and transcedence, of “inside” and “outside”.
    The first “inside” : theory. The first “outside”: the empirical case. “Folds” between them.
    Second, the “outside” of the first pair inside-outside, that is the intellectual and/or organizational social field. This outside turns out into an inside, when confonted to the another outside, so called History and the Big and Confortable Periods. But, not satisfied with this, I imagine (this is a imaginative model), that it would be necessary to show that insides turning into oustides, and viceversa, is in itself an historical question. As an example, we cannot posit an Argentine “academia” as a context for Florentino Ameghino’s 19th century ideas about the origin of Mankind in the River Plate (I am sure you know about this…). I also imagine choosing texts of authors that would point to the connection inside outside. I mean “texts of intervention” of two types: “ethico-political” and “government-oriented”. By this move I would make a pack of Durkheim including the Rules, the Elementary Form of Religion and some texts on the working class, maybe some “advices to the Prince”, if they are available.
    I believe anthropology is its history and its theory. But it is also something more> a space of resonance that neither history (in the linear time mode) nor theory (in its axiomatic or hyopothetical formulas) can grasp. Which means that instead of present the students with dogmatic statements about “the Other”, “relativism”, and all kinds of phenomenological trues, we should (again)learn to wink (rather than interpret it).
    If we start by the wink (an informed wink, I am tempted of little phenomenology here), we should recognize where we are(the catedra, Argentina).We teach this syllabus at the very beginning and our instituted responsibilities are to “build the basic blocks of information into the heads of students”, mostly teenagers. Are we the “mound builders”? “Mounds”, signposts, that hopeful would be deconstruct by others? Cannot we, by way of winking, teach our Ding through deconstruction? Winking as the limit of our deconstruction, winking as the promise of deconstruction. As you may guess, I ve already doing this for some time. First, I was my wink, the I got the “theory” of it. The students, that opacity, open their eyes, seem quite interested, others are bewildered and anxious. Do they learn anthropology, do they learn deutero-learning? I hate multiple choice. And that was banned from the beggining.

  25. I have a quick comment – thank the anthro spirits for this site, as I’m now planning my Anthro Theory course (for undergraduates) and this was useful. Stay tuned for the process …

Comments are closed.