What anthropology isn’t

Ethnography. Anthropology is not ethnography — its not participant observation followed up by a ‘qualitative’ analysis of the ‘data’. Sure, this is the method that an overwhelming number of sociocultural anthropologists use (but not the only one — think of historical anthropology, for instance) but simply using this method does not produce work that is obviously anthropology.

This point was driven home to me lately when I read Rod Rhodes’s paper “Everyday Life In A Ministry: Public Administration As Anthropology”:http://arp.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/1/3. I’ll be doing some fieldwork soon (hopefully!) on what I’m calling ‘policy elites’ and I’ve been reading around in all the disciplines which study them (critical accounting, public administration, sociology, geography and so forth). Rhodes is a very well-known “PA” in Canberra and one of my colleagues recommended the article to me. Its a very good — fascinating in fact. Rhodes managed to shadow British ministers, and his discussion of this research inside British ministries is written with an easy wit and keen insight.

But it is not anthropology. In fact, it is amazing how unanthropological it is. What about it is unanthropological? Its difficult to put your finger on — in fact it’s this nagging but unspecified sense that prompted me to write this. Its got something to do with the way that Rhodes handles his data. Although he engages a lot of classical anthropological dilemmas (“isn’t this just restating the obvious?”) and he has material to work with but somehow… it’s what he does with it that isn’t… anthropological…

This is not a criticism of Rhodes, whose work (like that of Mark Bevir) is one of my happier discoveries in the PA literature. But it did make me reflect on what is distinctive about our discipline — not the fact that we handle ethnographic data but the way we handle it.


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

41 thoughts on “What anthropology isn’t

  1. Rex, you seem to be assuming that all your readers know exactly what you mean by “anthropology” — even though you declare that many people who consider themselves anthropologists aren’t doing this REAL anthropology.

    Could you be more specific?

  2. Ah, I see — the entry is unclear. To clarify Karen’s point: Rod Rhodes is a professor of public administration (PA), not an anthropologist. So I’m not claiming he considers himself and anthro but isn’t. I’m claiming he is in a field adjacent to ours, and that the difference between his practice and ours sheds light on what makes our own discipline unique.

    As for Chris’s confusion, it is a common one. Let me clarify this for you Chris, since I know you are only a computer scientist pretending to be a Real Anthropologist: “Ethnography” is a narrative description of exotic people in a far-of lands based on participant observation. “Para-ethnography” is when you attach a sail to your ethnography and allow readers to harness the power of the wind to glide smoothly over your work.

  3. Rex, you still haven’t addressed my question. You pointed to one article (which I can’t read; it’s behind a pay wall), and one person, and said, “It’s not anthropology, and I can’t explain why.” Saying that he’s in a different “discipline” isn’t an explanation, as it’s not clear to me that disciplinary boundaries represent anything but an artifact of academic history.

    As far as I’m concerned, anything that concerns the scientific study of human beings is grist for the mill, whether it’s called anthropology, sociology, archaeology, history, linguistics, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, physical anthropology, ethology, social psychology, whatever. The boundaries between these traditions of enquiry seem to me to have a lot more to do with protecting academic turf, endowed chairs, and tenured positions than they do with a reasonable division of intellectual labor.

  4. Well Karen I obviously agree with you that anything about people is grist for the mill — why else would I be reading work in PA and calling it “very good” and “fascinating”?

    In your comment, you seem to suggest that the current division of academic labor has been shaped (deformed?) by the political and economic realities of our disciplinary labor market. And yet somehow when I claim that differences between my work (say) and Rhodes’s are due to disciplinary distinctions you say that such a claim “isn’t an explanation”? Yet clearly if, as you claim, current disciplinary boundaries are an artifact of academic history, than our socialization to different disciplines is a perfectly good explanation of how we came to think differently regarding these matters.

    But whatever. Your main beef with me is really that my labeling Rhodes as ‘not anthropological’ is chauvinistic boundary maintenance rather than principled intellectual disagreement. Frankly, I don’t think that dog will hunt.

    It is true that when it comes to anthropological analysi s “I know it when I see it” but that I’m unable to articulate exactly how I make these judgments. This is not chauvinism — it is just how craft knowledge works. Am I somehow opposed to the music of Bach simply because I tell it apart from the music of Purcell just by singing a page of it?

    Moreover, these distinctive forms of analysis are part of the political economic situation that produced them — and vice versa. Different discipline have different approaches because of their different histories — and a good thing too! In previous posts on anthropological theory I think we’ve started to dig out exactly what that approach is. What Rhodes revealed to me was that what makes anthropology unique is not — as is often claimed — its research method, but the way that it handles its data. Please don’t mistake my attempts to flesh out my intuitions for small-minded boundary maintenance.

  5. How can it be intellectual disagreement when you can’t give a rational explanation for what is different about his analysis? You’re saying, “I’m an expert, I can tell the difference, trust me.” I’m to accept your expertise based on your assertion of it? Usually one decides about expertise after weighing someone’s arguments, not in the absence of them.

    But there’s something else going on, something that does disquiet me … the suggestion that different traditions look at social life in different ways, and that’s fine, they’re all good, there’s nothing to choose between them. It’s just a question of taste whether you prefer anthropology or sociology, just as it’s a question of taste whether you like Bach or Purcell. We’re not doing social *science*, making propositions that can be tested, no, we’re writing essays that may or may not be pleasing … or convincing the way an essay on King Lear could be convincing.

    At least that’s what’s suggested by your observations — you weren’t so concerned with the article’s truth or falsity as with its style. Perhaps I’m completely wrong here and you were reading it with an eye to testable propositions and just happened to observe on style in passing.

  6. Bach was right. It’s not a matter of taste.

    And Rex, you should really try para-ethnography. You will never go back to the same old boring stuff.

  7. We’re not doing social science, making propositions that can be tested, no, we’re writing essays that may or may not be pleasing … or convincing the way an essay on King Lear could be convincing.

    Apparently the US security apparatus has an interest in forwarding the postmodern agenda, as I’ve been given special dispensation to comment on the above statement by my superiors here at The Agency.

    Here’s the thing: How, exactly, would a statement that is scientifically “true” be recognizably different from a statement that is merely “convincing” the way a statement about King Lear (ostensibly from those wooly-headed humanists) might be?

    1. King Lear’s misjudgement of his daughters brings about his downfall.
    2. Two objects of different weight will fall at the same rate when dropped from the Tower of Pisa.

    Both statements can be empirically tested — though the reality is that the statement about Lear is much more likely to be tested, while the other is much more likely to be accepted on the basis of stories told by 5th grade teachers. (BTW, did you know that when Galileio tried this out, the heavier object hit the ground first? Poor guy was publicly humiliated. His interpretation of Lear remains a mystery…).

    In many ways the humanist’s truths are *more* empirically grounded than the scientist’s — nobody can seriously suggest that Hamlet (or Lear, for that matter) doesn’t die at the end, but the physics of motion has been shown time and again to be misunderstood, in need of revision, and perhaps at root a matter of interpretation.

    In the end, “science” is primarily a cultural framework against which convincing arguments can be made and in which fairly decent approximations of reality are possible. That it’s not the only way is obvious in that people lacking Western notions of science have survived and even thrived without killing themselves off for lack of an understanding of the world around them.

    What this says about Rex’s unease with non-disciplinary anthropologies, I don’t know. I don’t think he makes a very convincing case that something someone calls “anthropology” isn’t really anthropology, but then I don’t really care. I’m perfectly comfortable with the notion that there’s many anthropologies, we just happen to practice the one (or the few) that have been elevated (yes, Marge, though acts of power, some of them purely humanist, even) to the status of academic discipline. Sure, we’re a science (and a humanity) — and absolutely, we’ve got that whole “our ideas relate to empirical reality” thing going on — but I don’t see why we have to go and make that everything.

  8. Good lord.

    My entry was concerned with the style of Rhodes’s research. What’s wrong with that?

    In my previous post I indicated that there were multiple disciplines with different approaches, and somehow you have spun this up into the idea that there are no standards at all in choosing between them. I believe the first but not the second.

    I originally invoked Bach and Purcell to make a point about embodied, craft knowledge: that a lot of our knowledge — and, I think, especially the important bits of it — is embodied, unreflexive, and a result of our training in a tradition. You seem to assume that my point was about the arbitrariness of a _listener’s_ preference for Purcell over Bach, but in fact it was about _musicians’_ familiarity with them.

    But now that you bring it up, consider issues of taste: how do you know that King Lear is a better play than Titus Andronicus?

    Few who really care about literature would claim that the choice between the two is arbitrary. When we argue about these things, we give reasons, and yet our argumentation in this case is hardly ‘scientific’.

    Most of our lives are lived making these sorts of judgments — they are the normal condition in which we live our lives. ‘Scientific’ discourse seems to me a very small clearing in this sea of our practice — and I think ‘scientists’ fool themselves a lot of the time about just how different their practice is from ours.

    Although you claim that anything about people is ‘grist for the mill’ I think your model of how I should or shouldn’t make decisions seems to have missed the humanities, which have examined how people speak about style, taste, and judgment in exactly the way I’m doing here in these comments.

    These comments are a reflection about the craft of anthropology and how it gets inside you, not an experiment I’ve performed on Rod Rhodes. You may find this lack of ‘objectivity’ distressing but I’m not sure what else you expected to find on a blog. And if it others you greatly that there are other forms of knowledge out there other than the rational and scientific then your problem is not with me, but life.

  9. Well one thing I might say about anthropology, is that it very often has a notion of “doing social science” where that is NOT synonymous with “making testable propositions. Obviously it’s hard to discuss Rex’s claim without the article to hand–but, having downloaded it and given the article a 10 minute skim, I’m inclined to agree with Rex, and will try to explain why (I will also try to look at it more carefully and elaborate).

    (BTW the article is behind a pay screen when you click on Rex’s link, but anyone with privileges at a University Library can probably get it by logging in through their own system and looking it up using the bibliographic data that the link provides.)

    The article does not seem like anthropology for the following reasons, some of reflecting more profound differences than others.

    1. It begins with a defense of ethnography “versus” [!] empiricism.

    2. Although it mentions interpretation, it seems to see the goal of ethnography as largely descriptive – whereas I would talk about “ethnographic analysis” and be interested in interpretation in some way that goes beyond actor-centric notions of communication/pragmatic intent–at least to the point of trying to uncover the assumptions and conditions of possibility underlying particular communicative events.

    3. There didn’t seem to be an attempt to formulate the kind of mid level generalizations that Geertz (eg) says are what ethnography makes possible (and what make description possible too–

    4. One would also expect an anthropologist writing about a ministry to address, however briefly, what this work says about the nature of “power” or some such thing.


    I should add that, like Rex, I think the piece looks interesting, and I suppose one of the questions one might ask is whether its virtues (a certain immediacy and grounding in its subjects point of view) are related to the “lacks” I allege above.

    I am also curious: Rex, do my observations capture some of what you were thinking about, or were you working from some different intuitive sense of what constitutes anthropology.

    And, BTW, with reference to Karen’s comments, I think what is at stake here is not simply a matter of drawing boundaries (though of course it is that) but an attempt to describe what the boundaries enclose–to see whether they mark something that is usefully distinguished.

  10. Oh yeah: How is it exactly that we can neatly separate “style” from content? It seems to me that Rex’s comments on style are AS SUCH comments on scientific substance.

  11. Rex:
    I’m puzzled, too. What is it specefically about Rhode’s paper that persuaded you it wasn’t anthropology qua anthropology? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask you to elaborate on specifics supporting your argument. As someone who came from an Anthro background where the cultural crowd and the archealogical crowd were suspiscious of each other — and neither group would talk to the physical anthro crowd — yet all were bundled together in the same department of Anthropology — your boundary-marking behavior brings back fond memories ;-).

  12. Personally, I prefer to await, after a lifetime of work, the judgment of the Great Arbiter to learn if I may be deemed a Real Anthropologist. It is so much more objective that way.

  13. I understand the substance of your remarks completely, as an anthropologist who wandered into other disciplines that cover similar ground. On your specific topic of future research, though, I would recommend Bent Flyvbjerg’s “Rationality and Power.” He, too, is not an anthropologist, but a planner who does a case study on the many bureaucratic institutions involved in the planning of (if I remember correctly) a bus depot in Aalborg, Denmark, in a very richly ethnographic way (without the intermediate analysis of an anthropologist). It was assigned by Sally Falk Moore as an excellent resource for thinking about how to do ethnographies of bureaucracies and governmental institutions. It may prove useful to you.

  14. Can I add my voice to those asking what it is about Rhode’s paper which makes in unanthropological? I agree with beowulf888, it is not unreasonable to ask why you think this is so.

    By the way, taking an ethnographic paper entitled “Everyday Life In A Ministry: Public Administration As Anthropology” and writing that ‘this research inside British ministries is written with an easy wit and keen insight. But it is not anthropology’ is a wonderfully sharp way of damning something with faint praise. Was this intentional?

    I think before we set up Rex as the Chuck Norris of anthropological boundary-marking, some answers need to be forthcoming.

    Rex, perhaps if you know of a complimentary article from another discipline which DOES seem to be anthropological, we could compare and contrast and learn more about what your gut is telling you?

  15. “Ethnography” is a narrative description of exotic people in a far-of lands based on participant observation.”

    I call bullshit. (However, if you were being sarcastic, I apologize in advance.) Ethnography can cover far more than “exotic peoples.” I don’t see the point of such an overly narrow definition (and implicit critique of those using term).

  16. Rex wrote:

    “These comments are a reflection about the craft of anthropology and how it gets inside you, not an experiment I’ve performed on Rod Rhodes. You may find this lack of ‘objectivity’ distressing but I’m not sure what else you expected to find on a blog. And if it others you greatly that there are other forms of knowledge out there other than the rational and scientific then your problem is not with me, but life.”

    I don’t deny that there are other forms of “knowing” than the rational and scientific. I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism for thirty years.

    I’m just not prepared to accept that anthropology is a craft that one learns by immersion in a particular tradition, and that it’s necessarily non-rational and non-scientific. That seems to me to be an extremely peculiar version of anthropology, one that’s at 180 degrees from the original vision of anthropology as the science of man. It makes it sound more like a cult, an Eleusinian mystery, than anything else.

    I’m not trying to target you as a person, Rex, and I’m sorry if I’ve said anything that seems personal or vindictive. I don’t want to play the academic one-up game, where one person wins by putting the other down. Perhaps the problem here is that I received much the same training that you did, from the same doctoral program. You seem to have internalized it and I’ve rejected it utterly. I never finished my PhD at U of C — in part because my daughter was born and in part because I was utterly conflicted. I wanted to please my professors by saying the things they wanted to hear (I’d had years of practice at that) and yet at the same time I didn’t BELIEVE much of what was being shoved down my throat. I tried to believe; I tried to say what was expected; and then I hated myself for truckling. I experienced the whole process as coercion and indoctrination, and I still do see it that way. There was an assumption that I would be a quasi-Marxist (and I wasn’t); that I would be irreligious (and I wasn’t); that I would reject any kind of biological, ethological, or psychological perspective on culture (and I didn’t), that I would admire Foucault (and I thought he was a poseur) …. and so on. Whenever I opened my mouth to question orthodoxy, someone – like Marshall Sahlins – would pull rank on me. “That’s stupid.” End of interaction. It’s partly my fault; I didn’t have the courage to protest, I just retreated into silence. But I’m not sure that students should have to be heroic in resisting indoctrination.

    So where you feel at home in your version of the tradition and the “craft”, I see it as a mental cage. I’m still interested in social science, still reading widely, but I’m reading Sperber, Boyd and Richerson, cognitive psychology, various ethologists, complexity theory, anti-nationalists like Gellner, Anderson, and Geary, and doing a great deal of pleasant, unfocused reading and experiencing of Middle Eastern and South Asian history and culture. (Ranging from learned debates on paleoclimatology and early Islamic history to watching Dhoom 2 and listening to Niyaz.)

    Is that anthropology? Perhaps not by your definition, but it seems to overlap a great deal with some other people are doing and calling anthropology. I don’t care. I’m interested in understanding problems, by whatever techniques seem useful.

    As for Oneman’s comments – I feel that many of his comments are debating feints rather than real engagements with issues. Sorry, Oneman, but there is indeed a real difference between a statement like Harold Bloom’s:

    “This analysis suggests that Lear’s disgust with women’s lust is so strong because it is really disgust with himself; at the same time, his initial expectations of Cordelia’s “kind nursery” are so high because he identifies her with nurturing qualities and vulnerabilities not easily admitted by a king whose royal symbol is the dragon.”

    and, say, a prediction that the Michelson-Morley experiment would demonstrate the existence of the ether … and it didn’t. Or that observations of Mercury would confirm special relativity – which they did.

    No one argues that Lear didn’t die. They don’t argue about that at all. Literary scholars argue about how Lear should be interpreted, and there’s no possible test there. Either Bloom convinces or he doesn’t, either you “get it” or you don’t. It’s a matter of taste, much as liking films or novels or songs is a matter of taste.

    But when science is working properly, it makes statements that can be either tested, or rationally argued. That’s why string theory is so controversial of late. Smolin is complaining that it doesn’t give any testable predictions. See What’s up with physics.

    Suggesting that different societies have different “sciences” and they’re all equal is sophistry. The theory of humors didn’t give us cytology and immunology; modern scientific medicine did. Modern “scientific” medicine is far from being as evidence-based and experimental as it could be; it fails miserably to live up to its aspirations – but for all that, it works better than Galen.

    Social science is epistemologically difficult, yes (how do you know when you’re being dispassionate? Or perhaps just fooling yourself and shilling for power?). It’s also not clear exactly what would constitute convincing “proof”, in the same way that carefully designed experiments settle questions. Myself, I think the way forward is careful study of human history (from Australopithecus to present times, as one sweep), ethology and cognitive psychology, and complexity theory and computer modeling for studying emergent properties of social groups in interaction with the environment. I’m probably wrong – but at least I’m trying to frame things in such a way that I could be shown to be wrong.

  17. “But when science is working properly, it makes statements that can be either tested, or rationally argued. That’s why string theory is so controversial of late. Smolin is complaining that it doesn’t give any testable predictions. See What’s up with physics.”

    That doesn’t stop string theory from being science, does it? And for the most part, we simply don’t test the basic tenets of “science”, we simply accept them as givens. I’ll never run a high-energy particle accelerator (though I’ve got one, of course!) to test whether D-branes are, in fact, made of strings. Many (maybe all) of the people working in theoretical physics will never do so. That doesn’t seem to give physicists the same epistemological nightmares that my inability to raise children in a culture-free vacuum in order to test my blank slat-ish theories of human development seems to cause the anthro-naysayers.

    The assertion that there’s some special difference between Bloom’s convincingness and Einstein’s convincingness sounds akin to Rex’s assertion that there’s some special difference between his anthropology and Rhodes’. Science is, first and foremost, a framework for convincingness — “I thought x, I tested it in such and such a way, and x was confirmed. Convinced?” Others might attempt to reproduce their results (though a lot of science is simply cataloguing observed phenomena), which is even more convincing. The claims and tests are held against science’s principles as a standard of evaluation, and are accepted or not (“What do you mean ‘invisible mass’? Where in reality does that exist?”)

    How is that different, though, from what the literary critic does? The text, like “nature” or “ontological reality” or whatever you want to call the scientist’s reality, is there before us; the critic points out passages and ties them together in a particular way; their argument is set against the humanistic framework for evaluating such claims (“Lear was hot for his daughters? Where in the text does it say that?”). There is no functional difference there, except that, as I said, the empirical reality of the literary creation is less disputed (as you pointed out, nobody disputes that Lear dies at the end; tachyons, on the other hand…). The difference is one of frameworks, and I don’t see the existence of differing frameworks as at all sophistic, though I’m not arguing for the “equality” of those different views (whatever that would consist of). Medicine is, as you say, great stuff (mmm, Nyquil!) but it’s not great stuff in any absolute sense — it’s great for a high-population density, consumption-based society, maybe irrelevant in the kinds of societies people lived in 50,000 years ago. As I sak my students, “better at what?”, and I’d ask you the same thing — science is better at what? Are the kinds of things science is better at the things we should be pursuing as anthropologists, or is there something to be said for the kinds of things Bloom is better at?

  18. Getting back to Rex – I’m curious about what he means by his remark: “…what is distinctive about our discipline – not the fact that we handle ethnographic data but the way we handle it.” As far as I know there are no other academic disciplines that analyze ethnographic data. Sociology has gone completely quant. So one could argue ethnography, no matter how it is practiced, is by default a unique identifier of the discipline of cultural anthropology. Granted anthropology – even the specialized discipline of cultural anthropology – encompasses much more than ethnography.

    I’m gratified to see that Rex doesn’t claim that ethnography is a science. Certainly ethnography fails meet the requirements for empirical falsifiability. I think Oneman is (purposely?) missing the point of Karen’s posts. Karen isn’t arguing with Rex about the scientific validity of ethnography, rather she’s asking him for the methodology of his reasoning.

  19. “As far as I know there are no other academic disciplines that analyze ethnographic data..”

    Aside of some sociologists still try to establish more qualitative research within their discipline, also historians for (much) more than one decade work with ethnographic data.

  20. Ok well by now a couple of questions seem to have separated themselves out:

    1) the never-ending debate about status of anthropology as a ‘science’: My position in a nutshell is that scientific disciplines are not themselves particularly scientific, including anthropology. I’ve been very influenced by Gadamer on these matters (if that helps).

    2) normative anthropology, descriptive anthropology, and the anthropological:

    As a normative, prescriptivist level I suppose someone could go around judging who is and is not part of The One True Anthropology. I have no interest in this project.

    In a very straightforward way you can also describe, ethnographically, who in our society is an anthropologist and who is not just based on the reflexive labellings we natives give ourselves: Clifford Geertz was an anthropologist, Elvis Presley was not. I, for instance, am not a professor of Public Administration. In this sense — the sense of his socialization and institutional position — Rhodes is not an anthropologist. This, to me, is not a big deal.

    3) As for how this isn’t ‘anthropological’ here is what I can figure out so far (my copy of the article is not in front of me now):

    1. Rhodes presents his fieldnotes as data, instead of… uh… something else. I guess the anthropological thing is to feel that you have undergone some sort of transformation in the field which gives you insight into a situation? Of which the fieldnotes are a record?

    2. There is no analysis that seems anthropological. I mean there are generalizations from the data about how, in general, these offices work. But there is no ‘value added’ — no riffing on indigenous themes to add an extra layer of analysis of signification.

    3. He takes the native point of view as his own too easily. I think its very anthropological to come away from your field site with a different insight into life than your informants have. I’m not sure this is a _good_ thing, but it seems to be an anthropological thing.

    4. Rhodes has such a keen insight into people’s character and a deft touch with his prose that lets his feel for their personalities come out. And yet I feel that this is submerged in the paper as if this sort of thick description were a guilty pleasure (there are doubtless PA genre conventions at work here). I think the anthropological thing to do would be to foreground that voice rather than worry so much about producing charts based on diary entries.

    The diaries are a good example of this — Rhodes treats them as repositories (albeit imperfectly recorded) of data that can be synthesized to provide an account of how ministers and secretaries spend their time. Can you imagine what an anthropologist would do with an artifact as scrumptious as that diary? Riffing off of the centrality of work, scheduling, the mixture of formality and informality (and formal informality) that it represents, etc. etc.

    Now to reiterate, I liked Rhodes’s paper quite a lot and I am looking forward to reading more of his work. But does this give y’all some sense of what I am trying to get at?

  21. May I suggest that most of these qualities may be generally attributed to applied research? I (anthropologist by certificate, though *really* a transsexual sportswriter trapped in the body of a qualitative sociologist) have been working in a policy environment off and on for the past few years, an area where the production of knowledge falls definitively within the purview of ‘applied’ research, and in which the final report will be considered successful to the degree that it uncritically accepts the pragmatic orientation of its audience and goes on to offer them something tangible to hold up as an effective step towards solving whatever immediately compelling crisis it was that motivated their investment in your work in the first place. Thick description, critical problematizations of the current paradigm, tropic analysis that veers too strongly from the politics into the poetics of a lifeworld, and all other sorts of scholastic confectionary need to be ruthlessly edited out of a piece of prose intending to cast its fortunes with the policy audience. As for what this says about ‘our’ brand integrity, the colonial connection between anthropology and policy is poised to repeat itself (as noliberal farce) in the context of the global counterinsurgency, meaning that applied anthropology has been and may well again become the fiduciary beating heart of anthropology as a profession. Geertz was a moment in time, as are we all, but the relentless march of human policy formation is eternal.

  22. Thank you, Rex. The confrontation with the “other” that casts in doubt social customs that one had accepted as natural and immutable is a useful formulation. Yes, someone working within a social group whose assumptions he/she accepts as given is just not going to see what an outsider would see. Which is why anthro professors unsettle their students with “among thes” and why anthros are sent out to fulfill their rite of passage among the “others”.

    As to my pushiness in demanding a more exact formulation: it’s unpleasant, but useful to argue with someone who is not going to nod his/her head and say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I’ve had to take a break from Wikipedia, but when I was editing there, I found that arguing with the uneducated and violently prejudiced forced me to sharpen my views. It was enlightening the first few times, at least; after that, it was boring.

    I wasn’t acquainted with Gadamer, save as a name vaguely remembered, juxtaposed to Habermas, but trotted off to Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to orient myself.

    Nothing in the summaries there convinced me that the man was going to help me understand social interactions. Perhaps there’s something that he’s written, translated into English, that’s of more direct relevance? I’m open to suggestion. I was also disagreeably struck with the assumption that philosophy is best done as commentary on Plato and Aristotle. What about Indian and Chinese philosophy, hmmmm?

  23. This thread began with Rex’s reading of Rhodes. I wonder if anyone here but me is reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable? Taleb’s central thesis is devastating for all of the social “sciences” but not in the ponderous manner of German philosophers running on about subjectivity.

    The description of the author on the inside back cover reads,

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb has devoted his life to immersing himself in problems of luck, uncertainty, probability, and knowledge. Part literary essayist, part empiricist, part non-nonsense mathematical trader, he is currently taking a break by serving as the Dean’s Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His last book, the bestseller Fooled by Randomness, has been published in twenty languages. Taleb lives mostly in New York.

    His thesis, briefly summarized, is that human beings are, by nature, inclined to oversimplify and thus to ignore the black swans, i.e., unpredictable or, sometimes even unthinkable, events that are, in fact, the major shapers of both individual lives and history writ large. We tell ourselves stories that reflect our assumptions and may even appear logical given those assumptions. But rare, indeed, are those like the late Karl Popper, the financier George Soros, or Taleb himself, empirical skeptics who practice the basic scientific discipline of constantly seeking to falsify what they believe and do not waste time trying to rationalize the unexpected when it does occur.

    From Taleb’s perspective this critique applies not only to humanists and other qualitative researchers who make up retrospective stories to explain what they encounter. It applies with equal force to quantitative researchers who assume normal distributions and exclude outliers from their data. Taken seriously, Taleb’s critique implies that most of what most “scholars” do is predictably mostly nonsense, post hoc ergo propter hoc “analysis” that neither predicts the future nor adequately explains the past.

    Taleb’s argument is not ethnographic, though it does reflect his personal experience as the descendant of a prominent Lebanese Greek-Syriac family brought up to believe in the natural harmony of the ethnic groups making up Lebanon—before, that is, the Lebanese civil war—and a trader who has made a comfortable personal fortune that allows him to pursue academic pursuits without having to worry about tenure committees and deans. It is, I suggest, anthropological in an older, four-field sense, spanning as it does evolutionary biology, cognitive science and cognitive psychology, historiography and a good deal of classical philosophy that appears to have been read in the original languages. It has, in this respect, a positively Boasian sweep.

    Highly recommended as a source of intellectual challenge.

  24. “Karen isn’t arguing with Rex about the scientific validity of ethnography, rather she’s asking him for the methodology of his reasoning.”

    I was responding to a particular statement in a comment. Since I don’t have a horse in the race of what anthropology isn’t, and since The Agency did not clear me to comment on such matters, I’ve not been particularly concerned with the outlines of Rex’s gut feelings on the matter. I detected a discussion that was perilously close to going down the well-worn and absurd anti-postmodernist track, and I intervened. So sue me.

    Incidentally, the only ethnography course at the New School when I was there was taught by sociologist Terry Williams, who would, I imagine, be quite surprised to find that ethnography is the exclusive province of the anthros! Granted, not all the socios embraced the concept: I remember a socio on the first day objecting that “if we rely on our own experiences, how do we know it’s real?” Talk about your epistemological crises!

  25. For the record, though, I’m not sure Rex’s criteria of in-field transformation and outsiderness really matter all that much. I would bet that the number of people who really experience that “coming-of-age” crap is rather small — I’ve read far more accounts of depression when the magic moment didn’t arrive than of magic moments. And while I suppose Rex could be talking about a kind of anthropological detachment even when studying people one identifies as one of, it seems like he’s saying that anthropology relies on the otherness of its subjects, which is untrue, of course.

    What distinguishes our anthropology from other anthropologies is not our methodology, which are tools that others can and do use. I know we’d like there to be this thing that’s clear as a bell and unrefutable, but I’m quite sure there isn’t any such thing — we’re stuck with subtle intellectual influences, disciplinary histories, and Rex’s starting point, our sense of craft and vocation.

    Oh, and cross-cultural comparison, if anyone does that sort of thing anymore…

  26. bq. Oh, and cross-cultural comparison, if anyone does that sort of thing anymore…

    I think oneman has hit on an important point point here–while explicit cross cultural comparison (in the HRAF or other modes) isn’t exactly practiced these days (though what, if not cross-cultural comparison, is the anthropology of “modernity”) these days, there is an implicit comparative dimension to most anthropological work that has something to do with what Rex doesn’t see in Rhodes. Rex says:

    bq. 2. There is no analysis that seems anthropological. I mean there are generalizations from the data about how, in general, these offices work. But there is no ‘value added’—no riffing on indigenous themes to add an extra layer of analysis of signification.

    Some of that value-added attention to themes comes from the implicitly comparative “what makes this an ENGLISH state?” or “what makes this a WESTERN BUREAUCRATIC state?” question.

  27. On a separate topic, I read the implications of the BLACK SWAN argument differently: they seem to undermine the possibility of prediction yes, but its not clear that this undermines after the fact explanation. To take the Virginia tech case (since this seems to be where the Black Swan ideas has come up a lot lately). It can certainly be true that the shooter’s being a lonely, alienated, angry, misogynistic, young male had a lot to do with why he did what he did, without it being the case that we could somehow have predicted it. I’d say this has something to do with the complexity of causality in human affairs–the causal factor we can identify are probably always neither necessary nor sufficient, with that implying that they were not in fact major causal factors.

  28. Jeff your point about the ‘applied’ feel of Rhodes’s paper is spot on — my impression of PA as a discipline is that it has it is a relatively recent discipline and is only now branching away from its origins as an adjunct to governance. Perhaps anthropology and PA cross as one seeks to become more ‘relevant’ while the other attempts to develp its intellectual autonomy from policy making?

    As for cross-cultural comparison, I think this is another thing that the Rhodes lacks. HRAF is now out of fashion, but anthropologists as a whole are willing to compare any place to any other place and flatter themselves to think that they have a pretty global knowledge of the realm of human options. We read about private secretaries, for instance, and think of talking chiefs in the Pacific Northwest or the priests in Indoeuropean tripartite divisions of society. Rhodes doesn’t have this distinctive, instinctive inventory of examples to work from and compare to. Again, this is not bad, it just makes him different from anthropologists.

    Gadamer: This was a guy whose favorite line was “I basically only read books that are a thousand years old.” I seem to remember that there is an essay at the end of Philosophical Apprenticeships that is accessible, but really the long, slow crawl through Truth and Method is the only way to go. His goal is to describe the structure of human understanding and the role that tradition plays in it.

    He’s interested in the way that interpretation involves us realizing the history of the effect that the text we are reading has had on our consciousness because of its effect on our society. So to you Karen, I guess he would say “your study of Buddhist texts is in fact a commentary on Aristotle and Plato (to wit, that it drove you into the arms of the Platform Sutra).” Escaping your tradition, after all, is the best sign that it has an enduring effect on your consciousness.

    But whatever. I see Aristotle as a precursor to the Rambam and not Aquinas, so there you go.

  29. Rex, you were probably just making a joke, but …

    I don’t think that cultural boundaries can easily be drawn, and I don’t like being slotted into a syllogism such as: Karen, part of Western culture; Western culture, derived from Aristotle and Plato; ergo, Karen influenced by Aristotle and Plato. I don’t discern any Aristotle or Plato in my mental landscape and I often don’t feel like a “Westerner”.

    The ritual genuflection to Plato and Aristotle seems to me more of a claim to “high culture” on the part of the people claiming the centrality of the Greeks, plus a rationalization of time spent plodding through the old texts. Having done two years of classical Greek, and struggled through Xenophon, I can’t say that I was deeply edified by the process. (BTW, this isn’t directed at you — you’re just following down a well-worn path — it’s a snark at the whole damn scholarly enterprise that starts history with Homer and leaves out the Analects, the Upanishads, etc.)

    The lingering deference to the classical tradition remind me of one of Charlotte Yonge’s novels (Yonge being a Victorian novelist, best known for The Heir of Redclyffe), in which the whole May family awaits with bated breath the results of a college competition for the best original Latin poem. One of the May sons wins! Joy and jubilation; he will go down in history; his future is assured! Except that the future lay not with the young men writing Latin poetry, but with the young men (and women) in the laboratories, scribbling for the press and the stage, building railroads, digging up potsherds, etc.

    Actually, the old text with which I feel the deepest involvement is the Genji Monogatari. I’ve got two translations, the Seidensticker and the Waley; the Waley is flawed, but lovely, and my copy is falling apart.

  30. Karen writes,

    I don’t like being slotted into a syllogism such as: Karen, part of Western culture; Western culture, derived from Aristotle and Plato; ergo, Karen influenced by Aristotle and Plato.

    Does it matter to the anthropologist analyzing Karen’s behavior that she doesn’t like what he sees? Not, does it matter emotionally? Being a gentleman, he may not wish to offend. But, does it matter analytically, if the anthropologist has evidence on which to build a case for something of which Karen may be unaware or to which, if made aware, she may object?

    I recall Vic Turner pointing out that the anthropologist studying a ritual may see people acting in ways that contradict the meaning they ascribe to what they do. No big surprise this, just the sort of inference that occurs in other contexts where people have things to deny. A psychoanalyst, for example may detect a hidden complex which her patient has repressed. A analyst of ideology may point to social contradictions of which the members of a society are normally unconscious.

    Do we throw away these lines of interpretation or explanation simply because someone doesn’t like them? That would, it seems to me, bring our whole enterprise to a grinding halt.

  31. comet jo writes,

    On a separate topic, I read the implications of the BLACK SWAN argument differently: they seem to undermine the possibility of prediction yes, but its[sic] not clear that this undermines after the fact explanation.

    Taleb does not argue that historical explanation is impossible, only that, as a matter of fact, historians rarely consider the hypothesis that the events they describe are random and proceed systematically to demonstrate that this is not so. History is not only storytelling, which involves asserting causal relations that may or may not have actually existed; it is also plagued by survivor bias. The historian writing the history of Rome, for example, rarely considers the Carthagian perspective that might well have prevailed had Hannibal been just a wee bit luckier.

  32. omg. You have studied two years of Greek and now read Japanese in _translation_ and consider your deep and continuing sense of alienation from “The Western Tradition” as sign of its total lack of influence on your sense of self? Man.

    As a Jew married to a scholar of Buddhism living in Polynesia _I_ am not the one drawing boundaries between Aristotle as the ‘Western’ thinker versus ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ philosophy. Recognizing tradition means discerning connections, not drawing boundaries. As I hinted at in my last comment, you can think of Aristotle as a Muslim philosopher (via Ibn Khaldun) or (more relevant for me) influencing Jewish thinkers such as the Rambam (Maimonides). And as for Buddhism which is it, “Chinese” or “Indian”? Or perhaps the version of Chan that you practice is “Japanese”? What about the bits of the Pirke Avot that found there way into the Dhammapada Commentary?

    And as for your subject position, Karen, don’t worry — I was referring quite specifically to your own biography as you have narrated it here, which involves reaction against “the whole scholarly enterprise” at a personal, institutional, and religious level which has clearly left you preoccupied with issues regarding rationality, authority and knowledge and how alternatives might be found in “the east” — I mean you left a Great Books University and took up Chan Buddhism of all things! Can you not see that rejecting The Western Tradition involves being influenced by it, including drawing lines around it and other work so that you can cross them in the course of your own identity work?

    But at any rate I think we’ve pretty much gotten to the bottom of the Rhodes so I’ll refrain from further comments here.

    Some random bibliography:
    You may want to take a look at my colleague Roger Ames’s work if you haven’t already:
    On the history of ‘great books’ and ‘Western tradition’ in American education you might want to check out _The Opening of the American Mind_ by Lawrence Levine and, for Chicago in particular, _Powers of the Mind_ by Donald Levine. Heh… of course there is also Bloom’s _The Anxiety of Influence_ but since he has had no influence on you then you probably don’t need to bother…

    Good luck with it!

  33. John says:

    Taleb does not argue that historical explanation is impossible, only that, as a matter of fact, historians rarely consider the hypothesis that the events they describe are random and proceed systematically to demonstrate that this is not so.

    Isn’t that the difference between Idiographic and Nomothetic approaches to knowledge? The discipline of History is usually practiced as the former, and implicitly regards its subject matter as accidental or subjective.

    History … is also plagued by survivor bias.

    Which is why you should, instead, always do Archaeology (where an understanding of taphonomy and sampling is explicitly built in (er…sometimes)).

    But seriously, is there something new here? I haven’t read the book.

  34. I’m not alienated from the Western tradition. I’m morphing it. Or a least a few strands of an undefined and amorphous it.

    I’m a scholar, but not an academic. The two are not coterminous.

    If various folks here want to insist that I’m deeply intellectually indebted to Aristotle and Plato, I’d like something more than a mere assertion of authority. Is this supposed to be some attribute of high culture (but not everyday culture) that I have absorbed? What is it then? Or is everyday life in Honolulu Hawai’i deeply influenced by Greek philosophers? How so?

    It’s certainly true that Aristotle and Plato have been taught as canon in Graeco-Roman and successor societies for several thousand years. But have the bearers of high culture who engaged with these texts always engaged with them in the same way? Drawn the same conclusions? Do people still engage with these texts in the old ways? No. They’re a remote cause of the current state of affairs, along with many other influences — such as, say, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, Catharism.

    Someone claimed that my objection was a mere emotional assertion on my part, and hence to be ignored. No, it was a scientist’s “show me”. Prove it. Trotting out the idol of the tribe and insisting that I bow doesn’t bend my back. It is, however, quite possible that there’s some theme in the Greek philosophers, as yet unarticulated, that I would instantly recognize and admit once it was teased out.

    Knowing modern Japanese wouldn’t help me read the Genji Monogatari, which is written in an antique form of Japanese. Modern Japanese read it in translation, or heavily annotated. Perhaps an analog would be Chaucer.

    I know Roger Ames. He attends my Zen center. I’m sorry I missed his lectures on Zen and Confucianism, which I’m told were quite interesting.

  35. Tim writes, “But seriously, is there something new here? I haven’t read the book.”

    I repeat something I wrote in response to a similar question on lit-ideas,

    To me what makes Taleb fascinating is not that the ideas he offers are original. He himself makes no such claim and is candid about his sources. The fascination lies in the range of erudition, with Popper bracketed by Solon and Sextus Empiricus on the one hand and George Soros and Mandelbrot on the other, and the practical relevance and application illustrated by roman a clef stories taken from Taleb’s experience as a Lebanese exile who has seen the delightful, peaceful country in which he spent his childhood descend into chaos and the securities trading business in which he makes his apparently very good living. His approach to trading is, by the way, contrary to all sorts of currently popular approaches, depending as it does on accepting continuing small losses to place bets on remote contingencies with very large payoffs, and keeping your winnings in treasury bonds to maximize security.

    Whenever this kind of question comes up, I am reminded of Hal Walsh, who taught a seminar on metaphysics when I was doing philosophy at Michigan State. Walsh argued that there were no more than 75 original ideas in the whole of Western philosophy. For the seminar he jotted them down on slips of paper, had his students draw five from a hat, and attempt to construct a coherent metaphysics using all and only those five ideas–a very informative exercise.

    I have long since resigned myself to the fact that most of the authors we read are original only in the ways in which they assemble and reshape existing material. Still leaves plenty of scope for innovation though. After all, every chemical in the universe is made up of various combinations of the same hundred-odd elements, the infinities of number theory can be derived from the five Peano postulates, and, as the geneticist Theodore Dobzhansky pointed out, the number of possible combinations of human genes exceeds the number of electrons in the visible universe.

    To me it makes more sense to ask of an author, which ideas does he use and does he put them together in a provocative or interesting way. Taleb does that for me.

  36. Karen writes,

    Someone claimed that my objection was a mere emotional assertion on my part, and hence to be ignored. No, it was a scientist’s “show me”. Prove it. Trotting out the idol of the tribe and insisting that I bow doesn’t bend my back.

    Karen, you feel offended, but I, the supposed-to-be-guilty party in the case, was not asserting that your objection was emotional. I was raising a scientist’s question. If the scientist’s evidence points to conclusions that the subject of his theory finds abhorrent, is that, in and of itself, grounds for rejecting them? My answer is “No.”

    As for evidence, neither of us has done any proper research. But can you deny that you live in a time and place that where people are constantly arguing in terms of categories, whose members are supposed to share certain uniform properties, allowing deductive inferences about them? Those who employ this style of argumentation employ, even if ignorant of the source, the logic of the Organon. You may reply that you reject this logic, but rejection implies minimally an awareness of its existence. To object, reject, reframe, whatever it is you are up to, is prima facie evidence that influence has occured.

    The only way to deny this proposition is to restrict the meaning of “influence” to direct imitation. I sincerely doubt that anyone here will be willing to make that move, undermining as it does all efforts to understand how texts in any tradition affect the tradition in question as the ideas they promote are reinterpreted by successive generations of reader/authors and spread to people who may never have read the original texts.

  37. Logic was formalized in Greece, India, and China, in approximately the same time frame and probably independently. Logical argument doesn’t imply indebtedness to Aristotle.

    Euclid, however, seems to have been the first to formalize mathematics — well, geometry. Mathematical techniques from many parts of the world have contributed to modern math, but deduction from axioms seems to have been Euclid’s.

    If you want me to bow to Euclid, I’ll do so happily 🙂

Comments are closed.