What anthropology isn’t (part II)

Its always seemed to me that scientists have a sort of double consciousness: the have a professional commitment to rigor, cynicism, and falsifiability. Scientists are supposed to try to prove their hypotheses wrong, not right. At the same time, part of the aesthetics of science is the beckoning image of a future in which we’ve got it All Figured Out. Faith — and fascination — in science and its potential as a method of knowing also runs deep.

Is it just me, or is this seems to be something that sociocultural anthropologists lack? We think — by which I mean “I find myself thinking” — that an article or paper is ‘good’ if it makes some sort of contribution to the literature, if it’s beautiful to read, or if it answers some pressing question. Of course my friends who are biologists or physicists or (gasp) even archaeologists think all of the above makes papers good, and add one more — papers can be promising. They can gesture to the future and show their arguments or data or methods might lead to it. They can say “we ran five trials and the results don’t really prove anything, but they suggest that in the future we may find that….” or “now that we have proved this method works we can imagine the huge impact it will have if we were actually to use it…” There is a sense, it seems to me, of being part of an imagined community that has a certain forward motion to which you are contributing.

Do anthropologists have a sense of their discipline moving ‘ahead’ or ‘forward’ or making ‘progress’ such that the rhetorical move of the beckoning future appeals to them? Or perhaps they don’t like the ‘scientistic’ assumptions that underlie this approach and prefer something that is more idiographic? Or just more pessimistic?

I am personally pessimistic about the possibilities of progress or cumulativity in anthropology or pretty much anything I do but this doesn’t mean that I don’t pursue synthesis myself. These thoughts were spurred on by a grant application I recently finished in which I was asked to describe how my work would change anthropology — which is really a sort of terrible question to ask a recent Ph.D. The two options that I found attractive were either 1) this is a small but sturdy part of a larger edifice and I am an excellent team player or 2) I’m working on a generalizable theory that covers lots of topics and, yes, they are all adequately theorized on their own but hey why not generate an approach that says what we already know but says it in a potentially more general way?

Partially the problem is that I study topics that people have thought about for centuries (in the case of ‘the state’ even millennia), and of course we’ve long known that sociocultural types have many ways to imagine what they do as something other than ‘science’. What strikes me — and what I’d appreciate your thoughts about — is the way that this imagining (de)limits how you can describe your work as being ‘important’ or at least ‘satisfying’


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

24 thoughts on “What anthropology isn’t (part II)

  1. Hi,

    I have become deeply interested in anthropology over the course of the past year in which I’ve read quite a few popular scientific works on evolutionary theory (Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Matt Ridley) and have decided that I would like to get some formal education in the field. So literally next week I will begin my first anthropology class at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I’m very much looking forward to it and in preparation have become an avid reader of this and several other anthropology blogs.

    My point in saying all this is that I’ve become interested in anthropology *from* learning about evolution, and, as I understand it, there are myriad ways in which anthropological theory is buttressed by evolutionary theory. In an amateur way, I’ve come to believe that the base levels of what we call “culture” may be evolved behaviors and characteristics. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on *evolutionary anthropology* as an area in which something like “progress” might be possible.

    Brad Daly

  2. Mathematicians evaluate their work according to the criterion of “elegance”. Like mathematicians, anthros don’t generally have the benefit experimental controls and so on. Unlike mathos, we do have the benefit of being able to test our work against empirical reality and, to a degree, see if something that seems to explains behavior in one society or cultural context does a decent job in a different society or cultural context. I don’t feel uncomfortable about having different and sometimes contradictory sets of criteria against which we evaluate our work — the “scientific” as explained above and the “humanistic” corresponding with the mathematicians “elegance” or Rex’s “beautiful to read”.

  3. Oneman — I think your insight about mathematicians is really interesting. That is an example of a discipline whose ‘objectivity’ or ‘status as a science’ no one really doubts despite the fact that they don’t use experimental methods. Also, like anthropology, math is a discipline that most non-practitioners don’t understand. That said, it’s also a field that has trouble explaining to people why it’s ‘important’ and which never gets the money it needs/wants.

    Kerim — heh. I guess SM isn’t cumulative, or at least my knowledge of it isn’t. But seriously — I think one of the things I was trying to get out in the post is the way that cultural anthropologists worry constantly that they have forgotten the past instead of imagining themselves as part of a future. Even our discussions on the blog are fears of reinventing the wheel which is not a very future-oriented way of imaging (or taken for granted) creating disciplinary knowledge.

    This does seem to be a model that people in The Other Two Fields have no problem with, however, and I wonder what this means about a 4-field approach to anthropology?

    Brad — First: the pictures on your flickr site are _beautiful_. Second: the short answer is ‘no.’ The slightly longer answer is: it’s very very complicated, but no, culture is not really evolutionarily adaptive in the way that laymen tend to think of evolution. If you are interested in learning more I’d recommend reading Susas McKinnon’s pamphlet _Neo-liberal Genetics_, which goes over this in some detail. This is not to say that human communities don’t make their peace with the environments they live in, etc. or that phylogenetic approaches to culture are invalid (this is an area of debate within our field) but I think there are some basic conceptual clarifications that need to take place before you can pursue that sort of work.

  4. Hey, that’s me! I consider myself a sort of permanent outsider to the blogosphere, due to my tendency toward frequent and extended moody absences. So I get unreasonably excited when I return and immediately see myself mentioned. My empire is expanding.
    Now, on to business:

    Brad Daly, welcome to the minefield.
    Pardon me if I engage in a small rant. I’d like to talk to Brad here, but use that as a vehicle to get to my thoughts on what Rex is talking about. I have to make many a broad generalization along the way, but bear with me. I don’t think my characterizations of anthropology are offensive, but I’m sorry if anyone is put off: I’m an outsider here and I have to “call ‘em as I see ‘em”.
    I came to anthropology and evolutionary theory at around the same time, both through philosophy. I read “Consilience” and was totally pumped about the coming unification of anthropology and evolutionary theory.
    Only, it didn’t really work out that way. It turns out that there’s an uneven, but still quite pronounced animosity between people in these fields. There are a number of reasons for this.
    First, they don’t understand each other. “Evo” people seem to quite often be totally uninformed about even the most concrete of anthro stuff. As a consequence, their perspectives on social issues are often hopelessly simplistic, and they occasionally overstep their reach into anthro’s turf (see memetics, though I always point out that Dawkins literally says something along the lines of “please excuse me if this is all bunk, I don’t know anything about social theory and it’s only an idea.”)
    That knife cuts both ways though, because in my experience, there are a lot of anthro people (and for that matter, people in general) who don’t seem to have the best grasp on basic evolutionary theory, and who totally misinterpret what people like Dawkins are saying.
    Both sides have been known to raze a number of straw men.
    Second, they just don’t like each other. As I discuss the reasons for this, we’ll move closer to what Rex is talking about. Evo and anthro people seem to have very disparate goals, methodologies and perspectives on some very basic things.
    Let’s start with evolutionary theory. From what I’ve read by him, E.O. Wilson seems to be a pretty good example of what anthro people don’t like about evo people, so “Consilience” is a good place to begin. It’s been a while since I read that one, so forgive me if I’m a little off. Wilson has this immense vision of the unification of the “hard” and “soft” sciences. This is a great idea, and it’s what many of us from every background want! Unfortunately, if I remember correctly, the reason this hasn’t been happening so far, according to Wilson, is that the social sciences are full of loonies. He goes on to offer a vision of how the social sciences might be reformed which contains a lot of gun-jumping on evolutionary explanations, implies an uncomfortable amount of genetic determinism, misconstrues social theory and is generally ethnocentric (see his views on homosexuality.)
    Now, this basically hits anthro people in a lot of sore spots. First off, they (and some of their “friends”) are very obviously under attack and Wilson is clearly wrong about a few things, but it goes deeper than that. Anthro people are still in some ways trying to escape from the long shadow of the shady past of their discipline. As a reaction, anthropology, as a discipline, has situated itself pretty clearly in resistance to any form of domination. The anti-ethnocentric perspective and resistance to determinism, especially of the genetic variety, have both been cultivated, I would argue, as conditions for the very possibility of anthropological work.
    Anthropology is clearly tied up in the question of meaning, and an “emic” perspective is necessary to give an account of meaning that can’t easily be used as a tool for hegemony. This leads to a pretty widespread form of cultural relativism stemming from anthro giants like Franz Boas. It doesn’t mesh well with the sort of “etic” perspective of much of the “hard” sciences, which is almost certainly necessary to give an account of culture and meaning from an evolutionary standpoint.
    So anthro folks have a tendency to be resistant to folks like Wilson from the very start: the possibility of a grand unified scheme of western science is itself pretty menacing.
    As a side note, I hope I haven’t scared you off, Mr. Daly. Fields where there are conflict are the most interesting ones to be a part of, and precisely what we need is more people like you, who are genuinely interested in both evolutionary theory and anthropology.

    Now, to address Rex more directly: no, it’s not just you. People want to do anthropological work, and they also want to do it in a way that they consider ethical. In order to do both of these things they have created a very complex set of epistemic positions which are largely antithetical to the “etic” perspectives of the other natural sciences, and which undercut the possibility of a belief in real progress. There isn’t at this time a satisfactory way to reconcile these disparate perspectives (but I’m working on it.)
    To be honest, I think that many of these epistemic positions are mechanisms of self-defense and I think the cracks are showing. The trouble anthropology has had connecting to the “harder” sciences is one sign, and another is this quandary that you describe, which is, I think, the manifestation of the cognitive dissonance produced by a subtle inconsistency: “If I don’t believe in the progress of knowledge, then what am I trying to achieve here?”

    If this thread continues, I’d like to talk about why I recently changed my academic concentration from philosophy to cognitive science even though by all accounts I’m a dyed-in-the-wool philosopher, as I think that’s somewhat relevant. Also I’d like to get back to mathematics, but alas, I have work to do.

  5. Also, quickly and preemptively, because your (Rex) reply wasn’t up when I was writing, I would like to state that I agree with you, if that didn’t come across above. I didn’t get it across that the reason evolutionary approaches to culture haven’t worked is not because people are just squabbling but because they just don’t work. I do think that “culture” as a thing that humans do, exists for evolutionary reasons (this is something you almost have to take for granted if you believe in evolution, and it’s something that still needs explanation.) But it’s a great mistake to make the leap from that to thinking that it’s possible to explain particular facets of culture by evolutionary means, as many of the sociobiologists are guilty of.

  6. I think J.S. has hit a lot of this on the head — there’s nothing wrong with using evolution as an explanatory principle, but there is too much “gun jumping.” There are folk notions that, for instance, climate caused cultural innovation in Europe (because it was cold inside so people had more time to invent things). There is evolutionary psychology (just wacko). There is gun-jumping on the part of scientists who assume that because they are biologists they can speak about culture since it is ‘softer’ than biology, and the reason we anthros haven’t figured it out is because we’re all soft headed.

    This is also, imho, the reason that a 4 field notion of anthropology is so vital — an actual rigorous use of evolutionary theory is important to defend. The problem is that there are so many bad version out there — evolution as folk-notion, as unilineal development, as scientific hubris — and that it provides us simple explanations of the type we want to hear.

  7. See Brad, its basically about anthropologists’ tendency to regard other fields of inquiry or attempts at explanation as inherently inferior to anthropology. You will get a standard trope- a straw man actually- about how evolutionary psychology is reductionist (as if that’s a bad word), how ev pscyh is biological determinism, which it isn’t (or at least not by most), how work in ev psych. is riddled with ethnocentric biases (somewhat true, but not as much as many anthropologists believe). Some will also say something like ev. psych. is about hegemony, patriarchy, and racism.

    The plain truth is that the best evolutionary psychology is insightful, but a lot of it especially stuff heaped on the bandwagon train of it, *is* wacko. The reason for this is there *is* a lot of wacko racist sexist idiots out there attracted to biological explanations (or the appearance of biological explanation) for differences (or perceived differences) between groups. And thus anthropologists, who are not prone to making fine points concerning other fields (especially ones encroaching on their academic domain), and are certainly too busy being anthropologists to read much outside their small coterie, condemn the field wholesale as “wacko”.

    The unfortunate (and ugly) truth is that anthropology has lost whatever political capital it had outside its field; so much so that anthropology is considered by uncounted numbers as being full of, well, wackos. And anthropologists have themselves to blame: anthropology has become, essentially, anti-science. Anthropology is now a field of applied ethics, and anthropologists spend most of their time policing acceptable (or unacceptable) discourse. Its pretty sad, really.

    My advice is to read evolutionary psychology very critically, and to read critiques of it very critically too. Separate the chaffe from the wheat.

  8. J.S.
    Wonderful post. I’m still digesting it all, but it’s ironic that it takes someone coming from the “outside” to understand the cultural (and epistimological) dynamics of the Anthropological clans.

  9. Oh, right — it’s anthropologists who over-generalize about other disciplines out of ignorance and spite…

    I guess I got confused.

  10. I agree with hideaway — if you want to find out why evolutionary psychology is wacko, all you have to do is read it. As I said earlier, I’d also recommend Susan McKinnon’s excellent pamphlet “Neo-Liberal Genetics”. That said I agree with Hideaway that it is unfair to dismiss an entire field as ‘wacko’, especially one which produces a lot of press coverage which is really terrible. So of course work done in this area is uneven and some of it is better than others. However, on the whole I’ll stick to my main claim: as our disciplines shift around to accommodate all the new methods and knowledge we’ve generated, the potential reconfiguration offered by ev psych is _really_ not the way to go.

    As for Hideaway’s analysis of the condition of anthropology and his ad hominem attacks, what can one say? I’ve always maintained that ev psych is bad because it is bad science. It is as simple as that.

  11. “I was asked to describe how my work would change anthropology—which is really a sort of terrible question to ask a recent Ph.D. ”

    I have to laugh – I was recently asked by UNF “how had my dissertation contributed empirically to the discipline” and I answered honestly that I didn’t think it had (nor do others-left unspoken). Needless to say I didn’t get the campus invite.

    So obviously SOME anthros see it that way…

  12. BTW – I should add that I DO think anthro questions can be, have been, and are tackled empirically. Just that, as my advisor says, the dissertation gives you “the license to hunt” but (and this is me expanding on his metaphor) it doesn’t mean you’ve bagged anything yet.

    I also think that looking back would be profitable, as there remain substantive questions and methods left laying in the grass in the rush to be au courant. Of course, no one will hire you if you do this kind of work, but they won’t hire you anyway…so might as well have at it.

    Ah, my decision to leave the job market has given me the most delicious sense of freedom!

  13. Anthrodiva writes,

    I also think that looking back would be profitable, as there remain substantive questions and methods left laying in the grass in the rush to be au courant. Of course, no one will hire you if you do this kind of work, but they won’t hire you anyway…so might as well have at it.

    Yes, oh yes, indeed. The history of anthropology is not a history of rejected hypotheses, but instead a history of competing preparadigmatic approaches, none of which has attracted consistent work by a large enough number of several generations of scholars to become a fully fledged body of work. All critical eyes have been on what approaches lack—a cheap move actually, since any theory worth anything begins by abstraction from a more complex reality. The grunt work of filling in the detail that any approach requires for global/ historical coverage has been unrewarded and consequently lacking.

  14. A couple of times lately, when reading recent posts, I have thought of an article in the April 07 issue of Anthropology Today, written by Tim Ingold. It is essentially a response to an article by Mesoudi and others in Behavioral and Brain Sciences called “Towards a unified science of cultural evolution”. In turn the authors post a response to Ingold in the same issue. Ingold’s critique is mostly a rejection of the neo-Darwinian paradigm (as applied to both Biology and Culture). But along the way he addresses some issues about the effectiveness and cumulative nature of social anth. including addressing a claim made by Messoudi et al that sociocultural anthropology has been much less demonstrably productive than evolutionary biology – a “fact” which is increasingly admitted by many of its own practitioners. Ingold thinks this claim is false, and so do I.

    In terms of writing grants though, I think any claim to “changing anthropology” in toto has to be regarded as silly – but adding something to a small corner of the discipline is definitely required. You don’t have to subscribe to notions of progressive science to make a clear argument that your research is relevant and will solve, or open up, or add to an issue others have been debating.

  15. I wish I did have access to the article. What is the gist of Ingold’s argument against evolutionary approaches to culture?

  16. Well, it is not evolutionary approaches per se, but neo-Darwinian ones… Anyway, and briefly, I guess it boils down to some of the following.

    a) the use of the concept of ‘cultural traits’ that are ‘transmitted’ and ‘replicated’. Anthropologists abandoned trait thinking because of problems with reification, definition, lack of human agency etc. Traits are abstractions.

    b)the formulation that cultural ‘information’ (the equivalent of the genotype) pre-exists its expression is illogical. Rather, sociocultural anthropologists see culture as ’emergent’ in environmental and social contexts, and thus meaning cannot pre-exisit the processes that give rise to it. This is a phenomenological and ontological point as much as anything.

    c) How can such information be ‘transmitted’ independently and in advance of its ‘expression’? Learning is a process of practical enskillment – information is not transmitted abstractly from one head to another.

    d)neo-Darwinism is fundamentally circular. In Ingold’s words: “To establish the genotype of an organism, ‘evolutionary biology’ works backwards from its outward, phenotypic form and behaviour by factoring out variation due to environmental experience so as to arrive at a context-independent description, only to declare that its form and behaviour are expressions, within a particular environmental context, of an evolved genotype. The concept of ‘trait’, whether applied to genetic or cultural characters, at once embodies and conceals this circularity” (p.16).

    Most of this boils down to a philosophical position that sees the culture/biology distinction as unfounded. Ingold argues for an ecological approach that sees culture as fundamentally biological, and biology as fundamentally emergent in cultural practice. People practice culture with their bodies, and their bodies develop in cultural contexts. His touchstone in current Biology is developmental systems theory – the work of people like Susan Oyama. The four points above are only briefly expounded in the article – Ingold lays out his objections in more detail in (what seems like hundreds of) other academic articles and his books.

  17. Thank you Tim for a thorough answer to my question. I didn’t mean to have you work so hard, but I appreciate it.

    It seems that Ingold is attacking this problem from a rather unexpected direction (i.e. unexpected by me). I’m not sure it would be entirely fair to argue some of the points before reading Ingold’s arguments for myself. I would note that in of itself there is nothing illogical with collapsing genotype and phenotype together. Whether doing so fundamentally obscures something important is a different question, an empirical one too. It does so for biology. And I’d argue for culture as well.

    Those models which collapse the phenotype and genotype do not distinguish between the transmission of the genotype from the expression of the phenotype, so is open to criticism that cultural information is transmitted before (or at least simultaneously) with its expression. However, this is usually a matter of convenience: modeling necessarily abstracts from reality in order to achieve computationally advantageous simplicity. We have to understand our models, and if we are running them on computers they have to be runnable (it can be quite amazing how easily one can bog down a computer). At a theoretical level many see the process of transmission not as direct copying but as a sequence in which perception of expression leads to a reconstruction, by interpretation, of the cultural information which was (partly) responsible for its expression in the first place. In this picture, the problem at once disappears and the model gets much more complex.

    An example: a word I make up, and have used before with a particular pronunciation, and which I will attempt to impart to you. I would use phonetic notation if I could.

    vifrokel: any useful utensil or object

    Now what has happened here? I have taken a word (not ever written out before, btw), attempted a transformation from the verbal form to the written form. And I’ve attempted to encapsulate its meaning in a few words (naturally I have not exhausted its nuance here). Now, electronically disseminated, you will (i hope) attempt to pronounce this word, at least in your head (I do not know if you will pronounce it correctly), and you will have some sense (though perhaps not my sense) of how to use the word or its meaning. On your end, you have interpreted a line of text appearing on a computer screen, and based on information already available to you (for example, the meaning of words, sounds of letters, and so on) you interpret that text, and have somewhere in your brain (though it may not last) something which, though it may not resemble mine at the neural level, will can be drawn upon to reproduce a linguistic and cultural behavior which may (if transmission was successful) be highly correlated to one of my own my own behaviors. Note that if and when you use the word yourself, you have at least two possible modes of expression: namely written or verbal, and that because of the mode of expression by which “vifrokel” was transmitted to you (ie in text), your expression in text may be more like mine than any verbal pronunciation of it- and this is an issue of fidelity. And since you don’t know me, and will not likely hear me using this word, you are unlikely to express it very often. More than likely, never, and this is fitness. But what is this “it” that is being transmitted and expressed? We can talk about it, but nowhere from my end to yours does its form remain unchanged.

  18. Well, I think basically it ignores them. I don’t have the time to provide a full account of the objections that could be presented to your example, srude. Instead perhaps you could just read Ingold’s “The Perception of the Environment” – pages 379-385 pretty much deal with exactly what you are talking about. If you don’t have access to a library you can read the relevant pages using the ‘search inside’ feature on Amazon.

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