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’