One way to look at the history of (American?) anthropology is through the rise and fall and rise of the four field configuration of subdisciplines. In The Beginning the four fields were easily combined for a number of reasons: each field was not very specialized, which meant that individual anthropologists could learn a bit about all of them while the Boasian predisposition to particularizing research made close study of a phenomenon using multiple approaches seem attractive. Since then (one possible narrative might go) the subfields have split up and specialized and now are ready to be reintegrated into a new Even More Holistic disciplinary configuration.
Of course this narrative is the line ‘the subfields have split up and specialized’. It does not take very long to conjure up images of the methodological advances made by biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics over the past century. But… what about cultural anthropology?
Its clear that we’ve come a long way in terms of our understanding of how culture works, how we might analyze it, and so forth. And its also clear that we know a lot more about the world in 2007 then we did in 1907 (for instance, ‘my’ people were just a blank space on map in 1907). But other than some very modest (but important) developments in taking notes, making sure you’re doing your job and so forth, we just don’t see the same sort of sharpening of methodology in cultural anthropology that we’ve seen in the other fields.
This isn’t to say that people haven’t come up with such methods. Linguistic anthropology has developed both methods and theories that seem to come closest to creating something like what I’m called ‘sharpening’. But of course there have been other contenders before, including The New Ethnography of the late 50s and early 60s. This fell out of favor for many reasons, but I sometimes wonder if cultural anthropology’s failure to sharpen itself isn’t the result of a genuine (if often unarticulated) sense that these sorts of specialized approaches simply remove anthropologists from the nitty-gritty particularism that is at the heart of what we do.
I think that we perhaps like early symbolic interactionists in this regard — we are too suspicious that methodological specialization will lead us away from, rather than closer to, the stuff of social life.