In Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems Michael Fischer adopts Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s notion of ‘experimental system’ to describe the history of anthropological theory and the culture concept. As a an update of the ‘long review essay as theory’ it is an interesting example of the genre, but it is problematic in other ways. The point of Fischer’s article seems to be that ‘culture’ is a concept that has morphed over time in different ways as anthropologists (and others) have used it as the lens through which their research problematic is inflected.
As a way of understanding the interconnection of the history of this concept with the epistemological, political, and ethical values analysts bring to the table this is an interesting idea. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to have too much to do with Rheinberger’s concept of ‘experimental system’. Rheinberger uses this term to foreground the practice of science, the actual artifactual nature of a laboratory’s set up and its influence in experimental practice. In doing so Rheinberger tries to move away from histories of science which document, on the one hand, intellectualist unfoldings of scientific ideas or problematics through time and, on the other, approaches which relegate the world to background ‘conditions’ or ‘contexts’ out of which scientific practice emerges. Rheinberger wants to talk about what happens when you get a new, more powerful centrifuge, or when you move the refrigerator slightly to the left. Fischer, on the other hand, seems to be using their term in a much more old fashioned (although stylistically more adventurous) way.
Now you may ask: Since when did the quality of a scholar’s work hinge crucially on how closely they hew to The One True Word Of Hans-Jorg Rheinberger? And of course this is a good point — rip mix and burn baby. But this did get me thinking, what is anthropology’s equivalent of an experimental system?
Its an interesting question, because what really makes scientists ‘scientists’ is the distinct form of knowledge and practice that crystallizes around a lab, which creates a sort of sandbox for experimentation for some variables. At first I thought the anthropological equivalent would be our fieldnotes, since these are purified, recontextualized bits of life that can be manipulated, sorted, and searched through in a way that creates an ‘archive’ whose affordances have a scarily large effect on what sort of research results we produce.
Then it struck me — maybe it seems stupid to you that it took me this long — that the equivalent for anthropologists really is the field site. A lot of doing fieldwork means transforming your situation in your fieldsite from just ‘being in the field’ to ‘doing fieldwork’ which means creating routines, instruments, methods, and relationships which allow you to do things (like census, interviews, transcription, etc.) which are more or less like embryonic experimental systems.
If this is true, then it seems to me that anthropologists differ from bench scientists in two important ways. First, we do a lot more ‘being in the field’ and a lot less ‘fieldwork’ than most of us would care to admit — and that includes the people who see ‘fieldwork’ as alienatingly objectivistic, scientistic, obsessed with a false standards of neutrality and objectivity etc. etc. I have the idea — totally unbased on any actual evidence — that through the past couple of decades the ratio of being to doing has grown greatly. This has implications.
Second, anthropologists rarely spend much time in the field. Even ones at ‘research universities’ like me are really paid to teach, and must show tremendous amounts of hustle to get the funding together for major time in the field. This has to do with lots of things (and of course bench science in unis involves juggling teaching duties too) but key among them is that for most of us the field is just not that easy to get to, and it takes time to get things set up when you arrive.
There are, of course, people for whom The Field is right next door. And indeed, often people so situated and so inclined do have the ability to produce short research notes on findings which are similar to the sort of stream of publications that come out of labs, including collaboration with ‘locals’ and grad student etc. This really is quite a different pattern than the usual ‘three years ago I spent two months in my field site and here is another article culled from the experience’ pattern you often see in some anthropological work.
Now, aspirations (and realizations) of nomothetic, experimentalist inclinations require more than just propinquity. You’ve got to ‘want to be scientific’ as well. But it would be interesting to examine more the way that abstract debates about anthropology’s status ‘as a science’ and what ‘science’ is were examined through the lens of our concrete research arrangements rather than abstract analyses of ‘what we do’ or biographical scrutiny of particular anthropologists in their particular fieldsites.