Anthropology as connoisseurship

Why don’t we think of anthropology as a form of connoisseurship any more? Is it because the word is simply to embarrassingly difficult to spell? Is it because connoisseurship has been written off in our discipline as exoticizing or objectifying? I personally think that anthropology as a form of connoisseurship is key understanding anthropology’s particularistic, idiographic approach. From Boas’s insistence on the particular to Levi-Strauss’s assimilation of the Boasian impulse to his own art connoisseurship, geeky obsession with the details has been central to our discipline. (I’d even add something about the British culture of quirky amateur enthusiasms that produced “The History and Social Influence of the Potato” but I’m afraid I don’t quite have it pegged). Connoisseurship as a process of cultivation is also about personal transformation — turning into someone who has ‘learned how to look,’ as art history textbook has it.

But somehow along the way I feel this sense of ethnographic connoisseurship has been lost in anthropology — the facts became taken for granted, perhaps, or maybe we just got freaked out about the way the metaphor of connoisseurship assumes we are consumers of art produced artists who are separate (and exploited?) by us. Obsession with the details also does not fly well in an age when what we are supposed to be doing is creating generalizing social science. So perhaps connoisseurship as a model of anthropology has drawbacks both for the politically engaged and the scientifically neutral. Still, I think we should try giving it a run for its money again.

Any takers?


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

22 thoughts on “Anthropology as connoisseurship

  1. Do you really think connoisseurship is about attention to details? I always thought it was about who had the right to vet Object X. The second sense from the OED’s ‘connoisseur’ article is along the line of what I have in mind:

    “A person well acquainted with one of the fine arts, and competent to pass a judgement in relation thereto; a critical judge of art or of matters of taste.”

  2. Connoisseurship may require attention to details, but it is not about attention to details. What it is about is performing the routine valorised judgements which underlie and reinforce social and class distinctions (after Bourdieu). This is what ‘learning to look’ is really about. And insofar as anthropology’s rationale is to avoid making such judgements (about different cultures) I think connoisseurship is anathema to anthropology.

  3. I think any academic activity is an exercise in connoisseurship. As academics we don’t only master the details and the arguments about the details, but we finally produce definite judgments… about connoisseurship, for example. (And we even cite OED authorities to back up these anti-judgment judgments!) What does that say about anthropology, an academic discipline? Well, that an anthropologist is more like a physicist or a philosopher than a regular kind of person. “Geeky obsession with the details” is a generalized description of an academic. Nothing exceptional here.

  4. Hang on. Are we talking about engaging in academic connoisseurship (which definitely involves performing one’s Taste by doing things like citing Bourdieu when you don’t need to) or about cultural connoisseurship in the form of ethno-trainspotting? I was talking about the latter.

  5. And insofar as anthropology’s rationale is to avoid making such judgements (about different cultures) I think connoisseurship is anathema to anthropology.

    The notion that anthropology’s rationale is to avoid making such judgments sounds to me like the straw man stereotype of cultural relativism. It is one thing to disparage sweeping, prejudicial judgments precisely because they ignore the variation that detail reveals. But anthropology is no more free of value judgments than any other form of scholarly inquiry. Every time a topic is chosen and a myriad others rejected a judgment is made. Every time an argument is criticized or accepted, a judgment is made.

    What, then, is the difference between the connoisseur of anthropological data produced by a training that privileges certain data and certain forms of judgment and any other form of connoisseurship? Surely the difference, if any, is, yes, you guessed it, in the details. Even the meta-level critic must be a connoisseur.

    If I understand the logic here at all, it takes the form “Connoisseurship=Inequality, Inequality=Bad, Thus, Connoisseurship=Bad.” As an unabashed connoisseur of theory, I’d call that crap.

  6. OK, someone, explain please. Why do perfectly straightforward HTML tags like ….. not work here. Why does the Textile syntax work sometimes, but only sometimes? Why doesn’t this site allow editing by authors for at least a half hour or so?

    Anyway, please note. The first sentence in the previous message was intended to be a quote,

    “And insofar as anthropology’s rationale is to avoid making such judgements (about different cultures) I think connoisseurship is anathema to anthropology.”

  7. John, I can’t decide whether you are conflating lots of things or engaging in a broadening of what is meant by connoisseurship. I am happy linking Bourdieu’s critique of aesthetics in Distinction to connoisseurship because the latter primarily involves making *aesthetic* judgements, rather than say the kind of judgements a young physicist makes when deciding to study electrons rather than protons, or a young ethnographer makes choosing to study Hawaiian Kinship systems rather than Dravidian. I much prefer Amedei chocolate over Hershey’s which I think is for plebs and the desperate. But about the quality of different kinship systems I have no opinion.

    You can argue that Anthropology has its own aesthetic, revealed in preferences for writing styles, evidential forms, theoretical perspectives and so on, and I would not really object. Like I said, I was not talking about academic connoisseurship (where disciplinarity rather than class is at issue). But still, I would like to know what kind of judgements are entailed in your unabashed connoisseurship of theory. Is your preference for Victor Turner aesthetic?

    By the way your final paragraph in comment 5 is the epitome of ‘straw-man’

  8. “(And we even cite OED authorities to back up these anti-judgment judgments!)”

    I wasn’t saying “‘connoisseurship’ means X because the OED says so,” I was just using part of the OED definition for ‘connoisseur’ to try and clarify my statement.

  9. Tim,

    Please elaborate your distinction between aesthetic and other forms of judgment. You assert, as if it were simply a matter of fact, that the physicist choice of electrons or the anthropologist’s choice of Hawaiian kinship is somehow essentially different from your preference for Amedei instead of Hershey’s chocolate. But wherein does this essential difference lie? Both, I counter, are equally examples of “routine valorised judgements which underlie and reinforce social and class distinctions,” albeit in what are conventionally seen as different social domains. I do, however, worry about that word “routine,” since it seems to me to privilege the context instead of the choice.

    The young scholar’s choice is partly constrained by the rules that structure the field in which she is playing. Another factor is the current state of the game, which topics are currently hot and likely to improve her professional standing. A third is personal preference, arising from God knows what biographical or genetic circumstances. But the outcome of the choice will certainly affect and probably reinforce social and class distinctions: her identification as a good or bad example of a member of her discipline resulting in her being employed or unemployed, promoted or not promoted (and the last time I looked, adjunct, assistant, tenured associate and full professor were very clear examples of class distinctions).

    How is this sociologically different from, say, attending wine tastings and choosing and praising particular wines, an exercise that, while it does, indeed, require familiarity with certain routines (swirling, sniffing, sipping, spitting out the wine that is tasted, for example), also involves choices that affect reputation and may lead to formal recognition as a qualified sommelier or even a master of wine?

    Fundamentally, I thought Rex raised an interesting question that you moved too quickly to dismiss by appealing to an academic cliché that, like all customs and habits, deserves to be explored with a sympathetic but critical anthropological eye. If nothing human is foreign to us, surely that includes our own scholarly customs and habits as well.

  10. The chocolate connoisseur’s choice is made with reference to the sensory qualities of the object of his concern – he believes one form of chocolate is better than another. The physicist’s or anthropologist’s choice is made with reference to things *external* to the objects of his concern – he does not believe electrons are better than protons, or that one form of kinship is better than another, he merely thinks one is better *to study* than another. Connoisseurs of elementary particles are very rare.

    I made a distinction between academic and cultural connoisseurship. I agree with the perspective you outline in paragraphs 2 and 3 above – this is what I was referring to as ‘academic connoisseurship’ (although I don’t think this is the right term). That academia is full of snobbery and class distinctions is not under dispute. It too is a cliche.

    I can imagine a journalist writing an article saying “anthropologists are connoisseurs of the weird and the wonderful”. Given a society that eats beefs and sometimes humans, the anthropologist will tend to write about cannibalism. But this is not an act of connoisseurship. It is about the anthropological rationale.

    What is the rationale of Anthropology? It is to explain and understand difference, so that we can avoid judging that difference according to our own cultural (or aesthetic) criteria. Individual anthropologists have not always lived up to this rationale, but there is a clear historical progression in anthropology towards achieving it. Take animism for example: from an abomination (kill em all), to a category mistake made by child-like savages (educate them), to a symbolic discourse (they are just like us), to a recognition of the social agency of non-human actors (or are we just like them?).
    I am not appealing to the ‘cliche’ or ‘straw-man’ of relativism. Relativism gives up any hope of explanation or understanding. It has no project.

    New Age hippies and Tribalists are cultural connoissuers – they cherry-pick valorised bits of cultural difference. Anthropology on the other hand seeks to understand that difference on its own terms. Anthropology is not connoisseurship.

  11. Tim,

    Given that a focus on “the sensory qualities of the object of the concern” is the way in which you differentiate the connoisseur from the anthropologist, what do you make of Levi-Strauss’ injunction to attend to “the logic in tangible qualities” or Victor Turner’s explicit concern with the sensory as well as the cognitive pole of symbols. Is Paul Stoller’s _The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology_ not anthropology because of its specific concern with the sensory qualities of ethnographic data?

    Perhaps it is not so much the sensory qualities per se as the attitude toward them, non-judgmental versus judgmental analysis. If we understand connoisseurship as judgmental analysis, then we can agree than connoisseurship is not anthropology.

  12. I think the discussion cleaves along familiar lines of hackneyed debate pertaining to basic problems with regard to the objectivity of anthropological inquiry; i.e., is anthropological attention to kinship systems just like a physics of atoms? But in an effort to defend anthropology from the apparently disturbing connotations of connoisseurship, Tim re-enacts one way in which that constitutive connoisseurship is in fact reproduced: viz., through the claim that anthropologists do not love (or despise, or find terribly bland and boring) the objects and subjects of their studies, but simply regard them with distant neutrality. Yet this neutrality is really one pose among others, does not necessarily characterize anthropology as a whole — and I would boldly suggest that it is in fact one form or style of the ‘appreciation’ of things that might be said to characterize the ethos of the connoisseur. Tim acknowledges the status dynamics of all academic production, but wants to pretend like the content of anthropological discourse is immune to them.

    Random thoughts:

    (a) The discussion is made a bit difficult because Rex’s original post mistakes the “anorak”: for the taste-maker, something MTBradley notices right off.

    (b) It’s not that anthropology is no longer attending to details, it’s just that the sensibility informing aesthetic appreciation has moved decisively away from interest in others and more toward interest in the self. Some ethnographic writing has become more arch, more self-aware, than ever: and it is in the details of this *writing* that the ethos of appreciation finds material for appreciating.

    (c) If connoisseurship is not reducible to detail-orientation, then ‘theory’ can be as much amenable to judgments of taste as can, say, the intricacies of the metaphorical systems linking song, dance, myth, affect, and social structure among the X “(e.g.)”: .

    (d) The contemporary ethnographic connoisseur therefore does not display mastery of taste, and good judgment, through command of ethnography and history: s/he displays it by ‘knowing’ the mediated (narrated, theorized) conditions of ethnographic production.

  13. Actually I don’t think those things Strong. Perhaps you were confused by the mention of Physics which I chose because JP mentioned it. Anthropologists do judge the objects of their studies all the time. My point is simply that connoisseur-like judging is not the goal or rationale of Anthropological explanation.

    Instead of going further with this I will just point out that my very first post in this thread paraphrases something James Weiner wrote in Ingold (1996) “Key Debates in Anthropology” p. 253. You can read it on Amazon. He is in turn paraphrasing Peter Gow arguing against the ‘aesthetic’ approach in anthropology. Maybe it is better if you just read that.

  14. It seems to me that at this point we might usefully return to the heart of Rex’s argument, which, deleting the term “connoisseurship,” which turns out to be a red herring,might usefully restart by focusing instead on the relationship between “geeky obsession with details” and “anthropology’s particularistic, idiographic approach.”

    I can see an argument that without obsession with detail what is passed off as a particularistic, idiographic approach too often results in pretty thin stuff. On the other hand, I would argue that sound and subtle theory of the universalizing sort is equally dependent on obsession with detail. Without the challenge of detail, theorizing is vacuous.

    To me anthropology’s liminal status, straddling or falling between Snow’s two cultures, is what makes it fascinating. One of its greatest attractions is that it claims (or, at least used to claim) to be both a humanity and a science, to regard the details observed by careful ethnography both as doors to empathetic understanding and as data for testing generalizations.

  15. Thanks for the comments all — they really have taken on a life of their own. The argument has waxed and waned, but a few points:

    I like Strong’s claim that my claim that connoisseurship is dead is incorrect, and that it is rather that we have become connoisseurs of ourselves and our theories. It is insightful but if it is true, I still think it is a little disturbing…

    As for the rest of it, I think there has been a large clarification of what the word ‘connoisseurship’ means and how various definitions of it are or are not morally unacceptable. To a certain extent this is fair — we have all figured out that we do not wish to defend pure snobbery, for instance.

    On the other hand, I think there is something a bit sad about this conversation — it is not very helpful to denounce people who have an interest in the visual and material property of objects because they are located in a field of power (where else would they be located?) because this ultimately is a way of saying that the objects they care about don’t really matter, and are just place-holders for whatever The Evil System seeks to use as its prestige good.

    Equally, I have no idea what ‘understanding objects in their own terms’ could be such that it was somehow _definitively_ not connoisseurship. Tim’s argument that increased liberal tolerance about ‘animism’ is somehow the result of the obvious properties of animism rather than our own obsession with tolerant accommodation seems off to me. Equally, I think his discomfort that we are somehow different from New Age Hippies and Tribalists gets at exactly what I think is the point…

    A provocation:
    Perhaps the real problem with my post is that it assumes that people know what it is like to care about looking at objects, whether it be appreciation for the skill with which a cobalt underglaze was applied, or the what happened to comics when they started being produced in prestige format. It may be that that people reading this post know of connoisseurship only as something their professors told them was bad in graduate school, and not something they have experienced in their own lives.

  16. bq. Perhaps the real problem with my post is that it assumes that people know what it is like to care about looking at objects, whether it be appreciation for the skill with which a cobalt underglaze was applied, or the what happened to comics when they started being produced in prestige format. It may be that that people reading this post know of connoisseurship only as something their professors told them was bad in graduate school, and not something they have experienced in their own lives.

    In my own case, the roots of the problem were deeper. The education I received in elementary school and high school was overwhelmingly dominated by words and numbers.

    Disillusionment with the pietistic religion in which I was raised led me to philosophy. Dissatisfaction with endless abstraction brought me to anthropology. A chance encounter with art historian Heinrich Wolflin’s distinction between linear and painterly styles of painting primed my reading of Levi-Strauss, which brought me to the Overture of _The Raw and the Cooked_ and L-S’s injunction to look for the logic in tangible qualities and ultimately a dissertation focused on the non-verbal symbolism of Daoist healing ritual. My accidental career path then brought me to working in advertising, where obsession with aesthetic detail is pervasive.

    Rex’s provocation reminds me of a remark that my friend Don DeGlopper once made about the anthropology of Chinese religion, observing that we anthropologists treat all figures in Chinese mythology equally, conflating, as it were, the local equivalents of Jesus Christ and the Easter Bunny.

    Which leads me to think that we anthropologists face a problem similar to that of therapists, who must simultaneously enter into the emotional worlds of their clients and hold themselves apart to reflect on what is going on from an (ideally at least) neutral and objective perspective. The people whose lives we share and study are constantly making judgments, including in many cases judgments concerning aesthetic detail. Could it be that going too far in our efforts to be fair and neutral, we are stuck at a point too distant from those we wish to understand? Rendered deaf by our unwillingness to hear what our collaborators tell us if it seems to us unfair?

  17. What this thread really needs is input from a few folklorists and art historians, whose disciplines regularly engage the issue of connoisseurship and have a good analytical vocabulary to deal with it…

    It might help to inject the notion of saliency into the discussion. The details which are salient to the anorak may cross over with those which are salient for the taste-maker in illustrative ways. For example, my advisor often has trouble laying hands on many older, limited run volumes containing material relevant to the history of the Plains Indians because collectors’ interest in the volumes plates reproducing Edward S. Curtis’s work drives the prices up to prohibitive levels as well as keeping copies in private collections and out of circulation. (And results in library holdings with missing plates.)

    Silverstein’s ‘Old wine, new ethnographic lexicography’ and The red violin are excellent resources related to some of the things we are discussing here.

  18. Sorry for the poor markup — I’ll do what I can to fix it up. Also I’ll ask some art historians to hop on as I know a few 🙂

  19. Allow me to introduce some ethnographic data and ask how others would talk about it. I described this case in more detail in “Potential and Effective Meaning in Therapeutic Ritual” (_Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry_, 1976 or so). But here is a brief summary of the issue that concerned me.

    There is a Taiwanese ritual whose name I translate “Propitiating Parents from a Previous Life.” A baby wakes up crying during the night and seems inconsolable. One possible explanation is grounded in belief in reincarnation. Parents from a previous life are refusing to give up their child. At night, when Yin is strong, they haunt the child, causing it to cry.

    I never saw but heard described a simple form of this ritual. Simple offerings of food are placed outside the family’s door. Incense is lit, the parents from a previous life are asked to release the child. Spirit money is burned to send them on their way.

    I saw several examples of a much more elaborate version of this ritual performed by my Daoist master. Here a god was brought in to guarantee the transaction. Gold and silver spirit money filled peck-sized containers, in crumpled masses instead of neatly bound bundles, signifying the the incalculable value of the parent-child bond being severed. These and many other details elaborated the implicit beliefs embodied in the rite.

    As I look back, I now see strong similarities with the ways in which ads are created, starting with a roughly sketched idea that is then elaborated by the art director (in the case of print ads) or the film director (in the case of TV commercials. In both the ritual and the ads, the goal appears to be to add impact and emotion to the basic idea. But where, I wonder, is the anthropological theory that would offer a more detailed and compelling account of this process. My mind turns to Levi-Strauss and “The Sorcerer and His Magic” or to Victor Turner’s ideas about the sensory and conceptual poles of ritual symbols.

    But that raises another issue, captured in the title of the article. As an anthropologist I have frequently heard invoked the idea that rituals embody stories that make afflictions meaningful. I am am also familiar with the idea that symbols are multivocal and embody a range of competing and sometimes contradictory meanings. But what part of that range is actually in play when particular rituals are performed by particular sets of people. What parts of the story work as claimed?

    My Daoist master could offer a much more elaborate account of what he was doing than the mothers performing the simpler version of Propitiating Parents from a Previous Life. As an anthropologist with Sinological training and access to research libraries, I could add a great deal more, finding commentaries or teasing out hints in the Daoist Canon or other Chinese texts (of which there are literally millions of words that might be explored). At what point, though, does the claim that this or that idea was actually effective in providing, if not therapeutic relief, at least an explanation for why the baby was crying cease to be plausible and become a humongous stretch?

    Do we have among us some connoisseurs of anthropological method who can offer a hand here?

  20. While we wait for the folklorists and art historians to chime in, allow me to meander on a bit. Consider a wedding, for example my daughter’s.

    On one interpretation a wedding is simply a performative act. If the couple both say “I do,” a properly licensed official says, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” the procedure is properly witnessed and other legal requirements are met, a new social fact has been created.

    But if this is all there is to it, why all the pomp and ceremony? Why was my daughter obsessed with every detail, the dress, the flowers, the music, the reception? Yes, it is indisputable that weddings have become an industry that promotes this sort of thing; but why is there a market there in the first place? Why did my son-in-law insist on a full-length, hour-and-a-half long wedding mass? To say that he is a member of a large Irish-American Catholic family is clearly one factor. It is not enough, however, to explain the liturgical details. And why do I see the faces I do in the pictures that recorded the event? What relationships, some deep, some fleeting, brought them together?

    How could someone who lacks the connoisseur’s “geeky obsession with detail” even begin to sort all this out? Let alone come to a deep understanding of what Mauss calls “the total social fact”; not just the legal arrangements that constitute the performative?

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