Hard Problems in Anthropology

In 1990 [1900], the renowned mathematician David Hilbert laid down a challenge to future generations: 23 hand-picked mathematical problems, all difficult, all important, and all unsolved. Since then, countless mathematicians around the world have struggled to solve the 23 ‘Hilbert Problems’ (ten have been resolved; eleven are partly solved or simply cannot be solved; and two remain at large). Most important, the pursuit of the solutions had a profound and fundamental influence on the roadmap for 20th century mathematics, testament to Hilbert’s foresight.

So begins an announcement about a Harvard symposium aimed at identifying a similar list of problems for the social sciences. I thought it might be interesting to poll our readers about their own ideas for a list of “hard problems in anthropology.” Does it make sense to compile such a list? What would you put on the list? What would it mean for cultural anthropologists to “solve” a problem.Are there any such problems from a previous era that we’ve already solved?

Off the top of my head, I can think of two typical anthropological “problems.” Each posing different challenges to a Hilbertesque approach to defining a list of such problems.

The first might be phrased as “What’s the matter with Kansas?” That is, why do people seem to act contrary to their own class interests? But even asking the problem causes problems. Larry Bartels famously asked: What’s the Matter With ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’, which undermined many of the premises of Frank’s book. The difficulties of defining “class interests” in the first place makes this question so much messier than a mathematical problem.

The second is more typical of contemporary anthropology and could be stated thus: “What are the cultural logics that make X actions thinkable, practicable, and desirable?” (Paraphrased from the introduction to Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship.) Having observed some phenomenon, anthropologists then collect the stories people tell about that problem and interpret them in light of our own understanding of how institutional and cultural practices shape such stories. Here the problem isn’t so much the question, but identifying under what conditions we might consider the problem “solved”? One can’t jump in the same river twice and so each anthropologist who asks such a question will very likely come up with different answers.

So what do our readers think? Does it make sense to compile such a list? If so, what would you put on it? And how would you define a problem as being “solved”? If not, might there be a better way to focus the efforts of cultural anthropology on a set of common problems?

(Hat tip to Ennis for the link.)

50 thoughts on “Hard Problems in Anthropology

  1. I think a some of the questions about science raised above, about underlying states of reality (the logical end-point of informationalism or atomism) are addressed in the following paper on relational quantum theory:


    Also, I think, in the Collingwoods “The idea of nature.” There are limits to approaching the world in terms of attempting to fix entities and determine necessary predictable attributes for them.

    I think one of the hardest questions in Anthropology is

    “How do the up-close and detailed methods of Anthropology relate to and modify the findings or coarser methodologies that give findings at a broader scale?”

    Personally I am interested in the interface between ethnography, political economy and the environment. But I think the issues raised by this question actually define a sort of intellectual niche for Anthropologists, and also let you see how an awful lot of other disciplines do informal ethnography in order to make there work relevant. Freakonomics is basically more about ethnography than economics for instance.

    I think that this hard question relates to the limitations of the scientific methods above, so another way of seeing the hard question is:

    “How does one study emergent properties in a dynamic social situation, and what are the limitations of the scientific method in doing so?”

  2. Daniel,

    Very cool, thanx for that link. I only read the abstract, but will bookmark that. Just from the abstract, I think they are saying what I was trying to say, but it much more accurate terminology. Basically, that the “measurement problem” in science is a problem of a priori assumptions of observer-observed forced upon the data, rather than letting, I guess, reality speak for itself.

    The study of humans and the study of matter run into the same issue, just in different ways. We cannot separate ourselves from the physical universe and study it, any more than we can separate ourselves from being human in the study of humans. These are many of the issues raised by post-modernism, but without falling into nihilism. I think that is the hardest thing to understand about this. Due to the binary nature of human thought, if something isn’t one way, then it must automatically be the other. If there isn’t an essentialized observer-observed relationship, then there is nothing. This is really a false choice and does not represent lived experience.

    In Japan when you go to a Zen temple you have to walk through a gate. The gate is made up of two wooden, square pillars that have two demons facing you as you walk through, one on each side of you. You have to pass these demons to get into the temple. These are usually translated as, “Paradox,” and, “Confusion.” You have to deal with and walk past these metaphors before enlightenment can be realized.

    Paradox and confusion in this context represent the cognized reality that we impose upon experienced reality. The metaphorical message of those wood statues is that there is no such thing as a real paradox in this case, because reality is what it is, and paradox can only arise when we impose beliefs and views of what reality should be, rather than just accepting what it is.

    “How does one study emergent properties in a dynamic social situation, and what are the limitations of the scientific method in doing so?”

    I think one of the hard problems that arises from this is the issue of prediction and explanation.

  3. The list of Math problems had an advantage; they could amass a great deal of data that encouraged great leaps in 20th century thought, even if the data never answered the question. Why? Because the result of a math problem is distinct and verifiable. Anthropology is a different animal. I do believe that a list of problems in anthropology can aid in the betterment of this new century; however, to do so will require a more specific investigative approach. In other words, for such a list to have an impact, the list must contain problems that can be answered in a definite and confirmable way.

    Suggested questions for the list already are beginning to be too broad and too philosophical in nature. “why do people seem to act contrary to their own class interests?” While there are many factors that play into the answer to this question, there may not BE a correct or incorrect one – or group. On Harvard’s list for problems in social science, one of the top categories remained “World Peace.” Problems within the world peace category are liable to be just as broad as the category it lies in.

    If a list is compiled, it needs to contain very specific questions that can only be answered by a definite and verifiable solution. One way to do this would be for anthropologists to utilize other fields such as Chemistry, Astronomy, Theology, and Mathematics to tackle the problems within anthropology.

    One question that I continue to flop around with in my head, and very well might use for a paper soon, is the tragedy of contaminated artifacts and archaeological sites. This can be narrowed down even further. Much of the contamination of a site or artifact occurs on site during a dig by volunteers. Archaeology, bless its heart, has become a field that is open to the public for varying amounts of time – a day, or a week- but many of these volunteers have had no training or experience whatsoever. This is the paradox; how can site managers and archaeologists decrease site and artifact contamination by giving volunteers basic training, while still keeping the open, youthful, vibrant spirit of archaeology alive in the public’s mind and heart? On one hand, archaeologists need to do everything they can to preserve artifacts and the sites they are found in; on the other hand, the open spirit of archaeology has allowed common folk to participate in their national, or local, heritage.

    I believe that finding the answer to this specific question within anthropology will benefit generations to come. Fewer artifacts will be destroyed, and therefore those in analysis will be able to compound and interpret a greater amount of data and reveal more secrets from our past. This goal can only be accomplished, however, through working with organization, training techniques and methods, the sciences, and inter-anthropological cooperation.

    It saddens me to see such broad topics on the current Harvard list. Let’s think deeper; scholar & shovel bum alike.

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