Theory Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

When it comes to theory many anthropologists want to have it both ways: they want to use enough of it so that their ethnographic reportage is not mistaken for journalism, dressing it up in just enough of the latest theoretical stylings to give their work academic legitimation; at the same time, however, they also want to downplay the importance of theory as something they are actually expected to know something about, dismissing as mere tools the very thing which they otherwise wield to defend their academic expertise. It is true that there are some reasonable arguments defending this state of affairs: the end of grand narratives, the loss of authorial authority, discourse is an endless signifying chain, etc. But when anthropologists say that theory is “just a tool” they are evoking this entire body of poststructural theory, while simultaneously refusing to engage with it directly.

Such refusal is understandable. The theory itself often seems hopelessly complex and of little direct use. So why bother? Part of the problem here is that “theory” is itself a very broad category. Certainly there must be some way to set an outer limit on the body of theory with which anthropologists can be reasonably expected to engage? The call for a “mid-range” theory seems to be an effort to do just that, but in fact it does quite the opposite. In attacking the quest for a single grand narrative of social theory, middle-range theory opens up a pandoras box of multiple co-existing theories:

The deductive-nomological ideal, in this view, leads social science astray by implying that science should converge towards complete knowledge of the laws governing an external reality. Quite the contrary, social science has never seen anything like e.g. the theory of relativity, social scientists tend to use the modest label «a theory of»… Constructivists argue that this plurality of theories should not be regretted, more theories will lead to better explanations…

I don’t disagree with the idea of a plurality of theories, I just want to point out that rather than limiting our engagement with theory, mid-range theory actually calls upon us to be conversant with many more theories than before. And this is precisely what has happened in anthropology. Rather than working together on a common anthropological project (although it could be argued that we never really were), anthropologists find themselves drawing on theoretical work in comparative literature, continental philosophy, systems theory, neuropsychology, etc. Is it any wonder we are suffering from theory fatigue?

Although I would not call for a return to the deductive-nomological approach to theory, I do think that we need better tools to help us navigate this increasingly complex terrain. We need to do the hard work of constructing our own theories about the role of theory in the social sciences. The kind of work you see Habermas doing in Knowledge and Human Interests, or Foucault doing in The Order of Things. At some level I don’t think it really matters whether you choose Habermas, Foucault, or someone else as your model for this kind of theoretical map making. I’m perfectly fine with everyone having their own maps. And I also think it’s perfectly OK to discard these maps later on, just as some argue both Habermas and Foucault did in their later work. But if theory is “just a tool” we still need to know which tool to use for the job at hand. For that we need a theory about the relationship of those tools to social science. Understanding the role of theory in producing knowledge makes it easier to read the maps created by other scholars. It allows us to engage with scholars in other disciplines as well as other anthropologists working in very different intellectual traditions than our own.

I also believe that having such a map makes it easier for us to grow, to learn. Not just in the sense of being able to empirically falsify our own theories, although I am of the belief that our theories should be capable of being wrong, but in the sense of being able to refine our maps over time, of knowing what uncharted territory we wish to explore next, and of the joy which comes from serendipitously stumbling upon maps created by other scholars whose approach is similar to our own.

45 thoughts on “Theory Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

  1. I’m not sure why multiple theories is a “Pandora’s box.” Middle-range theory operates on a lower epistemological level than grand social theory, and thus individual topics/themes/processes require their own middle-range theories. So unless all anthropologists are working on the one single issue, “multiple co-existing [middle-range] theories” are a necessity. Grand social theory, on the other hand, could be described as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

    I’m also not sure why your discussion of middle-range theory leads into a quote about deductive-nomological explanation, an approach rejected by philosophers of science decades ago, and explicitly rejected by those sociologists who work on middle-range theory today (see below).

    Perhaps cultural anthropologists use a lot of middle-range theories, but I have not found any literature using that concept. And in my area, archaeology, there is far too little middle-range theory (I am NOT talking about what Lewis Binford called middle-range theory, an entirely different concept). A typical theoretically-hip archaeology article starts out with Giddens, Bourdieu, Foucault, et al, then it does a pedestrian analysis that has little to do with this theory, and it finishes up with some grand theoretical pronouncements. As someone not fond of high-level social theory, I am bored by most of what archaeologists call “theory.”

    For this reason I was very pleased to discover the active field of middle-range theorizing in sociology, in which sociologists try to figure out how society works at the nuts and bolts level (a major concept is the “social mechanism”) without invoking grand social theory. Perhaps anthropologists would benefit from this material; here are sources I found helpful and enlightening when writing about middle-range theory for archaeology:

    Boudon, Raymond (1991) What Middle-Range Theories Are. Contemporary Sociology 20:519-522.

    Hedström, Peter (2005) Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

    Hedström, Peter and Lars Udéhn (2009) Analytical Sociology and Theories of the Middle Range. In The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology, edited by Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, pp. 25-49. Oxford University Press, New York.

    Hedström, Peter and Petri Ylikoski (2010) Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 36:49-67.

    Merton, Robert K. (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. 3rd ed. Free Press, New York.

    Sampson, Robert J. (2011) Eliding the Theory/Research and Basic/Applied Divides: Implications of Merton’s ‘Middle Range’. In Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociological Explanation, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 63-78. Columbia University Press (in press), New York.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for the bibliography!

    It seems we both dislike the way theory is invoked in much of contemporary anthropology, but I’m a little confused by your concept of “grand social theory.” I see this as meaning the kind of Parsonian project which Merton was attacking. I don’t think Bourdieu or Foucault were engaged in such a project. Quite the contrary, they are very much a part of it’s delegitimization. Habermas is a little more complex in that he still believes in the project of the enlightenment, yet despite his own debt to Parsons he too moves away from that kind of theorizing Parsons was engaged in.

    My use of the phrase “deductive-nomological explanation” was in a quote meant to typify mid-range theory, not attack it. And, as I said, I don’t dispute the conclusions. The reason I mention “pandora’s box” is purely in terms of my main argument, which is that this does not lessen the need to engage with a broad range social theories – quite the opposite in fact. I’m sorry if this was not stated clearly enough.

  3. It seems we both dislike the way theory is invoked in much of contemporary anthropology, but I’m a little confused by your concept of “grand social theory.” I see this as meaning the kind of Parsonian project which Merton was attacking. I don’t think Bourdieu or Foucault were engaged in such a project. Quite the contrary, they are very much a part of it’s delegitimization.

    One issue is what the cover term post-structuralism is taken to mean. Does it mean ‘the rejection of grand narratives’ or does it mean ‘the rejection that there is such a thing as structure, even at the local level’? I am not really convinced that Bourdieu’s work falls into either category. I think Foucault was trying to delegitimate grand narratives but I don’t know that he was against the notion that structure does exist at some scale.

    Another issue is how Bourdieu and Foucault are used in contemporary anthropology. Oddly enough they often are used as something of a grand narrative.

    @Michael: Are you talking about what Bruce Trigger called middle-ranging theory?

  4. MTBradley,

    Foucault and Bourdieu are each post-structuralist in very different ways. Foucault attempted to historicize structure, showing how each age had its own theory of knowledge which caused people to see the relationship between the signifier and the signified in very different ways. Over time he changed his narrative to reject earlier archaeological approaches in favor of genealogy, yet his work retained what I see as a kind of Piagetian stage-developmental model which remains rather structuralist. But what we are talking about here is the difference between Foucault’s theory and his practice. Theoretically he moved away from structuralism, even as he continued to employ its methods. The same difference can be found in Bourdieu, whose emphasis on process (and time) also serves to decenter structuralist accounts, even as he is inconsistent in how fully he applied these insights to his own work.

    In many ways these are “internal critiques” of structuralism, the logic of which was then taken to its fullest conclusion by later scholars. One can argue that some of these later scholars went too far. But my point here is merely that both of their work serves to challenge the idea of grand narratives: either through historicizing them, or by emphasizing the role of social processes in their reproduction. For this reason I would think that anyone who dislikes “grand social theory” would do well to directly engage with their critiques to understand their strengths and limitations. Rejecting them as irrelevant seems just as foolish as turning them into a new grand narrative.

  5. Foucault and Bourdieu are each post-structuralist in very different ways.

    I don’t disagree with your point, though I do think it points to a real problem with the term post-structuralist. In reality it’s the “Other” category but unfortunately people take it as the label for a coherent theoretical perspective. That introduces an unlearning step for those who really want to understand theory and that’s something the discipline could do without.

  6. Neither poststructuralism nor postmodernism are “theories” in the senses being discussed here.

    Both start from the simple insight that all observations are from a perspective or point-of-view. For anthropologists, this perspective could be the race/social class/gender of the observer, the cultural or personal experience of the observer, etc.

    Postmodernism’s response to this insight was to suggest that no observation could be objectively true, since all observations are made from these various (and an indefinitely large number of) points of view, and consequently any search for truth is pointless/meaningless/fruitless. The well-known rejection of master narratives is the rejection of a definitive point-of-view.

    Poststructuralism’s response to this insight was to suggest that observations can be deconstructed to reveal the perspective of the observer: the political or economic motives behind observations; the biases (explicit, unconscious, etc); etc. Poststructuralism is not necessarily a critique of these biases so much as it the uncovering of these biases.

    Needless to say, there is a great deal of interesting poststructuralist work in anthropology: Dumont’s critique of E-P’s Nuer, Weiner’s work in the Trobriands, etc. There is relatively little postmodern work, however, and the classic essay on HRAF as a postmodern project captures the issues nicely.

  7. The problem is when theory (the observer ) becomes more important than the thing being theorized about (the observed). Absent some form of ironization -implicit in works of art- the observer model becomes a model of superiority and condescension. Reading Bordieu years and years ago he pissed me off immediately because he reminded me of all those who used to argue [do they still?] that Jacqueline Susann is just as good as Shakespeare, which is the equivalent of saying Sarko’s second favorite singer Celine Dion [so much for “Distinction”] is Mozart and any anthro with two books is Levi-Strauss.

    The reactionary avant-garde had a habit of attacking the ideal of mastery, by which they meant the mastery of craft; and what replaced it was the goal of the mastery of ideas. The definition of ideology. Ideology says that, ideology, subtext, meconnaissance, false consciousness, the subconscious and language games are for other people, not for us. A geologist looks at rocks. Anglo american academic theorists look at the the most complex forms of the human imagination as if they were rocks. Shakespeare’s plays are not rocks. Bordieu is American in that regard. The French think of theory and philosophy as another form of literature, as forms of art, which is why those who use the American model of science have no patience. Or they try to pretend French rhetoric is like physics and make fools of themselves.

    Your experience is a lens; the english language is a lens; the academic system is a lens. An American academic talking and writing about the Yanomami is writing by default about the present in the US as manifested in the structures of his or her imagination. Writing about anything you’re writing yourself. You can either use your subjects as fodder, which if your subjects are other human beings is profoundly disrespectful, or you can engage them in a reciprocal exchange. And if you’re a good writer you can describe the exchange later and maybe it will outlast you by a bit. Data is a McGuffin. A Ph.D. is a marker of status. And seeing everything in terms of ideology is ideology. It’s a Gordian knot. A great ethnographer is a great writer; a great craftsman. What’s a better way to honor the craftspeople you observe than to become one yourself? Theory at it’s best is an academic attempt to return to a model of writing as literature. At it’s worst it’s the celebration of the metaphysics of bureaucracy.
    Jane Austen was a great ethnographer.

  8. s.e.,

    I’m not sure any of this matters since there is no way testing any of it. There are ways of testing what kind of rhythm signatures are intuitively and universally preferred cross-culturally, and whether this is something inherent in the structural biology of the human brain. So to say one form of music is better than another is only to say that one form of music utilizes various rhythms and frequencies that are more consistent with human evolution.
    So, you’re right that theory becomes a problem when it is no longer used to create general, testable sets of assumptions, but then it ceases being theory.
    One of the issues is that (not sure currently) one cannot get a BA in anthropology in France. So, it was common for folks to get a BA in philosophy and then going into anth in grad. school.

  9. A quick historical question – at what point did highfalutin theory become so central to anthropology? My sense is that, while anthropologists have always been engaged with philosophy – Marx being the most obvious example – the large scale turn to importing theories from other disciplines is a more recent turn starting in the 1980s or thereabouts. But perhaps I’m just wistfully invoking a pristine past that never existed – any thoughts?

  10. For what it’s worth, my memories of theory classes while a graduate student at Cornell in the late sixties suggest that back then “theory” largely referred to anthropological theory, of which there was a great variety to choose from: cultural anthropology came in structuralist, cognitive, symbolic, psychological and ecological variants, whose exponents contrasted them with each other and with earlier schools: primarily evolutionist, diffusionist, or structural functionalist. Genealogies were traced mainly to the sociological big three: Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. On the whole, however, all schools were directly linked to particular ethnographic and ethnohistorical studies. Thus, for example, symbolic anthropology was epitomized by Victor Turner’s research among the Ndembu and Mary Douglas’ analysis of Jewish food taboos in Purity and Danger. Structuralism was Levi-Strauss, attempting to bring order to the immense variety of North and South American myth. Psychological anthropology was epitomized by the Six Cultures studies of child rearing patterns with spillover into psychoanalytically motivated studies of symbolism. Cognitive anthropology was rooted in linguistics and the effort for formalize cognitive models for drinking behavior or color classification. Others will have other particular cases in mind—the point I want to make is that theory was not theory for theory’s sake; whatever direction it took it was part of an effort to make sense of ethnographic observations.

    There was to be sure a sort of naive scientism to all these approaches, acceptance of anthropology as part of the larger project of social science, a scientific understanding of humanity that contrasted itself with the interpretive approaches characteristic of the humanities. The interpretive turn was solidly grounded in critique of naiveté, the failure to recognize the ambiguities of ethnographic conversations and the power differentials involved in ethnographic encounters, not to mention the blindness of a largely heterosexual, white male profession to issues related to women, gays, the disabled and other minorities with whom a guy like me might feel uncomfortable interacting, even if we had access to the populations in question, which in much of the world we did not.

    That said, the critique of the old grand narrative of social scientific progress created an intellectual vacuum that, in my view, coincided with both the humanities’ physics envy and the rise of a publish-or-perish academic culture in which more coup was counted more quickly for largely vacuous theory spinning than for digging deeply into the nitty gritty of particular ethnographic problems — which takes too much time and effort for people under pressure to produce peer-reviewed journal articles. However solidly grounded the interpretive critique may have been, it failed to produce a compelling alternative to the old grand narrative. and, indeed, adopted the stance that no compelling alternative grand narrative is possible. Thus it is very difficult indeed to find serious theory that points to anything but itself.

    Here, however, is where I side with Bourdieu. The man is hard to read, but what he is trying to do is grounded in numerous examples of serious empirical research, from ethnographic research in Algeria to innovative large-scale research programs in France. His vulgar imitators may do nothing but ponder the metaphysics of structuring structures; but that was not what he was about.

  11. I have a question that’s relevant to some things I’m working on now, that I don’t really see addressed here and hasn’t really been addressed in my course work. What is the relation of theory to method? That is, how does theory shape method? I’ve read a lot of different theories – positivist, post-structuralist, post-constructivist, etc. But in practice most of them still seem to be going out and doing participant observation, and interviewing informants the way anthropologists have since Malinowski and Boas. The only difference I can see comes in 1) how the project is described before hand and viewed by the researchers 2) some terminology differences (i.e. subjects, informants, consultants) 3) how the research is presented textually (is it detailed scientific or more impressionistic?) and 3) the stated goal of the research (political liberation, broadening knowledge, etc.). Not to downplay the significance of those differences, but I’m concerned right now with the nuts and bolts of ethnographic methods.
    I guess what I’m asking is, what is the difference (if any) between positivist PO and constructivist PO, between a positivist interview and a constructivist interview?

  12. “The interpretive turn was solidly grounded in critique of naiveté, the failure to recognize the ambiguities of ethnographic conversations and the power differentials involved in ethnographic encounters, not to mention the blindness of a largely heterosexual, white male profession to issues related to women, gays, the disabled and other minorities with whom a guy like me might feel uncomfortable interacting, even if we had access to the populations in question, which in much of the world we did not.”

    Really? When I was working with Geertz at Chicago, while he was developing interpretive anthropology, the interpretive turn was grounded in Weber, filtered through Parsons.

  13. Jeremy, theory doesn’t change the way data is gathered, it guides what data is do be gathered and how it is to be interpreted, what tests are run; that sort of thing.
    So as a cultural materialist/ecologist, I generally interpret interviews within a larger material and ecological reality. So, when I interview people in a low income, urban area and people tell me that the rise in violent crime is caused by the drug trade I ask myself, “there has been illegal drug dealing here for a very long time that predates the rise in crime, so what is different now?” That is, what material realities have changed either allowing, or compelling, a rise in violent crime?
    A researcher with a more ideational slant would probably answer that question using ideational explanations (racism for example), whereas I assume that super-structural changes in culture are self-causal, but are driven by infrastructural changes (welfare for example). The interviews for both are the same.

  14. Really? When I was working with Geertz at Chicago, while he was developing interpretive anthropology, the interpretive turn was grounded in Weber, filtered through Parsons.

    A useful observation. In my view, through a glass darkened by distant memories, the interpretive turn is to Geertz what vulgar Marxism is to Marx. Geertz was a marvelous and genuinely erudite essayist with a gift for identifying intellectual issues and sketching broad patterns. That said, what he failed to do was develop a program for implementing solutions to the problems he identified. His typical modus operandi was to dazzle the reader with literary devices then say, in effect, “You see.” “The Balinese Cockfight” is a good example. The story of the police raid, the overtly gendered cocks, the bloody duel to the death, all move the reader to a breathless point where the concept of deep play seems like a brilliant insight. It may be, but Geertz provides no clue about how one would go about identifying other examples, let alone assessing how deep the play is. Is there something peculiarly deep about the Balinese relationship to cockfighting not found in cricket matches, Australian rules football, center court at Wimbledon, or sports bars filled with die-hard fans during the finals of of almost any collegiate or professional sport you can name? Geertz never shows us how to make these kinds of judgments. At the end of the day, is what he shows us, intellectually speaking, more than slight of hand?

  15. Jeremy, Rick’s advice is good, sound, perfectly standard stuff. When you’re ready for something that probes a bit deeper, take a look at Andrew Abbott, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, reviewed by Savage Minds’ Rex here.

  16. Thanks, John, I’ll check it out. I also have a copy of John Law’s After Method, which seems like it might be an interesting take on the topic, but I haven’t had a chance to read through it yet.

  17. Very true. I find that so many students have trouble with theory, because the pragmatic use of theory isn’t often spelled out in basic terms.
    Applied anthros are often trained to utilize theory just as tools along with methods. Because, we don’t chose our research questions, field sites, and the like, we tend to use whatever theories match the methods used and the needs of the client. In my last project I used political economy, post-structuralism, social network theory, cultural materialism, and behavioral theory.

  18. Rick is a “cultural materialist/ecologist” so welfare is the problem. A more “idealtional” approach would argue for racism as foundational.

    Oy, Where to begin.

    In NY they have French bistros. They have chefs who’ve studied the appropriate food and architects who know the appropriate interior designs but somehow it’s not Paris. The French forms of sociability aren’t there. The “forms” of social interaction aren’t there. The same is true for French theory in the US. American individualism replicates the ideas but not the manners and the manners are the underlying structure.

    My mother was the worst technically proficient player of Bach keyboard works that I’ve ever heard. She “read” him while playing the keys that matched the notations on the page. Actual performance would have made it into something else, something personal. She did not perform she followed,

    Rick’s “perfectly standard stuff” answers nothing except to give us another example of his politics (which in every other example he’s done a miserable job of backing up with evidence)
    Interpretation of data requires that we become diagnosticians. What makes a good diagnostician? What makes a good interpreter? Interpretation is not following a tool, it’s using one. The hammer doesn’t drive the nail.

  19. “Rick’s “perfectly standard stuff” answers nothing except to give us another example of his politics (which in every other example he’s done a miserable job of backing up with evidence)”

    I have given you no such thing. I was merely answering a question about how theory would be used by various social scientists. I have not argued any position of any kind, and therefore need no evidence. That is unless of course you are accusing me of having politics which are involved in utilizing the scientific method, which is the only place theory is used. My answer to Jeremy is the most standard and generic answer to such a question.

    “Interpretation is not following a tool, it’s using one. The hammer doesn’t drive the nail.”

    Where the hell did I say this? Don’t mischaracterize things I say.

  20. “Jeremy, theory doesn’t change the way data is gathered, it guides what data is do be gathered and how it is to be interpreted, what tests are run; that sort of thing.”

    I’m would disagree with that. Look at Karen Ho’s Liquidated and Karin Knorr Cetina’s work on finance. The fact that they come from two different theoretical perspectives shapes the sites that they do their research on and their research methodologies. KHo looks at the habitus of investment bankers, and carried out ethnography and interviews. KKC looks at financial markets in terms of information flow across global networks – she did interviews and not participant observation.

    I’m sure there are other things that influence methodological decisions – did MacKenzie do his study of investment bankers by hanging out with the heads of firms for a week because as a senior professor at Edinburgh he was able to get in the door in a way a grad student cant, and because he had classes to teach so he didn’t have the luxury to mill around the industry for a year? I’m sure that has something to do with it, but the methodology also fits his theory. Working in the back office of a firm for a year, as KHo, did doesn’t really seem necessary to his analysis.

    There is a lot of overlap in the methodologies appropriate to different theories. I know one anthropologist who went into the field with Marx and came back to discover Foucault was big. She was able to integrate her data collected under a Marxist theoretical framework into a Foucaltian one without too much difficulty. Could she have done the same with Actor Network Theory? Maybe – but there are things that are interesting in terms of ANT (paperwork, how people interact with material objects, how an ethnographic site connects to others) that might not be interesting from a Foucaltian one.

  21. Jeremy, allow me to also recommend another old favorite of mine, Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You are Doing It. It’s an easier read than Abbott but full of interesting suggestions. I particularly like, for example, his approach to studying schools with high percentages of dropouts or other other forms of “deviance.” The trick here is to envision the school as a machine designed to produce precisely the effect in question and try to figure out the mechanisms involved (as opposed to seeing the school as a system designed for other purposes, which is failing in some regard or using flawed material).

  22. Both Rick and justaguy make interesting and important points. Once we get past the “love a theory and apply it” trap — the one with the consequences implicit in the maxim that to someone who only has a hammer everything looks like a nail—the virtues of entering the field with a diverse toolkit of theories and methods quickly become apparent. Whatever else ethnography is, it is clearly exploratory research, an attempt to get oriented in a space that at first is largely unknown. Every fieldworker rapidly discovers both unanticipated opportunities and unexpected barriers to doing what their grant application says they are planning to do.

    Could I have anticipated that a Daoist healer I met in Taiwan would pull me aside one day and tell me about a vision in which the Jade Emperor had told him that I should become his disciple? No way. Should I have foreseen that, while Victor Turner worked in Africa with a people who live in villages with an average population of a couple of dozen people, I would be working in a Chinese market town with a population of 35,000, with people who keep much of their lives private behind the brick walls of their houses? Probably, but nothing in my training had taught me to think like that.

    And it wasn’t just me. I remember a seminar in which Terry Turner told us about going to Brazil intending to do the kind of extended case studies of social dramas that Victor Turner had done in The Drums of Affliction. He quickly discovered that, while the Ndembu might have long memories and be ready to tell you who did what to who going generations back, this wasn’t at all true of the people he found himself studying. What they would rattle on about was myth.

    I also remember hearing something that made the opposite point, someone remarking on how the African peoples studied by British anthropologists all had complex social structures but the African anthropologists studied by French anthropologists all had complex cosmologies.

    The point of all these anecdotes is a recommendation that we avoid looking for the Theory with a capital T that will be our key to understanding everything and, instead, see theories as tools that direct our attention to some particular aspects of whatever we happen to be studying. Take the toolkit metaphor seriously. No one gets much work done by staring endlessly at the hammer, screwdriver or wrench that catches their eye when they look in the toolbox. The work begins when we recognize that, for this or that particular problem, this or that tool (or, more likely, combination of tools) is what we need to use. Some of us may recognize that for the problem they are working on, none of our tools works very well, and invent a whole new tool. But trying to do that without first becoming familiar with the uses and limitations of the tools already in the toolkit is foolish, indeed.

  23. Compare and contrast: theoretical assumptions, past and present.

    1-“Look at Karen Ho’s Liquidated and Karin Knorr Cetina’s work on finance. The fact that they come from two different theoretical perspectives shapes the sites that they do their research on and their research methodologies. KHo looks at the habitus of investment bankers, and carried out ethnography and interviews. KKC looks at financial markets in terms of information flow across global networks – she did interviews and not participant observation.”

    2-Together with representatives of the university, Bell set up a program called the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives. More than simply training its young executives to do a particular job, the institute would give them, in a 10-month immersion program on the Penn campus, what amounted to a complete liberal arts education. There were lectures and seminars led by scholars from Penn and other colleges in the area — 550 hours of course work in total, and more reading, Baltzell reported, than the average graduate student was asked to do in a similar time frame.

    …Perhaps the most exciting component of the curriculum was the series of guest lecturers the institute brought to campus. “One hundred and sixty of America’s leading intellectuals,” according to Baltzell, spoke to the Bell students that year. They included the poets W. H. Auden and Delmore Schwartz, the Princeton literary critic R. P. Blackmur, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the composer Virgil Thomson. It was a thrilling intellectual carnival.

    …..What’s more, the graduates were no longer content to let the machinery of business determine the course of their lives. One man told Baltzell that before the program he had been “like a straw floating with the current down the stream” and added: “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”

    …But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

    “Interpretation is not following a tool, it’s using one. The hammer doesn’t drive the nail.”
    You didn’t say that Rick, I did.

    John McCreery restates it: “No one gets much work done by staring endlessly at the hammer”

  24. “KHo looks at the habitus of investment bankers, and carried out ethnography and interviews. KKC looks at financial markets in terms of information flow across global networks – she did interviews and not participant observation.”

    How is that not exactly what I wrote?
    “it guides what data is do be gathered and how it is to be interpreted, what tests are run; that sort of thing.””

    How do you read that sentence and get contrary information? I don’t think I’ve ever done research the exact same way twice. You have to get a sense of the ground reality of where and who you are researching, the questions and problems you are going to tackle with a research design, your ability to gain access, time, budget, etc… This will affect both methods and theory used.

    That however, was not Jeremy’s question. He specifically asked what the difference would be between a positivist and a constructivist “interview.” The correct answer to the question is that there is no difference to the interview itself. The questions you ask, and perhaps ad hoc follow ups could be different, but that depends on the person giving the interview. Either way the interview process is pretty standard.

  25. “Whatever else ethnography is, it is clearly exploratory research, an attempt to get oriented in a space that at first is largely unknown. Every fieldworker rapidly discovers both unanticipated opportunities and unexpected barriers to doing what their grant application says they are planning to do. ”

    Ethnography is contextual. If you are working in an area that has been worked in before it is not exploratory. I have worked in areas where an anthropologist worked 25 years earlier, and I didn’t go into the area with a blank slate. I would be stupid to do that. I double checked the things the other anth wrote, spoke to people that she had spoken to, etc… and then I was able to understand what processes have both changed and stayed the same in the area.
    I personally feel that academics should stick to a narrower set of theory in order to develop consistency in the ethnographic record, and to allow anth to mature as a science. As a practicing anth my responsibility is to a client and not to the academy, therefore it is different for practicing anths. There is a bias in all social sciences to develop new knowledge, and not test theory, because that is what will get someone published, known, and promoted.

  26. S.E. ““Interpretation is not following a tool, it’s using one. The hammer doesn’t drive the nail.”
    You didn’t say that Rick, I did.”

    And, you have accused me of saying the opposite. Where?

  27. “How is that not exactly what I wrote?”

    I read you as saying that theory guides what data you gather and what you do with that data, and not the methodologies through which data is gathered. “theory doesn’t change the way data is gathered” I don’t know what you mean by “what tests are run” but I assumed it meant something about how you interpret data.

    My point is that there are certain methodologies appropriate to some theories and not to others. While there is significant overlap between methodologies appropriate to different theories, there are some areas where you see differences.

    There are two ways you can look at banks –

    An institution that creates individual actors who reproduce the values of the institution.

    Global networks of information through which people interact anonymously.

    If you see how different people have approached the same object – finance capitalism – with those different theoretical approaches it is clear that it is not just that they ask different questions, but employ different methodologies at different kinds of sites.

    Similarly, you could study a practice like Tai Chi from a Foucaltian perspective without actually engaging in the practice. Looking at it from a phenomenological perspective, however, would necessitate actually practicing it.

    And is an interview an interview? Perhaps, but that’s only because its a really general word. I’ve interviewed people for projects I didn’t design, where I asked a set list of questions and checked off the answers. Now I generally ask people a question and let them lead the conversation – talking about what’s important to them as much as possible. Those aren’t just different questions you plug into the same methodology, they are different methods of carrying out interviews. And there are different theoretical assumptions in each of those approaches.

  28. Ethnography is contextual. If you are working in an area that has been worked in before it is not exploratory.

    We must agree to disagree. We may think we know a lot about the site where ethnography occurs, and that may be partially true. Even in 1969, there was a small library of things to read about China before we went to do fieldwork in Taiwan; now there is much more. But Puli, the town where we did our fieldwork, has changed almost beyond recognition. Anyone who went to do fieldwork there today, thinking that because she had read what I or Gary Seaman (another anthropologist who did fieldwork in a village outside the town) wrote about the place, she knew what to expect would be, in the strict, original Greek sense of the term, an idiot.

    Even before I went to the field I was aware of the controversy that arose when Oscar Lewis restudied Tepoztlán, the Mexican village made famous by Robert Redfield. Different eyes, different theories, different agendas, we all see different things and report on them in our own way.

    Later when I wrote an article on Malinowski, magic and advertising, I became aware of the work of Annette Weiner, who restudied the Trobriands a half century after Malinowski’s fieldwork. It wasn’t just that time had passed. Malinowski’s informants were members of chiefly lineages, with strict notions about ownership of gardening magic. Weiner worked in a commoner village where the gardening magic described by Malinowski was no longer practiced. But magic hadn’t disappeared; the most remarkable innovation was that Trobrianders themselves were now putting it in writing. Both Malinowski and Weiner describe contests in which men compete to show off who knows the most spells. But the winner of the contest that Weiner describes is cued by a nephew who is holding a notebook in which the winner’s spells have been compiled. And this little anecdote doesn’t touch on Weiner’s main contribution, detailed descriptions of the women’s exchanges that accompany the men’s kula, a topic neglected by Malinowski.

    What I take from examples like these is that no place or historical moment is ever completely like another, and the ethnographer’s job number one is to keep his or her eyes open for stuff that may be different from what they have read about or seen before. An ability to keep an open mind and to see what slips between the cracks of conventional wisdom or previous research is the way we add value—it is in this sense that ethnography as I see it is always exploratory research.

  29. Since Geertz is on the table I want to recommend his contribution to Alan Macfarlane’s Anthropological Ancestors series.

    [Geertz’s] typical modus operandi was to dazzle the reader with literary devices

    If I may be allowed the latitude to poke some good-natured fun, John, I always find it amusing that the most common critique of Geertz is some variation on, “He’s just a good writer, that’s all!” Sometimes it seems to reveal that the critic (though not you, John ☺) has the thought, “People think he’s smarter than me just because he is able to clearly communicate with his audience, meh!” continually racing through his head. It always sounds like an indictment of the general quality of anthropological writing.

    the rise of a publish-or-perish academic culture in which more coup was counted more quickly for largely vacuous theory spinning than for digging deeply into the nitty gritty of particular ethnographic problems — which takes too much time and effort for people under pressure to produce peer-reviewed journal articles.

    Is it out of bounds to suggest that grantors have something to answer for in this regard, too? Even agencies that emphasize the empirical tend to put a disproportionate weight on making a contribution to general theory.

  30. If I may be allowed the latitude to poke some good-natured fun, John, I always find it amusing that the most common critique of Geertz is some variation on, “He’s just a good writer, that’s all!”

    Thank God, MT, you exclude me from this crowd. There is so much more to Geertz than simply good writing. His ability to see across disciplinary boundaries and draw inspiration from all sorts of places, sociology, psychology, political science, art history (and I’m sure I’ve missed something) as well as lit crit and philosophy remains, in my view, unsurpassed. He was in this respect the most perfect exempler of the ideal embodied the now defunct Harvard Department of Social Relations, in which sociology, social anthropology and social psychology were merged. In many respects I find him the most useful of inspirations for precisely the reason I criticize him. Being left hanging at the end of his essays with the “How did he do that?” and “Where can we go from here?” questions unanswered is far more productive for anyone who aspires to do original work than a rigorous systematizer who appears to answer all questions and leaves nothing for the disciple to do but to emulate the master, applying his shiny cookie cutter to new data.

  31. “But Puli, the town where we did our fieldwork, has changed almost beyond recognition.”

    You’re not hearing what I’m saying. Things are always changing, especially in the modern world. Things changed a great deal in the community I worked in that was written about in
    ’72-74. But, the community was not wholly replaced and reset socially in 1975. All of the processes of change helped me to understand the dynamics of the area, and the previous strategies of my predecessor, now dead, were still very useful. Today is causally connected to yesterday, and is what leads to tomorrow. Understanding how and why change happens the way it does in a particular place, or a similar place, is the only way that anthropology has ever produced generalized knowledge.

    Unless we are entering into an area and a society that has never had any anthropological analysis done on it, or on a community like it, then what you are doing isn’t fully exploratory. If it is then as a researcher one has failed to do one’s homework.

  32. ““How is that not exactly what I wrote?”

    I read you as saying that theory guides what data you gather and what you do with that data, and not the methodologies through which data is gathered. “theory doesn’t change the way data is gathered” I don’t know what you mean by “what tests are run” but I assumed it meant something about how you interpret data.”

    I see. I was assuming that what data you gather is automatically dependent on how you decide to gather that data. However, if you decide to do an semi-structured interview to gather qualitative data, versus a Likert scale survey to gather data that can be regressed, or both, will be dependent upon a lot of things. Conducting something like a survey shouldn’t be any different from one researcher to another though.
    By “tests run” I was talking about tests of the data. The questions and situation will tell you whether to run an ANOVA or a regression, factor analysis, discourse analysis, etc…

  33. Rick, it seems to me that we are hung up on dueling adverbs. You write “fully exploratory,” I wrote “largely unknown.” If by “fully exploratory” you mean starting from zero, you are, of course, right. No one doing ethnography is our day and age should be doing that. No properly prepared ethnographer should embark on fieldwork without substantial background knowledge of the place where the fieldwork will be conducted and numerous comparative examples in mind. That said, the ethnographer’s proper assumption is that the place in question remains largely unknown.

    Nothing is more detrimental to effective ethnographic research than what E.E. Evans-Pritchard called “the dead hand of competence. ” Unless, that is, we are talking about my bête-noire, the cookie-cutter application of theory, which evades the scientist’s responsibility to look for counterexamples.

    From the way you describe what you do, I cannot imagine that you fall into either of these traps, unless (I think of my own experience in advertising) it is one of those projects where the client is impossible and the hack’s temptation to crank out something passable and get on to something more interesting is irresistible.

  34. “Rick, it seems to me that we are hung up on dueling adverbs.”

    Yup, I sensed that. I should have asked for clarification before writing anything. You are right that what we do is far more fluid and exploratory than say what a physicist does in a lab. I do think there is also a danger of ethnographers just bumbling around in the field and waiting for inspiration, rather than having solid theoretical reasons for doing what they are doing, though.

    I was thinking about my last project (please god get me a continuation grant!), in which I gathered ego networks as just one method of a larger strategy of triangulation for a rapid area assessment of information flows in an urban area. I spent a few months before hand reading up on social network theory, so I knew what to expect from dozens of empiric studies that tell us that there are patterns to social networks that are universal and constant. Here are a few of about 12 I put in my report:

    • The number of a person’s significant daily influencers decreases exponentially per unit of measure with the square of that measure.
    • The more people that are in a person’s social network, the fewer of those people by percentage will be strong ties, the inverse in also true.
    • The longer a person is in a network the more accurately they will list the patterns of people and their relationships, whereas people new to a network give more accurate details of who was at any single event.
    • The more alters listed, generally the more accurate the information they give about the network.
    • A person is usually cognitively biased to believe they are at the centers of a social network, and that alters in their network have similar ties to each other.

    During the interpretation phase I kept double checking my numbers, because I was getting a pattern that contradicted a few of these laws -the strongest ones. In a way I wasn’t expecting to see what the data was telling me, but I was able to explain it pretty quickly, because of work that people like Sally Merry had done working in dangerous urban communities. She didn’t do formal SNA in her communities, but what she described is exactly what I was seeing. I went back through the literature and I realized that none of the studies I read did formal SNA in low-income, urban, high-crime areas. It seems that the effects of violence and especially the memory and fear of violence affects social networks in a predictable ways, but in ways that aren’t predicted in the SNA literature. So, in a way my research was very exploratory, but it was also clearly within 50 years of consistent and necessary research. Now, what I’m supposed to do is write it up for a journal so that others can try to replicate the study and see if I’m wrong, or if I’ve found something new.

  35. Wow, you people sure like to talk about theory.

    “The point of all these anecdotes is a recommendation that we avoid looking for the Theory with a capital T that will be our key to understanding everything and, instead, see theories as tools that direct our attention to some particular aspects of whatever we happen to be studying. Take the toolkit metaphor seriously.”

    John – This seems to be the point of the middle-range theorizing in sociology (see the references I posted earlier). As an archaeologist looking for help with “middle-range theory” (again, NOT how archaeologists Binford or Trigger use that term), also called “empirical theory” in some quarters, I’m not quite sure why I find useful models and analogies in sociology but not in cultural anthropology. Maybe it is the Theory with a capital T problem. As an anthropological archaeologist who has gone for most of my career thinking that sociology was worthless (for my interests, that is), I’m not sure whether I should feel liberated by the work of Hedstrom and other sociologists, or whether I should feel depressed that I can’t get much help from cultural anthropology.

  36. Rick, by one of those marvelous serendipities the Net produces now and then, I am working with similar issues in a different world, Japanese advertising. Next week I will be in Italy, reporting on some of this work. If you get in touch with me directly (jlm@wordworks.jp), I can share some of what I’ve come across that may be helpful with the problem you raise.

    For example, in this presentation I am considering the implications of teams (in your case it could be gangs or other organizations) for the scale of networks in the k>1 (immediate neighbors) layer. The inspiration for this concern is Ego-centered networks and the ripple effect
    — or —Why all your friends are weird, M. E. J. Newman, November 5, 2001, which you can find online. Newman, a physicist who works at the Santa Fe Institute, is concerned about sampling issues in what I would call lumpy networks. He writes,

    “One’s immediate neighbors in the acquaintance network, are far from being a random sample of the population, and that this biases the numbers of neighbors two and more steps away.”

    Since in my data, every individual is a member of a project team, every team is, by definition a clique (everyone directly connected with everyone else) and teams may be part of components (subnetworks in which everyone is connected by at least one path to everyone else) that range in size from one team to over 2000 individuals (networks above a certain size characteristically contain one giant component and a smattering of small ones), the teams to which an individual belongs dramatically effect his or her connectivity with the rest of the total population.

    Taking this sort of thing into account might explain the discrepancies you have discovered, since most of the generalizations you cite appear to be grounded in early and relatively unsophisticated models of network structures.

    Anyway, if you think this sort of observation might be helpful, do get in touch.

  37. bq. Wow, you people sure like to talk about theory.

    Ouch. Would you like some compliment with that backhand?

    bq. As an archaeologist looking for help with “middle-range theory” (again, NOT how archaeologists Binford or Trigger use that term), also called “empirical theory” in some quarters

    Not my question, actually. I asked about your middle-range theory vis-à-vis Trigger’s middle-ranging theory (see ch. 9 of his _A history of archaeological thought_). That the 2006 festschrift is titled _The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism_ suggests that his usage bears some resemblance to your own.

  38. I’m not sure whether I should feel liberated by the work of Hedstrom and other sociologists, or whether I should feel depressed that I can’t get much help from cultural anthropology.

    No need for you to feel depressed. It is hard to see what interpretive/phenomenological approaches would contribute directly to prehistoric archeologists, who don’t get to talk to the people whose lives they reconstruct or squeeze information from available documents. Seems to me that the tools, such as they are, simply aren’t appropriate for the problems you deal with.

    The problem is on the cultural anthros side, where failure to attend to material circumstance, except in the grossest political terms, leaves them with nothing much to say to policy wonks and other folk who say, “Show me the numbers.” Add in obsession with meta-theoretical issues which, let’s be honest about this, have never attracted the interest of more than a tiny minority of a certain class of intellectual geeks (OK, I’m one of them), and you have a ready answer to, “Why won’t anybody listen to us?”

  39. MTB – on Bruce Trigger — Trigger was a materialist like I am, and I have great respect for his work, which I have cited frequently in recent years. But he followed Binford in using the phrase “middle-range theory” to refer to a narrow domain of archaeological phenomena often called “formation processes.” This usage has nothing to do with the way Merton (and subsequent sociologists) used the phrase “middle-range theory.” In writing a paper on urban theory, drawing on a variety of disciplines, I had to explain my way around two different idiosyncratic usages by Binford which serve to isolate archaeology from other social science disciplines (the second concept was “normative theory”). I complain about this at:

    Publishing Archaeology

  40. Again, you are misunderstanding my original question. It is not, “Did Trigger use the term ‘middle range theory’ the way Binford did or the way Merton did?” My question is this—in chapter 9 of the 2d edn. of his A history of archaeological thought Trigger gives a typology of what he calls middle-ranging theories (one of which is middle-range theory à la Lew Binford). In your estimation, what, if any, resemblance does Trigger’s conception of middle-ranging theory bear to Merton’s middle-range theory?

  41. Discovered the following thought by George Dyson in the Nieman Report via Edge.

    In the North Pacific Ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

    The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results—maximum boat/minimum material—by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

    I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

    Theorizing in an era of abundant, easily accessible information may become something quite different from theorizing in a past when information was scarce and hard to lay hands on and finding and using every possible scrap was highly valued.

  42. MTB- On Trigger – I’m in the field now and don’t have access to my books. But I will check this when I return, since it may be relevant to my paper on middle-range theory. Thanks for the citation.

  43. “Taking this sort of thing into account might explain the discrepancies you have discovered, since most of the generalizations you cite appear to be grounded in early and relatively unsophisticated models of network structures.”

    No, most of it was from the 1980’s to 2009 and one from 2010. I basically taught myself SNA for this project, so a formal course would really help. I’ve been looking for an online course, but it seems only a handful of people even teach it.
    I think a difference is the point of emphasis and context. A difference between a low-income, inner city community in the US versus a community in Japan is probably more of an effect of fear and ethnicity in the former and a rural/urban dichotomy in the latter. It is absolutely true that who you know affects who you know, but it also true that regardless of who you know, probabilistically who you know won’t be at random distances from where you live and work. I created a flowchart outlining the various social categories that a person can fall into in the area, which is intended to be used to predict who they should know, which is something I think you’re talking about. I’ll email it to you, so you can look it over for weaknesses.

    One of the things I had to convey to my client was that the common demographic labels they use (Black, Hispanic) are not parsimonious with actual groups. Although, if someone was black about 98-100% of the people in their personal networks was also black.

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  45. Overall, an interesting article but the ideas I don’t think will work for the following reasons: We all seem to have different understandings of theory. In essence much of social theory is almost like religion, although certainly many social scientists have tried to prove some of these theories through scientific methodology. Even so, many of the more abstract theories are incredibly difficult to prove in such a manner as an archaeologist might demonstrate Optimal Foraging theory. So a roadmap to most social theory ultimately becomes useful only as far as the reader agrees with the academic writing the “road-map”.

    While anthropologists often do get “theory fatigue” and often use particular theories in a very peculiar manner, I believe what is more important is that one operationalizes their understanding of theory in a clear and understandable manner. If they are wrong in their definition, then at least it can be clearly seen where and why they are wrong. Furthermore the anthropologist, even if wrong on their usage of theory, may have inadvertently committed the sin of theory development which, in and of itself, is very useful. I come from an applied cultural anthropological approach so for me theory development is not the main goal. It is primarily a tool and as such is discarded if it does not prove useful in understanding a particular culture.

    I also (and this is what got me in hot water in graduate school) reject the notion that you can not use different contradictory theories within one research project. In my own research I came upon this idea not from any academic source, but rather from the science fiction author, Frank Herbert, author of the “Dune” series of novels. He calls this “Mentat philosophy” named after the ancient Roman chariot riders who would stand on top of two horses, one foot on each, but going to the same path.

    What this philosophy describes is the process of removing one’s self from a rigid theoretical framework and instead shift between several in order to analyze an issue from multiple points of view, including those radically opposed to one’s core beliefs (critical in peace and conflict studies for example).
    I believe firmly that this philosophy answers many of these issues that social scientists have struggled with, yet I have never read any form of social theory or scientific philosophy that clarified such ideas as succinctly as Frank Herbert has done.

    It’s primary weakness however is that it is geared primarily towards applied anthropology. The process of theory building, testing, and development requires one to focus on a particular theory and as such, Herbert’s ideas would be of little interest to those who do such research. However, for those who are struggling with figuring out which theoretical framework to work with in applied work, Herbert’s ideas may be incredibly illuminating and inspiring.
    To demonstrate what I am speaking of, I’d recommend for anyone interested to read some of Herbert’s non-fiction essays that are compiled in a book called, “The Maker of Dune- Insights of a Master of Science Fiction” edited by Tim O’Reilly. It’s a difficult book to find, but well worth it short of reading the entire Dune series of novels.
    I would however recommend the entire series of Dune novels to any anthropologist as they fully develop his non-fiction ideas on such areas as ecology, the Messiah complex, culture, history, gate-keepers, modes of government, the nature and function of tyranny, the function of revolution, economics, peace & conflict, religion, psychology, sociology, and ultimately tying all of those issues together seamlessly. That is something which I always thought was profoundly anthropological and is what inspired me to become an anthropologist.

    At any rate, here is an example of one of his best non-fiction essays- “Listening to the Left Hand” so that you may judge for yourself his usefulness in addressing the issues put forth in this topic:

    http://www.aeriagloris.com/Resources/FrankHerbertEssay/ListeningToTheLeftHand.htm

    There are several chapters to this essay, so hit the bottom arrow button to go to the next chapter.

    I’d like to hear some opinions of whether or not they think this essay addresses some of the issues pointed out in this topic and in anthropology in general.

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