A Changeling Discipline

Worrying about our status as a science is not a new habit for anthropologists — in fact its one of our perennial concerns. Its useful, therefore, to see how our predecessors have worried the same way we have about the same topics since, a lot of the time, they did it better than us.
One wonderful brief piece of such rumination is Kroeber’s The Personality of Anthropology, available free and open access from the good people of the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, along with tons of other great, free and open content. The piece is a speech that Kroeber made in 1958, near the end of his life. These were important questions at the end of the 50s, when ‘science’ was everywhere, funding was rife for it, and a wave of anthropologists were interested in making anthropology more ‘scientific’ whether it be in the form of componential analysis or Stewardian ecologism.
His main concern in the piece is to compare Anthropology’s unique personality and status among the discipline, particularly with comparison to sociology, British social anthropology, and ‘applied’ anthropology. Is anthropology ‘science’? Is it useful? What is unique about anthropology when so much of what it does is also done by other discipline?
“What impulse is it that drives anthropologists as a group to participate in so many fields which are already being cultivated by others?” Wondered Kroeber. The answer, it seemed to him, was
A two-prong impulse to apperceive and cenceive at once empirically and holistically. We constitute one of the smaller learned professions, but we aim to take in perhaps more phenomenal territory than any other discipline Our coverage must of necessity be somewhat thin. Yet it is rarely either vague or abstruse — we start with concrete facts which we sense to carry an interest, and we stick with them. Perhaps our coverage can fairly be called spotty; though without the implication of being random, irrelevant, disconnected. If a whole is steadily envisaged, the relation of its fragments can be significant, provided the parts are specifically known and are specifically located within the totality. So the holistic urge is perhaps what is most characterlistic of us.
For Kroeber, anthropology’s uniqueness is its empiricism, what ie calls “a love of fact, an attachment to phenomena in themselves, to perceiving them through our own senses”:
This taproot we share with the humanities. And we also tend strongly here toward the natural history approach. Sociologists have called us “nature lovers” and “-bird watchers,” Steve Hart says; and from their angle, the epithets stick. There are anthropological museums of tangible objects, but no sociological ones. We are strong on photographs, films, and tapes that reproduce sights and sounds. We write chapters on art in ethnographies and and sometimes offer courses on primitive art. How many sociologists would venture that, or even wish to venture it?…. We insist on field workd as an opportunity, a privelege, and a profesional cachet. We want the face-to-face experience with our sbjects. The anonymity of the sociological questionnare seems to us bloodless.
For Kroeber, it is abstraction that is the mark of a certain type of science which anthropology is constitutionally unable to appreciate. Not because it is not a science, but because its definition of science is different from the fads in social science which Kroeber responds to:
Since personalities are initially determined by their ancestry, it is highly relevant that anthropology was not a social science at all originally. Its father was natural science; its mother, aesthetically tinged humanities. Both parents want to attain reasoned and general conclusions; but they both also want to reach them by way of their senses… anthropology settled down to starting directly from experienced phenomena, with a bare minimum of ready-made abstraction and theory, but with a glowing conviction that it was entering new territory and making discovery. The visions was wide, charged,and stirring.. It may perhaps fairly be called romantic: certainly,it emerged historically about at the point when aesthetic romanticism was intellecturalizing. The pursuit of anthropology must have seemed strange to many people; but no one has ever called it an arid or a dismal science.
Now, maturity has stolen upon us… The times, and utilitarianism, have caught up with us, and we find ourselvres classified and assigned to the social sciences. It is a dimmer atmosphere, with the smog of Jargon sometimes hanging heavy. Generalizations no longer suffice; we are taught to worship Abstraction; sharp sensory outlines have melted into vagueoness.  As our daily bread, we invent hypotheses in order to test them, as we are told is the constant practice of the high tribe of physicists. If at times some of you, like myself, feel ill at ease in the house of social science, do not wonder; we are changelings therein; our true paternity lies elsewhere.
To me, this remarkable piece is immediately relevant to contemporary debates about anthropology’s status as a ‘science’. One of the most interesting is the way it focuses on abstraction — not ‘being about the facts’ or ‘being true’ — as the aspect of ‘science’ that anthropology is most reluctant to embrace. Like a faerie child raised in a human house, anthropologists feel ill at ease with attempts to conform to the (imagined) standards of physcists and other ‘real’ sciences. While others have argued our unwillingness to conform is because we don’t ‘believe in facts’ or ‘that some things are true and others aren’t’ it is rather our commitment to the actual reality of the world — not a ‘postmodern’ attempt to ‘destroy truth’ — which makes us unwilling to become something other than what we truly are.

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 rex@savageminds.org

10 thoughts on “A Changeling Discipline

  1. Thanks, Rex. What a lovely Christmas gift. I note with pleasure its perfect fit with my enthusiasm for anthropology as a discipline that is both science and humanity, whose focus is best found in what Levi-Strauss called “the logic in tangible qualities.”

  2. Thanks for posting this. I have long known that Kroeber was a treasure, but was unaware that speeches like this were available online. There are interesting parallels with Max Gluckman’s Closed Systems and Open minds: the limits of naivety in social anthropology (1964) and with Foucault’s remarkable discussion at the end of The Order of Things: an archaeology of the human siences: Psychoanalysis and ethnology (1973:407-422). But neither has the clarity of this personal retrospective.

  3. There are as many fields and specialties in anthropology as there are in medicine. That’s just the way the ball bounces. It’s especially difficult to adapt to changing times, I’m sure some great mind a thousand years from now will come up with a nice book about 21st Century Quirks, Rants, and Raves in the Science and Art of Anthropology. I am, too!

  4. A lot of #aaafail has been argued without a lot of historical sensibility. I think it’s worthwhile to see what has been thought about this in the past. Thanks for the positive comments all!

  5. Rex, you have done us all an immense favor by quoting the passages from Kroeber with which this thread begins.I wonder if we mightn’t broaden our scope a bit further. How, for example, would you compare what Kroeber says to the way in which Lawrence Stone describes the 1848 inaugural lecture of the newly appointed Regius Professor of History at Oxford, H.H. Vaughn?

    Stone writes,

    “The key issue every historian should tackle, according to Vaughn, is ‘a disclosure of the critical changes in the condition of society.’ It should be noted that the emphasis here is on change, not on static description, and that the nature of change in history is defined neither as recurrent nor periodic, as in the social or natural sciences, but as critical and, therefore, presumably unique. The subject matter of history Vaughn described in the broadest of terms, ranging far into popular, social, and cultural history in a way that would win the approval of the newest of the ‘new’ historians of today: ‘There are institutions, laws, customs, tastes, traditions, beliefs, convictions, magistracies, festivals, pastimes, and ceremonies, and other elements of social organization which are both in thought and in fact distinguishable from the condition of a national unity.’

    A few paragraphs later, Stone writes,

    “The qualities of a good historian, according to Vaughn, are three: the first is the ‘principle of attraction to the facts’ — in other words, a passionate curiosity about the past, and an infinite capacity for taking pains in delving into musty archives to find them. The second is ‘instincts of expectations more or less definite’ — in other words, a preconceived hunch to be tested against the factual records. This is a position normal enough for the social or natural scientist, but one which was for a century to follow to be anathema to the professional historian [obsessed with just the facts]. The third is the ‘habits of rapid recognition’ — the intuitive gift of picking out the significant detail in a chaotic mass of documentation.”

    How, as an anthropologist would you respond to Stone’s characterization of the social and natural sciences as concerned with static description and recurrent or periodic change in contrast to the historian’s focus on critical paths? How, if at all, would you see the virtues of a good anthropologist as different from the three qualities that Stone attributes to the good historian?

Comments are closed.