Human Nature: It’s Not What You Think

Over at Neuroanthropology Greg is asking how anthropology can best brand itself. Its a long entry, but don’t worry, you can just make a point of only reading the passages which have been bolded. I’ve argued for some time that anthropology’s brand is diluted by popular representations of it but I’ve never really sat down and attempted to reduce to a few bullet points what exactly that brand is or ought to be, as Greg has done. Greg focuses on five main things that anthropologists do: make discoveries, interesting stuff, fieldwork, science, and advocacy. I like many of these but I think I’d like to offer a twist on some of them here, and if I had my druthers for a central message out of anthropology I think I’d go with this instead:

Human Nature: It’s Not What You Think

I like this motto because it, like a forty pack of pudding cups from the pak-n-save, be broken out into separate containers which can be sold separately:

Anthropology: We Own Human Nature

Anthropology is a four-field discipline, and the main reason it needs to stay that way is to keep what we know about human nature from being forgotten. Other congeries of disciplines have their own take on human nature, often derived from models of how they imagine people work, or people in highly artificial lab-based experiments. We need to emphasize that our models are reality-based: empirical, from a wide sample of places and times, and based on naturalistic human behavior. Lab work is great for some things but in the final instance actual human behavior should be used to explain actual human behavior: this is a central Boasian lesson. I personally work far away from the seam where biology meets culture (or rather, where those two terms are no longer analytically useful because they collapse into one another). But I, like all anthropologists, need to attend to that boundary and have a basic idea what goes on there. We started out as human nature experts and we need to stay that way.

Masters of the Unexpected

The fundamental insight of anthropology is that most people mistake convention for necessity and that our intuitions about what humanity as a whole are like come out of day-to-day experiences which are quite parochial. This should make us masters of the unexpected, purveyors of surprises and strange twists on common sense: the very stuff of headlines. Too often, however, we use our awareness of cultural relativism as a cudgel, telling people how ‘limited’ and ‘blinded’ they are by their culture. How much press is there in that?

This is a bit like Greg’s idea of ‘making discoveries’ but I really think we need to embrace — without fear of exoticism — the idea that people can find our work interesting without us becoming bad people. On this point I’m in agreement with Greg: we need to get over knee-jerk fears of exoticism even as we take seriously realistic critiques of the colonial and colonizing origins/impulses of our discipline.

The Everything-Studiers

Greg emphasizes that we need to embrace fieldwork as distinctive. However for me what is amazing about anthropology is not that we go places to study people — it’s where we go and who we study. Anthropologists know we study everything from Polynesian outliers in Micronesia to investment bankers in wall street to sky divers to people who eat their dead relatives to hip hop in Brazil. We love our freewheeling ability to take absolutely anything seriously. We need to play not only the “I’ve Been To Burma!” card (to quote an Eric Overmeyer line) but also that we study things that people didn’t think you could study because they are so close to home: Walmart. Guitar Hero experts. Graffiti. Corgie fanciers. Close-up magic. Pro-anorexia websites. We think of it as a committed comparativism, but it is a short step (often, the walk between the lecture hall and the local pub) from comparativism to this-is-to-cool-to-not-study. Anthropological careers have been launched with the sudden insight “I didn’t even know you could study that” and I bet public interest would be as well.

Science? Yes. But more than science, too.

For most reasonable, un-shirty definitions of science, cultural anthropology is a science. The other three fields are even easier to brand as science. Greg is right that incredibly subtle discussion about the status of Reality and Truth need to take a back seat to public professions that we actually know what we are talking about since we do (or at least we should). At the same time, what makes anthropology unique is that we go further than just facts and theories — the type of knowledge we offer is further, deeper, different. This “bonus insight” is not an alternative or criticism of ‘science’ (I am all for criticisms of shirty definitions of science) but an addition: the extra mile we go to that makes what we do even richer and more valuable than a ‘just the facts’ lab-coatism.

People are not stupid. Unfortunately, most science education takes the form of teaching students that people in lab coats know The Truth and that they should shut up and not ask any questions because they wouldn’t be able to understand the answers anyway. And by and large people do do so. But we all know that we learn with our hearts, that our knowledge of the world is enriched by time and experience, that key events in our lives broaden our perspectives, that there is something you get out of a great work of fiction that should be counted as insight.

Anthropologists should be honest with the public and admit what we ourselves have known all along: that fieldwork provides both data and personal transformation, that cultivation and knowledge are broader than just an analysis of cultural systems. Of all the social sciences anthropology (and perhaps certain of the more outré versions of symbolic interactionism) is willing to recognize different and broader forms of knowledge. And even, at times, provide them.

Call it the Carlos Castaneda pathway to fame and fortune, but I think we need to grasp the nettle on this one and point out that beyond science there is an additional kind of insight we provide — one which people might more intuitively recognize as similar to a kind of understanding they are pursuing. And let’s be honest — the great ethnographies provide us with this bonus insight without having to fabricate shamanic visions or choke down jimson weed smoothies.

* * *

Greg focuses on activism as a hallmark of anthropology, which just doesn’t spring to mind for me. I believe that activism — like diversity — has a special history in anthropology and needs to be protected as a main part of our big-tent tradition of inclusion. But I think you can be an anthropologist without being an activist. I don’t know I could be wrong. I think I just came up with four bullet points and then pooped out. In the end I think that Greg is right about one particularly important point: we need to ‘do anthropology’ in public, whether that is fieldwork or just presenting arguments from the ethnographic record so that people can watch us doing anthropology, rather than just describing what goes on behind closed doors. Speaking of which, I have to get back to my book manuscript…


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

48 thoughts on “Human Nature: It’s Not What You Think

  1. I think it’s useful to think about the terms you use in your introductory courses to explain and distinguish anthropology. I use: fieldwork; holistic; biocultural; diachronic & synchronic.

  2. It’s great that SM is sticking with the theme of what anthropology is all about and the return to human nature as our discipline’s object is particularly gratifying to me.

    I have long preferred to bypass the 19th century as the immediate souce of modern anthropology in order to concentrate on its roots in the 18th century, in the liberal revolution as promoted by Rousseau and Kant. After all, the basic structure of Morgan’s argument comes straight from the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men and Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View was a best-seller aimed at the general public as well as the first systematic account of our discipline.

    The liberal Enlightenment invented anthropology as a means towards a democratic revolution against the Old Regime. They conceived of existing society as being founded on arbitrary social distinctions and studied human nature in order to base an equal society on what all people share. Hence the term ‘natural rights’ was the precursor of human rights today.

    The word ‘nature’ has changed a lot since then. For us it implies biology and stands opposed to culture. But for Rousseau or Goethe, nature mean that which has become, has finished becoming and can no longer change or be changed (the main property of life).

    I am struck by the fact that Ulf, Greg and Rex all want to brand anthropology as the study of diversity. Difference as a slogan is so 20th century. We wouldn’t be interested in other people unless they were different, but we couldn’t study them unless they were the same. So surely we have to put some effort into identifying what human beings have in common?

    If anthropologists don’t want to contribute to the formation of world society, harping only on a retro preccupation with human difference, who else will? Whatever human nature is not, there should be some mileage in discovering what it is. Our brand should be sameness in difference or the other way round.

  3. I don’t really agree with much of this post, even though it is a nice effort.

    1) As far as I am concerned, anthropology’s brand, whatever that means, is diluted more by anthropologists than anyone else. The forum comments on this website (or this post, even) are one minor example of how divided people are.

    2) How do anthropologists own human nature? In my department of 60 odd people, I don’t know if more than 1 or 2 would say they have any concern with human nature, and everyone else would roll their eyes if they heard these words. If anything, psychology or biology could make a much better claim to this title, since they are concerned with human universals (even if the work is sometimes shady).

    3) All the examples of “everything studying” you cited are socio-cultural anthropology, which leaves out everyone else in the 4-fields who are pretty tightly constrained in what they study. Moreover, as much as cultural anthropology supposedly studies everything, it essentially focuses on similar issues. There are more people studying Highland New Guineans than Walmart, more people studying pentecostalism in Ghana than anorexia.

    4) This post strikes me as very American-centric, which is fine because we all write from somewhere, but anthropology extends outside of the US, where it is not 4-field, where it is not so obsessed with its image, where there is no science versus whatever debate endlessly on repeat.

  4. Whatever you do with anthropology, please don’t encourage your students or assistants to waste their time on anthropology of elevators and anthropology of candy wrappers. Elevator manufacturers and candy makers will not hire them to work even for a minimum wage.

    It is irresponsible for a university to waste their students’ time, effort, and money without giving them an assurance that they can find jobs related to their degrees after they graduate. It’s okay if these students are all trust fund kids; the university doesn’t have to worry their employability.

    Train your students and assistants to become skilled, useful, relevant, and employable. Also, if you want to call yourself a political anthropologist, make sure you can negotiate conflict, you can perform political management, and do public policy. You will not learn these things through reading Rosaldo, his headhunting Ilonggots, and his postmodern critique of self-contained cultural patterns.

    If researching, writing, and reading are what anthropology is all about, it is no different to comparative literature. The only difference is that the latter has no pretense of studying humans. I think anthropology is a misnomer. What we really have is a comparative anthropological literature.

  5. Also, if you want to call yourself a political anthropologist, make sure you can negotiate conflict, you can perform political management, and do public policy.

    Reasonable expectations for an FSO, but for a political anthropologist? That strikes me as akin to the expectation that every economist be able to work on the floor of the NYSE.

  6. What’s the use of going to the field to study a warring culture and its peace negotiation and conflict resolution process, of reading voluminous materials on political institutions and organization, and of theorizing culture and politics if one cannot apply what he learns or negotiate and organize to solve a political problem?

    Are anthropologists like literary critics who go to theaters and performances, their fieldwork, so they have something to write about that is convoluted and suffering from pretentious logorrhea?

    Economists, at least, can do economic models, analyses, and theories that are intended or perceived to be applied. Isn’t NYSE an expected working environment for financial economists? I sure hope they don’t study game theory and the theory of the firm only because they are fun to read and talk about.

  7. This post is ok in describing some things about anthropology, but to sell the discipline to the outside world, I think that Greg Downey’s 5 points are much better.

    And I wasn’t going to say anything, but I’m glad M. Izabel chimed in about anthropology in elevators. This kind of thing just contributes to my desire to get out of anthropology and spend more time with historians, geographers, sociologists, and others who deal with social phenomena that have some import in the wider world of science and scholarship.

  8. I think this is a compelling post. And after all, it should be clear from that word in our title, “anthropos,” that we are here to understand what it is to be human. This includes the boundaries of the human, as negotiated by humans, as well as the science of what makes us human. I’ve been reading the interesting series of brief thoughts in the latest American Anthropologist by Fuentes et al. on this very subject, and would recommend it to others.

    One question I would add, or perhaps pose to Rex as a follow-up post. If you’re going to use this rather messy notion of “brand,” I know from my experience in the branding world that it’s not enough to ask the internal question of what you’re all about. You also need to address the always changing problem of a wider intended audience. Who does understanding human nature appeal to, beyond just anthropologists? The answer is, in many ways, quite obvious, but nonetheless important to articulate. Humans have a need to understand humans, both themselves and others. And without always recognizing it, they utilize explanatory mechanisms every day with underlying theories of human nature contained within. Perhaps the most popular of these in America is psychology–or really, a pop psychology, in most cases, that posits all kinds of overbearing rules about human nature. How do we communicate and connect with the interests and concerns these people have? Or are some of them–much in the same way that brands cannot appeal to everyone (to go back to that point)–simply lost causes? Of course I would prefer that this audience want to really learn more about what we have to say, but are people, in America for example, truly inclined to listen and to learn more about our take on human nature?

    Another commenter noted that many academic colleagues would “roll their eyes” at the notion of even mentioning human nature. I’m not so sure the same eye-rolling occurs for regular people. I always recall a conversation I had with my mom when, after years of grad school, she had a chance to ask me, what is human nature? A lot of people are seeking the answer to this question (but who are they exactly? is it everyone?).

    And one last thought, regarding the part of the post comparing anthropology with a 40 pack of yogurt flavors: Brands often run into problems with brand extensions. You can’t do everything well. In this respect, although I hate to say it, “everything-studier” is something we do, but perhaps it is one of our biggest weaknesses, too? Or maybe it’s just phrased wrongly?

  9. The post is mis-labelled: you mean what is the brand for cultural anthropology? Chris is right in the comments that this is US-centric. The question is not human “nature” and efforts to disprove innateness but rather what makes us human, that is how have species evolved socio-biologically?

  10. M. Izabel:

    Physicists, biologists, computer scientists, etc. – they don’t only write serious papers on obviously, immediately practical research. Some of them even create webcomics and TV shows. Say what you will about American-centric geek culture, my point is – other disciplines aren’t as disciplined as you suggest anthropology should be. Why should anthropology be cut out of all the fun? Even Levi-Strauss wrote about Pere Noel.

  11. Adam, you already answered your question. Yes, nuclear scientists can even make atomic arts, but they do not preoccupy them. They are trained, maybe, to work in nuclear plants or in particle accelerator labs. Can you say the same thing with an anthropologist who does, let’s say, anthropology of bedrooms? What practical stuff can he do with it? Can he make bedrooms more livable and comfortable?

  12. M. Izabel,

    Actually, I take issue with your fundamental assumption that the purpose of higher education is to endow one with magical employment-acquiring abilities. I think it has more to do with learning to think critically and endowing one with fuller skills of civic awareness and courage. Although, come to think of it, in America we really need that more in non-higher education. Hey, let’s put anthropology in high schools!

    But to play within your discourse a bit longer: just because other disciplines are sought after by some industries does not mean that anthropology should transform itself to be sought after by industry. Besides, it is. Yes, there are anthropologists paid to “make [things] better.”

    Furthermore, back to my objection of your base assumption, “doing anthropology” about elevators is indeed applying anthropology. Thoughts and ways of thinking are tools, and using them to think and communicate about the world in new ways is application.

  13. Do you think it makes sense to hire only two research assistants for AIDS research instead of four because the university has to allocate a fund for an art gallery under the painting department that educates students that will most likely end up working at Starbucks?

    If you want fundamentals, aren’t those things should be taught in high school? I’m just wondering why you can’t see the plus side of making students employable after they graduate considering the current economic climate. I don’t see the merit of your point, honestly.

    Adam, look at the general picture. Which is more important: “molecular anthropology” or “anthropology of elevators”? Why is it that I seldom read online posts on genetics and culture, but these anthropological studies of ordinary things exist in abundance.

    Anthropologists should recollect what their discipline has missed. Check who has led human genome research projects. Biologists and geneticists go all over the globe and convince ethnic peoples for blood samples. Isn’t that the job fitting for anthropologists, since kinship, migration, and ethnic groupings are involved in sampling, if only genetics is part of the discipline? Yes, physical anthropologists can talk about haplogroup or phenotype, but I doubt if they can expertly explain the basics and structures of adenine. They don’t even know hot to draw blood.

    I graduated from a state university under a scholarship. My roommate was a biotechnology major who dropped out because he could no longer afford his living expenses. Do you think that is just to him and to my people whose taxes I used? My scholarship should have gone to him who studied something that could have discovered important things that would solve our immediate problems. What did I learn in anthropology? Marxism, Feminism, Structuralism, Postmodernism. Can I do something with them to make the life of my people easier? Nope.

  14. It’s not a zero-sum game, although your roommate anecdote might seem to indicate it is. Also, feminism has some real use in furthering the position of women in society, and arguably it has made the life of many women a lot easier. Maybe Marxism and structuralism have some use in this regard as well. As for postmodernism, you might want to check on Brecht’s concept of Tui’s and Tuism. These creatures alas have a definite use within corrupted systems.

    Anthropology and the humanities indeed draw on people not trained to ‘draw blood’. Their work provides a different take on the world, thereby complementing the natural science take. Elevators are just as utilitarian as genes, and just as worthy of study. Therefore they are not part of a zero-sum game, except for funding. But then, they are also comparatively cheap.

  15. I don’t know why a concept in game theory suddenly popped up. What I tried to convey was how knowledge should be prioritized considering limited resources and pressing needs, besides the irresponsibility of universities in producing bums and underemployed workers.

    Let’s put it this way. Do you think it makes sense for the government to cut its budget for autism research just so it can give funds to National Endowment for the Arts, which gives grants to artists who strip naked on a canvass, who put a crucifix in a jar of piss, and who photograph punks and transvestites? How many times do they have to fund King Lear stage productions? Remember the cause of autism is not yet clear. The more we waste money on these useless things, the more we delay the results of medical research. That is a blatant disservice to the sick and the dying.

    Comparing elevators to genes? Maybe I was away when my anthropology professor explained that and yes, elevator disease. I’ll just let others respond.

  16. Interesting. Do you think it’s possible to give this some quantitative precision, ie, can we calculate the exact number of orphans murdered per anthropology major?

  17. You should be asking how many needed biomedical research could have been funded in universities if only these useless degrees were phased out since they did not want to reform their disciplines and make them widely useful and relevant.

    Gender studies? Do you really think women need Feminism to know and change their lot? Feminists in India are a dime a dozen, yet there are Indian women burnt alive and raped everyday. Now tell me the relevance of Feminism.

  18. This is not very reasonable. It has the sound of neoliberal agitprop.

    And yes, historically feminism has played a crucial role in gaining political rights of women and enhancing sex education. It has also provided a way for women to conceive of their position in society in terms controlled by themselves. At least I think it has to some degree. The killings and rapes you mention have nothing to do with social science or the humanities but everything with the way law is enforced in India. It would be useful to make a study of why that is, but don’t put all the sins of the world on the humanities please.

  19. Neoliberal agitprop? Nope. I’m talking about usefulness and relevance. If you ask me, it is better to put up police/defense colleges for women than gender studies departments. Particularly in India, female cops and investigators are more needed than feminists who write and talk about stuff only their fellow feminists understand. I don’t totally dismiss the positive contribution of gender studies in the total academic/intellectual development of a student. Can’t it be a GE or an elective course instead of a degree from a department that just wastes university funds?

    I’m Asian and I hate thinking that some of my family’s taxes and mine go to the Asian-American programs of UC’s. Have you checked the research done in these departments? Amy Tan’s fiction and Chinese culture? If that’s relevant and useful to you, I rest my case.

  20. M. Izabel,

    Is it accurate to state your case as an “all or nothing” type; i.e., a discipline’s proven utility (in accordance to who’s criteria?) determines its necessity (or desirability)?

    You provide a few examples, particularly the feminist one, that seem like a backlash against a portrayal of certain disiplines as inflated with strict theory detached from society. Furthermore, certain avenues of inquiry deter any practical action. Again, is this an accurate summary of your position?

    If, after undergoing rigorous training within a discipline (e.g. field methodology or experience, reviewing the literature etc) you are unable to find or create links between disciplines and society then maybe the problem lies internally?

    Anyone can be taught to fish, where and when at certain locations, but we have apply our knowledge and build off of experience. That is a very personal aspect of learning.

    Usefulness and relevance, as terms used in your messages to be judged by a personal standard. I am sure many other will have different standards, and quite possibly can create “usefulness and relevance” (as you defined) out of the scenarios you mention.

  21. Ah, just a few days away from this post and it already is drifting off into nasty-gram land. Let’s try to keep the tone civil, folks.

    Thanks everyone who posted on the actual substance of the article described. I think that some of these comments are fair but others perhaps… not so much. This is definitely the time anyone has ever accused me of taking Renato Rosaldo too seriously!

    I think one recurring theme that has come up in this post and other posts is that I am writing as an American anthropologist. This seems to me to be a natural thing to do since… I am… an American anthropologist. I’m not sure this is something I should be blamed for? But more seriously: I do take the point that I’m appropriating a general label for a particular intellectual project which I admit is not perfectly fair. I suppose I should just be more explicitly American. But instead I’d like to ask commenters a question back: what SPECIFICALLY would you change for your national/regional/areal tradition?

    Some people have mentioned that few anthropologists explicitly do ‘human nature’ as a research project, but this does not mean that we lack the means to reveal exciting unexpected material which reveals that our taken for granted assumptions about human nature are incorrect. I did fieldwork in a place which had a base-14 counting system and where people called their father’s brother’s kid’s ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Or, actually, ‘same sex sibling (male)’ ‘same sex sibling (female)’ and ‘same sex sibling (cross-sex)’. I think this counts as ‘not what you expected’. Equally, although my examples were drawn from sociocultural anthropology I think you could easily fill in the blanks form other subfields without too much trouble, so I hardly think this is a chauvinist project.

  22. Don’t feed the troll. What might have appeared as a perhaps reasonable critique of a certain style/focus of anthropology was actually quite clearly the opening salvo of a tactless and irrational critique on almost the entirety of human thought. Honestly, this isn’t a person worth reasoning with.

  23. T’archechu, it’s more of adapt or vanish. A troll is a person who has seen enough homeless poets and painters in her life. The sad thing is that they went to school just to end up in the streets. At least with anthropology, there are some who are treating it more of a science than a philosophy or literature. Neuroanthropology websites are good examples. Isn’t it more relevant and funding-worthy to study culture or community-specific neurosis/psychosis than to write about elevators? I just hope this trend will continue. It would be nice to meet an anthropologist who could really do a holistic anthropology that would involve genetics, pharmacology, culture, society, ritual, kinship, economics, politics, etc.. That’s real holism.

    With arts and humanities, it’s a different story. Unless they include practice and practicability in their studies, they are bound to vanish. Their only option is to go interdisciplinary. You want to write fiction? Why not take journalism and attend creative writing workshops? You want to paint? Why not do visual communication and find a master to teach you painting? You want to be a poet? Do you really need a BA degree for that?

  24. Well, M. Izabel, I agree to a large extent with your last posting. I would however add that it would be virtually impossible to find a single anthropologist who masters all these fields. There needs to be some kind of integrative discourse along the lines of human nature to keep the various disciplines and subdisciplines from drifting apart and unable to answer questions that are bigger than narrow interests. However useful these interests may be, holistic issues also have their uses.

  25. Impossible? Difficult? Do students take anthropology because it has no sciences such as genetics, biochemistry, physiology, anatomy of humans in it? How can we holistically say that our discipline is the study of “anthropos” if we don’t even know what he is cellularly made of? I do think it’s neither impossible nor difficult. Just check the materials on postmodernism forced-fed by anthropology professors to their students.

    Books used in genetics are way easier to read and understand. It’s also easier to find a genetic explanation for dystonia, a neurological disorder prevalent in a community back home that believes in ugly monsters, than to answer this: “what is a postmodern culture?” If I were a professor, that would be my final exam in social anthropology. If a student leaves it blank, he’ll get an A.

    I’m not saying that every anthropologist should learn all these sciences. One can choose whatever he likes, but he should have other scientific tools available for him in anthropology in case he wants to do a holistic study. For example, if an economic anthropologist wants to study everything there is to know about hoarding, it is not a bad idea to consult a molecular or genetic anthropologist (if there’s such a thing) or a primatologist, who can explain why some primates have pouches on their cheeks and hoard.

    Holism that includes sciences, indeed, is anthropology’s savior. History is now involved in science, geology, and climatology. Philosophy extends some of its sub-disciplines to mathematics, computer science, and neuroscience. Linguistics has informatics and acoustics, besides semantics and logic that can be cognitive and computational. Sociology does sociomedical, institutional, and even economic models. Why is it that anthropology is generally trying to cling on to postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism? Do anthropologists think that encroaching the areas and staples of comparative literature and critical studies can benefit anthropology?

    If I use the logic of Baudrillard (I like to use him to illustrate how postmodernism can destroy knowledge), the most savage of all postmodernists, there is no human. Does that make sense in anthropology? It should since postmodernism, it seems, makes sense to anthropologists based on Online posts I’ve read.

    We have all these “toothpick” and “candy wrapper” studies in anthropology because we accept symbolic interpretation as science. Enough of this cute stuff and beautiful symbols. Let’s go back to humans and study and solve their problems. The last time I checked, they have no toothpick and candy wrapper problems. So far, there’s no elevator disease as well.

  26. The BAA’s (Bachelor of Applied Arts) people I know are making as much money as I do, though it’s certainly a rough market to get a freelance start in.

    And you’re saying that History should be phased out of universities? Do you think maybe knowing about history is worth paying for?

    You’re right about (social) anthropologists badly needing to learn interdisciplinarity, though. It’s not feasible for anthros to master everything; but it is a legitimate critique that, faced with that limitation, not enough of them are building — or joining — team-based approaches to complex research problems. Leastwise that’s how it seems — I have joked, though I’m *sure* someone’s said this before I did, that it should really be called anti-social anthropology. It’s much harder to get social anthros to go out to the pub than archies.

  27. Damn, I got suckered into posting something reasonable.

    Postmodernism only destroys knowledge in the sense that evolution destroys religion, ie, if you’re unable to deal with postmodernism and scientific knowledge at the same time, it’s because your model of scientific knowledge is brittle and will ultimately fail anyway. Illuminating the socially-constructed nature of scientific work hardly negates “reality”. Try reading Latour and Haraway.

  28. Mmmmm… Foucault, Bourdieu, and now Latour. The French get all your money. That’s the business of scholarship– they confuse you, so you will buy more books. It would help anthropology, if you buy anthropologists’ unknown published ethnographies instead so they can continue their longitudinal studies.

    Now, explain this: “In theory, theories exist. In practice, they do not.” That’s from Latour. Ask your doctor, whose every medical move has a theoretical basis, unless, of course, if you define “theory” as “hunch” or “supposition”. You can also ask a physicist why when you sit on a chair, you don’t go through and fall flat on the floor. Don’t be surprised if he tells you, “the (string) theory is in the chair.”

  29. Rex, days later and your post here is still in my mind. I am, amusingly, in a similar position to M. Izabel, in that I graduated with a BA in anthropology in 2000, and no clear picture what I wanted to do with my life. (Though I differ in that I don’t blame anthropology, but the overall “send your kids to college and then they get a job” paradigm.)

    I was drawn to anthropology due to a love of the biological, evolutionary and behavioral sciences, and a preoccupation at the time with humanist questions of what it meant to be human. My department wasn’t great (also, it was the late 1990s and the field was even more confused than it is now), and I do think the lack of a more cohesive “brand” or understanding of the field by its practitioners, it hurt my studies.

    I’m heading back to grad school now, and while my reasons are many, one big one is the way my own understanding of anthropology as a field, and what’s important to me, has clicked and solidified.

    Largely, it sounds like what you’ve written here. But also what Greg wrote at Neuroanthropology. To me, the motto of “human nature – not what you think” is intimately connected with the motto of “we study diversity.” Particularly since so much of the assumptions and beliefs about humans center around them precisely being seen as fundamentally the same everywhere, rather than as diverse as they are.

    An emphasis on diversity, an emphasis on questioning “human nature,” and an emphasis on interacting with real people in the world – those are the most important, defining aspects of anthropology for me today.

  30. @Adam P

    Now that’s the post I like.

    I hope I have not overstayed my welcome here. I assure you I’m not a troll. I’m just a frustrated ex-anthropologist who doesn’t want to join the chorus in singing praises to what is ruining anthropology. If some of you can stand idly while French theories are redefining science, human, and culture the way only postmodernists can understand, I can;t. I’m a reformed rabid “postmodernist,” a term that was so trendy then. What a waste of time, effort, and money!

    Yes, I blame the anthropology I had. I was interested to write an undergraduate thesis on the genetic evidence of early migrations in Southeast Asia that will force historians in my country to revisit and revise their speculative theories and embrace the new meanings of ethnicity, region, and nationality in relation to our demic culture. Unfortunately, it was not possible because genetics was not taught in the program and we had no materials I could use. I had not even heard of any human genome project then. We had, however, voluminous materials on Marxism, Structuralism, Feminism, and Postmodernism and professors who could lecture straight from their colorfully-covered books verbatim.

    I ended up doing a Marxist analysis on a fishing village economy, which had no practical use or whatsoever. The hierarchy among fishermen I studied will always be there. Women will still be an outsider in the process of fishing in that remote village. It was no different to watching a movie and critiquing it. One just cannot change the movie. What’s the use of doing it then?

    I don’t even know where they put my thesis now. Maybe it was used by my professor to light fire to cook rice or something. In contrast, my friend, a molecular biologist, wrote a three-page proposal indicating that something in a mushroom could advance wound healing got a research grant for it even though nobody was sure that it had not been done before. The lesson I learned was simple: real science should solve real problems. And yes, I blame the kind of anthropology I had that was not science and was speculative. As I see it, if science-minded anthropologists don’t try hard, the pretentious ones will continue peddling interpretation and speculation as scientific methods.

  31. The key insight of anthropology or Rousseau (or both?) is that human beings ‘don’t have a single human nature’ or that only very ‘thin’ theories of human nature adequately explain our data. Thus the University of Pittsburgh Anthropology department’s wonderful motto “What makes us different is what makes us human” which I would have stolen except its a plug for humanity and not anthropology!

    So diversity and human nature are tied in classic anthropological conceptions. At the same time its not true that humans have _no_ human nature. We all come out more or less symmetrical around one axis, we all have a facility for language (and maybe particular clumps of phonemes in particular) and so forth. I think its difficult for some cultural anthropologists to open this can of worms because they are afraid doing so will lead to the same old conceptual errors that earlier generations fought against. The danger of people who do look at the biology/culture interface is that once you start looking for human nature it gets pretty easy to find it in spades. I don’t know — sometimes I think the hardest part about that kind of work is training people right so that they have the specialist skills to do it but the broad conceptual background and ethnographic knowledge so that they don’t start using their culturally-specific intuitions to start discovering American culture in their Human Nature. I think that’s why I find work by people like Lance Gravlee so refreshing.

  32. “Now, explain this: “In theory, theories exist. In practice, they do not.” That’s from Latour. Ask your doctor, whose every medical move has a theoretical basis, unless, of course, if you define “theory” as “hunch” or “supposition”. You can also ask a physicist why when you sit on a chair, you don’t go through and fall flat on the floor. Don’t be surprised if he tells you, “the (string) theory is in the chair.” ”

    I would be extremely surprised, because I’m pretty sure String Theory is not what you meant to reference there. I’m also a bit surprised because while I’ve often wondered if the alternative to a sociology of knowledge was a form of animism, I’ve seldom seen it stated so boldly!

    I haven’t read the quote you offer, but it seems like a straightforward statement that theories do not have an independent existence. This seems inescapable — Newton’s physics are not a separate object in reality from Einstein’s physics, they are two descriptions, and if another model better explains our observations than Einstein’s physics it will be yet another description.

    Chairs don’t do physics! Which is just as well, since they face incredible prejudice when submitting articles for publication.

  33. I really did mean strings… I know you have gravity in mind, but that’s more of a fact than a theory. That even the most fundamental particle is made up of billions of strings that can stretch, compress, and vibrate is theory.

  34. hes right about string theory. it actually complicates the problem more, while providing no further explanation. 3 space dimensions, one of space/time – or 22 time dimensions? it just looks good on paper…and it needs much more work before I’ll believe that.

    also, gravity is a theory too, NOT a fact. a theory is very very close to fact. it is more or less, “what we can assume to be true” or the cummulative effects of fact. no knowledge can be purely objective, and science likes to be delicate about that. but theory is close to a “sure-thing”.

  35. Okay, Jimmy, gravity is not a fact. Now jump off the building and find the truth yourself… if you’ll survive. Let’s go back to anthropology.

  36. Don’t you think that your failure to understand what a scientific Theory is, and the nature of scientific inquiry as developing a sequence of descriptions of reality, bears on your opinions about anthropology? I do. You aren’t really qualified to dismiss social science-on-natural-science studies like Rapp’s or Latour’s if you can’t engage with this argument. And it makes me question whether you’re really familiar enough with what anthropologists really do to dismiss what they do as useless.

    Of course, you’ve already said that feminism and Marxism have no relevance to people’s lives, which may come as a surprise to trade unions and women’s shelters.

  37. I’m immune to ad hominem’s. In case you don’t know.

    You should be questioning your idea/definition of “theory.” Theory, to me, is best described as “tentatively rigorous.” That’s why I don’t believe in the inseparability of theory and practice, which most of you postmodernists accept to be valid.

    Feminism in a women’s shelter? Are you kidding? I volunteer my Saturdays in shelters as a chef. It’s more of an issue of moral responsibility to defend the defenseless than practicing feminism. The church that runs it don’t care about feminists and feminism.

    I think you need to do some ethnography. You read and over-read too much.

  38. The idea/definition of Theory I’m using, in the case of String Theory or the Theory of Gravity/Evolution, is the broadly-accepted usage in the sciences. Here:

    Note the first line: “A scientific theory comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties”.

    Abstracting and quantifying are not verbs that chairs are capable of. Science pertains, as best it can, to reality — but it’s still an activity carried out by humans.

    Please note that I’m not assuming anything about you other than the statements you’ve made here. The same can’t be said in reverse. I am, in fact, an ethnographer and a volunteer-researcher who does public-health policy work.

  39. Okay, now that you have dragged me to your wikipedia level, read how theory is understood and done in humanities and philosophy. That’s the same sense used by most in anthropology. It’s time to embrace science. Ideas that are far from reality have created havoc in a discipline that should be studying humans not ideas of some humans.

    I don’t know where you get the idea that chair could do abstraction and quantification. Sorry, I’m not fond of material culture. You should go back to your idea about practice. I have the feeling that practice to you is an act and nothing else. A result of an act is part of practice. A chair will not exist by itself. A wood needs a human intervention before it becomes a chair. Practice, as opposed to theory, is an application of a theory.

  40. M. Izabel, reading you I realize my background is very different from yours. I was educated in a department where the professors had quite consciously decided to get rid of postmodernism by abolishing the theory department. As a result I enjoyed a educational path that emphasized basic knowledge of archaeology, without much theoretical ado. In fact I’ve read very little of postmodernism at all, and my MA was on human ecology and its relation to state formation in the Aegean using survey data.

    Holism for me means being able to draw different sources and their associated interpretive models together to achieve a comprehensive view of human societies. This also entails some reflection on the meta-issues of how one can actually do this. I’ve found anthropologists like Viveiros de Castro as very useful in providing conceptual models for this (especially his ‘anthropology AND science’).

    I’m sorry the result your thesis went nowhere. Maybe in different circumstances it could have been useful for regional policy-makers? After all, there is more to Marxism than providing a critique.

  41. I am very cautious about calls to “embrace science” from someone who doesn’t seem to have a background in it or an appreciation for the fact that scientific practice is *also filled with uncertainty and bullshit*. I am a “realist”; I believe — not that I need to — in a physical universe independent of our cognition. I have a background in population biology and biostatistics; that was my undergrad before I started doing medical/political anthro.

    I’m also a “postmodernist”. I think the evidence is inescapable that knowledge of this real universe is socially-produced and it’s worthwhile to study the social, economic and psychological practices that are tied up in knowledge-production.

    Both my (admittedly short) career in science and my career in social science confirm that while anti-science arguments are silly, idolizing the practice of science is not such a good idea either. If people misinterpret social theory as giving them license to dismiss empirical data, well — those people are foolish. If people misinterpret social theory as being a conspiracy to destroy reason, those people are just as foolish.

    If people ask for an explanation of Latour and then ignore the explanation to continue their seemingly endless, off-topic ranting, those people might be trolling.

  42. Why you keep on mentioning Latour? It’s anthropology not Latourology. If you want to study ideas, you should be in critical studies or comparative literature.

    Okay, this is a challenge. Tell me a solution to the current cultural problem in Africa where albinos are killed and their body parts are traded and used as lucky charms in business, fishing, etc. using postmodernism.

    Another one, apply Foucault’s concepts of power and oppression on nomadic groups that have no concept of nationality or citizenship and does not think they are oppressed since they can freely roam the forests they think are theirs.

    Would you really take a postmodernist seriously if he says the Gulf War did not happen or that there is no culture or that humans have no nature? A person who thinks gravity is not a fact but won’t try jumping off a tall building, to me, is an intellectual charlatan.

    Since I have no degree in science, I should not talk about it? What kind of logic is that? Even if I don’t have to tell you that I am a product of a science high school, your logic is still faulty. My unfinished masters is in humanities, and I’m confident about what I say about humanities. I used my scholarship grant for my last semester to study culinary arts because I realized studying and doing a thesis on Asian postcolonial poetry is a useless endeavor.

    You said you are a “realist” and “postmodernist”. Now that’s an oxymoron. You need to read more postmodernism materials and find out how postmodernists think of reality.

    By the way, even culinary arts is branching out to science. I do molecular gastronomy. I experiment with food molecularly. I use sodium alginate, nitrous oxide, gluconolactate. I like turning salmon, for example, into air or foam or liquid or powder. I also like the idea of cooking using liquid nitrogen, vacuum (sous-vide), and laser. The books I currently spent my money on are those of Herve This, a french physical chemist. Don’t accuse me of not knowing or practicing science without really knowing me.

  43. Well it looks like y’all decided to feed the trolls any way — I’m closing comments on this section. Thanks for your comments and discussion everyone!

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