The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

She is Freedom
She is Freedom

For philosophers, sociologists and historians, freedom is a concept exquisitely defined and heroically distinguished. There are the familiar distinctions like positive and negative liberty (Isaiah Berlin), there is the long tradition of thinking freedom togther with sovereignty, government and arbitrary power (sp. the newly reinvigorated “civic republican” tradition from Machiavelli to Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit); there is the question of free will and determinism (a core Kantian Antimony that generates both moral philosophy and philosophy of science debates seemingly without end); there is the question of freedom and the mind (the problem of the “contented slave” or the problem Boas raised in arguing that freedom is only subjective); the question of coersion, of autonomy, of equality and of the relationship to liberalism and economic organization. Within each of these domains one can find more and less refined discussions (amongst philosophers and political theorists primarily) oriented towards the refinement of both descriptive and normative presentations of freedom as a concept and as a political ideal. And then there is Sartre.

As I mentioned in the first post, anthropologists have been nearly silent on the problem, while philosophers, political theorists and historians have not. There are shelves and shelves of books in my library with titles like A Theory of Freedom, Dimensions of Freedom, Freedom and Rights, Liberalism and Freedom, Political Freedom, etc. There are readers and edited volumes and special issues of journals to beat the band. In history there is Orlando Patterson and Eric Foner, and a 15 volume series called The Making of Modern Freedom that includes books on Freedom from the medieval era to the present, and includes books on China, Asia, Africa, slavery, migration and fiscal crises (!).

If anthropologists find the concept of freedom distasteful, how then do they organize their concern with things and issues related to what political philosophers or historians approach via freedom? What concepts stand in, challenge or reframe that of freedom? Here is a long list (which could no doubt be longer):

agency, authority, bare life, biopower, biopolitics, citizenship, civil society, colonialism, consent, contract, development, domination, empire, exclusion, governance, governmentality, human rights, humanitarianism, interests, interest theory, in/justice, kingship, neoliberalism, obligation, oppression, precarity, resistance, secularism/secularity, security, social control, sovereignty, suffering, territoriality and violence.

Note that this list concerns terms also familiar to North Atlantic political philosophy, which is to say, this is not a list of “indigenous” or ethnographically derived concepts of/related to freedom. That would constitute yet another distinct question (and a separate post, to follow).

Most of the concepts in that list are closer to the empirical than the theoretical, and I suspect this is why they are preferred to manifestly abstract ideal like freedom. Humanitarianism for instance, has seen a wealth of great work over the last couple of decades for the concrete reason that it is a practice, a domain of law, a set of international economic imperatives as a well as an ideal. Precarity nicely captures a particular economic condition and the effects that has on well-being, etc.

Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. The problem of freedom can be construed (though it needn’t be) as one of the free acting, willing or thinking of an individual. It might be safe to suggest that anthropologists, being constitutionally sensitive to the limits of individuals and individuality, see the concept as failing in places where social relations take precedence, and take unfamiliar forms. In this the socialist (perhaps even the anarchist?) traditions of anthropological theory are clear: a tendency at least, if not a commitment to thinking individuality as a feature of social relations rather than the reverse. But even a cursory familiarity with the concept of freedom shows that it is not always about individuality, nor is every philosophical or political theoretical take committed to a version of methodological individualism. A thinker like C.B. MacPherson for instance, very clearly recognizes that there are individual-based theories of liberty, and then there are theories that start from Marxist, socialist or anthropological bases that give primacy to social relations. Dewey ditto. And even in the theory of negative liberty, the problem it identifies is not just that individual liberty is freedom from restraint, but that restraint is the result of the actions of others, and that the fundamental problem of political liberty is that of “harmonizing” interests and actions. This is also why the economic model of freedom is so appealing to so many of our colleagues in the social sciences: freedom is a complex problem of balancing plural social and individual interests, and one that requires sophisticated techniques in order to do so. Insofar as this is about the design of social relations, it concedes the point that freedom is a result of social relations.

Anthropologists might also look to freedom’s opposites, since there are so many more examples of that in the world. Slavery for instance. Curiously, anthropologists seem to have been just as uninterested in slavery as in freedom. Igor Kopytoff noted as much in a 1982 review of anthropology of slavery: “Simply stated, the problem is this: why has modern anthropology, which claims that nothing human is alien to it, consistently ignored so widespread a phenomenon? (207)” Kopytoff suggests that slavery is not a concept, but a name for various phenomena in the world, also a bit of an umbrella term. But the same is not quite true of freedom; which does not pick out any particular arrangements or institutions in quite the way that slavery does. Slavery is something that might exist as an institution or a custom, and yet have an unrecognizable social and moral justification in different societies (and thus shade into the general problem of diverse forms of political institutions; see e.g. Pierre Clastres, Max Gluckman, Edmund Leach, George Balandier, Meyer Fortes and EE Evans-Pritchard). Freedom, however, is a concept that draws together cosmological issues (free will/determinism) with political ones (sovereignty/arbitrary power) with individual action (restraint/autonomy). There is no apriori reason to suspect that other cultures wouldn’t have an equivalent concept, or at least a comparable set. As I say, there are a lot of candidates.

The most well-worn freedom-related concepts in anthropology have got to be those of resistance and domination: the long tradition of “peasant studies”; the figure of the “subaltern,” colonial and post-colonial contexts, peaceful and violent revolution, oppression, the impoverished, the lower status, the exploited etc. Domination is a clear problem of at least some aspects of political freedom; and I think anthropologists rightly start from the assumption that the opposite of domination is not necessarily freedom, which appears ethnocentric at best. Certainly the current mode of thinking about the issue (dominated by the language, if not exactly the concepts, of governmentality) suggests that domination produces culture and that resistance is about remaking it for diverse purposes, few of which are likely to appeal directly to the abstract ideal of freedom. Feminist anthropology also clearly brought attention to questions of domination, resistance, abuse of status, autonomy, and violence, and it would no doubt be insane to suggest that “freedom” or “liberty” were not motivating concerns throughout… nonetheless, it’s hard to find much in terms of explicit engagement in anthropology, compared to, for example, political theory. In most cases, the concept of freedom is either uncritically used as an ultimate human value, or it is ignored or rejected as a narrow, ethnocentric conception of the good. Freedom in this sense is just one value among others, and not a particularly accessible one for most people in the world.

Agency holds a respectable second to domination and resistance, especially in terms of language, linguistic action, speech act theory and so forth, where it serves to link hypotheses about language to social situations were constraint and liberty are at stake. A 2001 review (Ahearn) notes the ways in which this conception of agency overlaps with the concept of resistance, the domain of gender, and the articulatio of “practice theory.” Agency is (or at least should be) directly engaged with the antimonies of free will and determinism that constitute the more ontological philosophical questions about freedom; secondarily, agency is also about autonomy, in the sense of recognizing one’s own control over action and speech. Most often, however, it is used loosely to refer to varieties of effectiveness in the world, or more precisely, those places where that effectiveness is curtailed or repressed. Much of the work in feminist anthropology must (for better or worse) engage the concept of agency and its relationship to politics, to language or media, and to resistance.

Other problems and concepts are more recent; sovereignty, governmentality, biopolitics, bare life, or territoriality are all centrally concerned with problems of long pedigree in political philosophy, but approach them through a series of displacements initiated by Foucault primarily (Foucault on freedom is no doubt a separate post), and taken up in Agamben and crew. Here again, the central problem is not freedom but power. Power remains the central mystery around which these investigations cluster, and even though in Foucault “ethics as a practice of freedom” is central, most work in anthropology places domination in the central position, or sometimes hegemony, or sometimes consensus (as in “neoliberal consensus”), as an effect of power. It might be more accurate to say, however, that power is an effect of freedom, but that, again, will have to wait for another post, or another poster.

Finally, perhaps the work most directly relevant to questions of freedom has been the recent vogue for “anthropology of secularism” which has returned questions about the relationship between freedom and religion to the center of attention (see e.g. Fenella Cannell’s 2010 review of the subject). The work of Talal Asad and his students (esp. Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind) exemplify a certain concern with the triad of religion, freedom and community. Mahmood especially engages critically with political theorists like Charles Taylor in her work (whose mammoth Age of Secularism also remixes political philosophy under this new label). What role “freedom” plays here is less certain than it might seem at first with chapter titles like “The Subject of Freedom.” I certainly don’t think these works are centrally concerned with the problem of freedom; rather it is a kind of environment or background that cannot be ignored–somewhat like Charles Taylor’s notion of a “social imaginary”– concepts and arguments that circulate both in academic language and in popular sentiment and discourse. What this work does do is to point out that things which appear at first sight to be manifest cases of domination or restraint (the veil, pietist movements, severe forms of religious observance) actually satisfy some of the conditions for freedom–or at least, represent a kind of agency in the service of values that we associate with the results of freedom. Again, not the same thing as approaching freedom directly, but an oblique critique nonetheless.

What I think a lot of anthropologists (would like to) believe, however, is that there is a world of “indigenous” or at least diverse, conceptions of freedom in different cultures that it has been our work and duty to explore. It is this that makes Boas’ claim that “primitive peoples” do not have a concept of freedom so puzzling, and if I can sustain this little investigation, the subject of part 3… to be continued.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

  1. @CKelty

    A beautiful synopsis in the x AND y and z AND a AND b AND c AND d….ad infinitum mode that leaves me, and I suspect, others, utterly confused. How, in your best of all worlds, would you like us to parse and respond to this? Can you point us to a way forward?

  2. well, not like that. 🙂

    the point, I would guess, is to get to the point where freedom becomes less an empty slogan, or mystifying signifier, and instead something it might be possible to 1) empirically investigate in ethnographic terms and 2) articulate theoretically in ways that actually connect to political philosophy rather than just waving at it from afar. The latter means either finding an empirical problem that can challenge the philosophical consensus (freedom among the iroquois?) or to try make sense of that philosophy as part of the fieldsite as it were.

    At bottom, there is the good old-fashioned question of whether freedom is a “universal” concept (which does not necessarily mean “same everywhere”). If it is, then it is all the more shocking that it is so rarely of interest to anthropologists, if it is not, then one way to understand why not would be to look at the concepts we as a field claim to be the useful in explaining the general domain of political life and action around the world, and to ask, seriously, where they depart from the philosophical consensus around freedom.

  3. @ckelty Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. The problem of freedom can be construed (though it needn’t be) as one of the free acting, willing or thinking of an individual. It might be safe to suggest that anthropologists, being constitutionally sensitive to the limits of individuals and individuality, see the concept as failing in places where social relations take precedence, and take unfamiliar forms. (please note, my response is not to the whole of your comments,but to this small portion highlighed above).

    I appreciate your positioning anthropological knowledge well within the realm of “social relations”. However, I think your valuation of liberty within this conext you outline has depcited it as an either/or dichotomy, between liberty as legally defined, say, within a constitutional format and as defined culturally by networks of social realtions. But other relations between these two need to be negotated by anthropologists, say, ecological, in particular the dismemberment of the environment. Affirming the self or the social network does not acknowledge the role of the environment (at base, the topological space) that forms the background (and indeed the foreground) of the “space” we and others live in.

    For instance, what does the effect of global warming mean to the nature of liberty to the Inuit, whose meaning of themselves, and for outsiders, resides in their environment which is under assult (warming trends have begun to erode beaches held together by rime frost, &c). By focusing more on the question of liberty than the reclamation or preservation of ecological conditions, anthropologists would (in my opinion) be mispending their energies. True, the question of liberty may allow some to specialize with perhaps an interdisciplinary potential–collaboration between philosophers and anthro, political studies and anthro–but (again, my feelings) such an approach may lead to cul-de-sacs of romanticizing liberty.

  4. Existential Anthropology is all about freedom. Read anything about anthropologist Michael Jackson.

  5. Meyer-Fortes and EE Pritchard

    Just a minor problem: Meyer is Fortes’ first name, and Evans-Pritchard is the surname of Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, so EE Pritchard isn’t quite right.

    It could be useful, as you suggest, to examine whether a concept of freedom is universal. The trouble is, in a lot of places, it would be impossible to investigate properly due to the influence of European languages, struggles for independence, etc. The idea of freedom would presumably be influenced by anti-colonial wars, too. Hard to imagine any group of people living today without being influenced to some degree by the idea.

  6. @Robin But is it about freedom, actually? Or is does it entail freedom because it is about existentialism? I admit that existential anthropology is among the embarrassingly large number of things about which I know nothing, so maybe you are right… but my only slightly less embarrassing knowledge of existentialism would suggest that “freedom” has a very specific meaning there, one which may or may not be shared by anyone who is not committed to existentialism. Nonetheless, I will take a look… thanks for the tip.

    @Al thanks for the typo… will correct. Weird hyphen-confusion. As for your concern, I don’t trust the premise that cultures have to be uncontaminated by contact in order for there to be a comparison… nor do I believe that freedom is a “western” concept which can only confuse the indigenous notions of other cultures as it spreads… Whatever Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau or Isaiah Berlin mean be the term is not unaffected by the fact of the New World, the relationship to the East, the existence of the slave trade or the genocide of native populations. The question of its universality is less about its identical existence in the cultures of unconnected populations than it is about the *necessity* of such a concept in explaining the relationship between individual volition and political structures. I guess I would investigate it by asking who can live without the concept and why…

Comments are closed.