“The Anthropology Of…”

Kelty’s great series of recent posting on The Anthropology Of Freedom has spurred some great comments from a variety of people, and I wanted to add my own two cents here. As an occasional collaborator with Kelty and others of his ilk such as Biella “Mad Dog” Coleman, I’ve encountered these recent projects on ‘liberalism’, ‘freedom’, and other such new-fangled ideas through the lens of my own decidedly old-fangled interests in Melanesia and kinship. I have to admit that I’m a little skeptical about these projects, mostly because of the long previous history of “Anthropologies of…” and so I’d like to obliquely comment on them through a quick discussion of what it might mean to do an anthropology “of” something.

Object Domain: Probably the least intellectually satisfying but best choice for your career: delineate and actually-existing object out there and make your discipline the study of it. Rake in big $$$ for large-scale, cross-cultural projects. Give graduate students a clear paradigm and a mode of normal science to do.

For instance: There are things like myths which are self-contained, internally structured, comparable, and cross-cultural. Record five thousand of them to find out what the underlying similarities are. Result: Joseph Campbell! All human beings are plugged into the divine world of transcendence and occasionally it spills out into the mundane world. Do a cross-cultural, historical studies of differential human responses to the same basic phenomenon. Result: Mircea Eliade. People in our colonies are all organized on the basis of real-out there kinship systems whose structure and function can be compared. Result: Radcliffe-Brown.

The interwar period was a time incredible time for the delineation of such object domains in the human sciences, and anthropology was no exception — you could do the anthropology “of law” or “of art” or “of politics” and it all fit together in perfectly. But of course we’ve been doing this for much longer then that — think of earlier Victorian literatures on ‘totemism’ or ‘hysteria’ for instance.

There are two problems with this approach. Ok there are more than that. Any realist epistemology of the human sciences has, historically, been very difficult to advocate if you pay attention to what humans actually do. But really, the two problems are: taking everyday notions and elevating them to analytic status almost always results in you realizing half way through that the notion can’t make sense of the evidence without being stretched so out of shape that it either falls apart (like ‘totemism’) or morphs into something else (as the literature on ‘ritual’ very fruitfully turned into a study of ‘performativity’). The second problem is that most of the time the things that you think of as actually existing don’t actually exist — kinship systems, for instance, are now pretty universally understood not to be ‘out there’ in the sense that Fortes thought they were. So the concept can’t bear the weight, and the phenomena don’t exist. Which can be ok if you are all about the journey, but not if you’re focused on the destination.

I think its pretty clear that Kelty doesn’t seem to be doing this.

Generalizing the concept to broaden the conversation: Another way to approach anthropology ‘of’ something is via a sort of logical positivism manqué. On this approach the goal is to articulate the features of a previously-unarticulated concept (like ‘freedom’) such that it can be incorporated in a broader or more generalized theory of human action. That general theory can then be used to talk to philosophers, or economists, or whatever. This conversation-broadening language can be thought of as a ‘pidgin’ or ‘trading language’ (as Galison does) or else just ‘theory’ in the actual sense of the term.

This is fine if you want to do this, but I don’t think that it’s surprising that anthropologists have, so far, wanted to do this with freedom. Discourses of ‘freedom’ in the United States (where Kelty and I work) are explicitly normative and tied to mainstream discourses. How is this surprising? Anthropology is explicitly opposed to ethnocentrism and was founded at a time when ‘freedom’ meant ‘a state’s right to institute Jim Crow’. Second-generation (read: WASP) anthropologists like Redfield and Linton did think about freedom and progress, etc. but by the time the GI Bill anthropologists institutionalized themselves in the academy, liberalism was the ideology of the bourgeoisie. It’s a sign of the swing to the right of some brands of anthropologists (the kinds who do ‘paraethnography’) that these issues of liberalism come up again. Similar histories could be written for France (where ethnology started socialist) and England (where it began as objective and value free).

Large sections of anthropological theory have focused on emancipation, revolution, equality, and so forth — but they’ve never explicitly taken up the word ‘freedom’. Which doesn’t mean that they weren’t interested in it.

Anthropologists might have a contribution to make towards an understanding of what ‘agency’ is and how macro-orders of determination do or don’t structure action (Paul Kockelman has published on this recently, for instance) and how this relates to moral deliberation. Equally, we could take models from broader theory and try analyzing our ethnographic material with them “the ethics of blogging…. environmentalism as ethical form… etc. etc.”. But most of the work in this area comes from people less squeamish about normativity. Thus while anthropology has Faubion’s anthropological ethics in which Aristotle is inflected with Foucault, in economics they have Capability approaches to development (‘as freedom’) in which Sen and Nussbaum inflect Aristotle with Rawls.

Ethnographic Theorizing: The most promising way to get into an anthropology ‘of’ Freedom is, I think, through particularization not generalization. This means asking: how can we take this concept, understand it as richly as possible, and use this ethnographically specific idea not just as a ‘native’ model but something we can use for our own analysis. This is (I think) the approach described as ‘ethnographic theory’ in the teaser email for the upcoming journal Hau which made the rounds a few months ago. It’s also an approach that I’m familiar with from my own work in the Pacific, where we are trying to encourage a new generation of scholars who are both analysts and Natives (with a capital N) on the one hand and, on the other, experiment with forms of anthropological knowledge which treat indigenous culture as theoretical exegesis. This way, both the people and their ideas get a fair shake.

This direction — more detail, more exploration of variance, ambiguities, historical transformations — is what I feel is too often lacking in ‘anthropologies of’. To a certain extent it’s understandable — taking American discourses of freedom as the subject of a lit review means reading thousands of sermons produced across scores of decades. It means reading books like The Story of American Freedom and Nation of Agents. The other option of studying ‘liberalism’ in Italy and New York and just saying ‘you know, liberalism as a cultural form‘ gives up specifying who, specifically, you are talking to, and what, specifically, you are talking about.

This can be very freeing — cultural studies is blessed by not having to begin every sentence with an ‘among the…’. But ultimately the danger is that discourses of freedom become too free, too untethered from the coordinates from which they were originally beamed up. Soon we begin slipping into liberalism as an object domain, or promise to engage in general theory but never get around to it.

In conclusion, I think that anthropology’s own unique — and by unique I mean ‘weird’ — brand of theorizing might be the best way to do an ‘anthropology of…’. But it would also be a method that would be the most particularizing, not the most generalizing, the one most led by the voices of others rather than extracted out of our preconceptions, the one which sought the most analytic purchase from the most culturally specific forms of thought. Let he who has ears hear.



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 ““The Anthropology Of…”

  1. The problem with Anthropologists approaching their work as the niche of particularity only, is that they then position themselves as part of a panoptical arrangement.

    It is only as anthropology is reversed and the normal disrupted through the reassembly of the particular that the hermeneutic circle of studying human-kind is closed, and this applies particularly to ruling ideas such as freedom.

    If we treat Anthropology as a trade and not as a vocation, we are prone to become tools.

  2. @rex. very helpful as usual. You picked up on the subterranean anxiety in my posts which is that this isn’t really about freedom per se, but about about the notion of how concepts and empirical questions are related. On the one hand I’m more interested in the mystery of why there has been no “anthropology of” something, than in actually pursuing it to any great depth (much less creating it, or offering to lead, which would be a disaster for everyone). It’s a bit like asking “what doesn’t anthropology study, and why?” On the other hand, I think that the concept of freedom, in particular, is in fact a core human problematic, and so I am honestly surprised, ideological repugnance notwithstanding, that it has been treated so obliquely, and so part of the investigation here is to ask: 1) is there anything to the concept 2) does it map on to shared concepts at work either amongst anthropologists or in particular regions of the world that have been richly theorized by anthropologists and 3) should it be?

    A further specification might be that I guess I have a rather specific and perhaps metaphysical meaning of “concept” in mind. There should be a distinction between words, terms and concepts. Words are arbitrary (pace Saussure), and so one must be careful in basing claims on google searches for X; terms are less so, and tend to have philological affinity across domains, cultures and languages; but concepts are not discursive. And to the extent that they are not, they have a life of their own not only in texts, but in actions and institutions. But this doesn’t make it transportable, as your “ethnographic theory” section seems to imply… it is there, in the world also. I may be in some kind of realist mode, but it is in this sense that I’m struggling with the idea.

  3. @Daniel: I have no idea what you’re talking about. I think of anthropology as a trade rather than a vocation?

    @kelty: I understand that you think that freedom is “a core human problematic”. Respectfully, I’d like to ask you to understand it is not — it is just your culture making which makes you think it is. Really. Asking “why aren’t our problems their problems, since obviously they are the important ones?” rlly starts to look like ethnocentrism in an uncomplicated Anth 101 sense. Or perhaps you’ve done some sort of extensive cross-cultural readings in ethnography that you haven’t blogged about that indicates that the concept is a core human problematic? And if it is, why haven’t anthropologists — who are presumably human — dealt with it?

    In sum, it seems to me that your intuition is at odds with the evidence and that somehow lesson you take from this is that there is something wrong with the evidence. Do you see why I think this is not the sort of move you want to be making (if you are making it)?

    Secondly, in my post I mentioned that you seemed to be engaged in ‘logical positivism manqué’ and I think your discussion of the word/term/concept distinction. You seem to believe that there are concepts ‘out there’ which exist in all cultures but are realized differently in each of them… or something like that? Could you explain more as I didn’t really follow that part.

  4. There should be a distinction between words, terms and concepts. Words are arbitrary (pace Saussure), and so one must be careful in basing claims on google searches for X; terms are less so, and tend to have philological affinity across domains, cultures and languages; but concepts are not discursive. And to the extent that they are not, they have a life of their own not only in texts, but in actions and institutions.

    Lexicological theory can contribute a great deal to your project but presenting the statement above to a room full of lexicologists would perhaps be akin to going to war with a steel helmet and an Enfield against an opponent kitted out with HKs and Kevlar. Anna Wierzbicka (who isn’t necessarily in step with the mainline of lexicological theory but is by no means a fringe figure) has done some relevant work and Leonhard Lipka’s English lexicology is a very good introduction to the contemporary field more broadly.

  5. Sometimes it seems that the preposition is misplaced, like in Turner’s “Anthropology of Performance” which could have been retitled “Anthropology as Performance”.

    Why not an “anthropology as…” or an “anthropology for…” ?

  6. @MTBradley. Funny. I can’t tell if its helpful though. Lexicology strikes me as exactly the kind of field which cannot imagine a concept as a non-discursive object in the world… but that’s probably my bias. But there is no doubt something to be said for careful attention to linguistic variation, pace Humphrey on Freedom in russian…

    @Matt. Or maybe reversal: Freedom from Anthropology 🙂

  7. Lexicology strikes me as exactly the kind of field which cannot imagine a concept as a non-discursive object in the world…

    I think it’s less that lexicologists can’t imagine a concept as a non-discursive object in the world than it is that an awareness of clearly articulated concepts that are yet to exist (such as mass transit via jetpacks) and once generally accepted concepts that never did (heliocentrism, for example) engenders a healthy scepticism.

  8. “Let he who has ears hear” and write.

    The summ of all know variables is a summ of variables. How they are interpreted is an individual experience. The world’s greatest subject matter expert can give a truly unique perspective of his subject but must also include a sufficient perspective of himself and his character and personality and prejudices and times to be truly revealing so as to allow the reader to delve between the lines. Life’s a beach. There a lot to it.

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