What have we been doing for the past 25 years, anyway?

The journal Cultural Anthropology is marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Writing Culture with a special issue devoted to the lasting impact of that volume on the discipline. Then I got to thinking, what makes the last 25 years of anthropology so significant?

It is kind of an arbitrary number. But now that its been suggested why not take stock? What have been the most significant achievements of anthropology since the publication of Writing Culture in 1986?

The other day I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Wittgenstein when I came across a claim that piqued my curiosity, “In 1999 his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) was ranked as the most important book of 20th Century philosophy.” The embedded citation led me to this–

Lackey, Douglas P. 1999. “What Are the Modern Classics? The Baruch Poll of Great Philosophy in the Twentieth Century.” The Philosophical Forum. 30 (4).

Lo and behold, it’s a journal article. In Wikipedia! It just so happens that my library has access to The Philosophical Forum, so I got the pdf to check it out. Call it productive procrastination, but I love digression. I’m like a kid pulling a thread out of the sand. Where does this lead?

It was Y2K and Lackey had read a bunch of Best of the Century-type lists and had the idea to do one for philosophers. So he emailed 4,000 philosophy professors and received 414 replies to his survey. The article includes separate rankings for most important book and most important article, with light commentary on each entry. It’s quite an enjoyable article, worthy of an extended coffee break or unwinding at the end of the day.

He describes the survey methodology:

We asked respondents to name the five most important books in philosophy in the twentieth century, and also the five most important articles. Giving five choices permits discretion, but five is a small enough number to force voters to choose their selections carefully. Since we were interested in judgments of quality, we instructed respondents to make their choices on the basis of intrinsic merit, not on the basis of causal influence. (By the causal influence standard, Mein Kampf might be the most important book of the twentieth century.)

We asked respondents to list their choices in order of preference. On this score we had little compliance… We decided not to use any point system for weighting the results according to preference. We did keep track, however of which book was listed first on each ballot, and used that indication to break ties.

Lackey notes that only twenty five books got eleven votes or more, which if he took in more than 400 survey responses means many, many books only got a few votes at most. In other words, there’s a long tail on this not represented in the rankings below. The survey results, Lackey’s top twenty-five:

Total votes/ Total ranked 1st…..Author, Title

  1. 179/ 68….. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
  2. 134/ 51….. Heidegger, Being and Time
  3. 131/ 21….. Rawls, Theory of Justice
  4. 77/ 24….. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
  5. 64/ 27….. Russell & Whitehead, Principia Mathematica
  6. 63/ 7….. Quine, Word and Object
  7. 56/ 5….. Kripke, Naming and Necessity
  8. 51/ 3….. Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  9. 38/ 4….. Sartre, Being and Nothingness
  10. 34/ 16….. Whitehead, Process and Reality
  11. 30/ 4….. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic
  12. 25/ 5….. Dewey, Experience and Nature
  13. 23/ 0….. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
  14. 19/ 0….. Moore, Principia Ethica
  15. 18/ 1….. James, Pragmatism tied with MacIntyre, After Virtue
  16. 17/ 9….. Husserl, Logical Investigations
  17. 17/ 5….. Husserl, Ideas
  18. 17/ 2….. de Beauvoir, Second Sex
  19. 14/ 2….. Hart, Concept of Law
  20. 14/ 0….. Ryle, Concept of Mind
  21. 13/ 1….. Goodman, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast
  22. 12/ 3….. Garamer, Truth and Method
  23. 12/ 2….. Parfit, Reasons and Persons
  24. 11/ 5….. Russell, Problems of Philosophy tied with Quine, From a Logical Point of View and Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery


What would it look like if we did this for anthropology? I bet we could do it through Savage Minds and get better than 414 respondents! But, before we get going, “most important book” of the twentieth century would amount to a rather boring list, wouldn’t it. Do we really want to see how people rank Boas against Malinowski? Would we care if Geertz makes it to the top ten? It would be more useful to compose a list that might best guide our continuing professional development.

I would be curious to see what people consider to be the most valuable works of the past twenty-five years. Some interesting trends might come out of it. At the very least it would make good fodder for bull-sessions at the pub and citations for Wikipedia articles. Or it might bring to light some gaps in the literature (or our awareness of it). We could set up a Survey Monkey page, collect data and see what turns up. Who wants to give it a go?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

54 thoughts on “What have we been doing for the past 25 years, anyway?

  1. In short, the whole IS greater than the sum of the base pairs.

    Obviously. But it isn’t greater than the sum of all of the chemicals. If you think reductionism implies reducing the total number of factors involved, then you don’t understand reductionism. No one is saying that a human just is their chromosomes, because that is not true, and it’s a ridiculous idea. They consist of much more than that – and the most relevant thing for understanding what people is understanding the nervous system. There are no wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.

    And if you think that scientific racism is genuine reductionism, or would even be justified by reducing humans to their genes (it wouldn’t, as there is very little genetic basis for the concept of ‘race’, certainly not in the way it is used by racists), then that is because you don’t understand reductionism.

    “Reductionist” is mostly used as a slur because anthropologists don’t understand it. They think it means treating humans as if they’re just a genome. It doesn’t. And even if it were true that peoples’ behaviour is entirely predicted by their genome (and it isn’t), then that still wouldn’t give any reason for treating people immorally.


    Latour doesn’t explicitly argue against that position at all. It’s the cornerstone of his theory, that what people believe to be true is true, or should be taken to be so. He claims we need to take actors’ metaphysics seriously, which means believing them to be true – and we need to take an extreme relativist stance in comprehending the worlds of others, because they’re all true and all valid, instead of subsuming them under another framework or single idea. I don’t know how you got the idea that he is arguing against this position.


    You are quite right; in understanding any single given instance of human behaviour, we cannot rely on a meta-theory derived from universal aspects of human life resulting from their phylogenetic heritage. There are many other factors. You cannot explain a bar fight entirely using Bourdieu’s theory of society or Searle’s. My point isn’t that formal properties of society isolated across human societies can entirely explain single events. It is only useful for understanding the formal properties of social action – people thinking about other peoples’ actions and learning habits.

    Why does getting people who want to fight together increase the likelihood of fighting? Is it because they reach critical mass and explode? No: it’s because they each want to fight and they are each aware of each other. If you had a group of deaf-blind would-be fighters, they wouldn’t be fighting each other, because they wouldn’t be aware of each other. They have no beliefs about one another, because they are not aware of one another. They would be no more likely to start a fight there than in an empty forest glade despite the presence of a number of potential fighters who all want to fight.

    A bar fight reduces to the beliefs and desires of individuals, including their beliefs about the beliefs of the others. If this faculty for understanding the beliefs of others were absent, then there would be no fighting.

    Looked at in this way, we can allow for other factors to intervene in bar fights as well, such as the presence of a member of the Olympic Greco-Roman team in the bar, or a well-known and respected gangster whose word is law, and who has a vested interest in not having a fight happen while he’s trying to drink. Given the same actors and the same desire for fighting, the fight might not kick off given the knowledge, and the common knowledge, that the gangster might get angry or that the wrestler might join the fray.

    The whole bar fight reduces to the sum of the beliefs, desires, and actions of the fighters. This is true of all actions. What matters for understanding social events is coming to terms with the necessary beliefs and desires of the actors. It can be modelled differently – by an equation, perhaps – but that has only limited predictive power because the number of variables is extraordinarily high.

  2. Al, sorry, you just don’t get it. A bar fight does not reduce to the beliefs and desires of individuals. If it did, every time individuals inclined to fight were in the same bar a fight would erupt. That doesn’t happen if the crowd is mixed and includes peacemakers as well as fighters. If you think that it all comes down to the individual beliefs and desires in play, you will never, ever have a clue about what Christakis, for example, is saying. His claim to fame is very clever stuff using network analysis, a technique whose fundamental premise is that network relations can be modeled independently of node attributes. Your persistent logical error is mistaking a necessary condition (here the presence of people inclined to pick a fight) with a sufficient condition (those people PLUS a situation that allows the fight to happen—or, indeed, may encourage it.

    Reductionism is, to be as pithy as possible, abstraction taken to absurdity, resulting in a bifurcation of the world into stuff that counts vs stuff that is only epiphenomenal. Sometimes useful as a thought experiment; always a dangerous move when practical action is necessary.

  3. If it did, every time individuals inclined to fight were in the same bar a fight would erupt.

    This shows that you don’t get it, I’d say. People have lots and lots of beliefs; if they were truly inclined to violence and they had no other mitigating beliefs, then yes, they would fight, every time, because nothing would stop them. If they desired to fight, didn’t care about the law or injury, and encountered people who also wanted to fight, then yes, they would simply fight. But people generally don’t want to fight, they generally have lots of other beliefs, and they have beliefs about the beliefs of others. These create inevitable mitigating factors.

    It is possible to be inclined to fight, but also to believe that if you fought, you would lose. The guy might be bigger than you. You want to fight someone, but the guy who wants to fight you is too big, and he looks strong. Maybe he’d beat you; you definitely don’t want to die or be maimed. So you make a show of it, pretend you weren’t interested in fighting someone so unworthy of the time, and back down, muttering a few jeers. Everyone in the bar might want to fight, but the desire to fight might be overridden by other desires, like the desire to keep one’s face intact and the desire to avoid a lifetime of paralysis, combined with the belief that fighting would induce these things.

    The fact that you hadn’t considered the possibility that a person’s beliefs can conflict with others that they have is very strange, and the fact that you think something else is going on other than the beliefs and desires of individuals shows that you haven’t thought about the possible range of beliefs and desires that individuals can have. And instead of accepting the naturalistic view – that actions result from calculations occurring in the nervous system on the basis of the available information – you have accepted something deeply unnaturalistic, impossible, and with no explanatory purpose: that human actions are caused by something other than their nervous systems.

    Let me ask you this: suppose a bar fight happens as network analysis would predict. Regardless of the beliefs and desires of the fighters (somehow), a fight breaks out. The news on the TV on the wall says, however, that a new law has been put in place: all people involved in bar fights will be executed within three days of the fight by firing squad in front of their families. Everyone knows there’s CCTV in the bar, and they’re all regulars, so they know they’ll be caught and executed if they continue.

    Do you not think that the new beliefs and desires of the fighters would cause the fight to stop? Or are humans merely nodes in networks which cause their actions without operating via their nervous systems?

    If the fight stops because of the news and the law, then it only does so if it impacts on the beliefs of the fighters – if they become aware of the law. And it only works if they don’t want to die. If they want to fight more than they want to live – which could happen, I suppose – then it won’t stop the fight at all.

    Network analysis can only take you so far. I don’t object to it in toto, and it is necessary to use several explanatory stances. But by far the best stance applied to humans is the intentional stance, seeing human actions as the result of beliefs and desires encoded in the nervous system. That is the best stance, and the most predictive, because that seems to be how humans actually work. It is fine to use other abstractions, like “networks”, “social facts”, “rules”, and so on, as long as we bear in mind that that’s what they are.

    Reductionism is not abstraction taken too far (in fact, that’s the direct opposite of what it is!), and yet again I’m amazed at the strawmen being set up for humanist target practice.

  4. Really, I’m not sure you get the idea of reductionism at all. The presence of peacemakers will only stop a fight if they actually manage to have an impact on the beliefs and desires of the people who want to fight. If they have no such impact, then it is as if they were not there. Peacemakers work by letting fighters know that they don’t want there to be any fights, that fighting is not worth the time, etc. They give people a way out. It isn’t their mere presence that causes fights not to happen.

    There’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that bar-fighters can be held back by people considerably weaker than them. The purpose of the fight is to show off, to prove one’s dominance, not to explode and kill people (usually, anyway), so weaker people can hold back stronger people who want to fight, giving the would-be fighter an out – a way to show that he wants to fight, is willing to defend his dominance (even if he isn’t), etc, without actually endangering himself.

    And this happens in the modern world all the time. Most people do not approve of fighting, and most people believe that other people believe that fighting is bad. It only has covert prestige. On top of that, law enforcement agencies don’t approve of fighting – it’s against the law, and you’ll end up in prison or fined if you fight. So there are lots of reasons to make the “fight” a mere show of dominance.

    But take a look at Egil Skallagrimsson’s saga; Egil gets a little drunk and stabs a man to death for a minor inconvenience (this happens several times, IIRC). Not only is he willing to prove his dominance, he is also stronger than other people, has a retinue, proven fighting ability, and he lives at a time when fighting is simply something people do – an accepted and even valued aspect of life. Egil kills where modern Americans usually merely swagger. This is entirely because of the beliefs and desires of the people involved.

    Network analysis can only look at such a scene in broad brush-strokes. The real events are in the nervous systems of the individual humans involved with all of their experiences, genes, and recent thoughts (as well as their chemical intake – alcohol, cocaine, etc) potentially going into the process of calculating just what to do.

    I apologise for these long posts – I really do, as I’m not trying to monopolise space. But everyone seems so hostile to the sensible idea of reductionism and so willing to prop up strawmen in its place, that it needs more detailed exposition that other ideas that are accepted without qualm in the humanist world.

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