Gillison, Sahlins, and NAS

I’ll break end-of-semester radio silence today to make some comments on Gillian Gillison’s recent article All for One and One for All: A Response to Marshall Sahlins. It’s a great example of how not to engage in academic argumentation — in fact it’s the opposite of Sahlins’s new piece at the London Review of Books which is actually worth reading.

Sahlins’s article is an expansion of his earlier piece discussing his resignation from the National Academy of Sciences. It includes a long discussion of the logic of the human sciences, and how one can be rigorous and scientific without having to do exactly what physicists or biologists do. It’s a familiar argument to many of us, and an accessible summary for people who haven’t heard it yet: the human sciences study humans with whom we interact, not inert objects. Our ability to study people hinges on our species’s ability to communicate intersubjectively. It is intersubjectivity, not objectivity, that grounds the human sciences.

Of course, there is a lot more to fundamental issues in the epistemology of the human sciences than will fit in a single column, and we could talk about them all day. I mention this column here not only because it deserves attention, but also because of how different it is in clarity and conception than Gillison’s piece.

Gillison is an anthropologist who has worked in Papua New Guinea, and she has a reputation as a superb ethnographer and interpreter of Gimi life ways. Decades ago she engaged in a debate with Marilyn Strathern. Over time, most people now find Strathern’s position attractive. Since Strathern was not interviewed in Dissent and Sahlins was, Gillison attempts to make Sahlins wear a Marilyn Strathern mask and then criticize him for positions he doesn’t hold. It’s a cranky and poorly executed display which displays Gillison’s age as well as her lack of familiarity with Sahlins’s actual arguments.

Gillison starts by arguing that Sahlins’s resignation from NAS is “late and incongruous” because “the discipline Sahlins helped shape in the decades since the Vietnam War-era scandals no longer possesses any specialized knowledge for war-mongering imperialists to misappropriate.” I think the idea here is that anthropology has fallen into such a state of disrepair it no longer has any useful function, and therefore…. anthropologists shouldn’t be able to resign from NAS? This is a bit like saying Stephen Hawking was wrong to boycott the Israeli president’s conference because none of the members of Israeli special forces are theoretical physicists. In fact, I believe Sahlins agrees with Gillison, and has argued in the past that the quality of HTS’s work is lousy. But something useless can be wrong, and someone doesn’t have to be useful to oppose evil.

Gillison is correct to write that Sahlins argues that “American military adventurism” and “an outdated ethnocentric anthropology” share “the same bad idea… the mistake of universality… based upon the link between biology and culture.” However, she is wrong to say that “Sahlins misinterprets the fact that culture is ‘a flexible, varied means of adapting to a wide and changing variety of circumstances’ to mean that there are no limits at all, making the search for them not just misguided but also immoral, a descent into sociobiology and racism.”

How can Sahlins be a complete cultural relativist and resign from NAS out of a sense of moral outrage? In the course of a few paragraphs Gillison manages to loose track of Sahlins’s actual position and turn him into a morality-free, fact-agnostic postmodernist. It’s an odd trick to try to pull off, since Sahlins has spent a major part of his career arguing against forms of postmodernism that are fact-free and give up concrete political struggle. I think perhaps she simply hasn’t read enough of his work to understand what is actual position is.  “How do mainstream anthropologists deal with violence in other cultures of a kind that may interest the U.S. military?” She asks at one point, “they theorize it out of existence.” Theorize it out of existence? Really didn’t Sahlins write an entire book examining the cultural organization of violence in other cultures? Sahlins argues that the search for universals is “misguided”? Aren’t cultural universals the subject of his latest work?

There is more to say about this article — Gillison’s strained attempt to make Sahlins into Strathern and her hostility to academic advising, her argument that Sahlins does not search for human universals despite the fact that this is exactly what he does do — but really the key to her position is a kind of universalist liberalism which is offended by moral complexity and feels lost without a simplistic biological grounding. It feels like Gillison is trying to revisit the debate surrounding Okin’s Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? In which she plays Okin and Sahlins plays Azizah al-Hibri. Or, maybe, a reboot of the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate in which Gillison plays Obeyesekere and Wendy Brown plays Sahlins.

In the end, there isn’t much to say about Gillison’s position because she hasn’t adequately portrayed Sahlins’s. I’m sure there are lots of good criticisms of the state of anthropology today and its moral grounding, but you won’t get them from Gillison.


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

12 thoughts on “Gillison, Sahlins, and NAS

  1. I thought her reference to “Gendercide in China?” was particularly nettlesome. Since when does this have to do with the “Noble Savage” paradigm she is taking issue with? Since when is China some kind of primitive society?

  2. Do you really think that Sahlins’s piece in LRB is good (“worth reading”)? He give two reasons for resigning from NAS. The first is because of its involvement in war-related research. This involvement began in 1916, and hs notes his naivety for ignoring it for many years. The second reason is the election of Chagnon, with whose ideas he disagrees (and whom he really dislikes). Is this supposed to be a principled decision? “I don’t like your ideas, so I refuse to belong to the same honorary organization as you?”

    I guess the NAS episode is just a lead-in to the main theme of the essay, which is to argue that culture is symbolically constructed. Hasn’t Sahlins been saying this for decades? Does this essay add anything new? Will it convince anyone who does not already accept that view? I doubt it.

  3. I do think that Sahlins’s piece is worth reading. As I point out — and you reiterate — the argument is a familiar one for people who have read Sahlins before. But how many people is that? There is a generation of anthropologists who have not read Sahlins in the same depth that their elders have (*cough*). There are many onlookers in the Sahlins-Chagnon kerfuffle who are not familiar with Sahlins’s work at all. A major topic in the debate is what cultural anthropology is or is not. The piece explains how the “science or postmodernism” dichotomy does a lousy job of understanding how social scientists actually think. And it’s pretty short. If you are the kind of person who remembers the inner chapters of Stone Age Economics, you are probably way more hard core than the audience the LRB was imagining. But if you think all anthropology is Writing Culture — and that’s a lot of people outside the discipline AND inside of it these days — then I think its worth reading.

  4. I don’t get how Sahlins gets beyond science vs. postmodernism, but I’ll take your word for it. I’m probably too deeply invested in that argument (or, in the eyes of my critics, too blinded by the argument). And if we are talking about old-time Sahlins, Stone-Age Economics was the topic of a senior seminar I took decades ago, and it was partly responsible for my going into anthropology. What I didn’t know at the time was that Sahlins was already going over the dark side of the force (with Culture and Practical Reason), but at least he wasn’t a postmodernist. And then, years ago, I interviewed for a job at the Univ. Chicago. I was quite cowed to find myself at lunch with Sahlins, Stocking, and other luminaries. They were talking about someone being pomo, and I thought they were referring to a California tribe! Guess what, I didn’t get a job offer. But Marshal Sahlins was friendly and civil and encouraging, and he gave me one of his books.

  5. I think the problem with the election of Chagnon isn’t simply that Sahlins disagrees with him – it’s that most anthropologists, and the mainstream of the discipline both disagree with him and and find his fieldwork ethically questionable. The problem with the NAS is that they are ignoring the majority judgment of people who know more about the issues involved than they do, and are likely doing so out of an attraction to a position that appears “scientific” but isn’t really, if science means attention to evidence rather than the ASSUMPTION that the the social world is amendable to the same kinds of explanations that the natural world is.

    The thing that seems to be missed by many of those who want to “improve” the social sciences by bringing to bear on them the methods and ideas that have proved so powerful in understanding the natural world is that anthropologists and others have not been perversely resistant to ideas like social evolution, a genetically based “human nature” underlying cultural variation or law-like generalizations about “society.” They have tried to make such ideas work and have been forced to conclude that they don’t.

  6. @Daniel — It is not the National Academy of Sciences in general or as a whole body that singled out Chagnon for election; it was the anthropologists who are currently members. You seem to be saying that those anthropologists are misguided, poorly informed, and biased, and that anthropologists outside the NAS know better. Perhaps. Is there any kind of scholarly treatment of this matter? That is, have these questions (both Chagnon’s alleged misdeeds, and problems and biases with current NAS anthropologists) been investigated in a rigorous and unbiased fashion? The AAA investigation of Tierney and Chagnon was a fiasco, and most writing on the topic has been clearly biased by one concern or another. The only unbiased scholarly treatment I have seen is Alice Dreger’s article (Dreger, Alice, 2011, Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale. Human Nature 22(3):225-246), which hits on some but not all of the relevant issues.

    My point here is to question how anthropologists “know” that Chagnon’s fieldwork was ethically unacceptable, in a way that can be agreed on by both sociobiologists and cultural determinists. I am not aware of work that would establish this (but then maybe I am naive and misinformed). I just don’t see Sahlins’s objections to Chagnon’s ethics having a solid basis, whereas his strong objections to sociobiology are quite clear from the published record.

    I personally believe that social science is based on “scientific” methods and concepts, but I don’t recognize my own ideas in your caricature of “scientific” approaches to human society (lawlike generalizations, etc.). I’m not sure just which ideas have been rejected by anthropology. I think my epistemology is pretty much mainstream in the social sciences OUTSIDE OF anthropology. In my view, this lingering anti-science bias contributes to the marginalization of anthropology.

    By the way, my own (probably uninformed) view is that Chagnon is a shoddy researcher; I have no idea, however, whether his fieldwork included unethical practices.

  7. I think if you divide the world into “science” and “the dark side” then yeah…. you probably won’t get it.

  8. The “dark side” quip referred to materialist vs. idealist interpretations of culture. He has stated that Culture and Practical Reason marked his move from the former to the latter.I wouldn’t put Sahlins into the anti-science camp, and I wouldn’t march up materialist-idealist with science-antiscience. Sorry about the confusion.

  9. Actually, what he said was this his “book… argues a position… for the meaningful… clearly, I could not hope (or want) to escape being taxed on the documentation I offer on the controversy; nor, regrettably, could I expect that the resolution offered will escape being categorized within the procrustean opposition of “idealism” and “materialism” by which the discussion customarily proceeds… As for the charge of “idealism” that an insistence on the meaningful appears to invite, this, it seems to me, must take its ground in precisely the kind of preanthropological, presymbolic epistemology of subject/object relations whose transcendence was the historical condition of a concept of culture” (CPR, p. ix)

    Sahlins’s entire point in that book was explicitly NOT to move from a ‘materialist’ to an ‘idealist’ position, but to develop an approach to social life that wasn’t endlessly oscillating between two (and only two) positions — and thus did justice to the facts.

  10. Well, Social Stratification in Polynesia and Stone Age Economics both take a very materialist approach. Compare those to Islands of History or Anahulu, which are not materialist at all. Idealists don’t generally like the term “idealist”, so perhaps “culturalist” is a better term (this is Eric Wolf’s label for post-CPR Sahlins, found in a CA interview from the 1980s). To me, a strong materialist, it seems pretty clear that Sahlins underwent a major theoretical shift in his thinking (and this is Wolf’s view also), and to label it a transition from materialist to idealist models is not too distorting.

    As for CPR, I never found the supposed dialectic–whether within Marx or within anthropology–satisfying (even in my less-materialist grad school days when I first read it).

  11. Well if you’re shifting your position from “he said he’s an idealist” to “I say he’s an idealist” then that’s fine with me 🙂

    In terms of his position over time, you may want to compare his article “The Origin of Society” in Scientific American 203(3) with his Tanner Lectures “The Western Illusion of Human Nature”. I think you’ll see some pretty deep continuity in his thought.

  12. Perhaps best to look at his most recent statement on exactly the topic of base and superstructure?

    Sahlins, M., 2010 ‘Infrastructuralism.’ Critical Inquiry, vol. 36, pp. 371-386.

    Michael, I think the notions put forward in that piece are not so different from the points made by Gordon Childe in ‘Social world of knowledge’ (1949) or ‘Society and knowledge’ (1956). One common point, at least, is the strong critique of taking abstractions from one’s own culture to be the standards for evaluating everyone else. I’m all for applying very high standards of objectivity, but I have the suspicion that some under the science banner dearly want to do away with that insight, thereby rendering themselves actually unscientific in propagating biased views. That may be my paranoia, but in this debate there’s a lot of that anyway, so I feel free to add my bit of it.

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