Hobby Lobby: A Win for Ethnophysiology

An example of a good argument against the Hobby Lobby ruling.
An example of a good argument against the Hobby Lobby ruling.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby; they are free to deny the insurance coverage of certain contraceptives for their employees. Blogs have written about how this is a loss for women’s rights and a victory for women’s rights, a win for religious freedom and a loss for the religious, a win for corporate personhood, a loss for the LGBTQIA community, and a loss for conservatives. Whichever the case may be, Hobby Lobby is at the very least a win for ethnophysiology.

In 2012, David Green, the founder of Hobby Lobby, wrote a column for USA Today in which he explains his company’s decision to file a lawsuit. He writes,

 A new government health care mandate says that our family business must provide what I believe are abortion-causing drugs as part of our health insurance. Being Christians, we don’t pay for drugs that might cause abortions. Which means that we don’t cover emergency contraception, the morning-after pill or the week-after pill. We believe doing so might end a life after the moment of conception, something that is contrary to our most important beliefs.

The Supreme Court’s opinion (PDF), issued a week ago, bears this out (p. 2):

The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the [Health and Human Services] mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions. . .

If the wording in Alito’s opinion doesn’t distinguish between their religious beliefs and the federal government (i.e. Health and Human Services), a footnote on page nine drives home the point:

The owners of the companies involved in these cases and other who believe life begins at conception regard these four methods [Plan B, ella, Mirena, and ParaGuard] as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation, see, e.g. 62 Fed. Reg. 8611 (1997); 45 CFR §46.202(f) (2013), do not so classify them.

Ethnophysiology (or ethno-a&p, as I verbalize it) is the way in which the human body and its functions are understood in a cultural context. Clearly, Christianity’s understanding of reproductive physiology – that life begins at conception, and therefore preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg is tantamount to abortion – is ethnophysiology. Following this, it’s no wonder that so many science bloggers and memes have targeted the Court and Hobby Lobby (Mother Jones, for example) for “disregarding the science.” As Jay Michaelson wrote, responding to the Court’s statement (above) concerning abortifacients, “That should be a statement of fact, not faith.  Either these pills cause abortions, or they don’t. Yet Justice Alito—himself a devout Catholic—says that this fact may be determined based on ‘religious beliefs.’” Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN, goes one step further, resisting the urge to dismiss the plaintiffs beliefs out-of-hand, as she illustrates that the four contraceptives in question don’t even cause abortions by Christian definitions.

Well, not exactly. Ethnophysiology, like most things culturally constructed, is malleable and often times, you don’t get to decide to what extent. In fact, as many postcolonial STS scholars argue (see Harding 2011), neither the monolithic body of knowledge that we call “science,” nor the process of knowledge production by the same name, are the authority of human knowledge. The reproductive physiology which we refer to as “science” is, itself, an ethnophysiology (and by extension, “facts” are ethnophilosophy). The flaw is in adding the ethno- prefix to something in order to Other it. This isn’t to say that the Court’s ruling is tolerable – women’s health and its direct effects on the nation’s social and economic well-being should trump all – but there are much better arguments to be had. Call David Green, five-ninths of the Supreme Court, and the Christian understanding of human reproduction misogynistic if you want, but to say that they eschew intelligence, logic, and reason because they use the word “abortion” differently is just ethnocentric.

(Bonus Question: Is corporate personhood a form of animism?)

Harding, Sandra G. 2011. The postcolonial science and technology studies reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

Further Reading:

Brewis, Alexandra. 1993. Reproductive ethnophysiology and contraceptive use in a rural Micronesian population. Providence, R.I.: Population Studies and Training Center, Brown University. 

De Bessa, Gina Hunter. 2006. “Ethnophysiology and contraceptive use among low-income women in urban Brazil”. Health Care for Women International. 26 (6): 428-452. 

Rashid, S. 2001. “Indigenous Understanding of the Workings of the Body and Contraceptive Use amongst Rural Women in Bangladesh”. South Asian Anthropologist. 1: 57-70.

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.

30 thoughts on “Hobby Lobby: A Win for Ethnophysiology

  1. (Bonus Question: Is corporate personhood a form of animism?)

    I would say that the presence of corporate personhood is not a prima facie indication of an animistic perspective, but neither does it preclude it. I guess it would depend to some extent on the definitions of “corporate personhood” and “animism,” though.

  2. Interesting discussion of ethnophysiology. One thing, though, that deserves at least a brief mention, since the Court is implicated in the question of making scientific determinations, is that this decision did not turn on the definition of abortion or any other question of human reproductive physiology or science. The claim was under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the test the Court used from that law was not one of the biological sciences or of the merits of the petitioners’ or respondents’ scientific views. Your discussion of your main topic is interesting, but as a matter of just understanding why this happened and how it has to be contested legally, it is helpful to have a sense of what legal basis and rationale were used. The Court made its decision by asking whether the government had substantially burdened the corporations in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and whether it used the least restrictive means in doing so. Its answers were yes and no, respectively. That’s why the corporations won. If future cases come up under this particular law, those are the questions that will decide them, unless the law is amended.

  3. Thanks for this Dick. It’s important to remember that we disagree with Hobby Lobby because we think they’re wrong, not because we have an Archimedean point from which to evaluate the absolute validity of their beliefs.

  4. Virgil’s discussion of the legal technicalities is correct, but if the issue of ‘science’ is tangential to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, there is still considerable scope for an anthropological consideration of the ‘religion’ issue. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 offers no definition of “religion,” and SCOTUS leaves any determination of “religion” to the individual making the claim. The owners of Hobby Lobby argued that life begins at conception, for example, and while the ‘science’ of this claim can be debated, there was no debate over the “religious” nature of the claim. To make the obvious point, there is no necessarily religious component to the belief that life begins at conception or fertilization, and HL was not required to justify their belief that there is a religious dimension, or to specify what aspect of their belief could be regarded as the ‘religion’ part. (By contrast, for centuries the Catholic church debated the point in gestation at which a fetus acquires a soul, and that is arguably an explicitly religious belief, at least in Tylor’s sense of belief in a supernatural.) Is there something quintessentially American in the implicit legal position that anything any individual chooses to regard as “religious” is therefore “religion”? In a country in which, say, Catholicism is the official state religion, would a petitioner be required to show that a belief they represent as “religious” does in fact conform to the official doctrines of Catholicism? This is certainly the source of active deliberations in the Islamic world.

  5. One: when I was in medical school 50 years ago, life began at conception. The definition changed after Roe v Wade and when test tube babies became common..Nevertheless, In scientific reality, life begins at conception, but PREGNANCY begins at implantation. So please define words before you start discussing the issue.,

    And arguing that half of embryos don’t make it to birth is beside the point, since at one time half of babies didn’t make it to their tenth birthday either, but Christians and Jews forbade infanticide anyway.

    Two: The discussion of contraception has been pretty ethnocentric, as if the issue only involves rich attractive white upperclass American women.

    Yet one wonders if the reason for the mandate is partly eugenic: Given the high rate of unwed motherhood and it’s link with poverty this question begs for someone to do a deep anthropoligical study similar to that done by Daniel Moynihan.

    Three The contraception part of Obamacare is mandated not by Congress or the president, but by an unelected team of experts. This has subtle but definite affect on the political viability of the American government when the middle class finds they can’t get mammograms or their ACL repaired right away.

    But these “experts” are mandating a lot of other stuff such as mandating docs discuss end of life planning among patients.

    There is already a mistrust of physicians in the Black and Native American community, which is why many refuse to sign end of life instructions, This also has an anthropological aspect.

  6. Miguel writes “The definition changed after Roe v Wade and when test tube babies became common..Nevertheless, In scientific reality, life begins at conception, but PREGNANCY begins at implantation. So please define words before you start discussing the issue.”

    The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology proposed in 1965 that conception begins at implantation, 8 years prior to Roe v. Wade. I am unaware of any formal, scientific pronouncements about when “life” begins, given difficulties of establishing what “life” means, but there have been many guidelines issued over notions such as “viability.”

    As I suggested, all of this is irrelevant. The ‘Hobby Lobby’ case was about accommodating a religious belief, not scientific facts, and it appears that, in U.S. jurisprudence at least, religious beliefs are exempt from testing.

  7. Miguel writes “…these “experts” are mandating a lot of other stuff such as mandating docs discuss end of life planning among patients.”

    Could you document this claim? As far as I am aware, any proposals about end of life planning made it voluntary, not mandatory, and focused more on making sure that physicians are reimbursed for such counseling through existing programs such as Medicare.

  8. “This isn’t to say that the Court’s ruling is tolerable – women’s health and its direct effects on the nation’s social and economic well-being should trump all…”

    That’s quite an assertion! I’m sure everyone agrees on what those concepts mean, right? “Tolerable” was the correct word to use, though, given the nature of the disagreement.


    “…we disagree with Hobby Lobby because we think they’re wrong,”

    Who do you mean by “we” and what are the criteria for “wrong”?

  9. Like wenshuang, I’m always perturbed by arguments relativizing the scientific consensus (insofar as there is one) on some issue X, followed by a quick caveat – “women’s health…should trump all” – to assure the reader that author & reader still inhabit the same (presumed) moral universe, when even that assertion would necessarily be thrown into radical doubt by the very logic employed to dismantle science’s claims to epistemic privilege. Indeed, how is the moral relevance of “women’s health” to be decided if not by long discussion, painstaking arguments, and a certain amount of good faith on the part of the participants? Whereas compulsively relativizing the foundations of said discussion is in a way tantamount to abolishing the rationale for having it in the first place. (We might say that it’s “metapragmatically infelicitous” to do so.) Mind you, I’m not making any argument in favor of the Archimedean view, but merely pointing out that making “science” into an “ethnoscience” just gets us into all sorts of question-begging conundrums without establishing meaningful signposts for how to proceed in a discussion of, e.g., “women’s health.”

    I rather like the alternative take given by Barbara Piper. Why was the religiosity of Hobby Lobby’s views presumed valid, where only the scientific validity of said views was questioned? My suspicion is that is that religion in America is regarded as somehow inherently “a matter of faith” and so not amenable to formalization, which creates the juridical double standard by which religion may borrow freely from science (e.g., to determine the exact point at which “life” begins) but science which has smuggled in any form of “religious belief” is no longer regarded as science.

    As has been said before, we live in interesting times.

  10. Eric, I think you’re tangling things a little more than they need to be. The matter of the Christian understanding of the body versus a Western scientific understanding of the body concerns only physiology, in this context. By pointing out that both epistemologies are ethnophysiologies – or relativizing the consensus, as you’ve said – I mean only to illustrate that accusing the Court of “disregarding science” is ethnocentric. The “caveat” that I’ve added is to say that I don’t agree with the ruling – I believe that women’s health should trump any ruling on grounds of epistemology, relativism, or religious freedom.

    Also, this wasn’t entirely meant to be a dissection of the case or of law, but of competing ways of knowing – of which this particular court case was a vehicle.

  11. Shouldn’t we consider how “life” is used in this debate, i.e., as a synonym for “person,” with what are supposed to be inviolable rights attached to personhood? The question when does life begin is asked in other contexts than the quickening of a fetus in a human womb. See Terrence Deacon Incomplete Nature, for example. And, after all, every time we eat an onion or kill a cockroach we are destroying life.

  12. John identifies one important dimension of the abortion debate, which I’ll summarize (and perhaps over simplify) with the observation that the anti-abortion effort uses a variety of strategies — legal, scientific, religious — to achieve its ends. To John’s point, to use “life” as a synonym for “person” opens a legal debate, not a scientific or religious one, and is therefore equally irrelevant to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. That is, Hobby Lobby’s owner may believe that “life” in a biological sense begins at this or that point, but that’s a scientific argument, not a religious belief; they may believe that a fertilized egg is a “person,” but that’s a legal argument, not a religious belief that must be accommodated. In the end, Faye Ginsburg’s excellent book Contested Lives looks more and more accurate: the desire to return women’s primary roles to domestic and reproductive spheres is being pursued through multiple discourses, and ‘religion’ is especially powerful because the validity of religious beliefs cannot be contested in law.

  13. Dick, thank you for your thoughtful reply. If I tangle matters a bit too much (and it wouldn’t be the first time), it’s because I think it’s ethically important to come to grips with the existential constraint that we are always epistemologically engaged in ways that we cannot make fully explicit to ourselves or others. (C.S. Peirce had a good line on this with his “four incapacities”.) This means that being “ethnocentric” (though there is probably a better word for it) is a condition of possibility for our openness–hence “vulnerability”–to cultural difference. That’s obviously no argument in favor of ethnocentrism, but it does offer a more charitable way of accounting for it. Keeping this in mind, the accusation that the Court disregarded science is less an observation that scientific consensus is the authority on what should count as an abortion/abortifacient than it is an assertion that science should be the authority, as long as some body of expertise is deemed necessary to adjudicate claims about the beginnings of life. This is because science, at some level, is felt by its defenders to be more accountable to both legal protocol and common sense, ethnocentric or no, than religious belief. That may be wrong, of course, but it can only be decided as the outcome of a struggle for relevance between one ethos and another. (Another important observation here is that if science is one ethnophysiology among others, then it is the one that embodies the core features of the “physiology” concept against which all other perceived “ethnophysiologies” are compared, making it rather a kind of “metaethnophysiology,” as opposed to a particular form of, say, ethnosorcery or ethnodivination.)

    In line with John’s comment, Terrence Deacon’s view to “formal causes” in his reflections on the origin of life is a strong reminder of how constraints allow for the emergence of new orders of expressivity. To my mind, the ethical implications of this fact have only begun to be seriously explored.

    With that, I’ll give Roy Wagner the last word: “There are no external boundaries or limits, no procedural limitations more formidable than the ones encountered within the effort to transcend them.”

  14. Dick Powis writes:

    “Ethnophysiology (or ethno-a&p, as I verbalize it) is the way in which the human body and its functions are understood in a cultural context. Clearly, Christianity’s understanding of reproductive physiology – that life begins at conception, and therefore preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg is tantamount to abortion – is ethnophysiology.”

    I am not sure I understand how you are trying to define ‘ethnos.’ Are you equating the term with ‘culture,’ and if so, does this not effectively relativize the entire nature of the human body in your joining of ethnos to physiology? This seems to me a problematic suggestion, to put it moderately.

    Surely belief in God or a set of gods/goddesses, spirits, deities, etc. can be understood as a social and cultural phenomenon (a set of beliefs and a cultural practice), but ethnicity as I have come to understand the term, within the established parameters of the discourse community of scientific anthropology, is something qualitatively different.

    Christianity does not qualify as an ethnic group. No religious practice as such does. (A different argument, however, might be made for Tibetan Buddhism or various types of indigenous practices.) Ethnicity goes much deeper than belief system. Ethnicity gets at the core of a people based on factors such as genetics, geographic settlement, cultural values and practices, language, ancestry and heritage. Followers of the Christian faith might well point to cultural values and heritage (even though ‘heritage’ is quite questionable here), but it is not logical to assume the other qualifiers for ethnicity proper. I know a lot of Christians would like for this classification to apply, but it is simply not scientifically nor historically accurate, to say nothing of fair and responsible, when we consider the millions of people—mainly indigenous and aboriginal, tribal peoples—for whom such classification is a matter quite literally of survival or extinction. Let us be very clear on how we are understanding this most vital and fundamental of anthropological terms.

    Also, I really don’t know how (or why) you are trying to redefine animism. Many indigenous and aboriginal cultures—who certainly qualify as ethnic groups—would take serious offense and exception to any suggestion such as what you are proposing. I know you framed the matter in the form of a question, and so let me address that directly by saying that no, corporate personhood is not any form of animism. It is quite unworthy of the term. Corporate personhood is commodity fetishism on steroids, legislatively taken to its absurd and I suppose inevitable conclusion given its thoroughly warped train of thinking. Animism is respect for the sacred inherent in the living world. Animism is an ancient worldview with a respectable lineage and is quite incompatible with 21st century corporate ideologies. ‘Corporate personhood’ is one of many products of a diseased society and increasingly corrupt political process. There is absolutely no meaningful link between these worldviews. ‘Corporate personhood’ is the construction of devious language towards unequivocally unethical and selfish political ends. Let us please leave animism out of this.

    And this claim—

    “The reproductive physiology which we refer to as “science” is, itself, an ethnophysiology (and by extension, “facts” are ethnophilosophy).”

    —simply doesn’t make any sense. It is illogical and completely at variance with the facts of what science in fact and in practice is. Science of course takes place within cultural frameworks (as does obviously all human activity), but it is not logical to assume that all science is therefore valid only within a particular cultural frame. 2+2=4 regardless of how or where one performs the operation. It is the case that evolution by natural selection obtains regardless of one’s cultural or ideological position. The way in which a particular culture understands and incorporates (accepts or rejects) that knowledge—whether mathematics or evolution—is of course a whole other matter.

    What I am ultimately driving at in these comments, I suppose, is the importance of clear and logical definition of the terms used in debate. It seems to me that there is some room for greater care with respect to the way in which one (anyone) uses the terms ethnos and culture and science and even indeed philosophy, law, and religion. I think that any loose definition and careless re-definition of fundamental terms (ethnos and animism) is walking upon very shaky ground. It really gets us nowhere, and unnecessarily complicates an already very muddled set of issues.

    All of this of course is beside the point about Hobby Lobby and definitions of abortion and human life, etc.

    But really, if we as anthropologists can’t offer logical and comprehensible definitions of these basic and central terms of the science, I really don’t see how productively anthropology can hope to contribute good sense and reason to the discussion.

    Such an outcome might well add glee to the gold in the Hobby Lobby’s coffers, but it does quite diminish the cultural heritage of science and reason and representative democracy that I always thought were among America’s—and humanity’s—most valuable and honored achievements.

  15. “Ethnicity goes much deeper than belief system. Ethnicity gets at the core of a people based on factors such as genetics, geographic settlement, cultural values and practices, language, ancestry and heritage.”

    This is perhaps close to a textbook definition, but the extent to which it is useful is questionable; many anthropologists do not enter the field assuming that ‘ethnicity’ is a meaningful signifier. It certainly can be. Most of the time, however, what people in everyday life refer to as ‘ethnicity’ turns out to be a heterogenous body of ideas and emotions. A nominalist approach to concepts like ‘ethnicity’ not only destabilizes the kind of universalizing inferences found in undergraduate textbooks, it also forces us (or myself, at least) to recognize that ‘ethnicity’ only takes on (variable) meaning in a discursive field.

    For who is ethnicity deeper than a belief system? For who does ethnicity constitute the core of ‘a people’? As Clifford put it, without giving Nietzsche credit, we continue to require a specification of discourses.

    “But really, if we as anthropologists can’t offer logical and comprehensible definitions of these basic and central terms of the science, I really don’t see how productively anthropology can hope to contribute good sense and reason to the discussion.”

    As some have argued, definitions are battlefields; take Wittgenstein or Kuhn, for instance. I would personally be displeased with an anthropology that does not scrutinize definitions in this way. Moreover, interesting things happen when ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ are treated as distinctive practices and become the subjects of anthropological inquiries (á la Rabinow). Every time I’ve heard the case for ‘clarity’ being made in the name of ‘communicative economy’ (Cristoph Brumann on ‘culture’, for instance), the conclusion has been to dumb down the messages we construct for the ‘public’. I believe anthropology is a valuable contributor to the discussion because it does not offer what some call comprehensible definitions.

    “It is illogical and completely at variance with the facts of what science in fact and in practice is. Science of course takes place within cultural frameworks (as does obviously all human activity), but it is not logical to assume that all science is therefore valid only within a particular cultural frame. 2+2=4 regardless of how or where one performs the operation.”

    I would like to argue that making appeals to ‘science’ (the great monolith, internally undifferentiated and unequivocal) tends to remove conflict from the spaces of scientific practice (Bruno Latour is, of course, great on this). I would also question how fruitful it is to understand the natural sciences as embedded in a ‘cultural framework’ – it seems to me that this approach insinuates that certain interpretive practices (the Nietzschean perspective on all the sciences, including the natural sciences) can stand outside this alleged framework. My basic point would be that we are forever limited to looking at the world through a set of historically mediated and fluctuating set of practices. I don’t see how words like ‘facts’ and ‘logic’ do anything but help construct the God-trick of objectivity for scientific fields that do not question the basis of their own knowledge claims (Foucault, Canguilhem, Haraway, and so forth).

    As for mathematics, of course its rules function the same everywhere – it’s when you start using mathematics to elaborate on the ‘natural’ or ‘truthful’ state of the world we live in that these rules can turn out to be meaningless (although other examples are easy to come by and this one may be misplaced, consider, for example, mathematical equations once used to establish the ‘Steady State’ theory – the departure from this defunct theory can not be construed as ‘progress’, for reasons outlined by Kuhn and many others).

    I understand that this might seem like a radical point of departure. I would likely enjoy a world where we could rely on the natural sciences for the production of transcendental knowledge claims – but considering some of the arguments made by the scholars outlined above, I find it difficult to be ‘intellectually serious’ in relation to the natural sciences without scrutinizing them on this level. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that ‘science’ is meaningless, but it does mean that knowledge claims can never become unfettered from the very human producers of that knowledge. The world, as it were, does not present blueprints upon close inspection.

  16. Allow me to recommend a look at the first chapter of Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade:

    >Undergraduates at the University of Chicago, when I was a student there, learned to deal with all difficult conceptual questions by saying, authoritatively, “Well, it all depends on how you define your terms.” True enough, but it didn’t help us much, since we didn’t know anything special about how to do the defining.

    I stayed at the University of Chicago for my graduate training and so met Everett C. Hughes, who became my adviser and, eventually, research partner. Hughes was a student of Robert E. Park, who could be considered the “founder” of the “Chicago School” of sociology. Hughes taught me to trace my sociological descent, through him and Park, back to Georg Simmel, the great German sociologist who had been Park’s teacher. I am still proud of that lineage.

    Hughes had no love for abstract Theory. A group of us students once approached him after class, nervously, to ask what he thought about “theory.” He looked at us grumpily and asked, “Theory of what?” He thought that there were theories about specific things, like race and ethnicity or the organization of work, but that there wasn’t any such animal as Theory in general. But he knew what to do when a class or a student got into a tangle over what we thought of as “theoretical” questions, like how to define ideas or concepts. We would wonder, for instance, how to define the concept of “ethnic group.” How did we know if a group was one of those or not? Hughes had identified our chronic mistake, in an essay he wrote on ethnic relations in Canada:

    Almost anyone who uses the term [ethnic group] would say that it is a group distinguishable from others by one, or some combination of the following: physical characteristics, language, religion, customs, institutions, or “cultural traits.” (Hughes [1971] 1984, 153)
    That is, we thought you could define an “ethnic” group by the traits that differentiated it from some other, presumably “nonethnic,” group; it was an ethnic group because it was different.
    But, Hughes explained, we had it backwards. A simple trick could settle such a definitional conundrum: reverse the explanatory sequence and see the differences as the result of the definitions the people in a network of group relations made:

    An ethnic group is not one because of the degree of measurable or observable difference from other groups; it is an ethnic group, on the contrary, because the people in and the people out of it know that it is one; because both the ins and the outs talk, feel, and act as if it were a separate group. (Hughes [1971] 1984, 153-54)
    So French Canadians were not an ethnic group because they spoke French while other Canadians spoke English, or because they were usually Catholic while the English were usually Protestant. They were an ethnic group because both French and English regarded the two groups as different. The differences in language, religion, culture and the rest we thought defined ethnicity were important, but only because two groups can treat each other as different only if “there are ways of telling who belongs to the group and who does not, and if a person learns early, deeply, and usually irrevocably to what group he belongs.” The heart of the trick, which can be applied to all sorts of other definitional problems (for example, the problem of deviance, to which I’ll return later in the book), is recognizing that you can’t study an ethnic group all by itself and must instead trace its “ethnicity” to the network of relations with other groups in which it arises. Hughes says:

    It takes more than one ethnic group to make ethnic relations. The relations can no more be understood by studying one or the other of the groups than can a chemical combination by the study of one element only, or a boxing bout by the observation of only one of the fighters. (Hughes [1971] 1984, 155)<<

    For more see http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/041247.html

  17. “I believe anthropology is a valuable contributor to the discussion because it does not offer what some call comprehensible definitions.”

    Can you please explain why you believe this?

  18. Could it be that “what some call comprehensible definitions” are simplistic, vacuous, or both? And the anthropologist’s usual role has been, as Mary Douglas put it, to say “not in Bongo-Bongo”? Which is not to say that definitions, conceived as agreements that allow discussion to proceed or theories to be developed, cannot be useful, as well as sometimes silly or dangerous. The proper questions are which and when.

  19. “The proper questions are which and when.”

    Also: in whose interests and to what purposes.

  20. “Could it be that “what some call comprehensible definitions” are simplistic, vacuous, or both?”

    Also, and with all due respect, you still have not answered the very basic and serious question of how an incomprehensible (or at the very least unclear) defining of terms can be “a valuable contributor to the discussion.” In what circumstances and with what objectives in mind? I would also add that much of the language deployed by professional anthropologists is less than illuminating either to the profession or to the public. In the interest of clarity it seems to me a desideratum (if not indeed a ethical obligation) to use language, all language, with clarity and with care.

  21. An incomprehensible definition contributes nothing. Forcing reconsideration of taken for granted assumptions may have something valuable to contribute. Clifford Geertz speaks clearly and persuasively to this point in the first paragraph of “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man”:

    “Toward the end of his recent study of the ideas used by tribal peoples, Les Pensée Sauvage, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss remarks that scientific explanation does not consist, as we have been led to imagine, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists, he says, in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less. So far as the study of man is concerned, one may go even further, I think, and argue that explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones.”

    Substituting complex pictures for simple definitions often improves understanding. Which does not imply, I note, that complexity (which some may find incomprehensible) is a panacea. Muddle is muddle, clarity is good; but insisting that every inquiry must begin with definitions totally misses the point of exploratory research, of which ethnography, in the classic anthropological sense, is a highly persuasive example.

  22. “An incomprehensible definition contributes nothing. Forcing reconsideration of taken for granted assumptions may have something valuable to contribute.”

    I will certainly grant that questioning (or, to use the fashionable word, problematizing) taken-for-granted assumptions in any field of inquiry, particularly in the social sciences, can generate potentially useful advancements in theoretical knowledge and hermeneutic understanding. On that basis it quite makes sense for the social scientist to be wary of all simplistic definitions and conceptualizations of scientific vocabulary that come across as just perhaps a little too ordered and neat. I am certainly not suggesting that we exchange economy of words necessarily for complexity of concept. I agree that sometimes it is the reverse that is most useful, particularly in a more ‘exploratory’ context, as you suggest. My point is simply that clarity and comprehension, rather than obscurity and impenetrability, ought to guide the scientist’s, and especially the social scientist’s, epistemological investigations, at all stages, from the most exploratory stage up to and beyond the point of publication. If, as you say (and as I agree), “[a]n incomprehensible definition contributes nothing,” then would it not make sense to strive to make one’s definitions (however complex) as comprehensible as one possibly can? Geertz in that same essay cites Whitehead’s maxim of “Seek simplicity and distrust it” and alters it slightly to say, “Seek complexity and order it.” This sounds sensible enough. The social scientist who cannot, or will not, explain his or her ideas in language that is clear and comprehensible either has something to hide or is trying to sell something, and by this I mean an agenda that is not consonant with scientific value and reason.

    Your point, and Geertz’s point, about complexity is mostly well-taken (I have some qualms but I’ll set them aside for the moment). But I must insist, and as you noted earlier, that definitions can be “battlefields,” and social scientists have a particular responsibility to take care in their analysis and use of language especially as that language clarifies or complicates matters of sociological or anthropological investigation, and especially where such investigations have real legal and policy implications (and very few if any investigations these days do not have legal and policy implications). Definitions can sometimes do more harm than good (depending on who is defining the terms and in what interests and to what purposes), and certainly splitting hairs is not a productive way to advance any discussion (scientific or otherwise), but I would still submit that it is better to establish a clear and comprehensible basis for discussion than to assume that words are somehow capable of speaking for themselves and that the reader will in good faith figure out their meanings. Humans are linguistic and symbolic beings to the core. Clear language does make all the difference between comprehension and confusion, and between good science and a waste of time.

    Well, I have certainly said my piece in this forum. I’ll just add here a thank you for your thoughtful contributions to this discussion, and for helping me to think through my own definitions and assumptions (about science, about language, about truth) with greater clarity and care. There are other claims of yours to which I take some exception, but we all have limited time and of course no discussion of any contested nature can be assumed or perhaps even desired to find its neat and happy conclusion. I am happy to have had the chance to discuss these matters with you, and I am, in the interest of scholarly fellowship, professional respect, and hermeneutic generosity, quite willing here to give you the last word, if you have anything to add. But thank you again and all best wishes to you.

  23. “The Greek wise man, the Jewish prophet, the Roman legislator are still models that haunt those, who today, practice the profession of speaking and writing.”

    I’d like this Foucaultian imperative to summarize the character of my argument. John McCreery has made some excellent points and I agree with him, but I feel inclined to elaborate on the point I wanted to make earlier. The reason I feel that certain definitions might might be usefully construed as ‘battlefields’ is not because these concepts have a natural albeit complicated nature that must be uncovered by purportedly ‘professional’ and ‘scientific’ anthropologists.

    I am referring to purely epistemological operations that transform what is actually political into something technical (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro is perhaps the most recent scholar to equate the epistemological with the political, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but I feel that the argument warrants a measure of consideration, given the status of anthropology with its apparently perpetual epistemological discordance and multiplicity). It almost seems as if though this is what you are asking for, although I realize you likely see things very differently.

    The ‘essentially contested’ status (Gallie is perhaps useful here) of concepts like ‘culture’ (take, for example, Cristoph Brumann on ‘culture’, in response to Lila Abu-Lughod), ‘religion’ (e.g Claire Mitchell’s application of Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblance’), and even ‘ethnicity’, render the production of allegedly ‘clear’ definitions difficult. Perhaps ‘ethnicity’ is a particularly telling example, because the relational approach outlined by McCreery is arguably the most widespread analysis of ‘ethnicity’ today – but if ‘ethnicity’ is relational, it circumscribes efforts to define it. George Marcus refused the ‘sociologism’ of defining ‘ethnicity’ in the terms you proposed earlier, resorting to ‘family resemblances’ instead.

    In other words, it appears clear to me that ‘we’ – to the extent there is a singular ‘anthropology’ – produce disagreement, and the ontological status of several of our foundational concepts has perhaps always been questioned; they are so questioned not just because of our disagreements, but because it is more or less commonplace (in our discipline) to treat concepts like ‘identity’ or ‘democracy’ as if though they had no essential meaning (the arguments from this paragraph are largely derived from one of John Comaroff’s recent articles, The End of Anthropology).

    So where do we stand? Perhaps our differences can not be resolved. I do not believe there is a single ‘discourse community of scientific anthropology’ – as I understand it, the Foucault quote at the start of this post contains a prescription: exercise extreme caution in the distribution of truth> claims. As far as how this positions us (and the role/mission/contribution of anthropology) vis-á-vis an imagined ‘public’, I can’t say. I’ll trust others with a less reckless and more pragmatic point of view to design programs designed to establish that sought-after relevance. I’m actually still working on developing a personal point of view on all of this, so there’s a degree of false confidence here. Thank you for your posts.

  24. This thread appears to be winding down. I would, however, like to prolong it just a bit. Following the lead of Howard Becker in Tricks of the Trade, I have been arguing that, “How do you define that?” may not be the best way to begin a discussion, since premature clarity may obscure important issues. “What is the meaning of life?” “42.” The answer is perfectly clear. Are we satisfied with the result? In the context of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we may be not only satisfied but delighted. In other contexts. . . .perhaps not.

    Be that as it may, we have not considered sufficiently the other possible path for this argument: the one that begins with the question, “When is starting with clear definitions important?” I have pointed toward one possible answer: when definitions are “conceived as agreements that allow discussion to proceed or theories to be developed.” One further consideration is that in such cases the entities precisely defined may be entirely fictitious and still be useful. The history of science is filled with examples. Newton’s mechanics, for instance, describe a world of dimensionless points with mass and position in a space-time framework that is absolutely homogenous. There are, as far as science has seen so far, no such entities in the visible universe. But formulas like f=ma (force=mass x acceleration) work well enough to design machines that have changed the world we live in, things like clockwork, industrial looms, howitzers, steamships and locomotives.

    Or consider an example closer to the sorts of things that concern anthropologists today. I am reading Alex Pentland’s new book Social Physics. I have many friends for whom the title alone will be disturbing, harking back to Auguste Comte and later versions of positivism. But, in my view, they need to get a grip and not assume from the title alone that they know what Pentland is writing about. Neither should they be put off by Pentland’s social positions and achievements, as described in his Wikipedia entry:

    “Alex Paul “Sandy” Pentland is the Toshiba Professor at MIT, a serial entrepreneur, and is one of the most cited authors in computer science.”

    Pentland’s research has turned out to be not only intellectually respectable but useful in ways that have made it possible for him and the MIT graduate students who have studied with him to spin off a whole series of successful companies whose business is research that corporations and governments consider very valuable indeed.

    So what is “social physics”? In brief it is the use of humongous amounts of Big Data to explore idea flow and social influence in social networks. The Big Data may come from existing sources; it may also come, however, from “sociometers,” small electronic devices that track social interaction and monitor associated phenomena like tone of voice. As anthropologists we like to talk about the richness of ethnographic data; but who among us has terabytes of data on social behavior collected a microsecond intervals?

    But what are idea flow and social influence? Idea flow can be detected in patterns of diffusion of key words and phrases or, alternatively, fashion or other material objects. Social influence is, of course, a tricky issue, involving as it does relations of dominance, respect, rivalry, etc. Pentland says, however, that simple frequency of interaction is a remarkably robust predictor of whether ideas will diffuse from one individual to another. Combined with strong or weak networks (strong meaning composed of ties within relatively closed groups where everyone is related to everyone else, and weak meaning the opposite, relations involving only occasional contact with people from other groups), it accounts for about half the variance in whether ideas diffuse or not—and, statistically speaking, half the variance is huge.

    Sounds abstract, right? Here’s a practical application. Pentland’s team is asked to suggest possible improvements in call center operations for a major credit card company. They notice at the start that the call center exemplifies capitalism in the raw. Each operator has his or her own cubicle and schedule of permitted activities, e.g., coffee breaks. Performance is measured individually by the speed with which calls are handled. There is no interaction between operators who are, socially speaking, completely isolated while at work. Based on the notions described above, Pentland’s team suggests team coffee breaks, so that teams of twenty operators will take their coffee break together. Social bonds are formed. Gossip strengthens engagement. Newbies pick up tips from old hands. The program is tested, then rolled out to the whole call center. The center’s performance improves to the tune of $15 million a year.

    Notice what went on here. Pentland’s crew didn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over whether their definitions of idea flow and social influence were utterly precise or, alternatively, captured every possible nuance of someone or some group’s experienced reality. They took some rough ideas and asked themselves “How can we measure that?” This being MIT, they have also developed instrumentation and worked out the math to deal with zillions of observations. Operational definitions, suggested, tested, and deployed where they seem to work pretty well are a critical part of that process.

    And if this is the future of social science, where does this leave anthropologists? If our arguments continue to sound like medieval theology in a post-post-modern world, where will that take us?

  25. I know I said I was going to leave the last word to John McCreery, but he did say that he would like to prolong the thread a bit, and I feel compelled to offer a few additional observations and thoughts in response. (I also was, apparently mistakenly, under the impression that the “John” in the previous posts was also John McCreery. No pressure, but it would be nice to know the name of the person with whom I am exchanging ideas in this forum. In any case, my response here is offered to John McCreery.)

    I appreciate the pragmatic, problem-solving approach that John McCreery offers, as represented by the work of Pentland. Anthropological insights and methods can be and should be applied in a practical way to the improvement of all social and economic environments, including call centers. That’s great. What would be even better would be if the employees could see tangible benefits in the form of increased wages and benefits and not just a more agreeable, group-centered styling of their coffee breaks. (If the operators did in fact see an appreciable increase in their pay and working benefits out of that $15 million figure that you cited, then I certainly stand corrected.)

    “And if this is the future of social science, where does this leave anthropologists?”

    I guess it would leave anthropologists slaves to Big Business and Big Data, at the mercy of the bottom-line ideology, and effectively appendages to the machine that the world is more and more becoming.

    This is one possible future of one specific application of social science research. Anthropologists will I am sure find many other avenues to apply their methodological and ethnographic expertise, including but by no means limited to corporate, government, nonprofit, educational, environmental and other research activities. The Pentland model is one of many models and one future of a huge array of possibilities. I see absolutely no reason to assume that the Pentland model will be the future of all social science.

    I agree with the practical value of operational definitions. I disagree that anthropology or any social science research ought to be geared primarily if not exclusively toward computational work applied to controlled economic environments, as in the case of the call center; call centers are notoriously slavish and dehumanizing environments. It doesn’t take much to improve the quality of life in a call center – yes, it is unfortunately the case that even a better coffee room is better than nothing.

    “If our arguments continue to sound like medieval theology in a post-post-modern world, where will that take us?”

    It might take us to a saner place where human values over industrial imperatives actually begin to matter again. Some of the finest human minds have emerged out of the humanistic tradition of medieval theology. This is not to say that such traditions are without their problems (they have their share, to be sure), but I am not sure your dismissal of medieval theology is entirely placed in the most intelligent fashion.

    Let me ask a similar question:

    If our arguments continue to sound like business proposals and shareholder strategy reports, where will that take us? It might not take us forward into the most humanistic and holistic paradigm of human relations.

    Douglas Adams’s ‘Deep Thought’ came up with ‘42’ to the answer of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Yet this is the answer of a machine. Ask a human being the same question – as indeed countless answers have been offered – and a much more satisfying, if not final, answer might come in the form of something like the following: a good and balanced life in which people can realize their capacities within a decent society and a healthy and sustainable environment.

    Data-sourcing can certainly help towards achieving these ends. But we will need to go far beyond any computational analysis. The way forward for anthropologists will be found in a more sensitive and careful use of language, language being the most vital and meaningful way by which humans enter into the world of relations, which define everything for us no matter where we are and to what ends we labor.

  26. “The way forward for anthropologists will be found in a more sensitive and careful use of language, language being the most vital and meaningful way by which humans enter into the world of relations, which define everything for us no matter where we are and to what ends we labor.”

    Chris, my heart says, yes, yes. But how do you see this working out in practice? Can sensitive, careful language achieve what progressive, political icon Paul Wellstone recommended, to “mobilize, energize, organize”? And, first, how does it earn a living?* **

    *For the record, I make my living as a wordsmith, a Japanese-to-English translator and, more rarely these days, English-language copywriter. Looking back I count myself hugely lucky in the times and places in which I have lived, the opportunities, the talented spouse and the other relationships that support me. A friend who worked for Time magazine once remarked that, “Until you are forty, you live off your talent. After forty, you live off your Rolodex.” His use of “Rolodex” instead of “network” shows how long ago that was.

    ** I recently read online that of the five thousand or so full-time, professional writers in the UK, around 4,500 live below the poverty line. I worry about young friends and colleagues who may write beautifully but are living in times and places much less friendly to writers than mine have been.

  27. Tell you what, John – if I ever strike it rich (whether through writing or just dumb luck), I’ll start a scholarship fund for wordsmiths and wiseguys. Anthropologists will of course be preferred, but all majors (including business and IT folks) will be welcome to apply. (An essay at the very least will of course be required.)

    As for the rest, I am wise enough to admit that even I do not have all the answers. I flatter myself to think that I at least have some of the right questions. One thing I think we can safely depend on is that humans will always disagree on the nature of the good and beautiful and true. My sincerest hope is that an increasing majority will do so with good sense and science and reason. I am quite willing to bet the farm that careful and sensitive use of language will play a significant if not key role in building a smarter and more sustainable world. Indeed I’ll bet everything I have on it.

    Thank you again for your thoughts. I appreciate the dialogue. I trust there will be other occasions for honing each other’s wits.

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