Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 4

In Part 3, pattern-seeking was added to the list of fundamentals of an anthropological perspective, following on from Part 2 where task-based communicative competence was proposed. I’m now on the fourth installment of this five-blog run. Since #5 is stuck with the conclusion job, #4 is the last one where I can try out another fundamental. The problem is, more than one comes to mind. Too many things crawled up into consciousness after I opened the doors of perception and stepped into the hall of mirrors, to mix Aldous Huxley with the Palace of Versailles.

But as I think back on the original plot device—the shift from village to treatment center—another characteristic comes to mind that was then, and probably always will be, a fundamental of an anthropological perspective. It plays an important part, like the previous two characteristics, whether it’s traditional or contemporary anthropology, academic or applied or practice. We call it “emergence.” In this case, though, the transition from village to joint was rocky because it alienated most of my new non-anthropological colleagues in the treatment center. It turned out that “I dunno yet” was not an acceptable answer to the question, “what’s your hypothesis?”

This third fundamental of an anthropological perspective is already implied in the description of the previous two. Recall that the first emphasized learning task-based communicative competence. The second emphasized figuring out pattern as you learn. “Learning” and “figuring out” are both forward looking verbs, called “change-of-state” verbs in linguistics. Writ large, they suggest a “quest narrative,” one classic way to tell a story, moving from a lack of something to a fulfillment of that lack. Where you are at the end isn’t where you thought you’d be at the beginning. It’s jazz rather than classical.

Compare this with the usual behavioral/social science script. It requires a controlled sequence of tasks from the start. It follows a set guideline for the doing and writing of it (though not for the actual doing; see the entire field of science and technology studies), and it often ends with a rejected null hypothesis. Many have written about this in other places. It’s what you learn in research design courses in most social/behavioral sciences.

Back in undergrad school, and then later in grad school, we talked more about emergence than we did about research design. Our interests were emergent, our methodology was emergent, our research was emergent, our analysis of field notes when we came home was emergent, our writing was emergent. It was a veritable orgy of emergence. Well, within limits, if you remember the discussion of required patterns in the previous blog. I was training in linguistic anthropology, and if that’s what you wanted to be back then in the heyday of ethnographic semantics, your emergence better have a lot of lexical sets in it.

There was a famous story at Berkeley that summarized the attitude. A grad student asked Kroeber himself for advice before going off to do fieldwork. The great man said something like, “I suggest you buy a notebook and a pencil.” Emergence distilled, personified, and ratified by a member of the pantheon. You don’t know what will happen when you do fieldwork, so there’s no point in planning for it. That legend also shows emergence as a pathology, since the attitude blocked development of ways to talk about our methods until the 1980s.

Naturally I had no problem with emergence in the South Indian village. Of course that was how fieldwork was going to go. The main thing was to tolerate uncertainty until your interaction with the new world started to grow its own structure. My audience was a senior anthropologist. In fact, it was interesting when Alan said, pretty early on, “draft an outline for your senior thesis now. It’ll change a lot, but go ahead and draft it.” He was teaching me a strategy to develop the quest narrative.

But Lexington? Emergence didn’t allow for a smooth transition at all, even though task communicative competence and pattern did. All of a sudden I was alone with my emergence. My clinical and research colleagues thought it was the research Satan–anti-research design, anti-“instrument,” anti-science.  It was like hearing the door slam shut as they dragged me into the heroin withdrawal ward. Nothing like a skeptical if not hostile audience to make you conscious both of what you do and of the fact that your faculty never provided you with the words to describe it.

What did the word mean, really? We had used the term  intuitively back in “the department” without discussing it much. It basically meant, you learn as you go. What you do at time T + 1 depends on what you learned at time T. This obviously creates heartbreak and pain and death by peer review for anyone who is supposed to specify the details of a  project before it happens. Writing an anthropological research proposal for funding agencies, I would later decide, was actually a genre of science fiction.

Nowadays “emergence” has become a popular term, a cliché of various self-help schools. Turn your inner moth into a butterfly, that kind of thing. But it has also become a technical term in complexity theory, because nonlinear dynamic systems in general, like anthropological work in particular, exhibit something called “path dependence.” It is a more recent term for our old intuition–the same sentence works for both–what happens at time T + 1 depends on what happened at time T. In other words, you can’t predict the exact trajectory of a specific “run” of a system in the long term; you can only know for certain what will happen after it actually happens. That’s one version of emergence.

Notice how well this first version fits “learning” communicative competence and “figuring out” pattern. An anthropological perspective in motion in real time is also a complex, or nonlinear dynamic, system that exhibits path dependence.  Emergence in this case is how an anthropological project  unfolds in real time. You don’t know exactly where you’ll end up until you get there.

Here’s a second variation on the emergent theme: Once you have a lot of experience with a particular task, you will know that—though paths vary each time from one instance to the next—the space within which the many possible paths will take their shape does have its boundaries. Most likely, a few paths will occur most of the time and a few really weird ones will happen once in a great while. (There is a math for this, called “power law distributions,” made popular recently with the phrase “black swan.”)

In the village, for example, I expected that a headman would handle conflict cases. The path of those cases would no doubt vary, but a headman would always lead. No, fate handed me a “black swan” village where a fluid group of elders took care of the cases. I suspect this added to the variety of case paths though I never did the comparative study so can’t say for sure.  At Lexington, I learned that that there were “drug use” paths I had never suspected existed, and recall that I moved there from Berkeley in the late 60s. Mace and nutmeg were two favorites, especially because guards would bring some in to sell since they were legal. One guy described how to capture and inhale the fumes of a burning pingpong ball. Reaction of his audience suggested he was a black swan, but mace and nutmeg? Happened all the time.

Universals and human biology are examples of limits on the paths that human social tasks can take. You won’t find a group that doesn’t have some tasks to handle conflict among its members. It won’t last long without them. And you won’t find a group that doesn’t have ways to alter ordinary states of consciousness. Such assertions deserve their own series of blogs, because they are about a theory of being human,  of limits on possible things that can happen, and that same theory represents  the common human ground against which an outsider can come to understand the figure of differences in an unfamiliar human social world.  I’ll just end this paragraph with a favorite metaphor of a ski mountain. There are an infinite number of paths to the bottom, but there is also a mountain.

So “emergence” can just mean path dependence, or it can mean paths within a space whose boundaries can be identified. Then there’s yet another version of emergence, kind of an “emergence light” because it’s predictable. A path leads to a result that is unlike anything you could have predicted from the characteristics of the system parts. Chemistry is an easy example, one that John Stuart Mill struggled with when he developed his inductive logic. You mix hydrogen and oxygen and get water? Sodium and chloride and get salt? The path is clear and reproducible, but the final product bears no resemblance to the  material you produced it with. That’s emergence, too.

For example, in the village most cases of spirit possession were either new young brides who left the village to live with their husband’s family, or young men who went to the big city to earn some cash. The cure required a return to the home village. This only happened with a few brides and workers, not all of them, but if it did happen, that’s who it happened to. Something in the tasks of those social types caused spirit possession to emerge among a few of them. Obviously it had something to do with returning to the comforts of home.

As another example, my office in the treatment center was a hangout for the few “patients” I was working with intensively at any particular point in time. Later I discovered that the bathroom on the fourth floor where the research unit was located had become a “stash,” a place to securely hide contraband. And some time later, the fourth floor pharmacy across the hall was robbed. I was looking at the secure door with an addict. He pointed at the top, the bottom and the middle. The hinges were on the outside. A predictable pattern of addict emergence was, look at any space as a potential source of elements to support your addiction and figure out how to use it that way. In retrospect, I should have predicted both events.

And, finally, there’s also emergence with a capital E. Some paths might turn out to change a system into something completely different from what it was before. Who would have guessed that 9/11 would happen? Who predicted the financial collapse of 2008 that changed our current world? Who thought Arab Spring would happen at all, never mind turn out so badly? Or, looking back to one of the favorite examples of the historians, who would have guessed that a Serb assassin would trigger—the appropriate verb—World War I?

Path dependencies like these are, in fact, about changing boundaries of the space, making old paths obsolete and new previously unimagined paths possible. This kind of path is a higher kind of “phase transition” between a system that disorganizes and another very different one that re-organizes and emerges from the chaos. With this kind of emergence, the change happens in a surprising and perhaps traumatic way from a human point of view. Climate change is a contemporary case. The planetary system is changing from the Holocene into what we have named the Anthropocene, and we won’t know exactly what that new epoch looks like until we’re done with the transition. Climate change isn’t just a change in the possible paths a system can take. It is a breakdown in a system and the emergence of a new one with different boundaries and paths within it.

As I write this blog I started  thinking about Margaret Mead. Two of her early books told Americans that systems with other paths were possible, that adolescence wasn’t always a time of turmoil, that men’s and women’s roles weren’t determined by biology. But then in another book she showed that what looked like a major phase transition wasn’t that at all, that World War II had powerfully impacted a traditional culture but that they had survived the disruption and continued their cultural ways. I guess it isn’t a surprise that she and Gregory Bateson were part of the post-World War II Macy Foundation conference that invented cybernetics, an ancestor of today’s complexity theory.

All of these variations on emergence are part of an anthropological perspective that we lumped under a single term back in the old days. I often say to complexity colleagues that anthropology said “emergence” before emergence was cool. I don’t tell them that we never really talked much about what it meant beyond that general notion of path dependence.

Problematic as emergence is for traditional behavioral/social science research design and management strategic planning, it is fundamental to an anthropological perspective that emphasizes learning task communicative competence and figuring out pattern. Besides, there is some hope here. For example, in water governance reform, a new theme of  “short term iterative learning cycles” is on the increase, to use one of their phrases. At least in New Mexico, though, “long range planning” still carries more weight in political discourse.

Emergence is key for how we work. And, together with learning task communicative competence and figuring out pattern, the trio start to look like a coherent and interconnected perspective rather than just a list of fundamentals. Our work is emergent because it is based on Level Two learning, sometimes even Level Three (from Part 2), the elements of which are organized into recurring patterns (from Part 3).

For now I have to stop with the  characteristics of an anthropological perspective even though there is more ground to cover. Task communicative competence, pattern, and emergence aren’t a bad start. I want to shift gears now and finish my Savage Minds moment in the sun with a question. Do these three fundamentals show how anthropology is the same whether you do it in an old-fashioned academic way or a new fangled way with a non-research oriented job that doesn’t even have “anthropology” in its title?  And do you need to study anthropology to learn it?

That’s where we’ll go in Part 5 to wind up this shaggy blog story.

Michael Agar

Mike Agar worked for decades professing, applying, and practicing anthropology, usually spicing it up with other disciplinary and professional ingredients as well. Savage Minds invited him to look back and think forward to see if he had any idea now of what anthropology is actually about. The five guest blogs over the first two weeks of November are a start at one possible answer. More info on him and his checkered past on his Ethknoworks home page at