Anthropology is an empty pint carton, and our existential projects are the ice cream

Because I regularly teach the history of anthropology, I have thought a lot about classical texts and the shape of our discipline. I also recently had a chance to sit in on a roundtable on Decolonizing Anthropology at #AES2017. Sitting in that panel reminded me of something that Max Weber said. I first encountered Weber’s thoughts on value ideals and concept formation in the 1990s. That was back in the day when Weber used to come over to my apartment and we would smoke out and watch anime. The time I’m thinking of, he got the munchies really bad and ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s — a pint — before we even got to the first commercial break of the Cowboy Bebop episode we were watching. I was all like: “Freckles” — back then everyone called him Freckles — “Freckles, you just ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in, like, two minutes” and Weber just looked at me and said:

“Reality is ordered according to categories that are subjective, in that they are based on the presupposition of the value of the truth that knowledge is able to give to us. We have nothing to offer a person to whom this truth is of no value. We all harbour some belief in the validity of those fundamental and sublime value ideas in which we anchor the meaning of our existence, but the concrete configuration of these values remains subject to change far into the dim future of human culture. Everyone who works in the cultural sciences will regard his work as an end in itself. But, at some point, the colouring changes: the significance of those points of view grows uncertain, the way forward fades away in the twilight. The light shed by the great cultural problems has moved in. Then science, too, prepares to find a new standpoint and a new conceptual apparatus. It follows those stars that alone can give meaning and direction to its work.”

At the time, those words had a profound effect on me, despite the fact that as he spoke them Weber had Cherry Garcia dripping down his beard. They made me realize that anthropology is merely an empty pint carton, and our existential projects — the things we care about — are the ice cream that fills it up.

When I say anthropology is a pint carton, I mean that it is a collection of institutions: a academic departments, professional associations, branches of funding agencies, and a few private foundations. Ethnographically, it wouldn’t be too hard to describe. These forms are key to the discipline’s political economy, and for this reason they shape how our discipline unfolds. But ultimately, they alone don’t shape the discipline. The discipline itself — what is said and thought, the debates and consensuses, the books and articles — is the result of the existential projects that people bring to these institutions. The fundamental interests and concerns which drive their biographies — what Freckles called their ‘value ideas’ or ‘great cultural problems’ or ‘standpoint’ — are what fill these institutions up, the way Cherry Garcia fills an empty pint container. It is our existential projects that breathe life into these institutions.

Of course, the ice cream and the carton shape and are shaped by each other and by other factors as well, causation is complicated blah blah blah. My point here is just that ‘anthropology’ is not a leviathan — it’s not a person that has a set of value ideas and great conceptual problems. Anthropologists have existential projects. ‘Anthropology’ does not. And different anthropologists have different values. Consider, for instance, the following:

  •  Anthropologists should gather texts and objects so that When The Indians Disappear we will have a corpus representing their life which is on par with that assembled for classical antiquity (Boas)

This is similar to, but also different from:

  •  Primitive Man’s myths and legends are supreme works of art, and anthropology should be the connoisseurship of them (Lévi-Strauss)

Which is also similar to but different from:

  • Anthropologists must strip away the buzz and confusion of the world in order to reveal the underlying social structure of Primitive Societies so that we can engage in a generalizing, comparative analysis of them (Radcliffe-Brown)

‘Anthropology’ appears to have a project when we teach it. When we teach, we use syllabi and textbooks which are ‘presentist’ and ‘teleological’. They are simplifications of the past that we tell the students about the past in order to make our existential projects are natural, inevitable, and legitimate. History of anthropology is often thus what they call ‘disciplinary history’. It’s goal is to provide a story about the past which is usable in the present. We pick and choose as we need to. Or, as Freckles once said to me: “life and its store of possible meanings are inexhaustible. The light shed by value ideals falls on a constantly changing, finite part of the immense, chaotic stream of occurrences churning its way through the ages.”

Indeed, most of the history of anthropology does not consist of anthropologists giving steadily better answers to established questions and Making Progress. Rather, it involves different anthropologists attempting to make their existential project hegemonic. The discipline came of age, essentially, in the 1920s. Its emergence was one of gradual transformation, but the story it told was of disjuncture: The replacement of Victorian ‘armchair’ anthropology with modern, objective ‘scientific’ anthropology. Since then, the wheels have kept turning. Whether it is the ‘new ethnography’ (Goodenough 1956) or ‘rethinking anthropology’ (Leach, 1961) or ‘reinventing anthropology’ (Hymes, 1969), much of the history of our discipline involves old projects being phased out by new ones — the light shed by our projects has moved on.

There’s nothing wrong with this, at least in principle. And anthropology doesn’t necessarily do this any more than other disciplines — in fact, we are probably less presentist than some of the bench sciences, whose disciplinary histories can be scandalously ideological. To me, the interesting thing about the history of anthropology is watching the slowly, deadly ballet as different viewpoints jostle for position over the decades. Far more interesting than a story of ever more adequate answers.

But several facts do fall out of this: First, one reason it’s difficult to include more diverse perspectives in our theory syllabi is that people of color often have different existential projects than the people who are traditionally taught in history of anthropology courses. Consider, for instance:

  • We know that diffusion and integration shape cultural patterns, but doesn’t the natural environment shape them as well?(Julian Steward)

Compare this with:

  • We were told we would get radical reconstruction, so how did we end up with Jim Crow? (W.E.B. DuBois)


  • How can I be free to be colored me? (Zora Neale Hurston)


  • How can we use anthropology to help Hawaiian people (re)member their nation? (Ty Tengan)


  • What is this psychic price that the colonized must constantly pay to the colonizer? (Franz Fanon)

Notice how none of these projects includes lines like ‘When The Indians Disappear’ or ‘primitive man’ or ‘primitive society’. Are we really that surprised that this were not words Alfonso Ortiz used? It’s hard to say that ‘people of all color, creed, and gender have contributed to anthropology’ because (much of the time) that isn’t actually true. Not only because they weren’t allowed, but because “anthropology’s” interests at the time were not interesting to them. Meyer Fortes was about as interested in being colored him as Zora Neale Hurston was in how social structure could regiment conduct given optation. There are different questions at stake because there are different projects at stake.

From my vantage point in the middle of the Pacific, the interesting thing about anthropology is how Standard Haole anthropologists can make room for other people’s projects, rather than attempting to enroll them in ours. It’s more interesting and… more just! But I also recognize that all of this means that creating a syllabus is an Act of Will (as Freckles would say) in which you have to decide what your priorities are and what you think is important. One of difficulties with creating history of anthropology syllabi is thinking you can just find out what history is and teach that. This is just bad faith. History churns away to infinity. You are the one shining the light on it. Own that fact that you are a light.

In the end, I suspect that decolonizing anthropology will mostly involve colonizing anthropology, even if that move is branded as being fugitive, resistance, going rogue, refusal, or other forms of oppositional action. It’s unlikely to destroy or move beyond or replace anthropology before our discipline is gutted by economic contraction and political forces which fear accurate scholarship and open access to knowledge. Understanding our role in this process is important. Rethinking our discipline is a constant task, it’s true. But in today’s America the task is more pressing than ever. For, as Freckles once said:

“There is an immense work of political education to be done, and there is no more serious duty for each of us than to be aware of this task of contributing to the political education of our nation. And yet, even in the face of enormous misery, it is our awareness of our responsibility before history that weighs even more heavily on us today. It is not given to our generation to see whether the fight we are engaged in will bear fruit, nor whether posterity will acknowledge us as its forefathers. We shall not succeed in exorcising the curse that hangs over us unless we discover how to become something different: the precursors of an even greater epoch.”


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

4 thoughts on “Anthropology is an empty pint carton, and our existential projects are the ice cream

  1. One good metaphor deserves another. I remember the ice cream bars in tourist towns in New England, where customers pick up their bowls and are then free to fill them with whatever flavors and toppings they like. A much younger me liked that about anthropology; I could make of it whatever I wanted. The curmudgeon I have become worries that this vision of a field defined by self-indulgent consumerism is out of synch with the world we now inhabit. I respect the note of seriousness introduced by “existential projects. ” Then, however, my cynical imagination asks if this isn’t just a bit of fresh fruit added to the whipped cream, butterscotch sauce and M&Ms to make the sundae look at least a bit healthy.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating piece! Quick question: Are you directly quoting those lines by Boas, Levis-Strauss, and others or paraphrasing what these figures said or claimed?

  3. Those are just my paraphrases. Some of them (like the Hurston) are closely adapted from things they’ve said or others have said about them. They are all more or less my glosses tho, and are pretty superficial given how complex some of those thinkers were.

  4. I see no excuse for anthropology as a disciplinary community not working to make room for a variety of “existential projects.” As a body of theory, in the methodologies of participant observation/ethnography/fieldwork, it most certainly does!

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