On studying “dynamic changes”

A quote for the day, from Boas:

In short, the method which we try to develop is based on a study of the dynamic changes in society that may be observed at the present time.  We refrain from the attempt to solve the fundamental problem of the general development of civilization until we have been able to unravel the process that are going on under our eyes.  (1940 [1920]: 285)

The genealogy of ethnomethodology in ethnography has sometimes been told to me as passing through Hymes and Labov to Malinowski.  I have been wondering about Boas, and found this quote.

I am reading this analogically to the work we have been conducting within “societies” (e.g. the United States).   I am arguing for transforming what might be called the units of critique from civilization/society to society (in the sense of hegemonic pattern of institutions) /family (in the sense of any local polity of practice).

So, in the spirit of Lave and McDermott (2002), here is a draft rewrite of Boas’s quote:

In short, the method we try to develop is based on a study of the dynamic changes in a family (community, local polity) that may be observed at the time of the observation.  We refrain from the attempts to solve fundamental problems of the general correlations between social structure and individual behavior until we have been able to unravel the process that are going on under our eyes.

Boas challenged the “grand theorists” of humanity when they tried, for example, to correlate “economic life and family organization” (1963 [1911]: 168).  We must now challenge the waves of theorists, particularly in sociology and economics, when they relate generalize plausible correlations between type of condition (poverty, disability) and type of local organization.  Like Boas, we must ask for research demonstrating the actual linkages and, given our experience that these linkages will not be found, then provide the systematic ethnographic evidence that families (etc.) are not (any more) predictable in their local arrangements (than the “societies,” e.g. Kwakiutl, etc., that were used as units of analysis in late 19th century anthropology).

So, let’s read this quote analogically again:

A constant relation between loosely connected [aggregated for statistical analysis] or entirely disconnected aspects of culture is improbable when the differences between the activities are great and different groups of individuals participate in the activities involved.   (1963 [1911]: 167)

This may allow us to rephrase the critique of the “culture of poverty” (more on that soon).

[The initial quote also echoes the rationale for philology in the 19th century when some linguists decided to eschew grand theories of language and its origin in order to actually understand human languages as they were observable and changed.  This movement towards history did lead to Saussure and his relatively successful search for synchronic processes.  Similar movements by Boas’s students may have been premature. Hymes and his students generally think that Saussure was similarly premature.]

One thought on “On studying “dynamic changes””

  1. I’ve sketched a few thoughts here, but they need to be developed further.

    Here is the bookend quote that calls for limits on comparative studies which haven’t taken into account the actual (concrete not abstract) linkages between causes and effects:

    “Thus we recognize that the fundamental assumption which is so often made by modern anthropologists cannot be accepted as true in all cases. We cannot say that the occurrence of the same phenomenon is always due to the same causes, and that thus it is proved that the human mind obeys the same laws everywhere. We must demand that the causes from which it developed be investigated and that comparisons be restricted to those phenomena which have been proved to be effects of the same causes. We must insist that this investigation be made a preliminary to all extended comparative studies. (1940 [1896]:275)”

    The paragraph above can be read as an early statement of what Garfinkel later termed “The Shop Floor Problem”.Generic descriptions (be they narrative, typological, or statistical correlations) of even well characterized social phenomena (factory floors, mask wearing, family organization) inevitably miss the local procedures which constitute these phenomena. Garfinkel’s reminder that a formal account of a shop floor and the lived realities of this shop floor are not the same, echo Boas’ argument that like effects do not necessarily spring from like causes. While human nature may be uniform, as Boas noted, at the level of “the disposition of men to act suitably” what counts as suitable in social life is a question that can only be answered by recourse to the cautious and detailed descriptions both Boas and Garfinkel demanded.

    I think the phrase “dynamic change” is apt for another reason as well. When Boas attract the spurious label historical particularist (Harris 1968) it came via a gross misreading of a subtle point made by Boas about the interplay between two types of scientific knowledge.

    In The Study of Geography, Boas (1886) drew a distinction between physics and cosmology. That is, between an aesthetic ordering of discrete items of knowledge into a larger set and the affective feeling that comes with the understanding of one particular thing. Readers of this article often mistake the analytic term cosmological for “historical” in the 19th century sense of ideographic inquiry, but I would argue a more accurate reading of cosmological is “Natural History” in the Darwinian sense implying both a style of work (detailed observation) and a set of conceptual concerns (the ongoing interaction between events, people, environment, etc..).

    The Natural History Method appears periodically in the anthropological literature. Kimball (1955, 1960) called for it as a corrective to the static character of community studies and Bateson employed it throughout his career from Naven onto his work with the Palo Alto group of interactionists. EM/CA also works when understood as a natural history approach to social phenomena and a corrective to Parson’s static typologies. It is easy to see Agnes as a natural history of gender or Sack’s work on jokes as the natural history of a joke.

    The more difficult part is making explicit the alternative grounds over which to generalize, but the task is not impossible.

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