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 : 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 : 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 : 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.]