(with thanks to Michael Scroggins who alerted me to this short paper on “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart” 1887)
“In human culture … like causes produce like effects.” We cannot agree with [this statement of Professor Mason] In his enumeration … [he] omitted [one] which overthrows the whole system: unlike causes produce like effects. It is of very rare occurrence that the existence of like causes for similar inventions can be proved … On the contrary, the development of similar ethnological phenomena from unlike causes is far more probable … (Boas 1887: 485)
I will leave it to Michael Scroggins the opportunity to introduce the punch line of the paragraph, and, possibly, of Boas’ overall legacy. I will just use this quote develop the footnote in my post of May 26th when I mentioned Saussure.
Given the early date, we might say that this statement about causation and “ethnological phenomenon” is more postulate than finding. But Boas states here what guided his subsequent research, teaching and institution building. Over the course of his career and that of his students, the value of the postulate was abundantly demonstrated—and then it was all but forgotten when Parsons et al. started the education of some of the most powerful voices among the next generation of anthropologists (Geertz being the pre-eminent voice here of course).
I just want to note here that the value of Boas’ postulate had already been demonstrated quite thoroughly about another “ethnological phenomenon”: language as spoken by any particular group of human beings. Nineteenth century philology (who could have been called “historical linguistics”) had already shown that, when looking at any linguistic form, one can always trace it back to its history, and even plausibly reconstruct language families all linked to some ancestral language. But one cannot do the reverse—that is predict the future drift of any language. One might be able to predict plausible alternatives given a past (thus Saussure “predicted” Hittite). But, after at least two centuries of attempts at finding them, no causal laws of language change had been found—and they still not have been found, whe. One could make the same argument about Chomsky and the continuing search for “deep,” neurological structures. Even if these were found through various retrospective techniques, there is no evidence that one could, prospectively, imagine actual languages, and their changes, from the deep structure. All one will be able to say is that human languages are … human! But Chomky and MRI’s will not be able to explain the conditions that led to the change, in English political speech for example, from “the person, he …” to “the person, he or she …” Chomsky could not have predicted Hittite.
So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph. Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time was had by all!). Nor could they predict the next “turn” (song, popular singer, genre) in the indirect conversation between Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.