For a defense of cultural anthropology as science

I have been thinking for some time about the de-institutionalization of what we might call “anthropological authority”: the authority to speak about humanity from the point of view of an evolving discipline that has developed over more than a century a powerful and distinct way to discover aspects of humanity that other ways of knowing do not bring out.

I thought this movement was a product of the evolution of American political activity where the tendency to “know-nothing” merges with the hyper-expertise of a narrow cadre of techno-engineers convinced that “data-driven” research will necessarily produce “evidence-based” policy and lead to the oft-predicted “end of history.”  Well, there is a French version of that evolution leading, in good French centralized fashion, to the erasure of anthropology from university undergraduate education.

That is a radical threat if ever there was one!  And it leads to people rising in passionate defense.  For example, look at the following:

In summary, the petitioners present the major achievements of anthropology over the past century as consisting of efforts

  1.   “to stimulate social reforms necessary for a fairer and more equitable redistribution of produced wealth” (Mauss and The gift);
  2.   [to found] “a new humanism based on a more universalist and egalitarian framework” (Lévi-Strauss and Race and history);
  3.   to oppose attempts to anachronise or exoticise ‘non-Western societies’ in order to comprehend them (Balandier);
  4.   to understand all human societies as equally valid and contemporary (on going).

My question today: Are these the achievements we should celebrate at this time?  Are these the reasons anthropology should be kept as an undergraduate major in French universities?

I find striking that all these justifications are ideological and politically (and may be religiously) charged.  None claim “science.”  Is this the best we can do to affirm our contribution to those who make different political choices, or to those, particularly in the United States who are aggressively “non-political” (actually there is a version of that in France where a particular cadre of government officials, just below political appointees who come and go with governmental majorities, keep serving whoever has legitimate power.  They are “les hauts fonctionaires”)?

So, I’ll try my hand briefly at another kind of justification based on the contribution of anthropology to “basic science.”  Let’s start with Saussure as developed by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss.  Saussure, on the basis on a century of basic research in historical linguistics established that while any state of language builds on earlier states, one cannot predict the next state.  This is fundamentally related to the “arbitrariness” (non-rationality) of the means through which meaning is achieved.  Anthropological research, particularly in the Boasian traditions, has confirmed that is arbitrariness can be generalized to all forms of human behavior in history (religion, myth, political ideologies, etc.).  This, of course, is also the contribution of Lévi-Strauss in his major works (Totemism, Savage mind, etc.)—among many others.
While all particular historical forms are tied to earlier forms, and must also fulfill various kinds of biological, ecological, demographic, etc., needs, the exact means through which these needs are met are fundamentally “arbitrary” (or, in more recent formulations, “playful”).  All this is true “cross-culturally,” across historical periods, and, as we are now finding out, “cross-“ the various new forms of differentiation produced “internally” within the new global society.

All of this has been established through various forms of detailed ethnographic-like research (including historiography, philology, conversational analysis, etc.) and debated within a small set of social science disciplines.  It may even be written as a “law” that cannot be broken any more than the second law of thermodynamics:

Given any ordered social state (system, pattern, culture, …), this state will always re-order itself into any number of new states none of them being identical to any state ever produced in human history.

The consequences of this general knowledge should lead to a radical challenge of “evidence-based” research to the extent that it is founded on the sense that the evolution of human societies can be predicted and controlled.  That is, as I understand it in the world of school policy I know best, researchers design complex experiments to establish that ‘y’ is function of ‘x’ (z, etc. through complex statistical means) and that this is not a historical, arbitrary, relationship.  There is however no evidence that any such research, in the past, has led to the prediction of even minor changes in the future.  I do not know for example whether the sociologists who developed the framework for “value-added-teaching” ever confronted the possibility that teachers might strike over it, that administrators might dissemble about test results, that state administrations would discover means of subverting the processes, etc (or that we can not predict what will happen to all this when new local or national administrations are installed).  And yet any anthropologist of the past half-century (whether they invoked Boas, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, de Certeau, etc.) could have warned that such “play” would happen even if they could not predict what forms it would take.

Not accepting the “law” (however we may end up writing it) is placing oneself outside of science and too many of our colleagues are willing to do that.

As for us anthropologists (historians, sociologists, etc.) we must keep training students rigorously to explore implications, challenge, further specify our paradoxical laws.

4 thoughts on “For a defense of cultural anthropology as science”

  1. This is, of course, not unlike the kind of argument that chaos theorists began to make, and face resistance to, from other “hard” scientists.

    I still think our stronger argument, as anthropologists, is that sociology’s penchant for predetermined categories rather than grounded theory actually makes them *poorer empirical observers than anthropologists.* The reason sociology ends up lower on the “science” totem pole than physics, chemistry, even biology, is exactly that: their claims to empiricism are cargo-cult emulations of hard-science methods; their methods bias their findings. We can make a claim that we’re more empirical (just not replicable).

  2. Beyond wondering about the time frame of a replicated finding (e.g. what is the status of research assuming hysteria?), one may also wonder about the type of knowledge that is amenable to simple replication. I am thinking about biological evolution (my “law” may be a specific instance of a more general principle of life as Bateson and others have argued): is it established as the more scientific theory (by contrast to, say, creationism) because a mutation can be replicated? or because “mutationing” can be observed, again and again, even though each mutation starts and ends at different point? The latter, I would say. And this would apply to cultural anthropology.

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