Anthropology IS an experimental science

One of my favorite quote from Geertz on anthropology as an experimental science:

The “natural laboratory” notion has been equally pernicious … because the analogy is false. … The great natural variation of cultural forms is, of course, not only anthropology’s great (and wasting) resource, but the ground of its deepest theoretical dilemma: how is such variation to be squared with the biological unity of the human species? But it is not, even metaphorically, experimental variation. (1973: 22) [more…]

By “favorite,” of course, I mean a statement so self-assured of its own common sensicality that it begs to be challenged.  So I thought about it again when, while preparing a class on ethnomethodology as “methodology” (in a methods class), I went back to Garfinkel’s recently published dissertation proposal (from 1949).  There he proposes to conduct experiments through which the construction of a social order might be observed.  The general model for these experiments is stated as:

Assuming Iσ, let there be meant a dyadic group made up of Aγ(x) c Bγ(x). When A is regarded by B (x)-wise, A’s treatment of B will be interpreted in such a way (x) by B as to encompass a change (x) in an element or elements (x) of B’s cognitive style, the change being of such a character (x) as to limit B’s alternatives of action (x) … [more …]

The technique to observe what B will do is simple:

To help us in “slowing up the process” of B’s interpretive activity, we shall use the device of cutting B off by facing him with incongruous material. (My emphasis. 2006: 206-7)

For the rest of his careers, Garfinkel kept imagining versions of the experiment he modeled in this passage.  The most famous (at least for teaching purposes—which is what I imagine I do in this blog) may be the following one:

Students were asked to spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes imagining that they were boarders and acting out this assumption. They were instructed to conduct themselves in a circumspect and polite fashion….

In nine of forty-nine cases students either refused to do the assignment (five cases) or the try was “unsuccessful” (four cases). (1967 [1964]: 47)  [more …]

The less obviously experimental of these observations range from following Agnes through her sex change operation (1967 Chapter 5) to the research on a blind woman organizing her kitchen so that she can cook by herself—only possible if no sighted person helps her (2002: 212ff).  The best set of such observations is the ensemble of research in conversational analysis.  Audio-taping and videotaping does exactly what Garfinkel called for: a slowing down of social interaction so that one can observe the actual building of a social order.

A half century of work in that experimental mode has produced an ensemble of findings about sociability that should be presented more succinctly, and, I dare say, celebrationally.  These findings (laws?) range from the generality of indexicality as the mechanism through which communication is anchored in the here and now, the principles of “trust” (a generalization of the generality of “passing” as another fundamental principle), the “etc.” principle (communication does not proceed through full knowledge of the situation—thereby disproving all forms of cognitivism), and so on and so forth.

One thing that work has not produced is a formalization of the conditions under which a particular social order (this one) comes about and transforms itself.  In other words ethnomethodology and conversational analysis are, fundamentally, a sociology of social ordering.  But there has never been an equivalent anthropology of historical culturing.

Which brings us back to ethnography as, arguably and contra-Geertz, an experiment in “slowing down processes” (or perhaps, in fact, “accelerating” the passing of time).  Boas and others (including Geertz in the above quote) intuited (and hypothesized) that human variability is a fundamental principle.  How would one demonstrate that?  For Boas et al, the answer was simple: by examining social orders in human groups widely separated and, perhaps even more powerfully, by examining social orders in neighboring groups.  Eventually, the more fine grained the analysis, the more one could demonstrate that the same tasks of survival can be performed in all sorts of ways.  For example, middle aged women in graduate school can prepare for an examination just as well siting on the floor in veils (or in blue jeans, sitting on chairs).

Iranian women studying

I tried to formalize this in an earlier blog entry.

But we still need to figure out how specific social orders arbitrary to the “needs” they may appear to fulfill actually do appear in history.  And so, we need to devise experiments that might it possible for us to witness the process.

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