Why is anthropology not a public science?

By | November 14, 2013

Anthropologists have given up on speculating about the unity of humanity and simply chronicle the diversity (as Lévi-Strauss put it in his UNESCO paper on race). Everywhere we look these days, the question arises of why anthropology has so weak a public profile. This is my answer, some parts tongue in cheek, others less so. My case study is the one I know best.Between the wars British social anthropology had a coherent object, theory and method. The object was primitive societies (as a sort of metaphor for complex societies), the theory was functionalism (whatever they do adds up to something) and the method was fieldwork-based ethnography. So you lived in exotic places and observed what they did there. Since then we have dropped both the object and the theory, retaining only the method which leads to short-sighted localism.

Foucault has an interesting observation towards the end of The Order of Things. He ended his “archaeology of the human sciences” with some reflections on why psychoanalysis and social anthropology (ethnologie) “…occupy a privileged position in our knowledge…because, on the confines of all the branches of knowledge investigating man, they form a treasure-hoard of experiences and concepts, and above all a perpetual principle of dissatisfaction, of calling into question…what may seem, in other respects, to be established.” “[They] are not so much two human sciences among others, but they span the entire domain of those sciences, they animate its whole surface…[They] are ‘counter-sciences’; which does not mean that they are less ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ than the others, but that they flow in the opposite direction, that they lead them back to their epistemological basis, and that they ceaselessly ‘unmake’ that very man who is creating and re-creating his positivity in the human sciences”.

Foucault attributed anthropology’s originality to its being both “traditionally the knowledge we have of the peoples without histories” and “situated in the dimension of historicity”, by which he meant “within the historical sovereignty of European thought and the relation that can bring it face to face with all other cultures as well as with itself”. He was sure the human sciences had reached their limit and this was doubly true of a discipline whose premises were being undermined by the collapse of European empire. Given the disappearance of the traditional object of anthropology, we have to find not only a new one, but also a theory and method appropriate to it. This means identifying the historicity of our own moment, as well as complementing ethnographic fieldwork with world history and humanist philosophy.

When I joined British social anthropology at Cambridge in the mid-60s, I soon learned that I was being inducted into a cross between a cult and a lineage, specifically into a double descent group whose twin founding ancestors were Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. The idea was to get within two degrees of separation of one or both of these, which wasn’t hard. Malinowski stood for ‘fieldwork’ (I have been there and you haven’t), Radcliffe-Brown for ‘theory’, a kind of theory I was unfamiliar with which had nothing to do with western intellectual history, but rather seemed to have sprung, like Athena from Zeus, out of the foreheads of initiates after they underwent prolonged exposure to the lives of exotic peoples.

This apparent disregard for the Western canon gave the social anthropologists a reputation for being as illiterate as the barbarians they studied and they had only recently won significant acceptance as fellows of Cambridge colleges. Even so, they had a fairly prominent public profile. Edmund Leach wrote pyrotechnic reviews for the New Statesman and later gave acclaimed BBC Reith Lectures. The humanities dons were beginning to use their concepts and cite their books.

The common curriculum was very narrow, despite the intellectual adventures that our teachers went in for themselves. I once asked in a supervision, “Why are the Lele matrilineal?” and was told, “We ask how, not why. That is evolutionary history. We are only interested in the functional consequences for Lele society that they are matrilineal.” Yet Jack Goody had already embarked on his wide-ranging historical inquiries and wrote articles in places like New Society saying that social anthropology was after all comparative sociology; Meyer Fortes gave public lectures incorporating the legacy of Freud and Judaeo-Christianity; Edmund Leach came into the lecture room one day waving Le cru et le cuit and told us that anthropology would never be the same again.

It was confusing, but the adepts among us realised that being intellectually retarded by the official syllabus was necessary if we were to be admitted to the secret society. And the big secret was that it was a holding company for those with the right credentials to do whatever they like and call it ‘social anthropology’. Meyer Fortes, who took the spirit of the guild and made a trade union out of it, said “Social anthropology is what social anthropologists do” — and he had a way of controlling who they were, the Association of Social Anthropologists. He once told me with more than a hint of irony, after I complained about the mindless empiricism and factional disputes that animated the Cambridge seminar, “Your problem is that you are too rational, Keith. Anthropology is irrational.”

A new professional cadre, tightly controlled by a few acolytes of the founding fathers, had numerous battles to fight in order to preserve their hard-won independence. At first it had been the amateurs — the missionaries, the racists, the folklorists, the district commissioners, the Rosicrucians. Then there were the leftovers of Victorian evolutionism, the vigorous cell of diffusionists, all the non-sociologists who cluttered up the Royal Anthropological Institute and its publications. And of course there were the Americans who actually funded Malinowski at the International African Institute to promote studies of the sun setting on the empire (“the dynamics of culture contact”) and who always threatened to overwhelm the British demographically (“I just don’t care for their kind of writing”, wrote Evans-Pritchard. Well, Clifford Geertz got his own back with a vengeance). The empire itself posed problems. After all, we couldn’t let those Australians, South Africans and Indians adulterate our brand by doing their own thing, even if they trained more students than we did. No wonder the rallying cry was ‘theory’ with Gluckman as cheer leader.

It was only when I met an old West Indian revolutionary, C.L.R. James, that I realised how seriously biased my education had been when it came to the anti-colonial revolution. It seems obvious now that the end of empire removed the institutional basis from any claim that “the sociology of primitive peoples” was a universal discipline. Indeed, the question of the relationship between social anthropology and empire became a hot topic in the 60s and 70s after the event. It was a way for a new generation to differentiate itself from the elders who were, I think, rightly aggrieved over being misrepresented. They had always sided with the liberal establishment in London against the racist regimes of the colonies they worked in. Had they not fought evolutionary racism as strongly as Boas and the cultural relativists? Alright, they stayed out of the UNESCO report on race in the 1950s, but that was to protect the discipline’s scientific standing in the universities by steering clear of ‘controversy’. It was misleading to say they had assisted in the subjection of indigenous peoples to imperial rule. No, social anthropology did not do much for the cause of empire. Its main contribution was to shore up the nation-state at home.

The British could reasonably claim to have launched ‘ethnography’ as the dominant worldwide paradigm of social and cultural anthropology in the twentieth century. And Malinowski was its prophet. He got the model from Central European nationalism: the ethnographer describes the timeless customs of a peasantry living close to nature and bound together by kinship, the living soul of a Volk seeking a state to match its culture and territory. His timing was perfect. President Wilson supervised the Versailles project to replace empire with a system of nation-states. The new academic ethnographers reproduced that political model in their ‘primitive sociology’, lending to a war-ridden and fragmented world the appearance of timeless universality. Moreover, Radcliffe-Brown’s contribution, structural-functionalism (a label exported to American sociology by Talcott Parsons), claimed that the simpler societies replicated in microcosm eternal principles of social order, as manifested in corporate states of the inter-war period. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown shared Durkheim as a precursor because their discipline was implicitly conceived of as a means of defending the nation-state and its ‘organic’ division of labour against revolution. The social anthropologists had more important ideological priorities than merely shoring up the peace in the colonies.

The model of fieldwork-based ethnography that is still sacrosanct for most social anthropologists thus had a specific historical origin and a contemporary social function. It was appropriate to insist that social anthropology was distinctively British. This was after all the nationalist century. But the model and its social matrix, national capitalism, came out of something else and they have been giving way to new forms for some time. It is hard for us to see that ‘ethnography’ reflects the central tendency of 20th century world society, just as its predecessors as the dominant paradigm for anthropology reflected theirs. We pay lip-service to our discipline’s origin in the Enlightenment as a quest for the principles of human nature with which to replace the arbitrary inequality of the old regime. But we generally ignore the fact that Kant coined the term ‘anthropology’ for modern purposes, as part of a cosmopolitan liberal project that still has much resonance for us. The next stage we know mainly in order to denigrate it, as our founders did in their struggle to get established. The Victorians explained their easy conquest of the world as a result of a superior culture linked to biology and the method of evolutionary history helped them to organise the ongoing development of a universal racial hierarchy. The age of nationalism, our own, likewise needed a vision of the world as a medley of isolated cultures and the social anthropologists provided one. It is unlikely to be the last in the sequence.

Lee Drummond has pointed out in his OAC paper on Lance Armstrong that American cultural anthropology bowdlerized genocide in the Americas. Twentieth century anthropology was in full flight from its actual history of war, urbanization and massive dislocation of peoples, choosing rather to study yam growers on Pacific islands as if they were not part of that world history. “Stop the world, I want to get off”. After the Cold War, something new has happened. Anthropologists do fieldwork anywhere in a world unified by capitalism, but they still stick with the restrictions of the method.We get studies of “knowledge practices” in a Tokyo stockbroker’s office, but receive no insight into where the money goes or why. How could the public be interested in amateur studies of contemporary finance without the money?

Anthropologists used to have to address a wider public in order to get books published at all, but since the 1980s, the academic market has expanded to let them publish only for each other and their students. But the main reason we have become introverted and shy of exposing ourselves to outsiders is that the fundamental method of anthropology doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. We make ethnographic observations and build up a picture of social wholes from them, but the evidence can never substantiate the claims we make. So we hoard our field notes away from the public gaze and only talk to other anthropologists who, as members of the club, never ask awkward questions about our dirty secret. The irony is that because we draw on social immersion to make intuitive generalisations, we are more often right than other practitioners whose methods are more strictly positivist. If we could own up to our real method and make a virtue of it, we might feel more confident about addressing the general public. That’s why I like Foucault’s argument above. As insiders, we could probably come up with a better one.

It is a truism that no-one knows what anthropology is about. I would claim that this applies to the professionals too. We lack a coherent object, theory and method. If it were up to me, I would have as our object “the making of world society” (or “the new human universal”, not an idea, but 7 bn of us trying to live together on this planet, now with the benefit of universal media for the first time) and our methods need to be more eclectic than they are. The theory can wait. But I haven’t had many takers so far, especially from academic anthropologists.

Maybe, at an important level, anthropology, like great literature, is irrational after all. And it has escaped from the grasp of the old imperial centres — Britain, France and the US — to flourish in many places that defy summary, such as Brazil, Scandinavia, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Southern and Eastern Europe, Japan and India.


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