Monday, 21 July 2014

On Anthropology

I was just re-reading Marianne Sawicki's wonderful 2000 monograph, Crossing Galilee. On p. 63 she begins a section entitled "Hypotheses are not data." Her argument in this section is pretty straight-forward: the social sciences might help us in the process of organizing the data that we found in ancient texts but for the historian of the ancient they do not constitute data in their own right. This is so self-evident that it is incredible that it needs to be said. Yet for some corners of the discipline this will come as surprising and deeply unwelcome news. That is because, as she argues on p. 68, too many New Testament scholars "have been methodologically seduced by the hope that 'social scientific models' can reveal universal causal laws enabling us to patch gaps in empirical data."

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the social sciences. All of my degrees have come from faculties of social sciences, including my B.A. in Anthropology. It's exactly this love and knowledge of the social sciences that leaves me deeply suspicious of this weird animal called "social-science criticism." The problem is that it really has little resemblance to the social sciences. Take the idea, very often thrown around but remarkably never actually demonstrated, that cultural anthropologists proceed by the use of applying cross-cultural models. Never mind that this recurrently fails to attend to the very real distinction between cultural and social anthropology and that if there is any tradition of anthropology that is resistant to cross-cultural comparisons it is precisely cultural anthropology. The truly intriguing thing for me is that during the entirety of my undergraduate degree the one word that I never heard uttered by any of my professors, working anthropologists all, was "model." Anthropologists just don't proceed by applying preexisting models. They just don't. Anthropologists don't know of an honor-shame model that can be decontextualized from particular ethnographic studies and "applied" to historically remote situations. Yet somehow we who are not anthropologists know of these anthropological procedures that anthropologists do not. What do we know about anthropology that they do not?

Let us return to the distinction between cultural and social anthropology. The short version is that the term "cultural anthropology" is associated with the Americanist tradition that developed around Franz Boas and his students at Columbia, whilst "social anthropology" developed in Britain around Bronislaw Malinowski, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and E.E. Evans-Pritchard (and thus is typically known as the "British School." Incidentally, the definitive history of the Americanist tradition is Regna Darnell's Invisible Genealogies and of the British School Adam Kuper's Anthropology and Anthropologists). This distinction doesn't even cover the Durkheimian tradition, which of course was greatly vitiated when most of Durkheim's students were killed in the First World War, or the Marxian. Despite rumours in our discipline there really isn't a Weberian anthropology, Max Weber's impact being registered heavily in sociology but hardly at all in anthropology. But I digress. The upshot of all this is that Boas, the founding father of what we call cultural anthropology, argued strongly for a cultural relativism and historical particularism that precludes the sort of model-driven work that we all too frequently attribute to anthropologists. Instead Boas and his students were concerned with showing how each culture group that they studied (due to their situation in early twentieth-century America they tended to focus upon Native American and Canadian groups) was unique in its own, how its thought could only be understood on its own terms, how their cultural uniqueness was the result of unique historical experiences. In other words, they were historians, but historians of culture who just happened to be interested in Native American and Canadian groups. Even though both cultural and social anthropologists would eventually work out a common language for referring to such recurrent cultural forms as matrilineality, patrilineality, etc., it was understood that such forms were little more than heuristics. And in any case anthropologists haven't been fixated on kinship for the last forty or so years, mostly because it became painfully obvious that kinship was not the key for understanding a group that it was once held to be (short version: it was once thought that kinship forms were generally conservative and durable, but more recent work has revealed that in fact they are quite fluid and adaptive. Such dynamism of course all the more calls into question the feasibility of anthropological "models").

Now, Boas was a neo-Kantian, but that's okay. He was basically an exegete, really, just one concerned with other-than-European cultures. He couldn't care less whether a group's cosmology was true or not. He cared only about how their cosmology helped them make sense of their world. His basic insight holds: before we rush to judgment about the validity of another people's beliefs we need to understand those beliefs on their own terms. Why were they so compelling to the people who hold them to be true? This is the single most important lesson I learned from a degree in anthropology: not how to short-circuit the process of understanding by imposing "models" ripped from other cultural and historical contexts but rather how to diligently seek to understand the particularity of the specific group with which one is concerned to understand. This is really what Lonergan calls being intelligent: understanding what a person or people thinks. This is not a substitute for determining whether these beliefs are true but rather a necessary precondition for such judgment. After all, how can I know whether something is true if I do not know what that something actually is?

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