In The Science of Culture (1949), Leslie White made a strong argument against the superiority of the physical and life sciences over the social sciences (in particular anthropology), as well as against reductionist tendencies to explain the social and cultural in terms purely of the biological or physical. These tendencies are as present now as they were then and are perhaps even more pervasive, with sociobiology and physics increasingly stretching beyond their very real strengths to claim sovereignty over the humanities and social sciences. The dreams of complete understanding and complete control manifested in overarching sociobiological syntheses or theories of everything in physics, not to mention the small but real steps toward totalization in the contemporary political arena, sound eerily like the scientific and political dreams of the early 20th century, seemingly having forgotten the lessons, horrors, and failings of totalization and totalitarianism. In this scholarly and political environment, it is perhaps useful to revisit earlier anthropological critics of reductionist totalization like White and others and to examine the potential role of ethnography as science, myth-making, or engaged cultural criticism.
While recognizing that the physical and life sciences had made impressive steps in the quantification of their respective fields, White argued that there was a good reason that scientific method and modes of thought developed earlier for these fields than for the humanities and social sciences. For White, the physico-chemical, the biological, the psychological, the social, and the cultural represented increasingly complex emergent levels of phenomena in the world, and just as biology developed more slowly than physics, sociology and anthropology have been more slow to develop a science of society and culture, because of the greater attendant complexity of their subject fields.
White was, of course, not the first to present such a model. As Norbert Elias discusses in What is Sociology? (1978), Auguste Comte had made similar arguments in the nineteenth century. (To clarify, Elias is discussing Comte’s work alone. The juxtaposition of Elias’ discussion of Comte with White is my own.) Comte made a case that for each field, the physical, the biological, and the social, there was a gradual progression from mythic or theological thinking to scientific thought. As I have argued elsewhere (Philen 2005 a; 2005 b) and below, much of what ethnography does works in a mythic frame.
Is anthropology at a stage of intellectual development where it is possible to move from a mythic to a scientific mode? The answer is in some ways yes, in some ways no (and perhaps in those ways it never will be in that the progressive, stratigraphic model does not apply equally well to all aspects of culture). To some extent it all depends on what we mean by “science”.
White clearly thought anthropology was ready for a science of culture, but his efforts to produce such a science involved some of the most roundly critiqued aspects of his work. Take, for example, his reification of culture as a superorganic entity existing beyond human interactions (a common enough reification he shared with Kroeber, among others). Or his nebulous pseudo-mathematical formula C = E x T, postulating that the level of cultural evolution is equivalent to the quantity of energy harnessed to productive purposes times the level of technological development, a formula clearly not quantifiable as such, even if the postulated relationship between energy utilization, technological development, and culture is an interesting and insightful one. Elias argues that to the extent that sociology has produced a science of society it is through similar reifications of misperceived social interactions as the entities “society” or “social structure” or the “corporation.” (To point out the reified nature of such concepts does not mean that we can avoid such usage, rather that we should be aware of such reification and the way in which sociological science has proceeded is through what Bourdieu (1977) calls the realism of the structure, treating such reifications as more real than they actually are.)
Where anthropology has been most successful in a scientistic mode is in the analysis of those ways in which culture acts as an adaptive mechanism. For example, cultural materialism and cultural ecology in general have been most convincing in explicating human interactions with the environment – especially with regard to subsistence activities and especially with regard to small societies most subject to the vagaries of natural cycles. However, when it comes to larger societies or other areas of cultural life where things are in some ways by definition arbitrary – as with language, myth, music, or art, those areas of cultural experience related to the production of meaning – such attempts at scientific explication fall short: even when illuminating something about meaning producing systems, such approaches leave much untouched concerning the meaning of meaning.
This of course begs the question of the nature of science. What is science? Lévi-Strauss (1966) presented it by analogy to the engineer imposing structure upon the world, in this case imposing scientific theory and hypothesis to produce events – experimental data. Ethnographic theorizing tends to work in ways more analogous to mythic thinking, cobbling together conceptualizations from cultural odds and ends. These odds and ends are drawn from the cultural context under analysis through the reflexive use of emic conceptual categories to theorize the context under consideration, but they are also drawn from the ethnographic, travel and other literatures pertaining to the cultural-geographic area, as well as from the ethnographic representation of other areas as anthropologists engage in ethnological comparison (see especially Appadurai 1988 on this point), with ethnographic theorization utilizing all such categories and conceptualizations reflexively to analyze the context in question. Given the Lévi-Straussian conceptualization of the distinction between mythic and scientific thinking, ethnography generally falls into the mythic mode – though there are exceptions and they are the sorts of exceptions I mentioned above, usually cultural materialist or other cultural ecological analyses focusing especially on the environmental adaptations of small scale societies.
Lévi-Strauss’ is not the only definition of science, though, or even the most familiar. White defines science in terms of its characteristic activity. In the opening chapter of The Science of Culture, “Science is Sciencing,” he argues (1949:3):
"Science is not merely a collection of facts and formulas. It is pre-eminently a way of dealing with experience. The word may be appropriately used as a verb: one sciences, i.e., deals with experience according to certain assumptions and with certain techniques. Science is one of two basic ways of dealing with experience. The other is art. And this word, too, may appropriately be used as a verb; one may art as well as science. The purpose of science and art is one: to render experience intelligible, i.e. to assist man to adjust himself to his environment in order that he may live. But although working toward the same goal, science and art approach it from opposite directions. Science deals with particulars in terms of universals: Uncle Tom disappears in the mass of Negro slaves. Art deals with universals in terms of particulars: the whole gamut of Negro slavery confronts us in the person of Uncle Tom. Art and science thus grasp a common experience, or reality, by opposite but inseparable poles."
This, obviously, is similar to the common distinction between nomothetic and idiographic approaches to scholarly analysis, though without recognizing that idiographic accounts might focus upon the particular case with no pretense to universality. While I find the basic distinction compelling, it fails to deal with the presence of myth, music, or, I would argue, ethnography, which lie somewhere in between. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that most who have been drawn to anthropology through reading ethnography would not want it to be science in White’s sense. In the most compelling ethnographies (and granted that there are a whole slew of non-compelling ethnographies out there which stick far too strictly to generalization or to particularization), Uncle Tom does not disappear into the mass of slaves. Instead, particulars are dealt with in terms of universals, or at least generalizations often derived from the cultural context of the particulars, at the same time that universals or generalizations are embodied or manifested in particulars.
Still, part of White’s sleight of hand in claiming to have developed a science of culture is not just (a fairly standard) reification of culture and the presence of pseudo-mathematical formulae but also a redefining of science in terms (the act of nomothetic generalization) that anthropology can meet (for ethnography does include that – as does myth), even if at the expense of losing much that is compelling about it (the lived experiences and particularities of culture). But since most conceptions of “science” include something more than just generalization, I don’t think it worth jettisoning much that is valuable about ethnography when doing so still doesn’t get us into the science club. For most definitions of science include additional qualities, such as controlled experimentation or replicability of results. Leaving aside ethical dilemmas about controlled experimentation in cultural contexts, given the complexity of socio-cultural phenomena, we are not at this stage of scientificity – and given the arbitrary, historical, and contingent nature of so much of what is cultural, I don’t think we should expect to ever be at such a point.
The fact that we are not in a position to construct scientific proofs or deduce universal laws of human thought or behavior (Even Lévi-Strauss’ work on universal structuring of the mind is an interpretation of the implications of a large corpus of mythic text which does not function in the manner of mathematical or logical proof, nor was it derived from anything resembling hypothetico-deductive method or the like, nor does it present anything law-like regarding human behavior.) should not be regarded as cause for alarm nor does it imply that we understand nothing about human culture. Nor does the argument that ethnography tends to produce meaning in a manner analogous to mythic thinking imply that anything goes or that ethnography is not empirically based. One of the things made clear in The Savage Mind, the Mythologiques series, and other works by Lévi-Strauss is that though myth is a product of the human mind, as of course are science and art, individual myths often pay close attention to the empirical world.
On the other hand, I don’t think that we should be complacent about the state of ethnography. Even if a scientific ethnography, at least with regard to all aspects of cultural life, is not now nor perhaps ever possible, we should not be content with purely mythic thinking, producing narratives which are good to think simply for the sake of narratives which are good to think. That is, ethnography is in some ways structurally analogous to myth – but it is not the same thing as myth, especially regarding its motivation and role. We should be trying to understand increasingly more about the world, and our narratives should be constructed with a critical awareness of their constructedness.
Culture, which is the (or at least a) primary topic of ethnographic narrative, often has been presented as a real thing – that is, as something with existence beyond the interactions and discursive constructions of socially connected individuals. This is most evident with either White’s or A. L. Kroeber’s presentation of culture as a really existing superorganic entity, but even when it is acknowledged that “culture” is a reification of complex processes, it is a reification which is nearly impossible to avoid. So, I would argue that what is important is to acknowledge and to be conscious of its functioning as such and to deconstruct and critique its conceptualization, so that even if we do not escape the reification of culture for the moment, we can move on to new understandings of “it.”
Culture, to the extent that it is anything, is not a single over-arching entity, but consists, as I have argued elsewhere (2004), in a patchwork of argument, (By “argument,” I mean not just types of logical argumentation such as deduction or induction, but a type of sign, as conceived by C. S. Peirce [1992:27]: “a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” This includes not just deduction and induction, but also other forms of logical argument identified by Peirce, such as abduction, as well as cultural themes and schemas [see Philen 2004].) i.e. in types of modeling behavior which can be seen as theorization broadly understood.
Culture, then, as Clifford Geertz pointed out long ago (1973a), consists of models of and models for reality. If culture is to be understood as argument and the process of cultural modeling as akin to theorization, then theorization should be regarded as having something in common with cultural modeling, and ethnographic theorization should perhaps also be envisioned as engaging in both modeling of reality (which would be ethnographic theory as conventionally understood) and modeling for reality. Here we encounter Paolo Freire’s (1993) view of theory as praxis – the attempt to produce a unity of thought and the world, not by passively allowing thought to reflect or mirror a static world, but by critically reflecting upon the world and engaging in action informed by critical consciousness to produce a social universe compatible with that desired by such critical consciousness.
Anthropology is most valuable as cultural critique and as a contributor to the critical production of culture. Here, the insights of Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno are useful in understanding ethnography’s value as cultural criticism. Foucault points out that what passes as true (that which is dans le vrai) is always political – and is discursively constructed and contested. In our era, one general feature of knowledge which is dan le vrai is “utility” – specifically constructed as utility for production and profit – hence the high estimation of the “practical” sciences and the lower estimation of the arts and humanities, and hence the belief of many that the natural or hard sciences can take them over adequately and should do so. Adorno, in his work in aesthetic theory, argues that art and literature are not “useful,” but rather are valuable precisely because they are not and because they can alienate us from our alienations.
In everyday life, our language, discursive constructions, and culture, which exist only through our practice, are alienated from us and perceived as things existing apart from us. Similarly, our real social relations are mystified in a commodity-fetishizing society into relations among things. Art can potentially expose this – it can’t just make alienation go away, but can alienate us from our alienations. I would argue that in its role as cultural criticism, ethnography can do likewise – in its longstanding project to make the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic. Doing this doesn’t change any of these social realities, but it does demystify the processes of social alienation and open the possibility for the critical production of desired cultural forms rather than the uncritical inertial production of cultural forms. Like it or not, we are enmeshed in a world of practice and cultural production. So, the choice in debates about applied anthropology and cultural relativism isn’t between acting or not acting, but between unconsciously contributing to self-mystifying cultural production or critically engaging in the process.
But what sort of consciousness does anthropology and ethnography embody, and to what sort of project is it suited to contribute? Anthropology was in part a product of the Enlightenment project. The Enlightenment’s questioning of the divine structuring of society and political authority gave rise not just to musings on the nature of the ideal society as seen in the work of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, and others, but also to a gradual awareness of the multiplicity of possibilities for the construction of society which led to the development of anthropology. Anthropology, and especially ethnography, is also in a good position from which to contribute to the still unfinished projects of the Enlightenment – liberty, equality, fraternity (I would phrase this last as community to evade the gender bias of “fraternity” and argue that the development of true community freely chosen depends on the development of the first two). Ethnography is positioned to do so not just through cultural critique but also through applied anthropological praxis informed by critical awareness to contribute to the greater fulfillment (never a completed process – for even were it momentarily fulfilled, it would need to be maintained and reproduced) of the Enlightenment projects.
There is a perennial tension in American anthropology between assumptions that humans are profoundly similar, sharing psychic unity with the same mental capacities, needs, and predisposition, and assumptions that people are profoundly dissimilar (with this the basis of cultural relativism), their thoughts and actions largely shaped by specific cultural context. This presents not a contradiction but an impetus to resolve the apparent tension which arises from the various roots of contemporary American anthropological thought, with the discipline taking its current shape in the late 19th and early 20th century from the traditions of the British and French Enlightenments, as well as the German (and sometimes Anti-Enlightenment) scholarly tradition.
These three traditions, the British, French, and German, were heavily influenced by national projects in the modern era in transition from divine right rule to rule by or for the “people” or on some other legitimated basis in modern nation-states. With Britain and France as already existing polyglot states before the era of nationalism, emphasis was on citizenship and rationality, with the two scholarly traditions emphasizing rational agents and regularities of social organization, whether in the intellectual lineage of Locke, Smith, Mill, and Tyler or in that of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Comte, and Durkheim. In 19th century Germany, in contrast, the national project was to cobble together a state from the population of German speakers spread across numerous states in Central Europe, with an emphasis on language and common tradition as unifying points. Scholarly focus was on national character (out of which the idea of “culture” emerges), with this not strictly determined by rationality, e.g. Freud and the unconscious or Ratzel and geographic determinism.
For American anthropology in the 20th and 21st centuries, the upshot is (or should be) recognition of both rationality and irrationality, commonality of capacities and needs alongside extreme diversity of patterned behaviors and the contents of thought. As Geertz argued (1973b), the profound interaction of biology and culture produced this condition in humans – the evolution of a mind capable of highly flexible and general adaptation, responding always to common needs but in quite diverse natural and cultural environments.
This awareness and tension has been a part of American anthropology at least since Boas, a scholar all too often oversimplified as atheoretical (which is preposterous) or as an uncritical cultural relativist. As Boas student Ruth Bunzel (1962) pointed out, Boas’ cultural relativism was premised in respect for cultural traditions of all sorts, but it was an engaged stance, as is most clear in his public-oriented writing on the topic of race. Boas made clear that cultural relativism was rationally useful insofar as it opened our minds to the greatest diversity of perspectives and human possibilities, but was not meant to be a position of blind ethical neutrality whereby we must accept any tradition of another culture by mere virtue of its existence.
Further, as he was aware of the rational faculties of humans of all cultures, he also recognized the importance of things other than rationality in human thought and behavior. For example, he writes (1962:114-115; emphasis added):
"Here again the anthropologist and the biologist are at odds. The natural sciences do not recognize in their scheme a valuation of the phenomena of nature, nor do they count emotions as moving forces; they endeavor to reduce all happenings to the actions of physical causes. Reason alone reigns in their domain. Therefore the scientist likes to look at mental life from the same rational standpoint, and sees as the goal of human development an era of reason, as opposed to the former periods of unhealthy fantastic emotion.
"The anthropologist, on the other hand, cannot acknowledge such a complete domination of emotion by reason. He rather sees the steady advance of the rational knowledge of mankind, which is a source of satisfaction to him no less than to the biologist; but he sees also that mankind does not put this knowledge to purely reasonable use, but that its actions are swayed by emotions no less now than in former times, although in many respects, unless the passions are excited, the increase of knowledge limits the extreme forms of unreasonable emotional activities. Religion and political life, and our everyday habits, present endless proofs of the fact that our actions are the results of emotional preferences, that conform in a general way to our rational knowledge, but which are not determined by reason; that we rather try to justify our choice by reason than have our actions dictated by reason.
Nor, despite its explanatory power, can science ever offer us a purely rational alternative to the importance of emotion and other non-rational factors in decision making. Boas provides an example in a discussion of eugenics. His discussion was written before the various horrors of eugenics of the 20th century – which in themselves caution us against the idea that humans may be capable of perfect rationality – but his discussion is worth perusing, if only for hypothetical argument. Some medical disorders clearly are genetically inherited. Genetic science can clearly elucidate this for us, but it cannot clearly elucidate a definitive course of action. Should families with evidence of genetic disorders be subject to eugenic “solutions,” whether in the form of sterilization, selective breeding, or other even darker courses of action? Take for example the character Jubal’s proposition, in Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land, that hemophiliacs should be left to bleed to death so they can’t breed more hemophiliacs. Certainly that is one possible approach to take. Or, because most genetic disorders while compromising health do not preclude positive quality of life and because most genetic disorders will not be passed on to all offspring, should eugenic solutions be verboten? While this latter is probably (I hope) the position of most nowadays, logic and rationality alone do not dictate it. As Boas says, “This question cannot be decided from a scientific point of view. The answer depends upon ethical and social standards” (1962:199). We can certainly marshal logical arguments to back up our ethical choices once made, but there is no magical rational formula that can choose our ethical positions a priori.
Where does this leave us? First, we should remember the universality of rationality, but also the potential for irrationality, among all human groups, as well as the importance and diversity of cultural traditions and social standards upon which rational and non-rational choices are made. But there is also the necessity of making choices and critically engaging in praxis on the basis of such choices. In a world where there is no universal moral code, but where we are also inherently engaged in globally cross-cutting social interactions of all sorts and where we cannot disengage and be totally neutral in political or ethical effect, we must maintain and refine the critical tension that has long been a part of American anthropology.
An uncritical rationalism falls short (1) in that there is no universal rational agent – not because people are not universally capable of rationality, but because the differing contexts of peoples’ lives present highly varying modes of rationalization, and because we are all so paramountly capable of irrationality – and (2) because the underestimation of cultural difference undermines the value of autonomy and freedom (including autonomy to develop cultural traditions, values, worldviews, etc.) of the enlightenment project of which rationalism is supposedly a part. At the same time, an uncritical cultural relativism falls similarly short. All too often it is based in the notion of a culture’s autonomy, which involves not just the useful reification of analytical modeling but a reification which obscures individuals’ actions and motivations in such a way that the status quo (which is itself a reification, of course) is taken as the decisions and norms of “the culture”, naturalizing asymmetrical relationships as tradition – as if all have equal autonomy in producing or consenting to this state of affairs, and normalizing the views of a culture’s elites as “typical”. A cultural relativism which sincerely values and respects differences is valuable. One that validates at face value anything which happens to be part of the traditions of a culture is problematic. When further wed to an identity politics in which only cultural “insiders” can speak about a particular context, cultural relativism can become insidious, undermining both the power of the human intellect and ability to communicate across cultures and not be confined to incommensurable languages and traditions, and falsifying the truly hybrid nature of all our cultural traditions which result from the history of human cultural interpenetration and communication. Instead, if anthropology and ethnography are to continue to offer something worthwhile, we need to refine key elements of our theoretical tradition to engage in an expanded enlightenment project, one which is rational and values equality, justice, and autonomy – including that of cultural diversity – but which is also involved in engaged cultural critique and praxis through cross-cultural communication and co-equal interaction.
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