Monday, April 9, 2007

Ethnography, Science, Myth, and Cultural Criticism

The following is a combination and revision of several earlier blog posts.

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. In this scholarly and political environment, it is perhaps useful to revisit earlier anthropological critics of reductionist totalization like White 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 had 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. 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.

Ethnography as Science or Myth

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. 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 that 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 conceptualization 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, 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 my 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 and Critical Consciousness

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.

Anthropology’s Core Tension

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.

Boas and Cultural Relativism

This awareness and tension has been a part of American anthropology at least since Boas, a scholar all too often oversimplified as atheoretical 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.

Cultural Relativism: What it is and What it isn’t

The greatest intellectual contributions of the discipline of anthropology to contemporary American society and thought are the concept of culture and the associated notion of cultural relativism. Both have a long history within the discipline, but as with any concepts originating in a particular academic discipline and then escaping into the larger culture, they have moved beyond the control of anthropologists. That said, anthropologists (such as myself) are as free as anyone to attempt to influence the development and understanding of such concepts within that broader culture.

In its original conception, cultural relativism was developed by Franz Boas and his students in the early 20th century. Cultural relativism involves first the recognition of and respect for the importance of alternative cultural constructions of the world and the acknowledgment that there is no universal way to be a human being. Secondly, it involves a provisional suspension of ethical or moral judgment about the practices of other cultures and an impetus to understand cultural practices within their own terms or logic.

I would argue that there was both a pragmatic and an ethical motivation for the development of cultural relativism. Pragmatically, cultural relativism allows for better anthropological research. A non-judgmental attitude in research allows for an easier establishment of the rapport necessary to conduct high quality ethnographic work. The attempt to understand cultures within the terms of their own logic leads to a more refined understanding of cultural variability and possibility. As Janice Boddy has written concerning female genital modification (or female genital mutilation if you prefer that terminology) in Sudan, no matter what your moral or ethical position on the topic, the starting point should be cultural relativism. If you are interested in the topic neutrally as simply a subject of anthropological curiosity, then you need to approach it non-judgmentally and attempt to understand the practice on its own terms and within the logical of the cultural context. If you find the practice abhorrent or repellent and wish to alter the practice, you still need first to understand the practice on its own terms in order to have any hope of understanding the practical possibilities for change.

Boas was not out to change cultures (at least not in general – though his writings on race were attempts to intellectually engage racism, expose its absurdity, and contribute to changing it). Still, there was an ethical component to cultural relativism. Much earlier American anthropological work had been notoriously racist and ethnocentric in its approach (and obviously anthropological work in parts of Europe, like Nazi Germany, remained racist for quite some time into the 20th century), and the emphasis on not judging other cultures was an important counter to this. That said, this does not mean that he thought that cultural practices should be held beyond reproach or criticism simply because they were traditional practices of one or another culture. Boas stood for the importance of clarity and logic, whether applied to western culture and the exposure of racism as illogical and counter-factual, or to any other culture. Boas emphasized the equal capacity for logic and illogic cross-culturally.

As Marshall Sahlins has recently noted in Waiting for Foucault, Still (citation):

“Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive anthropological – that is to say, methodological – procedure. It is not the moral argument that any culture or custom is as good as any other, if not better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and ideals must be placed in their own historical context, understood as positional values in the field of their own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by categorical and moral judgments of our making. Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy.”

The most important contribution of the idea of cultural relativism has no doubt been the notion that all cultures are worthy of respect. Contrary to what Boas intended, cultural relativism is often invoked to support the notion that because something is a traditional practice of another culture one can’t criticize or critique it. This is analogous to suggesting that no one outside the U.S. Southeast could criticize the racist practices of the Jim Crow era South (an argument at the time made mainly by Southern white racists).

There are a number of problems with this conception of cultural relativism. First, it’s based on a faulty notion of clear and distinct cultures. This is a notion that has been long outmoded in anthropology. Even when anthropologists did model cultures as if they were discrete and bounded entities, it’s clear from close readings of most early 20th century anthropological texts that these anthropologists were well aware that they were treating culture as a model, as a useful fiction that contributed to greater understanding of cultural processes. But that model has long since outlived its usefulness.

The model of clear and distinct cultures has outlived its usefulness on the grounds of both theoretical utility and empirical reality. At a time when the discipline of anthropology was still establishing a cross-cultural ethnological baseline and developing its fundamental concepts, this model was useful in helping to simplify matters so that these two goals could be accomplished. Once the basic data sets and concepts of the discipline were established, however, this simplifying model of discrete cultures was no longer necessary, and models which dealt with cultural processes in a more complex way became more interesting and meaningful.

Further, throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, it was the case that many cultures were relatively bounded and discrete entities. The social life of Australian aborigines was largely Australian aboriginal; though the Kwakiutl potlatch was modified in some details of practice by both the introduction of new trade goods and the demographic consequences of European disease in the 19th century, it remained an overwhelmingly Kwakiutl sort of thing; people in many tropical South American societies led ways of life largely untouched by European or Euro-American influence (even though metal tools, sugar cane, and rice might have been introduced). Even though cultures were never clear and separate entities, up through the early 20th century, imagining them to be so simply simplified matters. But today, with an expanding global economy, global media, and global flows of people, it is impossible to clearly delineate one culture from another culture, and such a model doesn’t just simplify but distorts matters.

There is no clear cut “other culture,” no “them” that has not been profoundly influenced by western culture (and for that matter a variety of other cultural traditions as well – as Arjun Appadurai (cite) has discussed, while western liberals may fret [perhaps with good reason] about global westernization, the Papuan residents of Irian Jaya are more likely to be concerned about Javanization). Further, there is no clear “us”. For example, if I speak of “we” anthropologists, who am I talking about? North American and Western European scholars’ voices have been most clearly represented (and as is common to add, it has been mainly white, male, heterosexual, middle and upper class voices at that), but in my own thinking about cultural relativism and global cultural processes, I have been profoundly influenced by scholars such as the Argentine-Mexican Néstor García Canclini (like myself a Euro-American, but not North or Anglo American) or scholars from South Asia or of South Asian ancestry like Appadurai, and increasingly anthropological discourse has been the product not just of western voices, but Indian and Japanese and “indigenous” voices. Like it or not, we’re involved in global social interactions, and while we can and should refrain from rushing to judgment of other people’s practices, we can’t refrain from interacting with other people and affecting (or being affected by) them. As the notion of cultural boundaries between a “them” and an “us” becomes more and more farcical, it becomes equally farcical to think that “we” for some reason can’t or shouldn’t critically engage “them.”

Second, the refusal to critique the practices of other cultures is not without effect. To refrain from active engagement is to passively accept the status quo, and the status quo in any cultural context is the product of interactions in social settings laden with power relations. Refraining from active engagement is not to be neutral but to privilege the powerful over the weaker.

Finally, cultural relativism, when taken to imply a taboo on cross cultural critique, implies pessimism about the possibility of cross-cultural communication. It is in any case a taboo on cross cultural critical dialogue. Cultural relativism is a crucial means to avoid rushing to judgment of different practices and to foster respect for diversity and autonomy, but we are enmeshed in a global system in which we are always interacting with others. We need to foster critical dialogue cross-culturally, which depends on both respect and the willingness to critique (both ourselves and others) and be critiqued.

Identity Politics and the Prepositions of Speaking

There is a common way of thinking about identity in which identity categories (race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, caste, nationality, or other aspects of a person’s biography) are taken to explain the individual’s subjectivity and actions. It is the case that in complex societies a variety of identity categories shape individuals’ self-consciousness and interactions between individuals. So, while I would never suggest that identity and identity categories are unimportant, as I tried to make clear in my earlier post “Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture,” the individual is neither reducible to nor determined by identity categories and cultural context.

Much writing and thinking about identity politics is motivated by the desire to mitigate the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, or other prejudices and discriminatory practices. It often does so through the celebration of works and deeds of individuals of a particular identity category, e.g. the celebrations of black history month or women’s history month, or the commemoration of works by women composers, black poets, gay playwrights, etc. There’s nothing wrong with the celebration of anyone’s creative expressions or good deeds, and a lot right with calling attention to worthy creations of individuals often overlooked simply because of prejudice. At the same time, at its most extreme, identity politics involves a logic that minimizes the possibilities for critical dialogue and unwittingly recapitulates some of the effects of the very prejudices it desires to effect.

Identity politics goes awry when notions of authenticity are linked to authority to speak, when only those with authenticity are seen as having authority to speak about a topic or category and when those with authenticity are prescribed to speak or express themselves only in authentic ways. For example, when the work of black poets or musicians is called into question as not “black” enough, this doesn’t fight racism but recapitulates it by assuming that there is a particular domain of content and form which is “black,” that black individuals should limit themselves to such domains, and that the only reason why they might want to do otherwise is through internalized racism and/or inauthenticity. Further, when the perceived right to speak is linked to notions of authentic categorical membership, this in no way reduces prejudice or discrimination but places new boundaries in the way of open and critical dialogue.

Aside from the important problems with authority and authenticity, there is also here a confusion about prepositions, about the difference between speaking for, speaking as, speaking about, and speaking to.

Speaking For and Speaking As

Simply put, I can’t speak for anyone but myself and shouldn’t try to. Not being someone else, and not having others’ subjective experience, I can’t place myself in someone else’s subject position and refer to myself as “I” for them. As someone who takes the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis seriously, I can’t even speak for myself in all contexts, times, and places. The same is true for anyone else, and it’s farcical for anyone to attempt to speak not just for another person but for an entire category or type of person.

What’s not so often recognized is that this is just as true for those within a particular category as those without. It may be more blatantly sexist for a man to try to speak for women, but no woman can speak for women other than herself.

Speaking as a member of a category is less problematic. Since social categories are perceived by others and shape interactions between individuals, identity categories do shape the experiences of individuals, and we can speak of experiences that tend to be common or statistically typical for members of a class. In that sense, a woman can speak as a woman, or a gay man as gay, insofar as their subjectivity reflects experiences often common to others sharing the same identity. But even speaking as cries out for caution, as it is easy to shift from speaking as someone whose subjectivity reflects experiences often typical of the group to speaking of oneself as the representative of the group. Speaking as easily slips into speaking for.

Speaking About and Speaking To

While I can’t speak for anyone other than myself (and can only problematically speak for myself by performing as if my subjectivity is more unitary than it is), I can speak about all sorts of things, including other people, and I can speak to anyone. Ideally I should do so with knowledge and with respect, but there’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t be able and free to speak about whatever they want and to whomever they wish. Approaches to identity politics that attempt to tie authority to speak to authentic membership in an identity group or possession of an authentic viewpoint inherently limit the development of human consciousness and communication.

Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention

In an article from 1958, “The Fox Project” (Human Organization, V. 17, pp. 17-19), Sol Tax both described an applied anthropological project with the Fox Indians of Iowa and laid out the basis for anthropologists’ engaging in processes of culture change in what he called “action anthropology.” Why revisit this almost 50 year old article? Primarily because it lucidly gets at the crux of what applied or action anthropology is about, as well as some of the ethical and value considerations associated with it.

Culture and Culture Change

Tax was clearly aware that in attempting to aid the Fox Indians in the economic development of their community, he and his students were engaging in an intervention into culture and engaging directly in a process of culture change. Recognizing this, he also recognized a need for basic ground rules for such intervention into culture. He writes of the potentials for culture change in the Fox community:

“The two irreducible conditions of community-wide changes are that the new behavior does not require either (1) a loss of Fox identity, or (2) violation of Fox moral beliefs. One takes for granted also that the change is practicably possible – that the new behavior required is understandable and feasible, and that there is some reason, from the point of view of the Indians to make it. Given these two general limitations, we suppose any change is possible.”

Implicitly, a particular sense of “culture” is being used here. Anthropologists and others typically recognize two senses of the word “culture” – one the ethos, manners, mores, and patterns of high culture, the other the sense more typically employed by anthropologists focusing on a total patterned lifeway of a people or population. In an important article, “Culture – Genuine and Spurious,” Edward Sapir noted that there are three important senses in which “culture” is used. He recognized that “culture” in the sense of high culture represented a restricted subset of the sense of culture as a total lifeway in that it represented the lifeway of a particular class context. He also noted, though, that there is another important way in which we used “culture.” As with “high culture,” we often use “culture” in a way more restricted than to refer to all aspects of the total patterned lifeway of a population. In this third sense, we mean the core premises of identity, values, ethos, and worldview and a restricted set of practices taken as “typical” or “essential.” It is typically these elements of the lifeway which are most durable, most valued, or that are the intended reference when people speak of their culture. So, for example, maquiladora factories and Coca-Cola are part of the total lifeway of Mexico today, and thus are part of Mexican culture in one sense of the word, but are not the sorts of things people (Mexican or otherwise) typically intend when speaking of “Mexican culture.”

For Tax or the Fox, behaviors or ideas that were simply part of the total lifeway’s set of practices were readily subject to change without controversy. It was those behaviors and ideas seen as essential to identity and moral beliefs (and I would venture to guess also those seen as essential to ethos and worldview) that were highly cherished and not changeable without controversy. Likewise, in contemporary controversies surrounding cultural description, critique, or intervention and cultural relativism, it is change with regard to those elements of the total patterned lifeway that are locally constructed (on whatever basis – in some cases ethos may be most highly touted, in others certain behaviors, in others elements of the worldview) as “the culture” in this third sense that generate controversy. No one (at least no one I can think of or imagine) is likely to criticize a critique by a non-Mexican of maquiladora factory production in Mexico City or Juarez as an example of cultural imperialism (if anything, such industrial production might be seen as cultural imperialism). A critique of “Mexican Machismo” very well might generate controversy, though.

The ethics of cultural intervention

Tax’s article is also useful in laying out provisional value orientations for engaging in applied anthropology and intervening in a particular cultural context. He lays out three values ideally involved when engaging in cultural intervention (or as he even says, “interference”).

His first value is that of truth. While ascertaining truth is an often formidable task, to value truth as a principle seems to me straightforward and non-controversial (except, perhaps, when it’s not – for example in cases where an anthropologist’s view of truth might stand in opposition to that of those being aided via applied anthropological work).

Tax continues:

“Second, we feel most strongly the value of freedom, as it is classically expressed and limited. Freedom in our context usually means freedom for individuals to choose the group with which to identify and freedom for a community to choose its way of life. We would also be embarrassed if it were shown that we are, for example, encouraging Indians to remain Indians, rather than to become something else, or trying to preserve Indian cultures, when the Indians involved would choose otherwise. All we want in our action programs is to provide, if we can, genuine alternatives from which the people involved can freely choose…”

In other words, Tax held (and I hold) the autonomy of the individual as a fundamental value.

Tax’s third value is what he called a “kind of Law of Parsimony which tells us not to settle questions of values unless they concern us.” This is an important pragmatic principle for operation, where, for example, even though some anthropologists involved in the Fox project felt that assimilation was in the interest of the Fox and others did not, Tax felt that it was inessential for them to decide, and in any case, given the higher valuation placed on the autonomy of Fox individuals, this was not the anthropologists’ decision in any case.

He discusses further the possibility of additional operating principles or premises, but decides against this. He uses the following example:

“People are always asking whether we think cannibals have a right to self-determination. With respect to cannibalism, would we not have to impose some value of our own? Now, I neither eat human flesh, nor like the thought of being eaten; I am revolted as others in our culture by the whole idea. I have no notion what I would do if I found myself involved in an action program on a cannibal isle; I can only think of jokes to say. If I attempt to answer seriously I am beset with all the value contradictions involved in so-called cultural relativism. But whatever my personal position on this, it has no significant bearing on what we should do tomorrow to help the Fox Indians develop more constructive relationships within their community, or with other Iowans.”

Frankly, I’m not sure why this example creates a conundrum, insofar as if one take the valuation of the autonomy of each individual at all seriously, then the autonomy of one person to develop themselves and determine their life to the extent possible (which obviously entails continuing to live) clearly outweighs the autonomy of another to eat them. (If you had a cannibal isle where some really autonomously consent to be eaten, then you’d have a real conundrum.) Still, Tax is right that the ethics of one case don’t really impinge on the ethics of another, so such hypothetical cases are pragmatically beside the point. Recognizing that it is pragmatically and ethically efficacious to avoid making decisions or judgment calls when not necessary, though, doesn’t help in knowing what to do when such decisions cannot be avoided. While anthropologists today are unlikely to have to grapple with the autonomy of cannibals, there are cases in virtually every cultural context where different individuals’ effective autonomy stand at odds and impinge upon one another.

While I find Tax’s article wanting in essentially evading this sort of all too common dilemma, at the same time I find that his three basic values (which are essentially the values of the Enlightenment project) serve us well. On the one hand, the combination of ethical parsimony, cultural relativism, and the valuation of individuals’ autonomy in many situations leads us anthropologically to simply attempt to describe and understand the context at hand. On the other, when the effective autonomy of individuals is at odds or is compromised (e.g. Philippe Bourgois’ example of Costa Rican plantation workers’ lives being largely shaped by decisions of landowners and managers – an example of individuals having opposed interests, or many examples of imposed female genital modification – an example where one individual’s autonomy is compromised by others for reasons typically seen as being in that person’s interest), then we must either be willing to critique such practices or realize that our lack of critique passively and tacitly accepts the imposition of power on the weaker.

Tradition and Individual Autonomy

One first principle I am asserting here follows from the enlightenment tradition and project and emphasizes the sanctity and autonomy of the individual’s freedom to act, within the limits of not violating others’ autonomy, i.e. anyone should be free to do and develop their self as they see fit. As with any first premise, this can’t be “proved,” but is a starting assumption which some will agree with and some will not.

At the same time, as a cultural anthropologist I respect the importance of cultural tradition and the diversity of ways to be human. For that matter, for me a corollary of respect for individual autonomy is a limited sort of cultural relativism, insofar as individuality is largely shaped within a particular cultural context and individual autonomy includes the freedom to practice a particular array of cultural patterned behaviors. When at odds, though, for me the individual always trumps tradition and custom (which is not at all to say that any individual’s autonomy trumps another’s right to the traditions or customs of their choosing, but rather that privileging tradition or the “norm” is to privilege one set of individuals’ autonomy over others).

To the extent that it is anything, tradition is the reification or objectification of the results of multiple individuals’ actions. To imagine tradition as functioning in a determinative or mechanistic way is to simplify and falsify the complexities of social interaction. As Pierre Bourdieu has said (Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 73), “It is necessary to abandon all theories which explicitly or implicitly treat practice as a mechanical reaction, directly determined by the antecedent conditions and entirely reducible to the mechanical functioning of pre-established assemblies, ‘models’ or ‘roles’…” Further, if culture or tradition are not determinative (and they are not), to imagine tradition as requiring adherence and to value tradition more highly than the individual is to privilege a sort of tyranny of the statistical majority at best, and to privilege the more powerful who have greater control over what counts as tradition or status quo practice.


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.

References Cited
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