Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Books By Non-Anthropologists For Cultural Anthropologists To Read

Like most scholars, I have a passion for books. Having enjoyed putting together two posts (here and here) on my favorite books from last year, I’ve decided to begin a semi-regular feature of discussing books I’ve found rewarding that I think other cultural anthropologists (or anyone else) might also find engaging, interesting, provocative, or otherwise worth reading.

The Riddle of the Dinosaur, by John Noble Wilford, Knopf, 1986.

I read this book when I was just beginning to organize the writing of my dissertation. I was reading a wide variety of non-fiction pertaining to an array of topics and disciplines to get a sense of the diversity of ways of organizing the presentation of a topic (a strategy I’d recommend for anyone now writing theses or dissertations). This book didn’t particularly influence my writing in any formal way. Instead it influenced my thinking about my relation to ethnographic data. (It’s also a fun read for anyone with a fascination for dinosaurs.)

You’ll learn a lot about dinosaurs from this book, but you’ll also learn much about the history of the paleontology of dinosaurs. Wilford’s account is essentially an epistemological history, tracing the history of the development of conceptualizations of dinosaurs and methods for studying them (I tend to think of methodology as applied epistemology – and I’ve found thinking about research methods a lot more interesting ever since I started thinking about it that way).

In most ways, paleontology and ethnography have little in common. In reading Wilford, I realized that one thing they have in common, albeit for different reasons, is that they’re both scholarly endeavors that tend to foreground epistemological concerns, if not to exist in a perpetual state of epistemological crisis. As I said the reasons for this are different: with paleontology, one is faced with a paucity of information and a real concern about what can legitimately be reconstructed about the anatomy and physiology, much less lifeways, of these creatures from 65+ million years ago with in most cases minimal and highly fragmented information; with ethnography, the researcher is generally overwhelmed with data, but with concerns about the effects of the researcher’s own prejudices and predilections on interpretations and even observations, and the reader is left with the task of attempting to discern the merits of the ethnographer’s text with no ability to engage in anything like laboratory replicability.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Pantheon, 2003, and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, Pantheon, 2004, both by Marjane Satrapi.

Although I’m no expert on the Middle East, much less Iran or Persian culture specifically, I’ve read quite a few books about Iran in recent years, several of them excellent, including Fredrik Barth’s minor class Nomads of South Persia (an ethnography from the 1950s), Michael Fischer’s Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (an ethnography written right after the revolution, and one of the more insightful accounts of it), and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi’s Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution (another insightful account of the revolution focusing on the use of media technology by the revolutionaries).

Satrapi’s two volume graphic memoir (probably already familiar to fans of graphic novels and non-fiction, and recently made into a movie) is the one thing I’ve read, though, that gave me a sense of growing up and being in contemporary Iran (not that the memoir is confined to Iran alone – it also entails an account of Satrapi’s years in a European boarding school, for example).

Reading Satrapi’s memoir, as well as other graphic non-fiction, such as the various works of graphic journalist Joe Sacco, makes me wish I could draw. I don’t think any particular medium is the best way to write or present culture, but the form used here does have the unique ability to draw on the strength of the word and the image and to avoid to an extent some of the pitfalls of each, e.g. the way in which so much ethnography feels enervated, missing so much of the sensual reality of culture (though of course even here, the sounds, smells, and even colors [it’s in black and white drawing] are still missing), or the ambiguous quality of many images – lacking in context and conceptualization without commentary, yet coupled with an often overbearing sense of reality deriving from their visual impact.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

I may be one of the few cultural anthropologists who likes this book. Many cultural anthropologists have criticized this book, mostly as being geographically determinist (which is an incomplete charge at best, given the importance of the availability or absence of domesticated animals to societies in Diamond’s argument) or for reducing the highly various tapestry of cultural diversity to a simple narrative.

If you take Diamond’s account as a sufficient explanation of everything cultural, then it’s a disappointment, because it doesn’t do that, as if any theoretical framework could. Perhaps I’m overly charitable, or just plain wrong, but I don’t think Diamond claims to have explained everything in any case, but just to have laid out a set of arguments that explains much about human cultural history in general.

Insofar as Diamond draws our attention to factors many anthropologists might have otherwise not considered, such as the presence or absence of domesticated animals, directional orientation of trade and other cultural contact networks, or relative ease of transportation over long distances in different world areas, Diamond’s account is useful in making us aware of patterns that over long stretches of time have significant impact on the particular histories of specific societies.

Part of many anthropologists’ resistance to Diamond probably stems from the longstanding particularist bent of American cultural anthropology, the important emphasis on detail on cultural uniqueness, but also a sometimes corresponding resistance to identification of general patterns. (See Kerim’s post on the Savage Minds blog on this topic from about two months ago.)

Part of the resistance likely also stems from an academic turf-war mentality and a resistance to non-anthropologists poaching on anthropological territory. (There’s reason to be wary of the variety of sociobiologists, chaos theorists, meme theorists, economists, etc., who attempt to explain better than anthropologists the topics conventionally seen as anthropologists’ own. [If it makes any difference, Diamond, trained as a geneticist, is also poaching on geography’s turf.] Still, poaching doesn’t always make them wrong.)

There’s also a bit of internecine anthropological squabbling in disguise going on here. Though Diamond’s synthesis is highly readable and insightful, it is ultimately a synthesis of a lot of many scholars’ work from the previous few decades, notably William McNeill’s The Rise of the West, as well as Europe and the People without History by anthropology’s own Eric Wolf. I suspect a lot of the anthropological resistance to Diamond comes from anthropologists opposed to the more generalist approaches within the discipline, whether in the form of political economy, cultural materialism, or structuralism and their various progeny.

6 comments:

Alexandre said...

Diamond is the type of person about whom we all like to talk. In fact, his work tends to unite academics across disciplines.
Went to a roundtable discussion about Collapse, a year ago. Mostly geographers, all taking the book apart. Wonderfully insightful comments about most of the large issues. Students present clearly grokked those issues. And it only took an hour or so.

More than a turf war, the tension is about authors like Diamond misrepresenting academic disciplines. Sure, it's a common issue with grey literature in general. But it's one which makes our teaching more difficult. Most of us aren't angry or even annoyed. We just wish there were more room for thoughtful discussion.

Todd O. said...

I'm a fan of Diamond, but not uncritical of his work. I use _Collapse_ in a course I teach on cultural notions of "nature" and the undergrads respond to its interdisciplinary. My primary critique is simply that it relies on that overly simplified five-point frame for why societies collapse. But I like it as a synthesis of anthropological and geographical data to help explain the complex interactions between societies and their environments. I'm a cultural sociologist and so in some ways Diamond's books are outside of my disciplinary turf, but I wonder what the big deal is?

I completely see engaging with Diamond's arguments and critiquing and responding to problematic conclusions, missing data, new research, etc. I don't understand dismissing it on disciplinary grounds or even based on what are considered the accepted frames within a particular discipline. Perhaps I'm just too friendly to interdisciplinary thinking, but the kind of synthesis of natural history, history, cultural anthropology, epidemiology, geography, cultural geography, evolutionary psychology, human physiology, psychology, and sociology brought to bear to answer big population-oriented questions seems to be the *only* way to move toward an accurate understanding.

Disciplines offer us frameworks to understand and from within which to research and explain the world. But they fail when they serve as barriers to broader and better explanations of the phenomena we study.

Alexandre said...

Disclaimer: I haven't read JD's books and I actually care very little about them. I did notice interesting reactions to the guy's work and enjoy discussing them because those discussions often take interesting turns.

IMHO, those who critique (and even dismiss) Diamond's work are often fans of disciplinary pluralism, interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and the collapse of the disciplinary walls. I do realize that my own comments and those made by some of my colleagues may sound like disciplinary turf protection. But the disciplinary misrepresentation I alluded to is a disservice to work across/beyond disciplines.
At least, in terms of how some of us do and think of interdisciplinarity. What many of us enjoy is interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration. Scholars from different fields coming together to discuss a broad set of issues. Ethnomusicologists and psychologists discussing music cognition in a broad frame. Cultural anthropologists and geneticists discussing diversity. Geographers and symbolic anthropologists talking about the sense of place. Linguists and engineers discussing intelligence. Thoughtful discussions leading to much insight for all those involved.
Some of us may also enjoy the work of many "generalists," contemporary or historical. Attali, Bourdieu, Foucault, Barthes...
What we don't necessarily enjoy is individual work proposing a unifying theory. It's not about personal attitude, it's about academic practice. We want to work together, not against monolithic theories.

From what people have said, I get the strong impression that the reaction is "Jared Diamond didn't do his homework." This isn't be too damning if JD's work is used critically. But, as with much grey literature, we get people who read it as "gospel truth."

Again, I don't know enough about JD's work to really say how problematic the books are. I'm really reacting from an outsider's perspective. In fact, it's quite possible that I was partially shielded from the Diamond effect by the fact that I'm a French-speaker.

I guess a simpler way to put it is that, as popular science, Diamond's work is likely to make people talk. That Wikipedia entry actually makes things clear for me. Part impostor syndrome, part academic bias.

Anyhoo... Didn't want to preempt this thread. I'll go back to my hole, now. ;-)

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Alexandre,

It would be best for you actually to read Jared Diamond's work before critiquing it at such length, or at all. You might even find his work interesting and useful beyond what some people say about it. Firsthand knowledge is always more valuable than hearsay, whatever the topic.

all best,

Reginald Shepherd

Alexandre said...

Reginald, I might in fact use it in my teaching in the future, despite the fact that many other texts offer a lot of insight into similar issues. One thing I tried to make clear and which may bear repeating is that I am not critiquing or criticizing a text. I have little interest in such a text. But I'm interested in discussing issues surrounding the ways a text is being used, especially since it's a text which makes people react so much.
It really wasn't flamebait on my part but I'm glad to see that Robert's post is generating discussion. Dialogue among colleagues of diverse disciplines is often more useful than grey literature.

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