Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Synthesism and Eclecticism in Theory

I tend to distrust the ambitions of Grand Theory and those who claim to have a theoretical framework to explain everything (or at least everything important) about human beings (or any other phenomenon). There is good reason to be suspicious of attempts to explain everything in terms of genetics, reproductive success and kin selection, a techno-environmental infrastructure, class struggle, the structure of the human mind, habitus and practice, or the intricacies of the Oedipal complex. (Note that I’m not naming any names because I’m well aware that for each of the theoretical frameworks I’ve alluded to, there are both sophisticated, nuanced scholars as well as simplistic reductionists. My aim is not to attack anyone, but to try to make a larger point about theorizing in general. Also, I apologize in advance to anyone who might feel slighted that their pet theory was left off my list.) Simply put, the world is more complex than that, resisting reduction to a single explanatory frame, or it would have been satisfactorily explained a long time ago.

My skepticism of grand theorizing is hardly original at this point – after all, the postmodern deconstruction of metanarratives is several decades old already. At the same time, though, the wholesale postmodern rejection of grand narrative or theory is a variety of grand theorizing I’m skeptical of, in the sense that while I don’t find credible the claims of any theoretical camp to explain most everything, I do find that most of the important theoretical perspectives do actually explain quite a bit. While Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology cannot really begin to explain why matrilineal-matrilocal complexes or avunculocality occur where they do or why a particular mythic narrative occurs in a specific form in a particular context, it explains quite a bit about the range of structural possibilities for human kinship systems or of the parameters of human thought expressed in myth. While Marvin Harris’ variety of cultural materialism cannot really begin to explain the presence of only a limited range of structural possibilities in kinship systems in the context of wide ranging techno-environmental settings or why the same limited set of myth elements (what Lévi-Strauss called “mythemes”) would recur in varying form throughout very different environmental contexts throughout the Americas, his perspectives do explain quite a bit about the relationship between specific kinship structures and techno-environmental contexts, and in some cases about relationships between specific elements of myth and religion and context.

I do generally presume that every major theoretical perspective (by “major” I simply mean perspectives espoused by large numbers of scholars persistently over an appreciable stretch of time [as opposed to faddish theories that come and go quickly]) has something significant to offer in coming to understand human beings or other phenomena in the world. Like any other academic, I have over the years encountered a number of individual “scholars” who are dumb, lazy, willfully ignorant, crack-pot, or otherwise non-intellectual in their approaches, but taken as a group, I assume (and I hope that my assumption is warranted) that scholars are generally people at least reasonably intelligent, hard-working, knowledgeable, and dedicated to the pursuit of truth. As a result, I also tend to assume that when large numbers of scholars spend their careers dedicated to a particular pursuit and perspective, that there’s probably at least something worthwhile and insightful about it.

So, I find myself enlightened and influenced by a wide variety of theoretical perspectives, but not completely committed to any one. There are two main sorts of possibilities for a scholar such as myself – synthesism and eclecticism – and the two reflect different operating assumptions about the world. Synthesism tends to assume that seemingly opposing perspectives can fit together and complement one another, at least in part, and that there is some underlying order to things, even if it has largely eluded our understanding, such that the effort to combine seemingly disparate explanations is a worthwhile endeavor. Eclecticism tends to assume that the world is a fundamentally disorderly, random, or chaotic thing. So, differing theoretical perspectives might help to explain certain phenomena, but there’s little reason to expect them to complement each other or to reflect elements of the world that fit together in any orderly fashion. I have aesthetic / moral and pragmatic reasons for favoring a synthetic approach.

To the extent that any theoretical or philosophical position comes close to describing my own perspectives, it would be philosophical pragmatism in the tradition of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. From James (or for that matter Foucault), I take the idea that “truth” – so far as we know it – is that which can function as true. But I share with Peirce and Dewey (and for that matter Foucault) a deep and abiding faith that there is some underlying truth and order to things, even if we can never fully know it (or know that we knew it if we did know it).

But I also have pragmatic reasons for preferring a synthetic approach. I do regularly find that seemingly opposing perspectives can be usefully combined to produce new insights. As I think is clear in my example above, Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology and Harris’ cultural materialism are not so much contradictory as approaching phenomena in different and complementary ways. (For that matter, Harris acknowledges the importance of a limited number of human biological constants that are not determined or particularly influenced by techno-environmental context. Since Lévi-Strauss is focused on the universal structuring of the human mind, I find it relatively straightforward to combine his structural anthropology with cultural materialism or other materialist perspectives, with his insights about the mind simply being one of a limited number of human constants.)

In addition to the fact that in a number of instances disparate perspectives can clearly be combined in novel, interesting, and insightful ways, I find synthesism generally to be a pragmatically superior approach to eclecticism. The attempt to find connections between seemingly opposing views does not always pay off (eclecticism may be right some of the time), but the attempt to do so offers the possibility of discovering new understandings and discoveries. While an eclectic approach can yield some discoveries and insights simply by following different perspectives in different contexts, to refrain from attempts at finding an underlying synthetic order to phenomena because of an a priori assumption that such an order does not exist is to a priori prevent even the possibility of such a discovery. Eclectics may be right – there may be no underlying rationality or order to the world connecting different sorts of phenomena – but we can never know that by using an eclectic approach.

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