Anyone who has read my blog knows that I discuss a wide variety of topics, from shamanism to jazz to genocide. One key concern I have been focused on is that between discourse and practice, word and object, meaning and world.
Definition is about constituting sets, discerning the characteristics that typify a set of objects, actions, qualities, or relations (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, conjunctions) and that distinguish that set from others. It is also about mediating language and world.
Intuitively, there are two obvious and opposed approaches to take in defining sets. One is to look first to the world, to describe the qualities of things, actions, relationships. Sets are defined by things sharing similar qualities. This seems a thoroughly empirical approach, though a key problem is that it’s hard to know a priori whether we’re identifying a meaningful or useful set via this approach. Things in the world have myriad qualities, and whether we’re aware or not of it we’re making interpretive choices about which qualities to focus on – which is fine if done critically. In his 1959 critique of anthropology up to that point, “Rethinking Anthropology,” Edmund Leach called upon anthropology to move beyond a “butterfly collecting” approach, where social characteristics such as matrilineal matrilocal complexes or patrivirilocality were collected and assumed meaningful. Leach’s point wasn’t that such descriptions weren’t necessarily meaningful or important but that anthropologists should think much more critically about whether, how, and why such descriptions defined sets.
The opposing approach is to start with language independent of the world (insofar as one can do that – clearly language is always a thing of the world), define a set abstractly and then look to the world to see what fits and what doesn’t. Although he’s not explicit on the point, when Wynton Marsalis says that jazz just went away for a little while in the 1970s (despite the huge success of fusion during that period) he seems to be applying an a priori definition of “jazz” which doesn’t include fusion, thus allowing him to make the claim (See my discussion in “Miles Davis’ Ferrari, or Popularity and Art”). This is an approach to defining sets that always “works,” though the key problem here is that there’s no guarantee that our definitions and sets reflect important empirical relationships between things in the world.
My preference is for a pragmatic approach that stays grounded in empirical observation but with a willingness to open up the empirical to interpretation and exploration by casting it in multiple possible comparative frames and tacking back and forth between observation of the world and abstract definition.
Generally, a good starting point is language as practice, looking at how language is manifested as a thing in the world and how it is used to relate to non-linguistic things in the world. That is, it’s useful to start by looking at how a word is used, looking to see what objects (I use “object” here in the semiotic sense – the “object” could be an object or thing in the vernacular sense, or an action, quality, or relationship) are referred to with it, then to focus on their qualities to abstract a sense of what defines the set – with a willingness then to potentially extend the category to other things sharing in those defining qualities. Some argue that the category “shaman” should be restricted in anthropological analysis to the Siberian contexts in which it was first identified and from which the term comes. I disagree, both because the term has long since escaped that restricted reference in its real usage and more importantly because the quality that defines shamanism in those Siberian contexts is not “Siberian-ness” (after all, what make a shaman a shaman in Siberia cannot be being of Siberia), and the application of the term to a variety of other contexts has been useful in noting important similarities in ritual and spiritual practices in a variety of world settings. (See my earlier post “Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide.”)
A pragmatic approach does not expect that any one quality will be the skeleton key to define the essence of the category, expecting instead as Wittgenstein pointed out that categories will be defined not by single qualities but by overlapping sets of family resemblances. The music of Louis Armstrong and Mahavishnu Orchestra really don’t have much apparent similarity that they should belong to the same set: “jazz.” But both have definite similarities to other music that resembles other music that ultimately connect the two.
Nor does a pragmatic approach assume that any object, practice, action, etc., will fit into only one important set. I regularly teach a course titled “Peoples and Cultures of the World.” When I cover the Sudanic region of Sub-Saharan Africa, a topic that often arises for discussion, sometimes raised by me, sometimes by one of the students, is that of the practice that is variously termed “female genital mutilation,” “female genital modification,” “female genital operation,” etc. The multiplicity of terms indicates the multiplicity of meaning associated with the practice. I try to emphasize to my students that no one of these terms is “wrong” or “right,” but that the choice of term actively shapes our understanding of the category. I further raise a variety of other possible categories, such as “body modification” to indicate that the same practice meaningfully belongs to multiple sets or categories simultaneously. (See my earlier discussion in “Sudan and Cultural Relativism” and “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?”)
Finally, another advantage of a flexible, pragmatic approach to definition is that it allows sets to evolve. When Marsalis says that jazz “went away,” he not only seems to have an a priori sense of what jazz “is” but the mode of defining also creates a static category which excludes things such as fusion which have strayed too far. It is legitimate to ask how much something can evolve and change and remain part of the original category (and there are no easy answers here). An example from paleoanthropology would perhaps be illustrative. Though there is some debate on the point, two hominid species that are probably our evolutionary ancestors are Homo erectus and Australopithecus afarensis. These are species that still have living descendants – us – so they never went extinct in the same way that hominid species like Australopithecus boisei or Australopithecus robustus – which have no living descendants – did. But though H. Erectus and A. afarensis never went extinct, they are extinct – we evolved from them, but are now something distinct from them. If Marsalis or anyone else claimed that fusion was an evolution from jazz that was no longer jazz, I think I’d disagree, but I could see that point. Still, you’d then have to say that in the 1970s jazz was largely replaced by something that evolved from jazz but was no longer jazz if you wanted to be faithful to the facts.
A flexible approach to definition does not mean that “Anything Goes.”
I do think it’s useful to stretch the category “shamanism” beyond Siberia to apply to a variety of ritual and spiritual practices whereby a practitioner enters an altered state of consciousness and engages in interaction with a variety of supernatural entities, often by voyaging beyond the body. I am equally opposed to stretching the category further to include any practice involving altered states of consciousness, or even simply other ritual and/or spiritual practices involving altered states, such as spirit mediumship. Such an extension waters down the important recognition of similarities in an entire suite of characteristics in Siberian and Native American shamanisms by including a variety of other much less similar phenomena. It might be useful to have a single more general category for anthropological analysis that includes shamans, spirit mediums and any other practices of spiritual altered state (so far as I know, no such general category exists), but calling spirit mediums shamans or vice versa is not analytically useful.
In my previous post, I argued that “Jazz is not America’s Classical Music,” that jazz and classical are distinct musical idioms. Granted, neither is easy to define, though there are loose sets of characteristics that tend to define each. Also, some music is ambiguous in its fit into either category, but the ambiguity of fit for a particular musical example doesn’t mean that the general category is unreal or useless.
Finally, some phenomena are so important and are really so qualitatively distinct from other phenomena that we should be extremely careful in the use of the words we use to refer to them. I have in mind here words like “genocide,” “Holocaust,” “gulag,” or “fascism,” and the historical (and contemporary in the case of “genocide”) phenomena referred to by them. To use just one example, to critique the prison at Guantanamo is fine and important. To compare it to the Soviet gulag system is also fine – the fact that there might be any systematic similarity at all, even if minor in scope is troubling. To call Guantanamo “the American Gulag” implies an empirical parallel belied by the facts and undermines one’s own credibility and the seriousness of both the Soviet Gulag and of Guantanamo now. (See my earlier post “Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide.”)