0.18: Anthropology and the Rise of the Social Sciences within the Structures of Knowledge – Immanuel Wallerstein

Professional Knowledge Creation in the World-System

Building an anti-imperialist “anthropology,” plus an anthropology that studies imperialism, and that studies itself as a received invention of imperialism, means much more than just analyzing and questioning how anthropologists served this or that colonial venture. It means totally unthinking anthropology as a social science; more than that, it means totally unthinking social science. For whatever discussions of “decolonizing anthropology” have achieved, this ground was never covered in those discussions.

In the previous posts the discussion was centered on opening questions in a critique of the relationship between anthropology and imperialism, along with questions concerning the terms and concepts that, initially, appear to be central to the debate. Here we focus on the wider intellectual and geopolitical context of anthropology’s institutionalization, and the received baggage of 19th century European social science. In particular, I resort to Immanuel Wallerstein for his analysis of the institutionalization and formalization of the social sciences, and how the very process of institutionalization created the knowledge boundaries, categories, and concepts we use today. Not least among these received conceptual boundaries, fundamental to the division of knowledge into “social sciences,” is the arbitrary construction of “society,” “economics,” and “politics.” Moving beyond the Eurocentrism of the social sciences also means getting past the false divisions in knowledge created by these institutionalized conceptualizations.

The particular works by Immanuel Wallerstein to which I will be referring, or that shape the overall discussion in some way, are:

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 2006. European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. New York: New Press. (Ch. 2, “Can One Be a Non-Orientalist? Essentialist Particularism,” 31-49)

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 1999. The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Ch. 11, “Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science,” 168-184)

Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. 1996. Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (Ch. 1, “The Historical Construction of the Social Sciences, from the Eighteenth Century to 1945,” 1-32)

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 1991. Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press in association with B. Blackwell. (Ch. 8, “A Comment on Epistemology: What is Africa?” 127-129; Ch. 9, “Does India Exist?” 130-134)

I strongly recommend these for a start. One really cannot “do” or “write” anthropology innocently any more after reflecting on these works.

The Institutionalization of the Social Sciences

In Open the Social Sciences, the Gulbenkian Commission led by Wallerstein, highlighted the main historical trends that led to the institutionalization of knowledge in universities. “The need of the modern state for more exact knowledge on which to base its decisions,” they observe led to the emergence of new, though still uncertain, categories of knowledge already in the 18th century. The university was until then a largely moribund institution, at least since the 16th century, having been too tightly linked with the Church. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, the university was largely revived as the primary locus for the creation of knowledge (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 6).

The revival of the university was not actually led primarily by the natural scientists, but rather those who stood to lose most from the development of a hierarchy of a value emerging from the split between science and philosophy (see the “two cultures” below). Instead, it was “historians, classicists, scholars of national literatures…who did most to revive the universities in the course of the nineteenth century, using it as a mechanism to obtain state support for their scholarly work” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8). They sought the alliance of natural scientists in promoting the new university structures, in order to profit “from the positive profile of the natural scientists,” and in the process reinforcing the distinction, and the tension, between the humanities/arts and the sciences (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8).

“The intellectual history of the nineteenth century is marked above all by this disciplinarization and professionalization of knowledge,” the Commission argued, pointing to “the creation of permanent institutional structures designed both to produce new knowledge and to reproduce the producers of knowledge” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 7).

In the wake of the French Revolution, and especially in Great Britain and France, the pressure for political and social reorganization were felt strongly by the powers that be. In place of a belief in the “natural order” of things, many now recognized the normalcy of change, and argued that,

the solution lay rather in organizing and rationalizing the social change that now seemed to be inevitable in a world in which the sovereignty of the “people” was fast becoming the norm, no doubt hoping thereby to limit its extent. (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8).

“But if one were to organize and rationalize social change,” the Commission points out, “one had first of all to study it and understand the rules which governed it” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8). Hence the proclaimed need for a “social science.” Social science was charged with developing “systematic, secular knowledge about reality that is somehow validated empirically” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 2). The classical premise of science at this point was two-fold: one, the Newtonian vision of a symmetry between past and future, and two, Cartesian dualisms of humans and nature, mind and matter, and so forth. Accompanied by notions of progress, and a finite, knowable world, the aim was to “facilitate the explorations and exploitation demanded by progress, and to make practical and realizable Western aspirations to dominion” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 4). Exploration, exploitation, and rapid social change, all pointed to the need to investigate order, and for that Newtonian physics offered the most useful support.

It was especially in the period from 1850 to 1914, when we witness a university boom in Europe, North America, and Australia, with many new universities being founded in that very period, that we also see the disciplinarization of knowledge in the form of the social sciences as we know them today (Gulbenkian, 1996, pp. 12-13). The five primary social sciences were history, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. Owing to the struggle between science and philosophy, and the social prestige of science, the primary emphases of these “social sciences” were the “emphasis on the existence of a real world that is objective and knowable, the emphasis on empirical evidence, [and] the emphasis on the neutrality of the scholar” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 15).

Between 1850 and 1945, the new social science disciplines were institutionalized: “This was done by establishing in the principal universities first chairs, then departments offering courses leading to degrees in the discipline” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 3). “Training” was institutionalized as was “research”: “the creation of journals specialized in each of the disciplines; the construction of associations of scholars along disciplinary lines (first national, then international); the creation of library collections catalogued by disciplines” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 3). Of course one of the key elements in this institutionalization was for the social sciences to stress the differences between them, what made them unique, and thus what required that a special place be made for them in the new universities. Institutionalization, disciplinarization, expanding world capitalism, and rapid social change thus all combined to create and shape the social sciences as we have known them. Each of these is tied into the others.

The Eurocentrism of Social Science

Wallerstein’s core argument is that the creation of the structures of knowledge, specifically the institutionalization of the social sciences, is a phenomenon that is inextricably linked to the very formation and maturation of the capitalist world system (or what others might loosely, and less comprehensively, refer to as imperialism or capitalist hegemony). There is nothing that is either natural, logical, or accidental about the institutionalization of the social sciences. The structures of knowledge are accepted ways of producing knowledge of the world. In particular, the universalism-particularism dichotomy, and all framings of knowledge that fit within or between that polarity (of especial relevance to anthropology’s intellectual mission, and central to the revival of cosmopolitanism), is part of the intellectual double bind of the capitalist world system (see Wallerstein, 1991, p. 128).

In broad terms, “social science has been Eurocentric throughout its institutional history,” Wallerstein explains, “which means since there have been departments teaching social science within university systems” (1999, p. 168). There should be no surprise here, he adds, since social science “is a product of the modern world-system, and Eurocentrism is constitutive of the geoculture of the modern world” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168). In particular, “as an institutional structure, social science originated largely in Europe (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168).

By “Europe,” Wallerstein means primarily western Europe and North America. One could broaden that, using native studies discourse, to mean Europe and European settler states. Even with that more expansive definition, Wallerstein observes that  “the social science disciplines were in fact overwhelmingly located, at least up to 1945, in just five countries – France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States” (1999, p. 168). “Even today,” he continues, “despite the global spread of social science as an activity, the large majority of social scientists worldwide remain Europeans” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168). Penetrating deeper, Wallerstein argues that,

Social science emerged in response to European problems, at a point in history when Europe dominated the whole world-system. It was virtually inevitable that its choice of subject matter, its theorizing, its methodology, and its epistemology all reflected the constraints of the crucible within which it was formulated. (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168)

The Eurocentrism of social science has come under increasingly vigorous attack, especially in the period since 1945 with the formal decolonization of Africa, Asia, and much of the Caribbean, and Wallerstein sees this attack as “fundamentally justified.” Moreover, he argues, that “if social science is to make any progress in the twenty-first century, it must overcome the Eurocentric heritage that has distorted its analyses and its capacity to deal with the problems of the contemporary world” (Wallerstein, 1999, pp. 168-169). To do this, we must understand what constitutes Eurocentrism and its “many avatars” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 169).

There are at least five distinct yet overlapping ways that social science is Eurocentric, as Wallerstein explains. The Eurocentrism of social science is expressed in “(1) its historiography, (2) the parochiality of its universalism, (3) its assumptions about (Western) civilization, (4) its Orientalism, and (5) its attempts to impose the theory of progress” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 169).

While “institutionalized social science started as an activity in Europe,” Wallerstein’s argument is about much more than this important historical and cultural recognition. The problem with Eurocentric social science is that it has been “charged with painting a false picture of social reality by misreading, grossly exaggerating, and/or distorting the historical role of Europe, particularly its historical role in the modern world” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 177). “Whatever Europe did,” Wallerstein affirms, “has been analyzed incorrectly and subjected to inappropriate extrapolations, which have had dangerous consequences for both science and the political world” (1999, p. 178).

The Received Baggage of the 19th Century

The two cultures division is one of the most fundamental bases for the modern world-system’s structures of knowledge. By the “two cultures” Wallerstein is drawing on the work of C.P. Snow, and referring to the division between the sciences and the humanities. “No other historical system has instituted a fundamental divorce between science and philosophy/humanities,” Wallerstein observes (1999, p. 183). It took about three centuries for this rupture to become triumphant in Eurocentric thought, and to become institutionalized. Now that this has taken place, the “two cultures” is “fundamental to the geoculture and forms the basis of our university systems” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 183).

It is this very split, between the two cultures, that enabled “the modern world to put forward the bizarre concept of the value-neutral specialist, whose objective assessments of reality could form the basis not merely of engineering decisions (in the broadest sense of the term) but of sociopolitical choices as well” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 183). Indeed, one of the central foundations of the Eurocentric social sciences is this very idea of “objective science”:

The idea that science is over here and sociopolitical decisions are over there is the core concept that sustains Eurocentrism, since the only universalist propositions that have been acceptable are those that are Eurocentric. Any argument that reinforces this separation of the two cultures thus sustains Eurocentrism. If one denies the specificity of the modern world, one has no plausible way of arguing for the reconstruction of knowledge structures, and therefore no plausible way of arriving at intelligent and substantively rational alternatives to the existing world-system. (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 183)

With the split between the two cultures, the alternative to “science” was seemingly plagued by “a lack of internal cohesiveness, which did not help its practitioners plead their cause with the authorities, especially given their seeming inability to offer ‘practical’ results” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 6). This story should be very familiar to anthropologists, in their drive to create “applied anthropology” and anthropology in the service of military, intelligence, and colonial administration. The opinions of the authorities, especially those promising funding, and demanding practical benefits, have weighed heavily. From early on, “it had begun to be clear that the epistemological struggle over what was legitimate knowledge was no longer a struggle over who would control knowledge about nature (the natural scientists had clearly won exclusive rights to this domain by the eighteenth century) but about who would control knowledge about the human world” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 6).

One can sum up in this way the key dichotomies that arose from the 19th century institutionalization of the social sciences, dichotomies that are vital to sustaining the Eurocentrism of the social sciences:

  • science versus philosophy/humanities
  • discontinuity-continuity
  • state-centrism in analysis
  • idiographic versus nomothetic
  • determinism versus agency
  • objectivity versus subjectivity
  • politics versus economics

In review:

Anthropology’s Baggage

The Gulbenkian Commission devoted attention to each of the five social sciences. What follows is their description and analysis of the emergence, institutionalization and disciplinarization of anthropology. At the most basic level, the expansion of the modern world-system involved the European encounter and usually conquest of the peoples of the rest of the world. In particular, those people who were organized in social structures that Europeans classed as small, without written records, and not part of a geographically wide ranging religious systems, were classed as “tribes” or “races.” They became the domain of what would later be called anthropology. Anthropology had largely begun as a practice of explorers, travelers, and officials of the colonial services of the European powers, and then subsequently became institutionalized as a university discipline (Gulbenkian, 1996, pp. 20-21).

Anchored within the structures of the university, anthropologists were constrained to maintain the practice of ethnographic fieldwork “within the normative premises of science” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 21). Some were of course attracted to ideas of a universal natural history of humanity, with assumed stages of development, but their discipline was one pressed into studying particular peoples, requiring a very specific methodology, that of fieldwork. Consumed with the ostensible interest in human difference, and the particulars of non-European modes of being, anthropologists largely adhered to an idiographic epistemology, with some lingering desires for developing nomothetic propositions (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 22).

Anthropology’s special baggage then – in the preliminary type of analysis offered by the Gulbenkian Commission – was idiographic research, focused on the non-West, and in particular focused on tribes (not the non-Western “high civilizations” that were more the domain of the Orientalists). As we go further, this analysis will be deepened significantly, but it will be useful to remember some of the broad historical forces at work, as presented in this essay.

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18 thoughts on “0.18: Anthropology and the Rise of the Social Sciences within the Structures of Knowledge – Immanuel Wallerstein

  1. Dr. Marilyn Dudley-Flores

    Hurrah, Max! I thought I detected you sneaking up on “unthinking the social sciences” in some of your online commentary. Now, it will be fun to see the “ways forward” that other commentators propose. My own thought is that the truly huge problems facing the entire Earth — climate change, rise in sea levels, their second-, third-, etc. order effects — will weaken the previously constructed boundaries that have partitioned off knowledge, minimize the attendant phenomena that Wallerstein talks about, as well as make more irrelevant the Westphalian nation-state system. The big dose of uncertainty posed by these planet-sized issues brings into question the survival of humanity which is such an overarching concern for everyone that all sorts of veils will need to be dropped “to work the problem.”

    Wallerstein writes:

    …we have betrayed first of all ourselves, and closed off our potentials, the possible virtues we might have had, the possible imaginations we might have fostered, the possible cognitions we might have achieved. We live in an uncertain cosmos, whose single greatest merit is the permanence of this uncertainty, because it is this uncertainty that makes possible creativity — cosmic creativity, and with that of course human creativity. We live in an imperfect world, one that will always be imperfect and therefore always harbor injustice. But we are far from helpless before this reality. We can make the world less unjust; we can make it more beautiful; we can increase our cognition of it. We need but to construct it, and in order to construct it we need but to reason with each other and struggle to obtain from each other the special knowledge that each of us has been able to seize. We can labor in the vineyards and bring forth fruit, if only we try.

    (From “The Heritage of Sociology, the Promise of Social Science,” p. 250, in THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT: SOCIAL SCIENCE FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY)

    My hope is that the issues are not so large, not so catastrophically rapid, that we indeed have the time and the chances to make these conversations and collaborations. For us, the arrow of time does not fly in a vacuum. It is held by the gravity of the human terrain.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Many thanks Marilyn, I personally had forgotten that passage altogether (maybe because it was a bit too gloomy: “We live in an imperfect world, one that will always be imperfect and therefore always harbor injustice”).

      However, I must admit, any sentence that works in the phrase “human terrain” makes me cringe. Now that people know, I am sure I will face an onslaught of messages, even random and ostensibly innocent ones, that mention “human terrain.”

  2. NM

    I’m a Geography student with Trini roots, trying to survive the British academy. I’m writing about diaspora and decolonization in the Caribbean, and realize that to do so, I have to think about what “decolonizing” or “anti-colonialism” means in Geography. Apparently, not much –there’s not even an entry in definitive Dictionary of Human Geography. And Geographers who attempt to use the term decolonizing all seem to white. Where is our voice? Decolonizing begins with the self, trying to undo, rethink and reinterpret what was taught before, without an eye to our experiences, or with the fear that we could not speak about those experiences and be taken seriously as a scholar. Thanks in the name of the most High for your blog, and for the serious attention you give to communicating to a wider audience outside the hallowed halls. I’ve learned so much from your postings.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I am very touched by your message, many thanks. It’s great to get messages from people in other disciplines, and because of my own connections to Trinidad I always love to hear from Trinidadians. What you note is interesting, that the discussion of decolonizing a discipline seems to have centered on anthropology. I am not sure that the full blown importation of a Eurocentric sociology should have escaped equally scathing attention from the new powers that be in the formally decolonized parts of the world — all I can say is, “we” must have made many more mistakes to get the spotlight, and “we” must fit many more popular images of colonizing academia than other disciplines. It just so happens that I am in anthropology, and so my focus starts here.

      There is one thing we need to change, I think, and that is the idea that decolonization is a process to be engaged in by the colonized alone, and not the colonizer. I think the colonizer is sometimes in more desperate need of decolonization. In addition, “decolonization” seems to fail best when it is one-sided: jubilant new nationalists celebrating the formal withdrawal of a British governor, boasting of a new local pride, but then the governor is replaced by teams sent from the IMF, World Bank, DEA, FBI, and CIA.

  3. Stacie

    “…1850 and 1945, the new social science disciplines were institutionalized.” Thanks for the historical perspective. I keep forgetting how recent all this is.

    “Anchored within the structures of the university, anthropologists were constrained to maintain the practice of ethnographic fieldwork “within the normative premises of science” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 21). Some were of course attracted to ideas of a universal natural history of humanity, with assumed stages of development, but their discipline was one pressed into studying particular peoples, requiring a very specific methodology, that of fieldwork.”

    Max, in your opinion, what KEEPS disciplines within their bounds?

    I’m guessing a lot of anthropologists would argue that they’re not “pressed into” studying what they study, and through fieldwork, but rather that this is the BEST way to understand humanity. They’re constrained to an extent by structures, and might acknowledge that if they see the history, but there are also many immediate changes they could make in how they do their work and structure their classes but don’t necessarily do so.

    Do they simply not see the history? What other important factors are at play? I could make a few hypotheses of my own but am only coming from a student perspective.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks Stacie.

      What keeps disciplines within their bounds? That is interesting, because the reality today is that they often do not, and lots of “studies” programs have now become institutionalized (sometimes sneered at by academics who don’t necessarily recognize their old school disciplinary snobbishness) — area studies, indigenous studies, women’s studies, cultural studies, strategic studies. In anthropology some of “our” key theorists are themselves not anthropologists.

      What tends to maintain the disciplines, in my view, and these are some very rough hypotheses of my own, is a combination of factors:

      (a) Defensive, obsessive self-awareness, possibly more acute in anthropology than in other disciplines (hence, anthropology courses, in anthropology departments, whose titles contain the words “Anthropology of”, such as “Anthropology of Media,” “Anthropology of Travel,” or standard ones such as “Political Anthropology” — I mean, we get it! You’re an anthropologist, teaching an anthropology course in an anthropology department…what other kind of media course would you be teaching?). This is possibly a sign of a discipline whose practitioners sense their own increasing marginalization and lack of relevance.

      (b) Established university structures. Lots of us have many ideas of how to reorganize the structures of knowledge. Now try to get the deans, other heads of departments, the board of governors, and the university president on board. Try to get accreditation. There is a lot of institutional inertia, and often very poor communication — I am not naming names here.

      What would you add to, or take away from, this list?

      In terms of our being pressed…well, we are: graduate “training” is designed to do just that. You cannot get a degree in (social-cultural) anthropology without doing ethnographic fieldwork. Then we tell ourselves, yes, this is the best way to understand humanity, and in that case this works as a convenient, largely baseless rationalization. We cannot even achieve a consensus about what ethnography “is” or how it is to be “done” — imagine that we then proclaim it the best “way.”

      We study “other people,” then turn around and declare that what they told us is a “folk model” (something inferior), and so then from where do we derive our superior interpretations and explanations? What’s even more amazing are those other cases — and I use these for teaching purposes — where an anthropologist disputes some ideas as a folk model, and then to challenge the model he/she turns to the very same folk to dispute the folk model. In the first situation, we pretend as if we somehow stand outside of the very system in which we live when we analyze it. How does the anthropologist know that his/her model is not just another folk model? In the second situation, we have anthropologists who do not pretend that their work stands outside of that which they analyze, but who instead use that which they dispute to dispute that which they dispute. I did not just accidentally garble my writing.

      I think that with opened social sciences, will come opened methodologies, that do not canonize one single approach, nor one single way of expressing the results of one’s study.

      Anyway, fire away!

      1. Stacie

        (c) jobs. As you mentioned before, most people go to universities for careers, not knowledge. The disciplinary structures as they exist right now are closely tied to occupations, not directly linked, but connected enough to matter to students. For writing occupations you might go into English. If you want to go to law school, philosophy’s emphasis on arguments and social justice might be a good fit. Economics was the choice for aspiring investment bankers at our school. Others are more direct, like “business,” “commerce,” “accounting,” “journalism,” “pre-med.” If you want to go into international business, throw in some East Asian studies and Chinese classes. “Anthropology,” of course, doesn’t directly qualify a person for much of anything, which is probably why it’s not very popular. That doesn’t mean that it can’t give a person valuable skills. They’re just not skills widely perceived as valuable by our socioeconomic system. I’m going to make a wild guess that your revolutionized version of the social sciences would be viewed much the same way. Absent broader changes in society, it wouldn’t have great appeal to universities that, to stay in business, need to be able to market their degrees to students.

        None of this explains why anthropologists, within their discipline, can’t make more of an effort to cross over with other disciplines. Which is why I would also add:

        (d) Obsession with making theoretical arguments within disciplinary bounds. Sure, professors include readings from politics, economics, history, etc., as well as what they call “data” or “folk models” from the “field.” Students take courses in a variety of disciplines. But, ultimately, when you’re writing a paper or thesis for anthropology, you have to argue your main point within “anthropology.” You have to stay in “discourse” with whatever grand model of human life/behavior that anthropologists are supposedly building. You have to study the theory of the “great” anthropologists and a few other revered “Western thinkers” so you can FIT your conclusions into theirs, and if the conclusions don’t fit, you have to rack your brain to come up with a grand and nuanced argument to explain why, working within their own established terminology. It’s as though Hegel’s conclusions about progress and the history of philosophy, about new ideas evolving through contradictions, reveal nothing timeless about human thought but are simply the result of how the system of knowledge production is organized. Note how the use of Hegel lends scholarly “credibility.”So, in order to come to legitimate conclusions, we have to internalize these people and what they’ve said, to spew it back out in scholarly papers. Does the same go for “folk models”? Not in the least.

  4. NM

    “I think the colonizer is sometimes in more desperate need of decolonization.” …thank you for the gentle corrective. i’ll try to go forward with compassion, though sometimes the mental energy that requires is exhausting.

  5. Dr. Marilyn Dudley-Flores

    And, similarly, NM, Stacie, and Max, do the institutionalizing powers-that-be desperately need de-institutionalization? By that I mean those who carve the canons in stone, who dictate methods at the expense of others, who make of the many worthy voices in the social sciences greater and lesser gods, and reward toeing the lines on the more or less reified disciplinary boundaries. Among these powers-that-be we find academic department chairs, university administrators, leaders of commerce, and executives of government, high and low.

    I’m suggesting a metamorphosis of the beast, bringing forth something sublime and pragmatic from among the current body parts and fluids of something mundane and next-to-useless. But, I don’t think we can do it simply by having conversations among ourselves. Somehow, we have to speak in tongues that the powers-that-be understand.

    I mentioned before some great global challenges to the survival of humanity in this bottleneck era between the Holocene and the Anthropocene. I am not merely speaking of climate change. Geopolitical realities follow geo-environmental realities. For instance, here’s a hot tip for those concerned with global security: as the needs of human groups go unaddressed on an Earth becoming evermore extreme and in the face of population increase, more numbers of people stressed, one might expect a sharp rise in insurgencies. It’s a math problem.

    These are the sort of challenges that can level the pipefitter as well as the philosopher, the rich as well as the poor. Thinking as a sociologist in at least some part of my day, I wonder, “How important are these challenges laid alongside the challenges of the ‘culture of sociology’ that Wallerstein talks about in the essay I referenced before? Those challenges were six in number: Freud’s take on rationality/irrationality, Eurocentrism, the Braudelian challenge of multiple visions of time, complexity studies (a la Prigogine), feminism, and the realization that modernity is a myth (pp. 229-243).

    Will our own preferred languages of discourse float on the rising tide? Wallerstein’s enumerated challenges rock our world in that they are challenges to the life of the social scientific mind, specifically the sociological imagination as handed down to us from our forbears. But, there are things in motion right under our feet that have the capacity to put an axial tilt on all our worldviews. How goes detecting those tectonics?

    Here’s an example. To some degree, here in the States, some top-level leaders have begun to sense that American innovation isn’t making it in terms of such salient issues as the decline side of oil, our crumbling civilly engineered infrastructure, and the United States’ ability to remain competitive in the world economy. There is a push on across all agencies and programs in our government to address the problem of innovation. This is observable over at the National Science Foundation where social scientists are being funded to study innovation. Before I went to Fort Leavenworth to hook up with the Human Terrain System program, I had been following their progress. At this past American Sociological Association meeting in August in San Francisco, we got a sneak preview of what the grantee teams were doing in one of the sessions held. I didn’t see much innovation in the methods of studying innovation. Evident was the public policy scholar’s worthy method of counting American-authored scientific papers vs. those written by authors of other nationalities. The best one that verged on being innovative concerned the grantees who examined CVs. They found that those academic scientists who were the most creative/innovative were those who got a lot of support in graduate school (i.e., assistantships) and who got on the tenure-track quickly. But, I detected a big whiff of “individual responsibility” in the grantee team’s interpretation of their results and wondered where the social structure was in that picture. For instance, might the over 70% of contingent faculty members in the American professoriate account for a major drag on American innovation? After all, Academe is the primary feeder industry to other enterprises. Contingent faculty members are typically without job security and enough salary to make ends meet and who have few or no benefits. They are usually dead last in getting resources to teach the subsequent generations of American scientists, engineers, and scholars: time, office space, in-house funds for projects, and so forth. When I brought up this structural interpretative possibility, it was as if I broke wind in the room. Absolutely no one commented except for the session chair who politely moved on.

    Somehow, we need to develop institutions to shield against the gathering storm. That means training up for industries that either don’t yet exist or that are in their infancy. It certainly requires forethought outside of the box to wrap our minds around the job(s) ahead of us as a species.

  6. ryan a

    Hey Max,

    You wrote (in response to Stacie):

    “We study “other people,” then turn around and declare that what they told us is a “folk model” (something inferior), and so then from where do we derive our superior interpretations and explanations?”

    I also think that the process of ethnography shapes the very way that knowledge is labeled and understood. Ethnographers go talk to people, record them in interviews, and then characterize that kind of knowledge as “local knowledge,” which is often not based on historical fact, is somehow different from science, etc. But how else are people supposed to respond in a 45 minute or hour long interview? What other possibilities do ethnographers expect? Are the interviewees supposed to have supporting scientific documents on hand? These people are then represented through a series of “narratives,” which are then compared with the more formal (and sometimes western) knowledges of reports, articles, and publications (which of course benefit from extensive editing, research, and so on).

    I think it’s ironic, as you say, that ethnographers basically get their information from the very people who they are then supposed to explain the situation to! This comes from the idea that ethnographers are experts who can somehow translate difficult cultural situations for various people…or something like that.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Good, and this is not the only time I have seen either you and/or others (Stacie most likely), writing in a way that better explains the kinds of ideas I wanted to convey.

      In fact, this could be a useful chapter for your new book, Rewriting Culture ;-) (I am still laughing remembering the list of titles you came up with a few weeks back).

      1. ryan a

        Ha! Glad you didn’t forget about my masterpiece. You might have just earned yourself a free copy.

        Expected publication date: 2012, in concert with my long awaited text “Y2k the Maya Way.” You heard it here first.

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