Anthropology? Whatever

The following quotes are from Political Anthropology: An Introduction by Ted C. Lewellen (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1992. page 5).

First, Lewellen begins by saying “Induction, cross-cultural comparison, culture, system, and evolution are not really defining qualities of anthropology so much as various aspects of the anthropological way of looking at the world. Although these provide a unified point of view, it is at the same time replete with contradictions.”

And then, the quote of the month for ZA (by default, because I don’t run a series of choice quotes in anthropology):

“Anthropologists seek no less than an understanding of the nature of humankind, yet they are suspicious of any generalization at all. They idealize a holistic view; yet, by the very complexity of the systems they confront, they are forced to isolate small subsystems. They demand precise classification, yet may argue that typologies distort more than they clarify. In sum, anthropologists are torn between diametrically opposed demands: to be true to the intense particularity of their field experience, and to give meaning to that experience by generalizing it to the world at large.”

Good, now take this and use it to advise students doing graduate work in anthropology. Or, even better, use the quote as the opening of your Introduction to Anthropology course. It is either liberating, because the irreconcilable demands and the confusion they breed send a subtle message: you can do anything in anthropology–or it causes paralysis: no matter what you do, it will always be wrong.

3 thoughts on “Anthropology? Whatever

  1. “Anthropologists seek no less than an understanding of the nature of humankind, yet they are suspicious of any generalization at all.”

    Hmm. I am skeptical AND suspicious of this generalization about the tendencies of anthropologists! Maybe if there was a graph I would be more inclined to believe this statement.

    In all seriousness, I think this is an interesting subject, Max. Related to this, I enjoyed the Tim Ingold article about the differences between “anthropology” and “ethnography,” which talks about some of these contradictions. He has some good points to keep in mind, IMO.

    Anyway, I don’t really see this as debilitating or anything. I don’t even think it’s debilitating to think that everything we make is going to be ‘wrong’ in one way or another. I mean, Guernica and the Grapes of Wrath weren’t exactly literal truths, by any means. But things like this need to be made, regardless. Maybe in the end it’s all about getting some sort of conversation going, or at least some reaction. People are always going to disagree, take offense, or find some counterexample. In the end, we all just gotta work on issues and ideas that we think are important–and then we have to deal with the onslaught of reactions, arguments, and opinions. So it goes (that’s what Vonnegut always said).

  2. Would you agree, Ryan, that students reading this would think that anthropologists basically don’t really know what they should be doing?

    Let’s take the example of the particular and the general. My Ruins of Absence book was based on an ethnography. Ethnography. Not ethnology. It did not seek to make a global comparison between Trinidad’s Caribs and all other small revivalist groups–on what basis does one compare anyway, across very different societies and histories? No matter, one reviewer said it should have done a multitude of comparisons. Another reviewer, also an anthropologist, instead argued that this was not the place for an expose of other people’s works, another synthesis and summary of various comparisons, another review of the literature: show us what is originally yours and to be found nowhere else. Two anthropologists, two very different recommendations, one very confused publisher, one mystified author.

    Even when it comes to ethnography alone, would Ted’s statement need to be amended or would it be roughly the same? Here we have a case of where some think that an ethnography should simultaneously be ethnology, and then there’s Sahlins: ethnography is theory or it is nothing…coming from an anthropologist who has done no fieldwork at all, so really it should be theory. So what’s ethnography again?

    This is not a complaint: I just hope that people recognize incoherence for being what it is, and not get all worked up about something calling itself anthropology just because given persons do not recognize it as their own kind of anthropology. If we want to preserve the chaos, we need to preserve the freedom that it allows.

    (P.S. sorry for the late approval of your comment…I forgot that I had comment moderation at that time.)

  3. “Would you agree, Ryan, that students reading this would think that anthropologists basically don’t really know what they should be doing?”

    I think some might walk away with that impression. But hopefully by the graduate level they will start to realize that it might be a good idea to take some assessments or proclamations with a 50 lb bag of salt.

    “So what’s ethnography again?”

    Ya, there are all kinds of definitions, camps, and opinions about what everything SHOULD be. And then you have the different views of the more materialist, political, symbolic, feminist, marxist, ecological, etc anthropologists, who all think they do things the right way. I guess, in the end, we all kind of pick and choose our way through this.

    “I just hope that people recognize incoherence for being what it is, and not get all worked up about something calling itself anthropology just because given persons do not recognize it as their own kind of anthropology.”

    In general I tend to be wary and impatient with people who go around telling everyone else how things really “should be” and the supposed “right” way to think about anthropology (or whatever). Kind of reminds me of art and photography critics who spend a lot of time blowing hot air, but are rarely seen actually out there making anything. Some commentators are better than others.

    “If we want to preserve the chaos, we need to preserve the freedom that it allows.”

    Vitality and creativity come with variation. So ya, the freedom to pursue anthropology in different ways is vital. Sometimes it’s just a good idea to ignore the self-proclaimed experts anyway, and head off in new directions. But I’m not sure if I’m making sense because it’s late and I think my neurotransmitters have shut down.

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