Anthropological Theory

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Decline of Anthropology?

“hanging on as [a] living dead,” or a “flourishing redirection of our field into a prominent position in society.” Focusing on this latter scenario, he argued that we must direct our efforts toward a renewed emphasis on anthropology’s relevance to wider publics.

Methodological problems

Traditions and Themes

  • The epistemological meaning of objectivity is the making of observations that exhibit 'independence of awareness' and/or 'impartiality of judgment' (Mautner 1996:298-9) 4. Objectivity is desired because otherwise there is bias that can produce untruths. A study of people that observes only men exhibits gender bias and would be likely to produce unreliable judgments concerning women. Objectivity does not mean that either science or scientists are value neutral. Scientists have their biases. However, scientists who seek objectivity pursue an epistemic tolerance by suspending, as much as is possible, ego centrisms, phallocentrisms, and ethnocentrisms. They do this by creating validation procedures that eliminate, where possible, such centrisms.


Universalist theories

Comparative theories

Particularist theories

Hermeneutics and 'current' theories

History of the discipline

In the 19th century when anthropology really came into being as a discipline it purported to fill the gap in the explanation of human history between evolution before man became man (zoology) and the invention of language (history). The four-fields approach of anthropology was intended to cover this period (Archeology, Physical (or biological or evolutionary) anthropology, linguistics, and Social (or Cultural) anthropology). The assumption behind this role for anthropology was that all human societies evolved in a linear fashion, the basis for unilineal evolutionist theories that became so popular.

A fairly prominent critique against unilineal evolutionist theories comes from what has been called diffusionism, (and later found an expression in such influential theories as symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology). It claims that human societies, as opposed to animal kingdoms, learn from each other and have the ability to pass on knowledge and information. Human lives are shaped through contacts and culture, and cannot even be said to exist outside socially constructed realities. Societies thus do not progress along a single line. History, not evolution, determines our destiny.

For anthropology, aimed at explaining a specific evolutionary period, this was, at first, an almost fatal blow. Diffusionism, and its corollary quest for the construction of the individual, led to the obvious point that also the western modern man should be divulged or analysed in its historic specificity and not as the pinnacle of an evolutionary process. With the notion that "everything is culture," diffusionism seemed to discredit the idea that there are any innate human capacities or traits of a general character at all. With such a position, grand theories of humankind became theoretically impossible, and the core of anthropology was swept away.

However, although diffusionism was substantially correct, it was surreptitiously extended into claims that culture is detached and "floating free" of nature, especially human nature. For Maurice Bloch for instance this claim is too far-reaching. He advocates an anthropology that works together with cognate disciplines such as cognitive science and psychology to discern the relationship between culture and human nature. And thus diffusionism can be said to enrich rather than discredit anthropology. Symbolic interactionism also opened up new areas ripe for research, providing anthropologists with more than enough material to work on. The debate continues.

Un des débats phares dans l’anthropologie, et dans les sciences sociales plus large, est l’ethnocentricité. L’ethnologie en particulier, avec son passé des études très développées de « l’autrui » dans les pays sous-développés, a été le cible d’une critique forte de ce genre. Ce débat suscite autant plus de tension comme il est lié à des questions de race, et à une question essentielle de ces temps d’essayer de réconcilier l’universel et le particulier. Pour pallier cette tendance de une connaissance occidentale imposée sur le monde, il y a plusieurs philosophes africains qui tentent de « africaniser » les sciences sociales afin que les savoirs sure les sociétés africaines soient produits par les africains eux-même – entre eux : Paulin Hountondji, Marcien Towa, Stanislas Spero Adotevi, V.Y. Mudimbe, Souleymane Bachir Diagne.

Social anthropology has not worked out logically from basic theoretical proposition a higher order theory. Rather it has formulated a series of propositions on a first level based on direct observation. Whereas in e.g. natural sciences such observations and propositions are cumulatively brought together in higher level theories, Social Anthropology has not put together all-embracing laws in a similar fashion.


From evolution to function

A Kuper, 1988 The invention of primitive society. Transformations of an illusion J Urry, 1998 "Making sense of diversity and complexity" in A Herle & S Rouse (eds) Cambridge and the Torres Strait George W Stocking, 1984 ‘Introduction’ in Stocking (ed) Functionalism historicized (also R Jones, Smith & Frazer) B Malinowski, 1944 A scientific theory of culture (CUP) B Malinowski, 1929 Sexual Northwestern Melanesia (chapter 1)

Theorizing inequality

F Engels 1891 The origin of the family, private property & the state R Lee 1982 ‘Politics sexual & non-sexual in the Kalahari’ in E Leacock & R Lee (eds) Politics and history in band society (CUP) R Lee 1982 ‘Politics sexual & nonsexual in an egalitarian society’ in E Leacock & R Lee eds Politics and history in band society (CUP) H Moore 1988 ‘Kinship, labour & household’ in Moore, Feminism and anthropology (chap 4) T R Trautman 1987 ‘Generalizing Iroquois’ in Lewis Henry Morgan & the invention of kinship L Josephides 1985 The production of inequality. Gender & exchange among the Kewa

Structuralism: systems of thought

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976). Edmund Leach, ‘Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse’, in E. H. Lenneberg (ed.) New Directions in the Study of Language (MIT Press, Cambridge MA., 1964); also in W. A. Lessa and E. Z. Vogt (eds.) Reader in Comparative Religion 4th ed. (HarperCollins, London, 1979). Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss (Collins, London, 1970/1996). John Sturrock (ed.), Structuralism and Since (OUP, 1979). Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Jealous Potter (U of Chicago Press, 1988). Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1985).

Culture as language - culture as text

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. (Basic Books, New York, 1973). Sherry B. Ortner, Sherpas Through their Rituals (CUP, 1978). James Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986). P. Steven Sangren, ‘Rhetoric and the Authority of Ethnography: "Postmodernism" and the Social Reproduction of Texts’. Current Anthropology, 29/3 (1988).

Individuals, transactions, agency

A Giddens 1979 Central problems in social theory (Macmillan) B Malinowski 1935 ‘Introduction’ Coral Gardens & their magic (George Allen & Unwin London) F. Barth 1983 Sohar. Culture & society in an Omani town (F. Barth 1959 Political leadership among Swat Pathans) (and/or: F.G. Bailey 1970 Stratagems and spoils) Edmund Leach 1977 Custom, law and terrorist violence (and/or Leach Political systems of highland Burma) M Strathern ‘Agency’ pp 21-25 & J Nash ‘Gender attributes & equality’ in M Strathern (ed) 1987 Dealing with inequality

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