Monday, March 4, 2013

The Guardian on Anthropology

In the Guardian today there is an article about the Yanomami, and how one of the greatest experts on them, Napoleon Chagnon, iscriticised for describing some of the more violent aspects of their society. Some of the criticisms are from anthropologists who have also worked with them, and who dispute some of his descriptions, but the majority seems to be from people who complain thathe  is not playing the proper progressive role of the social anthropolgist, which apparently is to ignore the observed facts and describe them within the terms of the required narrative, as exploited by modern capitalism, living in harmony with nature,  having a great deal to teach, and a moral right to exclusive ownership of the land they live on, etc. The truth does not appear to matter much and this is a great shame.

The early ethnographers of the 19th and 20th centuries were concerned with learning about the societies they studied. They lived within them, not beside them, learning the language and the way they saw the world, to better understand not only what they did but why they did it. These observatiuons were framed within a number of reference paradigms, rather than being indiscriminately assessed in terms of the ethnographers own culture. The purpose of this was the purpose of all science, to allow the truth about a particular society to be discovered. One of my heroes, Bronislaw Malinowski, in the introduction to 'Argonauts of the Western Pacific', sets it out very clearly.

In the article, Chagnon is quoted as saying the following:

"In the past 20 or so years the field of cultural anthropology in the United States has come precipitously close to abandoning the very notion of science,"

"Those departments of anthropology whose members adhere to the scientific method will endure and again come to be the 'standard approach' to the study of Homo sapiens, while those that are non-scientific will become less and less numerous or eventually be absorbed into disciplines that are non-anthropological, like comparative literature, gender studies, philosophy and others,"

I shoul d say that the article is surprisingly good, and even the comments are, on the whole, worth looking at, if only to get a feel for the terms of the argument. This one, for example, describes what was once the goal of anthropology quite well.

A few months ago, a blog that I used to read regularly (when it was updated regularly) published this article lamenting the fact that Anthropology is the lowest paid and least prestigious of sciences in the US. The comments demonstrated perfectly why this is so. I left the following comment which is very similar to the Chagnon quote above:

The fact that you think anthropology can prove the superiority of big government probably goes a long way towards explaining why it is so little respected. What was once (and in part still is, I imagine) a rigorous observational science has become, to the public eye, and apparently to the academic one too, conflated with sociology, cultural studies, lit crit and generalized hokum.
I suspect that is largely the fault of those who have been doing anthropology over the last decades. They have made the public face of anthropology political rather than scientific.

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