Anthropology in crisis – what, still?
Fifteen years ago, Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart declared that "anthropology has been in crisis for as long as anyone can remember" (here). Has anything really changed? Today, anthropology remains a discipline riddled with rival paradigms, ferocious disputes, and fleeting fashions. Few basic principles of theory and method are agreed upon and even the general nature of anthropological knowledge is continually being contested. Cumulative theory building is rare and difficult to sustain. Why?
Perhaps part of the answer is that humans are not naturally adept at reasoning about complex social morphology. As our societies have grown in size and complexity, we have witnessed the emergence of a vast plethora of specialized offices and corporate groups based on a broad range of sorting principles: kinship, descent, rank, caste, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. Categories of office, coalition, and class are no more than idealized models of how the social world is organized, rather than precise descriptions of how it operates on the ground but they provide robust schemas for individual behaviour, cumulatively instantiating patterns that people reciprocally interpret in terms of those schemas. These schemas, however, are a relatively modern and potentially dispensable accretion to human thinking, too recent in our evolutionary history to have led to specialized cognitive skills for reasoning about social complexity. The same could not be said of human reasoning in many other domains.
As part of our evolutionary endowment, we possess dedicated intuitive machinery for reasoning about physical properties (such as solidity and gravity), biological properties (such as essentialized differences between natural kinds), and psychological properties (such as a capacity to empathize with suffering). Our intuitive physics, intuitive biology, and intuitive psychology may have to be substantially revised in light of the discoveries ofscientific physics/ biology/ psychology but our intuitions often also deliver useful reference points and pedagogic tools. For instance, while our intuitions about the discreteness and stability of natural kind taxonomies are inconsistent with the diachronic character of evolutionary processes, nevertheless they provide a convenient on-the-hoof framework within which to conceptualize speciation.
Problems arise, however, when some of our intuitively grounded ontological commitments also serve as markers of identity.
In order to function in that way, such commitments must cause us to differ discernibly from other people so as to become a locus of conflict. If you and I share the intuitively grounded explicit belief that certain features of the natural environment are the outcome of intentional design, then we can live in peace with that delusion. But if somebody challenges those beliefs with an alternative account (e.g. that the features in question were caused by some other agent or by no agent at all) we have a basis for conflict, especially where competition for resources, either symbolic or material (or both), depends on who comes down on which side of the debate. In this particular case, some evolutionary biologists and their supporters have been drawn into protracted disputes with young earth creationists and proponents of intelligent design. In scientific circles, however, these kinds of battles tend to be somewhat peripheral to the day-to-day business of formulating hypotheses and gathering data to test them. Any competent biologist who has the slightest sympathy for certain variants of ID, would (despite this oddity) be doing the same kind of science as anybody else in that field. Likewise, an astrophysicist with theistic commitments is not necessarily hampered in the conduct of good scientific research on the origins of the universe that would be recognized as such by atheistic colleagues. Imagine, by contrast, a domain of scholarly enquiry that based its theories on multiple and conflicting intuitions about the basic nature of the phenomena under study. It would struggle to get off the ground because of interminable turf wars among competing coalitions with widely differing foundational assumptions about the nature and purpose of scholarly enquiry. Unfortunately, we don't have to imagine it. That is exactly the problem, or at least has been the problem historically, with social and cultural anthropology.
Since we lack dedicated cognitive machinery for reasoning about social complexity, we are prone to borrowing intuitions proper to alien ontological domains. Consequently social scientists at turns reify institutions, biologize social categories, anthropomorphise offices, and mentalize corporate groups. Consider the following examples in scholarly sociologizing.
Instances of teleological reasoning about the social are obviously rampant in functionalist and Marxist traditions in the social sciences. For example, the theory of social functions (as elaborated by several generations of British anthropologists since Malinowski) maintained that every social institution serves to bolster some other institution (or cluster of institutions) so as to contribute to the maintenance of stable social systems. Marxist scholars have often adopted similar strategies of reasoning, except that the functions of political, legal, and religious institutions are typically said to serve the interests not of society as a whole but of a particular sector of society (the ruling class).
Just as we are prone to deploy artefact cognition in sociological reasoning, so we are also inclined to treat certain types of persons as natural kinds, based on analogical extension of intuitive knowledge about the biological world. The temptation to biologize the social world grows stronger as societies become larger, more heterogeneous, and the division of labour more elaborate. It is no accident that Emile Durkheim coined the term "organic solidarity" to characterize this type of social morphology. Biologizing the social can lead us also to essentialize institutions, especially where particular offices or membership of social groups and categories are transmittable from parent to offspring. Where that is not the case (for instance where there is great occupational mobility, where people join and leave clubs and associations at will, where religious affiliations are chosen rather than ascribed, etc.) we may be less likely to essentialize the social. But where people's roles and identities are determined by birth and shared with ancestors, the speciation of social categories is hard to resist.
Despite or perhaps because of the extensive tendency for the man or woman "on the street" to biologize social categories (for instance in racial stereotyping) this way of reasoning is highly problematic for liberal academics, nowadays at least. Efforts, particularly in the nineteenth century, to carve up humanity into distinct races based on phenotypic characteristics seems to most contemporary social scientists at least as distasteful as it is biologically indefensible. But that is not to say that intuitive biology has ceased to play a role in social theorizing. A particularly widespread, if largely unexamined practice in social and cultural anthropology is (and probably has always been) to talk about cultural traditions as at least implicitly analogous to biological species, especially when threatened with extinction. There are striking continuities for instance between the ways in which some anthropologists reason about the rights of small-scale societies to preserve their traditional beliefs and practices, and the way conservationists campaign for the protection of endangered species. Even though anthropologists have become increasingly sensitive to the contested nature of cultural traditions, and their embedding in wider regional and global processes of economic expansion and political struggle, there remains a widespread intuition that all traditions should be respected and preserved, that there is no moral high ground beyond the local cultural universe from which we can justly impose reform. And from that relativistic perspective cultural and linguistic diversity comes to be valued by more or less explicit comparison with the taxonomic richness and diversity of the natural world.
Just as we are tempted to borrow from artefact cognition and intuitive biology when reasoning about complex sociocultural phenomena, we are no less inclined to draw on our intuitive psychology for similar purposes. For instance, the so-called "culture and personality" school in American anthropology, inspired by the ideas of Franz Boas and Sigmund Freud, was premised on the idea that variable childrearing practices lead to the predominance of certain personality types at a population level, allowing us to generalize about tribes and nations rather as we might about the character of an old friend. Under Durkheim's influence also the tendency to anthropomorphize social groups and categories has been a recurrent theme, featuring prominently for instance in the ideas of L'Année Sociologique whose members talked freely and enthusiastically about such things as "collective memory" and "collective conscience". Some of these ideas have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years – indeed, around the turn of the millennium it was practically impossible to find a major conference in any of the arts, humanities, or social science disciplines that did not in some way emphasize the theme of memory, and in particular its putatively collective or social character as understood by social theorists.
The trouble with grounding our ideas about the sociocultural realm in intuitive thinking borrowed from other domains is not merely that we discover these to be, inevitably, inadequate tools for the job. True, social and cultural institutions are not really artefacts with functions, organisms with essences, or minds with collective personalities or memories. But if that were the only problem, it would be relatively easy to surmount (in comparison with the more intractable problem to which we presently turn). After all, mature sciences are accustomed to explaining that our intuitions – for instance about the cosmos, or the natural world, or the mind – are only going to take us so far and then we have to abandon them. It is not that those intuitions then disappear. It may still seem to us that the sun moves across the sky (rather than the earth round the sun) or that some kind of intentional agent is responsible for selecting the characteristics of biological species (rather than effects of random mutation and ecology on the fitness of organisms). But with sufficient education and intelligence we can realize, and remember when reasoning explicitly, that things are not as they seem. Where it gets tricky is when people's identities become wrapped up in a particular intuitive construal of the world. This is how Galileo wound up under house arrest as punishment for his heretical claims about the structure of the solar system. Even today intuitive forms of biblical literalism are belligerently espoused by Christian fundamentalists. The problem gets worse, much worse, when the same phenomena attract mutually exclusive and competing intuitive claims, upon which professional reputations are pinned.
Every time a new school of thought has emerged in social anthropology, anchored in borrowed intuitions, it has eventually provoked a backlash of objections from those inspired by alternative intuitions. Often the arguments are less about the issues at stake and more about whose intuitions should prevail. Ultimately, however, all are losers. Functionalism, for instance, is now considered a dirty word in social anthropology where once it had been a more or less paradigmatic method of ethnographic enquiry. Why? Because whereas we could trace the functions of real tools and artefacts to the intentions of ancestral (and sometime historical) individuals, nobody could explain how institutions came to have the useful properties that functionalists ascribed to them. Of course there were other causes of embarrassment too: we found that societies were seldom if ever trapped in a state of functionally integrated equilibrium: looking a little closer we always found a writhing morass of contestation and struggle rather than consensus and harmony; looking a little longer we found upheaval and transformation rather than stability and social reproduction. But although often cited as the reason for functionalism's downfall, such considerations are less than compelling. There is no reason why tendencies towards functional integration should not be possible to demonstrate in principle, and arguably these have been repeatedly demonstrated in practice. So we return to the real nub of the problem: if institutions really do have functions then this cannot be understandable in terms of intuitive teleology. An alternative possibility is considered presently.
But before we can begin to contemplate solutions to this sorry state of affairs, we have to attend to an even deeper tragedy. Disillusioned by all attempts to discover a sociological method grounded in stable intuitions, social theorists in the second half of the last century began to look for ideas with increasing desperation almost anywhere, creating texts about culture that go wildly beyond the dull world in which everyday culture is produced and transmitted. We become distracted by the suggestiveness of our own language through the creation of jargon and stylistic innovations and we decorate the limited interpretations of informants with vastly more fanciful and appealing interpretations of our own. In this runaway inflation of ideas, almost anything goes, as long as it is new and different. Soon the idea of interpreting culture is not enough, it must be experienced, lived, embodied, or, as one leading anthropologist has recently suggested, "enwinded".
We can only escape this descent into absurdity by finding a robust and encompassing scientific framework on which to construct our questions and pursue answers. Such a framework is unlikely to have intuitive appeal and partly for that reason will likely be hard to spread and sustain. By way of illustration, consider the discovery (by social anthropologists Alan Fiske and Nick Haslam – see here) that recurrent features of cultural rituals closely resemble the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (or OCD), a correspondence that Pascal Boyer and Pierre Lienard have recently sought to explain in terms of the workings of a specialized cognitive system (dysfunctional in OCD patients) concerned with triggering precautionary responses to potential hazards. While this new body of research may significantly advance our understanding of some features of ritualized behaviour, it certainly does not (and is not intended to) explain in general terms why people perform rituals or why they vary in frequency and emotionality, or why they recruit various ideas about the involvement of supernatural agents, and so on. So easily is this point misunderstood, that that authors of the hazard-precaution theory of ritual were tempted to forewarn readers that they were offering not a theory of ritual but a theory of "XB23" (a random string of letters and numbers chosen to represent the specific aspects of ritualized behaviour picked out by their theory). There is little intuitive (or even culturally familiar) about this procedure. While that may be a problem in communicating the value of scientific approaches to wider audiences, it is also a great strength if we are dealing with phenomena that conflicting intuitions have led us to argue about so unproductively.