Noise for Airports

a blog about culture, sound, music, and technology.

updated occasionally by Nick Seaver.  

Extirpation and Variation

Master troll Razib Khan has a couple new blog posts calling for the eradication of cultural anthropology, on the familiar grounds that the discipline is epistemologically muddled and politically tainted:

[C]larity is not something that seems to be valued by cultural anthropologists in most domains. I say most, because there is one area where many of them are quite clear: they are the beacons of toleration and justice.

[Cultural anthropologists] have totally erased the line between being advocates for their causes, and being observers of the world around them.

In sum, the field has become more political movement and social advocacy collective, than a scholarly enterprise.

The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn’t that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy.

The argument is lazy enough (and, as Khan admits, not intended to start a discussion) that it is not worth addressing in detail here. Basically, cultural anthropologists are understood to be either hamstrung by postmodernism or blinded by political advocacy. Both of these problems have the same result: cultural anthropology cannot be “science” (or “scholarly,” as Khan glosses it) because it puts the cart before the horse, knowing what results it wants to find in advance and using obfuscatory language to get there. We are beyond recovery, logic, or reason, lost among the natives with our heads stuck up our asses, and should be rooted out and scattered to the advocacy groups, adjacent disciplines, and service industry jobs where we belong.

I have no doubt that anthropologists exist that meet Khan’s description. There are misguided people in any discipline. One of the sad joys of disciplinarity is that it allows people to be wrong in an astonishing variety of ways: errors in mathematics or biology are different from errors in sociology or literary criticism, and responses to error differ as well. Where I depart from Khan and others who have ventured the same old critique (hi everyone) is that I do not think these errors are particularly widespread, and I am certain that they do not encompass the variation of technique and theory within contemporary cultural anthropology.

With a crusader’s zeal, Khan imagines his enemy population as all alike (though only unified through its shambling lack of discipline and overabundance of narcissism), even shooting wide of the mark and imagining that the advocacy efforts of literal professional advocates are somehow evidence of the pernicious taint of cultural anthropology. Intentionally taking on the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing is an odd choice, to say the least, but Khan makes no illusions about the fact that he is on a purifying quest. Discussion or uneasy coexistence are impossible, and the only option left is extirpation.


Instead of defending my discipline against Khan’s polemical rant, I want to answer a more productive question: What use is cultural anthropology?

Cultural anthropology is useful, I think, because of its focus on two things: mundane life and variation.

People tend to think that their daily lives are unremarkable. Most likely, nothing much happened this week — you went to work, you ate some meals, maybe you spent time with your family or at a religious service. If you are a scientist or employed by one, then you probably spent much of your week in a lab or in the field, doing things that have come to seem ordinary. Pick two people, from different sides of the globe or even different sides of town, and their weeks will look quite different. Dating, driving, working, cooking, walking, spending, and even reasoning vary to a surprising degree.

This variation is the basic fact of culture, and it has serious implications: everything you think you know about human nature could potentially be otherwise. Think marriage is essentially between one man and one woman? See fraternal polyandry in the Himalayas. Think cogito ergo sum? See how people around the world imagine “selves” that divide and circulate through other people and material objects. It doesn’t matter whether particular human features turn out to exist everywhere; the point is that human existence and the stories we tell about it are radically variable. What you see as the bedrock of human nature, someone else sees as a bizarre aberration.

Ordinary life (science included) is a profusion of stories — and stories do not have to be false — that tie together different groups of people, objects, and processes into causal chains and communities. Stories, regardless of their truth value, can have wide-ranging consequences. The stories that cultural anthropologists tell are about other storytellers, and we spend a lot of time working out the consequences of this meta-storytelling: How do we make sense of coexisting, but apparently contradictory, stories? How do we locate stories in the contexts where they are told? How do we track stories in their rise, fall, and variation? How do the reasons people tell stories coincide and diverge?

In cultural anthropology, we tend to tell two broad types of meta-stories: nomothetic and idiographic. Nomothetic stories are law-seeking, looking for general rules that govern variation. Idiographic stories draw out the details of particular cases (which, given the extent of human variation, is not a straightforward as it might sound). The signature of cultural anthropology is a concern with local detail, which we get at through ethnography — long term engagement with the members of a cultural group. I personally tend toward the idiographic (inspired by the goofy man up top, Franz Boas, and his brand of historical particularism), but even for the most abstract nomothetic storyteller, the ethnographic details of culture in all their variation are foundational.

The question is how to tell stories about this variation. Materialist or naturalist approaches like Jared Diamond’s (or Khan’s, for that matter), are “scientific” in the sense that they trace cultural phenomena back to the influence of non-human things: food, genes, environment. They are generally nomothetic, looking for explanatory laws. This approach is not necessarily at odds with cultural anthropology — in fact, it has been a large part of cultural anthropology from its origins. However, materialism alone does not tell the whole story, and it does not exhaust the possibilities for a rigorous and, indeed, scientific engagement with culture. When cultural anthropologists take issue with Diamond, it is not because he aims to generalize, but because we take issue with the ethnographic details he uses to support his claims or the connections he draws between details and general laws.

Good cultural anthropology acknowledges the inevitable fact that research is always part of someone’s mundane life. Scientists and other makers of knowledge are not working from a blank slate. Our interest in culture is itself cultural. Research into culture is not an encounter between a completely objective observer and a subjective “culture,” but rather an encounter between people with different aims, stories about the world, and, often, amounts of power. Instead of attempting to erase ourselves from the scene (in order to claim a dubious form of “objectivity”), cultural anthropologists acknowledge that we are there. There is no view from nowhere, and even the most objective of sciences are built in the daily lives of ordinary people. When studying culture, the object of interest is precisely mundane life, and there is no better starting point than to be there — our methodological discussions in cultural anthropology circulate around just how complicated “being there” turns out to be.

In many cases, our interest in the variety of human experience coincides with political concerns: there is an incredible amount of violence in the world perpetrated against variation in the name of unity (and not only by cultural anthropology’s supposed bogeyman, the straight white European male). As experts in variation, often with longstanding relationships in the communities we study, it is not surprising that cultural anthropologists make for well-informed and passionate advocates.

It is worth noting that there is significant variation within cultural anthropology itself and that the story I tell here is itself one among many, its terms open for debate and revision. This is the view from my little corner of cultural anthropology, dedicated to the varied stories of mundane life. The basic interest in variation, however, is something that I find shared across cultural anthropology (and other forms of anthropology as well). Khan’s inability to see the variety within cultural anthropology might, ironically, be remedied by using some of the methods he so passionately opposes.

In the end, the stories made by cultural anthropologists coexist with other stories, by scientists and non-scientists alike; they do not simply supersede the stories told by “ordinary” people, because we are ordinary people ourselves, and this is not how stories work in practice. Stories sit alongside each other, resonating at some frequencies while diverging in others, they are picked up opportunistically by people with particular aims, and, of course, they vary. There is always more to say, and there is always more than one thing to say.