Another perennial question: soc anthro & sociology

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 04:08:21 -0500

Elizabeth Becker says she had to swallow her pride to ask what is the
difference between sociology and social anthropology. That's hardly an
appropriate feeling: if the answer were easy, we'd have seen some
agreement among those who've already sent their individual answers to
ANTHRO-L. The fact that those answers come close to contradicting each
other suggests to me that there may be some value in looking at the
question before looking for more answers.

Of late, the list has been rather occupied with other perennial questions
that seem to pop up here around this time of the year. The two that have
occupied most bandwidth lately are "what is culture" and "what is

What the questions about sociology/social anthro, culture, and religion
have in common is that AS POSED they cannot possibly be answered. Their
common problem lies in that word "is".

Folks, these are questions about definitions. If I say "culture is art
and artifact" and you say "culture is shared tradition" (with or without
additional words about "socially learned and transmitted", et whatever
cetera either of us cares to add) there is absolutely no way to show that
you are right and I am wrong, or that I am right and you are wrong. Maybe
there might be a chance that somebody would be inconsistent about which
definition they're using from one point to the next, but that kind of
sloppiness would do nothing to prove that any given underlying definition
is "wrong".

You can't have meaningful debate about a meaningless question.

So let's go back a step and rephrase the questions into the form that has
been implicit in a couple of weeks of discussion here. Why not ask, to
take Elizabeth Becker's subject, "how can we pose some interesting or
useful questions about differences between social anthropology and social
anthropology?" I'll get back to that anon.

To get there, let me try rephrasing that religion question which has
occupied much of the talk of the last couple of weeks on this list. I have
already rejected "what is religion" as unanswerable. What happens if we
try "Is there some reason to believe that something like what we call
religion in our culture is a cultural universal?"

We've already seen that that question won't go anywhere, either. It
falls apart as soon as anyone asks "whaddya mean, 'something like'? How
UNlike does it have to be before it won't fit under your tent? And how
do you recognize whether or how something else is or isn't like what we
call religion in our culture?"

I think the problem we've been nibbling at really has been "how do we
propose questions that call for reference to empirical reality, rather
than definitional logic, if we want to examine the proposition that
religion is a cultural universal?" No, this question does not assume the
universality of religion: far from it. I'm pushing for questions which a
priori keep open both possibilities: we might conclude that religion IS or
it IS NOT a cultural universal. It doesn't get us any forwarder to say
that Sir G. Gosh McWhizz said "religion IS this or that because I've
thought about it a lot and I say so", or that Dr. Sigismund Floop holds
that "religion MUST be universal because that's the way I say the human
mind works", or that "what you're talking about doesn't fit MY definition
of religion at all". It's more than a matter of taste to say that I prefer
statements taking the form of "when we look at all cultures, or a
reasonable sample of all cultures, if we see this, this, and this in every
one of them, whatever it is that we're talking about is universal (or is
likely to be, if we looked at a sample). If we find a culture that doesn't
have any of them, then the stuff we're looking for is not universal."

Need I add that it's no fair playing the game of finding a culture that
doesn't have any of the specific things we said we were looking for, AND
THEREFORE either adding to the list or saying that what we do see there
"really" is the same as one of the things we listed, to prove that we're
looking at a universal. Neither is it fair to find a culture that only
has one of the things on the list, AND THEREFORE strike that item from
the list, to prove that we're not looking at a universal.

Of course that's not where the ANTHRO-L discussion of religion has been
going, is it?

Now back to the sociology/social anthropology business. Elizabeth
Becker's original question speaks of "these TEND TO do this, those TEND TO
do that". I think that we'd all agree that's true about the broad methods
she cited, ethnography and survey research. At least some sociologists,
and at least some anthropologists, use each of them. Right away, that
tells us we're not going to be able to frame a definition that draws a
hard and fast line on those specific grounds.

This answer would have to be lots longer than it already is to examine all
the kinds of lines people have tried to draw between social anthropology
and sociology, and to demonstrate one by one that all of them have
exceptions. I can summarize by saying that whatever we gain by framing a
definition in terms of disciplinary history, or the kinds of questions
asked, or both methods and methodologies, or where and among what people
the discipline does its research, or anything else I've been able to come
up with that might fit, no definition I have ever seen is so clear and so
well done that all sociologists and no social anthropologists fall on one
side of the line, and all social anthropologists and no sociologists fall
on the other.

You might even say that I'm begging the question when I say THE discipline
about either of these academic fields. In my experience, neither is all
that unified. That experience includes lots of years in an anthropology
department, naturally. Nonetheless, somewhere back in time I was hired to
teach in what was then called the department of sociology at Purdue
University. (In my first year there, the department name was changed to
anthropology and sociology. We sneaked into first position by asking for
alphabetical order.) There were three and a half of "us" against around
thirty of "them" at the time: what I saw was mostly an inside view of a
sociology department despite the new name.

In my view, then, both "anthropology" and "sociology" are diversified
holding companies, not unitary disciplines. Sometimes the fights within a
department containing only one of those words in its title are deeper, and
much more bitter, than any disagreements between "the" anthropology
department and "the" sociology department at the same university. I have
certainly found it much easier to work with *some* people working in
sociology departments than with *some* social anthropologists in
anthropology departments. (And let's not even get started in considering
whether anthropology does or does not or should or should not consist of
four -- or five or six or whatever number grabs you -- fields, not to
mention whether everyone seeking an anthro degree should or should not
have some exposure to all of those fields. That's another perennial
question we took up last year, and the year before, and . . . )

If I'm really forced to give some kind of answer to this particular
perennial question, I shift it to the question "how can you tell if a
particular person is a social anthropologist or a sociologist?" When I do
so, I imply that if there is any hard and fast distinction that covers
nearly all cases, it is to be found in a practitioner's allegiance to a
specific social group. (At the outset, I grant that dual allegiance is
possible. For reasons too complex to go into here, I'd expect that to be
a rare kind of outcome.)

So how do I tell about someone's social allegiances? The easy way is to
say that someone who received a Ph.D. from an anthropology department,
goes to annual meetings of the AAA, subscribes to Current Anthropology,
consistently publishes in books and journals that include the word
anthropology in their titles, teaches in a department of anthropology, and
trains students to do the same, is telling you something. It's more than
enough to demonstrate allegiance to anthropology. (Fill in your own
references to comparable statements about a sociologist.)

In those terms I sure as hell am an anthropologist, no matter how many
students I direct in doing survey research. The fact that I want my
students to have read Durkheim and Mannheim and Habermas as deeply as they
have read Radcliffe-Brown and Boas and Kroeber doesn't take me out of
anthro. Some of my doctoral students have worked, or are working, on
street gangs in Chicago; African students in U.S. universities; the role
of the newspaper, *The Chicago Defender*, in promoting the great black
demographic shift from the US south to Chicago; Mexican-American women in
an electronics factory; and fifteen-year-old unmarried mothers living in a
housing project in Joliet, Illinois. Their subject matter sounds
sociological. I'm not worried about it: these students came to me for
training and direction in anthropological methods, and that's what I have
to give them. (To confuse things even more, they come to me from a
program called "Leadership and educational policy studies" in our college
of education. Anthropology does not have a doctoral program at this

Remember, though, that there are going to be anomalous cases. I got to
know the late Erving Goffmann by seeing him at AAA meetings, and I have a
colleague who is proud to have been his student when she got her PhD in
anthropology. His degree was in sociology, if it matters. His work
straddled sociology, anthropology, psychology, and a lot more, and I doubt
that he would have called himself an anthropologist and nothing more in
any setting whatsoever. Consider, for that matter, someone I see every
year at professional anthropology meetings, who has published many books
with the word anthropology in their titles, is a full professor in one of
our leading anthropology departments -- and considers himself to be a
historian, not an anthropologist. (That's George Stocking, of course.)

By the way, I have deliberately avoided looking into the question of
cross-national variations in the uses of the terms "sociology" and
"social anthropology". Generally speaking, most of the people who call
themselves "social anthropologists" are the inheritors of traditions that
trace back to Radcliffe-Brown. That's about today in the Commonwealth and
historically about the days when anthropology at the University of
Chicago was an outpost of the British Empire. In Great Britain, R-B's
descendants frequently call themselves "sociologists" in the first
place. And R-B got into the game as a disciple of Emile Durkheim,
especially as in *Les regles de la methode sociologique*. (How I wish we
could put italics into e-mail messages!) R-B's kind of social anthro is
a living testimonial to Durkheim's dictum: "the determining cause of a
social fact must be sought in antecedent social facts, and not in states
of the individual consciousness". (And for those who have been trying to
answer the "what is culture" question here, R-B always said he was a
student of society, not culture, anyhow.)

The intellectual descendants of Franz Boas, particularly those of the
school's West Coast branch under Kroeber, mean something so different by
the words "social anthropology" that they are, literally, unintelligible
to R-B's descendants.

And as for what gets called "sociologie" in France today, ever since
Levi-Strauss arrived on the scene only God knows what the French mean by
the term. You'd certainly have a hard time getting two French scholars
to agree on a definition!

Now does that help dispose of, if not answer, your question?

-- mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !