Bumper-Sticker Theory <debate> <long>

Sat, 17 Feb 1996 01:36:00 PST

McCreery quotes:

"In reply to JMartin's suggestion,

>How about a thread on why functionalism and
structuralism were discarded

Martin Cohen writes,

"A bit of oversimplification, but here is my quick take on
this: It would be nice to say it is because they were
replaced by models that work better and tell us more, or
least direct us to better research. But I think the real
reason is that academics is driven, to a large extent, by
fads....." "

and replies:

"I say, Hallelujah! Here I would add the proposition that the
state of affairs Martin describes reflects the pervasive
market-orientation that now permeates academia as much
as the rest of modern life."

McCreery continues with a nice quote on ads wherein one can make the
replacment ads <--> academic theory.

Unfortunately there is a tendency here to generalize the experience of
anthropological academics to all academics as if there is no variation within
the domain of academics. The problem alluded to by Martin does NOT
characterize academic theorizing in general but, I would suggest, arises more
often in arenas where there is a failure to develop an effective means to
develop and extend theories via the logic of their assumptions. The shift
from, say Newtonian notions of space to Einsteinean notions of space/time has
the characteristic of embedding the former as a limiting case of the latter;
i.e., the paradigm shift did not entail the kind of discarding of whole
theories as Martin notes has occurred in anthropology, but built upon,
extended, etc. the earlier framework.

As Martin suggests, shifts such as functionalism to structuralism to
post-modernism can hardly be characterized as either elaboration/extension of
frameworks or as shifts to theories that are more solidly grounded than
previous theories.

I teach a course on hunter/gatherers and we discuss several theoretical
frameworks (e.g., cultural ecology, functionalism, structuralism) not from
the viewpoint of one being "more correct" than another, but from the
viewpoint of each framework addressing a part of a larger whole and the need
to relate the question being asked to a theoretical paradigm relevant to that
question. What I want the students to understand is that the complexity of
human societies is not effectively encompassed by any particular paradigm but
that aspects of a given society may be effectively addressed by one paradigm,
yet other aspects of the same society may not. Or, one paradigm may be
effective for one society, yet be of limited use for another society.

The fact that theorizing in anthropology is horizontal rather than vertical
is problematic as it leads to stagnation and the less-than-helpful kind of
opposition that has occurred between post-modernists and "scientific"
anthropology. Functionalism virtually became a dirty word; structuralism is
discarded as if it were intellectually bankrupt, yet I suspect that closer
inspection would show that at issue is not so much the conceptual framework,
but its application as if it were a suffcient and total theoretical paradigm
for understanding the nature of human societies.

D. Read