Re: sci.anthro ???

Marc W.D. Tyrrell (
Fri, 18 Aug 1995 16:26:14 GMT

In article <4138sf$> (Norman Sides) writes:
>From: (Norman Sides)
>Subject: Re: sci.anthro ???
>Date: 18 Aug 1995 16:48:31 -0700

>[snip] Some of the threads in this group are interesting, and there's nothing
>wrong with discussions of pyramid building or word derivations, the origins
>of particular ethnic customs and so forth, but where is the central focus?
>There doesn't seem to be much meat for the students and interested amateurs
>to get their teeth into. What are the new ideas firing the imaginations of
>young anthropologists? Is this field still alive and growing?

Well, speaking purely personally, I think the field is still alive and growing
<grin>. As to "what are the new ideas...", probably the best way to answer
that is to say that there are no central ideas. Rather, from what I have seen
at conferences, the emphasis seems to be on trying out new forms of synthesis.

>As a former anthropology and sociology buff, I know there are some issues I
>would like to see addressed. The concept of culture is supposedly the
>foundation on which cultural anthropology is based. What is it precisely?

Unknown <grin>, and in any given work it is a matter of definition. A number
of collegues I work with are starting to go back to the root meaning of
"culture" (as in "cultivate"), and taking that as the basis.

>How do biologically influenced abilities and predispositions figure in the
>creation and maintenance of organized cultural systems?

Well, if you take the loose definition of culture used above, they have quite
an influence. Individual cultural patterns would be based around
emvironmentally selected response to biological "unfoldings". OK, translation
into English <grin>. We have a fairly good idea of how human beings develope
in childhood, at least at neurological levels. we can use this information to
examine cultural response patterns and compare these response patterns to the
social (and physical) environment.

>I know these questions, and many others I could ask, are broad and
>ill-defined. I'd like to learn more so that I could frame more intelligent
>questions. If cultural anthropology deals with "all aspects of studying
>mankind," it ought to provide conceptual tools by which one could at least
>begin to ask the right sorts of questions.

Too true! The trick seems to be to find concepts that work well at a level
greater than that of an individual culture <grin>. In some ways, we are
following Boas' old injunction about getting the data first <grin>. Actually,
I think that what is happening is that we are in the position where our
assumptions about what we can study are no longer politically valid. The phase
we seem to be going through is to discover how we can apply what we do know to
areas we have not traditionally examined.

>Is cultural anthropology no longer asking fundamental questions? Is it no
>longer developing new conceptual tools?

Sure we are! But we are also in a process of "translating" many of our older
tools into today's reality.

>Is it never going to be a "real" science? If anthropological ideas are
>to remain relevant they have to continue to develop and change, as
>societies and cultures are themselves changing. Fixed mindsets can stultify
>any science. Of course it may be that cultural and social anthropology
>are alive and dynamic, but it's not much reflected in this newsgroup.

Well, I don't know if we are ever going to be "a "real" science" in the way
that physics is a "real" science <grin>. Can an electron study electrons? But
if you mean a "real" science in the sense of constantly testing out our ideas
against "reality", then yes we both are and have been a "real" science. IMHO,
you are quite right about "fixed mindsets" but, as Kuhn noted, that is part
and parcel of the activities of sience.

>My apologies to any anthropologists who may be offended by these half-baked
>and ill-informed pronouncements. Consider them a troll. I just wondered
>what sort of response they might evoke.


Marc W.D. Tyrrell
Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
7th Floor, Loeb Building,
Carleton University, Vox: (613) 746-2924
1125 Colonel By Drive, Fax: (613) 788-4062
Ottawa, Ontario email: