Re: sci.anthro ???

Norman Sides (
20 Aug 1995 20:33:46 -0700

Marc W.D. Tyrrell ( wrote:

: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.

Synthesis is good, I think, though I'm not clear on what kind of
synthesis you mean. If you mean that anthropology is trying to assimilate
concepts, methods, knowledge bases or areas of inquiry of other
disciplines, it's doubtless the right direction to take, but you need your
own central ideas. Otherwise how do you integrate the whole thing into a
coherent system of thought? how do you define your own discipline's
approach and mission? Without central ideas you leave yourself open to
the old charge that cultural anthropology is just a form of natural
history and not a true science. With your traditional field of
investigation - small, isolated, culturally homogeneous "primitive"
societies - fast disappearing, some will say you no longer have anything
unique to contribute.

: >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.

It's a though nut to crack. Culture, like the human mind, is one of the
deep mysteries (and these two mysteries seem subtly linked).
It appears that anthropologists, in working with this mystery, are forced to
use definitions that may be adequate to a particular limited area of
investigation, but which lack "portability," or to make do with broader and
more ambiguous conceptions that provide a general framework.
In any "hard" science they would be regarded as no more than heuristic
guidelines, descriptions, lists and analogies. The root meaning of
culture as "cultivation" is richly suggestive but vague.

The early physicists had it easy with their f = m * a. They could work
with simple well defined concepts of high generality and great predictive
power. The early anthropologists, on the other hand, chose as their basic
concept something that seemed to be *there* wherever they looked but was
hard to pin down. So they just went ahead and did field work (often very
good field work) and didn't worry too much about the fundamental nature
of the phenomenon they were studying. That's my impression anyway. But no
science can build forever on such a foundation. Heuristics are not
enough, and analogies can't really do much more than suggest directions.
At some point anthropologists will have to grapple with the fundamental
nature of the thing. That's easy to say, of course. It might take a few
generations to do.

: >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.

That seems the right approach, but your definition *is* quite loose. I
know you didn't intend it as a complete or formal statement, but can you
provide some insight into what unfolds, and how? I assume you're
referring partly to the development of language in children. I recently
read Steven Pinker's book _The Language Instinct_, and wondered if many
anthropologists accept his primary thesis and if there is ongoing work to
generalize upon psycholinguistic studies.

: >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

Does this mean that Navaho households now must go it alone without their
resident anthropologists!?! <grin>

: 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.

I wish you luck. I think that cultural anthropology brings a unique and
valuable perspective that a statistics addled sociology can't provide
(no offense to anyone in your department intended). It will be a real
challenge to maintain that unique perspective while forging ahead into
new areas.

: Marc
: 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:
: Canada

Norman Sides