Re: sci.anthro ???

Marc W.D. Tyrrell (
Fri, 18 Aug 1995 19:48:35 GMT

In article <418uqq$> (Norman Sides) writes:
>Date: 20 Aug 1995 20:33:46 -0700

>: 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.

Quite true, Norman. I should have been a little clearer. If my
interpretation of the trend that I am seeing is correct, then we are in the
position of attempting various different syntheses. As to having central
ideas, there appear to be a number of them, although they are going through a
process of (post)modernization. To whit, child reaering practices,
sub-cultural generation, rites of passage, the biological/neurological -
culture interface/exchange, etc.

>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.

Again, quite true. As a point of information, I came across an old monograph
from 1885 where anthropology was defined as "the natural history of mankind".
As to the development of "a coherent system of thought", truthfully I doubt
that we will ever have a *single* one. I suspect that we are moving in the
direction that physics took at the start of the century with *several*
coherent systems (viz particle vs. wave theory).

>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.

That argument has been used a number of times <wry grin>, especially by
university administrations. Speaking purely personally, I think that it is a
miscomprehension of what anthropologists do. For example, a number of
anthropologists are now finding work in the banks and with major corporations
as specialists in cross-(and sub-) cultural communications experts.

>: 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. [snip] 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.

True, and your last comment is very well taken. Let's see if I can "flesh it
out" a little <grin>. To start with, let's make the following assumptions.

1) culture is a _process_, rather than a static
2) culture refers to a pruning/shaping/change-oriented process (root: L.
3) "culture" is different from "society" in that "society" refers to an
interactive process of _maintaining_ patterns (root: L. sociabilis; socialis)
while "culture is involved with the establishment of these patterns as
"natural, right and proper" within the minds of individuals in the first

Any given pattern of actions or grouping of such patterns may be analyzed and
<shudder: grin> mathematically defined (using fuzzy sets). Furthermore, the
"function" as well as the "functioning" of any given pattern or group of
patterns may also be deduced (at least in a limited form).

>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.

Yes, I was referring, in part, to language development in children. But I was
also referring, again in part, to the development of sub-cultural traits. I
hope that the answer I gave above gives a bit more of an idea of what I am
talking about <grin>. As you said, it's not a full, formal statement.

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

Tough for them <grin>. Demand is way up, and supply is down. Corporations want
us (even though many of them don't realize it yet <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.

Thanks for the wishes <grin>. I agree with your assessment of what cultural
anthropology has to offer. And, truthfully, I think that the hardest problem
cultural anthropologists are faced with is realizing our own worth in this
changed environment.

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: