We anthropological "obscurantists"

Gil Hardwick (gil@landmark.iinet.net.au)
Sat, 06 May 1995 15:25:31 GMT

I don't know whether you have been x-posting into sci.anthropology
from elsewhere Dr Scott, or whether you are lurking here anyway.

Please do note however that I am posting only to this group, inviting
you to explain to us just what progress we are guilty of opposing.

My dictionary entry is as follows:

obscurantism n opposition to progress or increase in knowledge
~ obscurantist n and adj.

I can only suppose for the moment that that is what you mean. If
you wish to add anything to the accusations against us, or round off
your meaning with further detail, please do so.

I cannot speak for other anthropologists. My position as previously
stated is that aspects of human biology and physiology are already
well covered in biology and medicine. Other aspects of the human
condition are covered by agriculture, architecture, and so on and so
forth. You name it.

The specific questions of social organisation particularly concerning
the West are covered by sociology.

The more general questions on the nature of human society and human
culture are left to the domain of anthropology. It is anthropology
which takes up the slack in going out among what we refer to loosely
as The Other; that is, in Western terms the exotic, the marginal, the
autochthonous, the indigenous, and the traditional cultures of the

Where the sociologist would go study the urban working classes, or
some corporate administration somewhere, the anthropologist would
travel way up over the Tien Shan Mountains to live two years with
the Kirghiz shepherds in their tents.

Together we all share considerable overlap, of course. The work we do
in anthropology has direct application in medicine, in architecture,
in religious administration, in conservation of the national estate,
and in industrial organisation. Again, you name it.

What they are doing is of as much interest to us, of course. We are
all of us concerned in common with the human condition, and are as
open minded in our mutual willingness to cooperate and share our
respective specialist knowledge freely, yes?

OK up to that point?

That we assert our domain as included in the legitimate scientific
discourse on the nature of things surely cannot in any way at all be
viewed as opposing progress, assuming that we both mean by progress
is advance both in human knowledge and in human edification. Quite to
the contrary, I do suggest.

That some anthropologists had failed to take the material environment
into account when writing up their field report on the particular
group of interest to them is valid but nevertheless insubstantial
criticism of their work. The environment was not considered such a
high priority then, in the sense that other work was deemed to be
more important to have completed first; any gaps merely filled by
further field research during the next generation.

Do you have any questions about that? If you find an objection can you
enlighten us as to whether the gaps in earlier works remain because
their author was being obscurantist, or whether like any other science
none of us pretend that we are capable of reporting everything there is
possibly to know alone, short on funds, and within our own lifetimes.

Can you offer here evidence substantiating your invoking of Harris'
accusations of obscuratism against his colleagues.

Which colleagues in particular, and what published works of theirs can
you cite as opposing progress in anthropological knowledge? Please do
not argue about progress in physics or astronomy or some other such
only indirectly relevant field of science.

Write us a review if you wish, say, of Abruzzi's (1980) critique of
Turnbull (1961) on the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest. Or of some other
like correspondence between the "cultural materialist" critique of the
past two decades and the works of anthropology carried out similarly
during the 1950s.

How would Abruzzi's critique relate, say, to the ambiguous position
geographical determinism and the relatively new term "ecology" had
held in British anthropology up until about the late 1950s and

What about the differences between Bourdieu and Foucault in France,
perhaps? Can you take them reasonably into your account when you speak
of obscurantism in anthropology?

Be fair to all of them. That is all you are asked to do. You are a
professional, and expected to behave in such a manner.

That a few American materialists and evolutionary theorists fail to do
so does not make their work progressive.

And neither does it make the broad mainstream of world anthropology

He who refuses to qualify data is doomed to rant.
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