Single cause theories

Diane E King (deking@WSUNIX.WSU.EDU)
Wed, 19 Apr 1995 12:40:22 -0700

Carter Pate wonders whether he has struck a chord in his review of incest
taboo theory and his broader statement concerning single cause theories.
Well, he certainly has with me.

If there is one peeve I have with current anthropological theory, it is that
many theorists try to force their data into a rigid model and then attempt to
make global statements based on a particular case or cases. I wonder if this
is because, although our discipline is currently embroiled in an
epistemological resorting, we still take our methodological cues from the
hard sciences. Single cause theories usually DO suffice in chemistry - once
an agent has been identified, it can be counted on to have the same effect
day in and day out. But we are studying human behavior, folks! Humans are
tricky - their behavior keeps shifting and no two motivations are the same at
the group or individual level. It was the allure and challenge of trying to
get a handle on this that drew me into the social sciences in the first

I often think of a particular illustration that emerged out of an archaeology
course I once had. If two primordial bands are out wandering the savannah,
and they become aware of each other's proximity and begin to engage in trade,
what accounts for their relationship? Well, depending on the theoretical
assertion history of the commentator, the story will read one way for the
economic anthropologist, another for the social/psychological anthropologist,
and so on.

I wonder why we can't be more accommodating when we assert what is going
on in cases like this. Of course there is no single cause for the two
groups beginning a trade relationship, even though there is a probable
dominant cause. It would be refreshing to read an interpretation that was
up-front in acknowledging that the bent it was presenting was only part
of the pie - and suggested that in order to get a whole picture, one
should also consider the other viewpoints. It would even be nice to see
collaboration (as opposed to debate) between people coming from opposite
ends of the theoretical spectrum - in which they present a picture that
attempts to accommodate the multiple causes for a human behavioral

Maybe this is being done somewhere and I am not aware of it. If so, I would
appreciate it if someone would bring it to my attention. I realize that much
of the problem is political - publication records become threads that
bind all subsequent work and contribute to the anthropologist's reputation
as someone who holds to certain assertions. And it is against the nature
of academics, especially in these cutthroat times, to resist
theoretical polarity and attempt to accommodate other slants. But maybe -
just maybe - we can overcome the default position of single cause
theories and come up with models which, despite their inevitable
complexity and possible unwieldiness, are nevertheless more tenable in
the final analysis.


Diane E. King
Graduate Student, Washington State University