On distinguishing anthropology from sociology

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Tue, 14 Mar 1995 00:14:00 CST

Paul Reser's question about "Med Anthro vs Med Soc" parallels other
questions here from time to time, and more recently (and more
actively just now) on the ANTHRO-LIB list. Similar questions have
plagued me ever since, as a student, I took or sat in on courses
that carried anthro department titles and numbers but had participa-
tion from W. Lloyd Warner (at Chicago) and Talcott Parsons (oddly
enough, at Berkeley). My students have been asking me about "The"
difference between anthro and sociology for more than 30 years.

For purposes of debate, anyway, I conclude that it is impossible to
locate the difference in distant intellectual history or in subject
matter or in either methods used or methodological approaches. Let
me amplify:

1) As a product of Chicago back in the 50's, my intellectual
genealogy owes much more to Durkheim and Marcel Mauss than it
does to Frans Boaz or Alfred L. Kroeber. One of my major
professors (L.A. Fallers) had me spend much more time with Max
Weber than with any other theorist. But I have NEVER taken a
course that was formally called "sociology". Some of my friends
who call themselves sociologists, in the U.S. sense, claim that
they have those same intellectual ancestors--and others never
have gotten around to reading either Mauss or Weber. (In my
isolation, I used to think the whole world had read Durkheim.)

2) As for subject matter, as a social anthropologist working in
Mexico and Guatemala I was long since overwhelmed by the
existence of two parallel studies of Guatemala's Santiago
Chimaltenango, one by a self-identified "anthropologist", the
other by a man who called himself a "sociologist". Both were
competent studies, and I would defy anyone who didn't know which
author was which to securely distinguish who was the anthro. At
the same time, anthropologists have long studied people in the
US urban setting and not stopped being anthropologists for
having dared to do so.
ON AVERAGE, and in general, there is a tendency for anthros to
have worked--in the past!--outside the industrialized world, and
for sociologists to work in industrialized societies. But the
exceptions to both generalizations are legion.

3) Similarly, as to method and methodology, ON AVERAGE sociologists
tend to do survey research while anthropologists tend to do
participant observation. Again, ON AVERAGE anthropologists tend
to be bad number crunchers, while sociologists tend to believe
more in numbers than in what they see with their own eyes. As I
once got flamed for saying: "In the world scheme of things,
anthropologists don't count. If we could count, we'd be
sociologists." (Aside: I still believe that "economic anthro"
is an oxymoron--anybody who knows anything about economics knows
better than to try to make a living in anthropology!)
But I think both modern anthropologists and modern sociologists
are eclectic enough, when it comes to either empirical methods
or the epistemology of methodology, to pick up anything that
isn't tied down and defended with machine guns.

So where should we look to find the difference? Well, let's try
that as a question for anthropological investigation--which I did,
a long time ago. In brief, my conclusion was that the real differenc
between the two is a matter of social organization.

To put that another way, the way to tell that I am an anthropologist
is to ask me what journals I subscribe to, what professional organi-
zations I have joined, whose professional meetings I attend, what I
call myself, who I want to talk to when I am "backstage", as Erving
Goffmann put it in "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life". I
belong to the AAA, to Current Anthropology, to the Central States
Anthropological Society, to the Society for Latin American Anthro;
I once was elected a fellow of the RAI (but I ran out of money to
keep up my subscription). I would be much more likely to attend a
nearby meeting of the American Historical Association (to talk with
other Mesoamericanists) than to attend a nearby meeting of the
American Sociological Association. Is that all the difference there
is? Well, I've never found a more convincing one.

Having mentioned Erving Goffmann, let me add that he was an anomaly:
his degree said "sociology", and he was employed in departments of
sociology, but I met him at several meetings of the American Anthro
Assn--and I have friends who have always considered themselves to
be anthropologists who are proud to have had him serve as a member of
their doctoral committees. So was he, maybe, an anthropologist on
alternative Tuesdays? (After all, one of HIS professors was W.
Lloyd Warner, the epitomy of disciplinary anomaly: the only degree,
a bachelor's degree at that, Warner studied for was in anthro. But
Warner set the agenda for American sociology when he did his studies
of Yankee City, and sociology was never the same afterwards.)

Hey--the question is a GREAT one. But it may be one of those great
unanswerables if we look for the difference in the natures of
sociology and anthropology. The difference is in sociologISTS and
anthropologISTS, in our allegiance to collectivities that are
more separate than distinctive. I think that those who believe they
can draw firm distinguishing lines between the two probably don't
know enough about the one that doesn't have their allegiance.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu>