Re: Cross-cultural anthropology?

Eve Pinsker (U56728@UICVM.BITNET)
Fri, 11 Nov 1994 07:14:54 CST

On Thu, 10 Nov 1994 22:20:26 -0800 Douglas Orr said:
>As I was driving home from a graduate seminar on contemporary anthropological
>theory I was disturbed by a very basic, equally fundamental, anthropological
>item. Do anthropologists actually do cross-cultural research.
>I know this sounds like a simplified or maybe even a strange question to ask,

>so let me quantify this for you. In my readings and own research, little

>compared to some on this list, I have encountered few anthropological research
>that has compared different cultures. As I assume that the cross-cultural

>approach is meant by examining different cultures in similarities and
>differences not that we mearly go to different cultures to do our research.
>From what I have seen of the literature, usually anthropologists merely
>examine one culture, but when the do examine two cultures cross-culturally
>they only look at one or two aspects of the cultures in question.
>So, in doing cross-cultural research, our we only looking at one aspect?
>Should we not be examining the whole culture to attain a complete picture?

Douglass Orr raises some interesting questions here. Certainly
anthropologists do cross-cultural research, if by that you mean taking their
own ethnography and others' and looking for patterns accross cultures by
constructing analytical concepts that can apply in different cultural contexts,
and then looking at similarities and differences in how they apply, what sort
of institutions and activities and symbols, etc., co-occur and which don't. Of
course people of different theoretical persuasions have different methodologie
s for doing this. For examples, consider the early and the later Sahlins, from
_Social Stratification in Polynesia_ and "Rich Man, Poor Man, Big Man, Chief"
(a classic comparative piece) to his later structural and structural history
work looking at relationships like sea/land, male/female, chief/commoner,
across Polynesia. Or Dumont's studies comparing hierarchical holism in India
_Homo Hierarchicus_ , with individual egalitarianism in the West (_From
Mandeville to Marx_, _Essays on Individualism_). Or Ven Gennep and Victor
Turner looking at rites of passage and liminality across cultures. Or Sherry
Ortner and other feminist-oriented theorists looking at rank, gender relatio
ns, and gender symbolism across cultures. Or Geertz looking at Islam in Java
and Morocco in _Islam Observed_Sure, sometimes comparison takes the form of
denying that a particular concept is not valid cross-culturally, which is where
people can get the idea that cultural anthropology (the subfield I'm talking
about here) is anti-comparative; take Schneider's insistence that kinship is
not biology and is a non-category -- despite that, he managed,with code-for-con
duct vs. shared substance, to come up with relationships that can be
analytically compared cross-culturally. Analytically, no, you can't compare
"whole cultures" except by constructing analytical categories referring to a
nd allowing you to construct relationships that can be examined cross-cultually
. This doesn't mean that the "whole" -- how various aspects of particular huma
n societies fit together or don't -- is ignored; whenever anthropologists look
at one "aspect" they always look at how it relates to at least some other
taspects -- we're notoriously bad at looking at kinship or politics or ritual o
r any other category referring to aspects of human activity that in practice ar
e not sepatate from other aspects of human activity -- and this is a good thing
, it sets us off from other social science disciplines who are more committed
oto seeing their analytical categories as reified, separable "things", objects
that can be studied without worrying about their analysitical boundaries (cours
e, that makes it more different for us to write theory that comes out in simple
and straightforward language, but that's another problem).
Of course functionalists have an easier time doing comparisons than more
symbolically-oriented anthropologists who are more committed to the
incommensurablity of different "native points of view" (although,t hankfully,
people are a lot more careful these days about talking about "the" native
point of view within any particular culture -- and "cultures" as units of
comparison is itself, of course, a problem, but one which can be handled -- see
, for example, Hannerz' _Cultural Complexity_) but even the latter folks can
do comparison, cf. the examples above. And some of the post-modernists would
throw broad cross-cultural comparison out the window, but even they insist on
comparing alien cultural fields or constructions to our own -- something that
we all do, more or less explicitly, and I agree with the people who say that
more explicitly is better, at least if it stops short of excessive narcissism
or solipsism.
Many, in fact, most, people writing ethnographies presented as studies of
particular cultures attempt to place what they're doing in a broader comparati
ve perspective at some point in the work. Take, for instance, Janice Boddy's
discussion of the _zar_ and related rituals throughout North and West Africa,
and her discussion the relationships between women and possession and gendered
relationsips using evidence from the ethnographic record through
-out the world (in her fine ethnography _Wombs and Alien Spirits_, Wisconsin
1989, which focuses on the _zar_ ritual as practiced in a particular village in
Northern Sudan). As that example shows, most ethnographers are more comfortab
le moving from their own particular studies to regional comparisons and then, i
f at all, to world comparisons. I do think there aren't enough good cross-
regional comparisons, but I understand some of th reasons for it.
The way anthropologists are trained to stake out their own ethnographic turf
and respect others' has a great deal to do with it, and sometimes is a barrier
preventing people from attempting comparative work, although I do think
a little humility in attempting to compare richly dense particular relationship
s across broad sweeps of human geography and history is a good thing. Take for
example, what people in the Association of Social Anthropology in Oceania (a
society specifically set up to foster comparative work within a particular
region) call the "not among the Bongo Bongo" syndrome (also could be referred t
o as the "not with MY people" syndrome") -- the propensity of anthropologists,
when confronted by a generalization, to find instances where it doesn't hold,
particularly in the societies one has studied oneself, and learned enough
to deny any facile generalization -- again, this is not a bad thing, except whe
n it is carried to excess and shoots down what might be a valid comparison if
it's analytically refined, fleshed out, and qualified more.
Re ASAO (the above-mentioned society) -- it's produced a series of monographs
that are collections of articles examinining relationships and themes across
Pacific societies, with unifying and comparative introductions, and sometimes
conclusions, a genre of cultural anthro book that is, of course, fairly commonl
y produced out of symposia and conference sessions throughout the field. The
ASAO books are produced a little differently in that the authors meet for
several years in succession and not just once, and have a little more time to
talk to each other and get past the "not among the Bongo Bongo" stage to reall
y looking at what relationships hold and which don't across specific ethnograph
ic cases. But sometimes the resulting books succeed in making theoretical
statements as a whole book and sometimes they don't --- one of the best ones
is actually one of the earliest, Michael Lieber's _Exiles and Migrants in
Oceania_ (1977). (Lieber edited it) which raises some very interesting issues
related to relocated communities and the contexts in which people start explitl
y talking about what their community is, foreshadowing what has become a "hot t
opic" in the discipline -- the imagination of community (cf. all the anthropolo
gical discussion of Benedict Anderson's work) and the related area of "cultural
identity" and the politics of culture, invented tradition, etc.
Anyway, despite all the good comparative work that's been done, and despite
the fact that most good teachers of anthropology do a lot of comparison in
their classrooms, attempting to connect for their students the various
ethnographies they assign them to read, I think we could go alot farther in
discussing methodologies of doing comparative work, in explaining to non-anthr
opologists how we do comparison, in using comparative analysis in applied work
(where it's extremely helpful, and can help convince non-anthropologists that
we can do something useful) and in legitimating comparison as an
anthropological activity and taking away some of the trepidation in using other
people's work for comparative purposes. (no "well, you weren't there. You
don't know" or "you weren't there long enough" kinds of responses used as an
excuse not to consider the statements in question. Usually given not that
baldly but appears in the form "where's the native voices?")
I'm doing comparative work myself, and I couldn't do it without relying on
other people's ethnographies as well as my own fieldwork. The ethnographic
is, at this point, very rich, and we should take advantage of it, rather than
too frequently focusing on the inadequacies and lacunae in what the people who
have gone before us did -- and there are many more sophisticated ways of
comparatively using the ethnographic record than looking up numbers in the HRAF
file, don't just think of that when you think of comparison. And re previous
ethnographies -- the only way we understand the lacunae in them is through
comparison, in this case comparison of different studies of "the same" society
at different times and w. different observers -- see Robert Borofsky's
_Making History_:Pukapukan and ANthropological Constructions of Knowledge_
987) for an excellent example that goes way beyond saying what
previous ethnographers said was "wrong." And this kind of study is a necessary
preliminary and methodological correlate to cross-cultural comparison -- I
mean it teaches us how to carefully and critically use the ethnographic record.
Eve Pinsker