Is cultural anthropology in an intellectual black hole?

Razib Khan says it is, in a post several people in my networks shared today:

[Cultural anthropology] has embraced deconstruction, critique, complexity (or more accurately anti-reductionism) and relativism to such a great extent that whereas in many disciplines social dynamics and political power struggles are an unfortunate consequence of academic life, in cultural anthropology the fixation with power dynamics and structures has resulted in its own self-cannibalization, and overwhelming preoccupation with such issues.  Everyone is vulnerable to the cannon blast of critique, and the only value left sacred are particular particular ends (social justice, defined by cultural anthropologists) and axioms (white males are oppressive patriarchs, though white male cultural anthropologists may have engaged in enough self interrogation to take upon themselves the mantle of fighting for the rights of the powerless [i.e., not white males]) which all can agree upon.

(That whole barrage is two very convoluted sentences, by the way!)

What Khan objects to is stuff like this:

“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”

But does this really support the black hole claim?  I think Khan reads the quote to say “Tribal people’s rights are sacrosanct, so any claim by a scientist that,  like Diamond’s, tends to undercut those rights must be factually incorrect.”  But to me it reads much more like “Diamond’s claims are factually incorrect, and the reason this matters — the reason it is not only an academic dispute between scientists, and the reason people who read the newspaper should care about it — is that it has real-world consequences for tribal people.”  Which seems like a fairly normal thing for a social scientist to say in the newspaper.

As for me, I have no opinion about the intellectual state of cultural anthropology, knowing nothing about it.  I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book about cultural anthropology, unless Seeing Like A State is a book of cultural anthropology, in which case every book of cultural anthropology I’ve ever read is great.



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4 thoughts on “Is cultural anthropology in an intellectual black hole?

  1. […] Ellenberg finds Razib Khan’s rant against Jared Diamond’s detractors off […]

  2. Michael Thaddeus says:

    Is pure mathematics in an intellectual black hole? I’m sure many cultural anthropologists would consider this eminently fair.

  3. Bobito says:

    @Thaddeus: Many creationists think many scientists are crackpots, and they are wrong.

  4. Michael Thaddeus says:

    It’s not a matter of being a crackpot; it’s a matter of being in a black hole, meaning, I think, a position from which no exit nor influence on the rest of the universe is possible.

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