Tag Archives: anthropology

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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Madison Science Pub at Brocach, July 26

A couple of weeks ago at the farmer’s market I ran into some undergrads who were doing science demonstrations on Capitol Square.  I tried to get CJ to drop the ball into the beaker and displace some liquid, but he was too shy.  While I was there, another guy wandered by to see what was happening — turned out he too was in the science popularization biz, and is running a series of science pub nights at Brocach downtown.  This July 26, the guest is  UW bio-anthro prof John Hawks, an expert in population genetics of early humans.

As it happened, CJ demanded we eat lunch at Brocach the same day.  I’d never been in there before and wasn’t sure if it was OK to bring him in, but in fact the place is packed with strollers at Saturday lunchtime, and they have a kids’ menu.  I had the corned beef hash, which was good, but — and coming from me, this means a lot — too big.

If you were a mathematician and you were going to talk at a science pub, what would you talk about?

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