Waddling In

 

by Clifford Geertz

 

 

One of the advantages of anthropology as a scholarly enterprise is that no one, including its practitioners, quite knows exactly what it is. People who watch baboons copulate, people who rewrite myths in algebraic formulas, people who dig up Pleistocene skeletons, people who work out decimal point correlations between toilet training practices and theories of disease, people who decode Maya hieroglyphics, and people who classify kinship systems into typologies in which our own comes out as žEskimoÓ all call themselves anthropologists. So do people who analyze African drum rhythms, arrange the whole of human history into evolutionary phases culminating in Communist China or the ecology movement, or reflect largely on the nature of human nature. Works entitled (I choose a few at random) Medusa's Hair, The Headman and I, The Red Lamp of Incest, Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process, Do Kamo, Knowledge and Passion, American School Language, Circumstantial Deliveries, and The Devil and Commodity Fetishism all present themselves as anthropological, as does the work of a man which came, unbidden, into my hands a few years ago whose theory it is that the Macedonians derive originally from Scotland on the grounds that they play the bagpipe.

 

There are a number of results of all this, aside from a lot of fine examples of a person's reach exceeding a person's grasp; but surely the most important is a permanent identity crisis. Anthropologists are used to being asked, and asking themselves, how what they do differs from what a sociologist, historian, psychologist, or a political scientist does, and they have no ready answer, save that it most certainly does. Efforts to define the field run from insouciant žsocial clubÓ arguments (žwe are all somehow the same sort of people; we think the same sort of wayÓ) to plain-man institutional ones (žanyone trained in an anthropology department is an anthropologistÓ). But none of them seems really satisfactory. It can't be that we study žtribalÓ or žprimitiveÓ peoples, because by now the majority of us don't, and anyway we're not so sure any more what, if anything, a žtribeÓ or a žprimitiveÓ is. It can't be that we study žother societies,Ó because more and more of us study our own, including the increasing proportion of us--Sri Lankans, Nigerians, Japanese--who belong to such žother societies.Ó It can't be that we study žculture,Ó žforms of life,Ó or the žnative's point of view,Ó because, in these hermeneutical-semiotical days, who doesn't?

 

There is nothing particularly novel in the state of affairs. It has been around since the beginning of the field, whenever that was (Rivers? Tylor? Herder? Herodotus?), and it will doubtless be around at its end, if it has one. But it has taken on in recent years a certain sharpness and given rise to a certain anxiety not easily warded off with žIt goes with the territoryÓ attitudes. A chronic vexation, the sort that prods, has become acute; the sort that unnerves.

 

The initial difficulty in describing anthropology as a coherent enterprise is that it consists, most especially in the United States, but to a significant extent elsewhere in the world as well, of a collection of quite differently conceived sciences rather accidentally thrown together because they all deal somehow or other with (to quote another, earlier, title, which I suppose would now be thought sexist) Man and His Works. Archaeology (except classical, which has kept its borders patrolled), physical anthropology, cultural (or social) anthropology, and anthropological linguistics have formed a kind of gathering-of-fugitives consortium whose rationale has always been as obscure as its rightness has been affirmed. The žFour FieldsÓ ideology, proclaimed in addresses and enshrined in departments, has held together an uncentered discipline of disparate visions, illconnected researches, and improbable allies: a triumph, and a genuine one, of life over logic.

 

One can do only so much, however, with sentiment, habit, and broad appeals to the advantages of breadth. As the various extra-anthropological sciences upon which the various intraanthropological ones depend advance technically, logic begins to have its revenge. Especially in the cases of physical anthropology and linguistics, the drift away from the old alliance has been marked. In the first, developments in genetics, neurology, and ethology have up-ended the old head-measuring approach to things and led more and more students interested in human evolution to think they might as well be in a biological discipline and be done with it. In the second, the advent of generative grammar has led to the construction of a new consortium with psychology, computer studies, and other high-tech enterprises impressively entitled žCognitive Science.Ó Even archaeology, enmeshed in paleoecology, biogeography, and systems theory, has grown rather more autonomous and may start, one of these days, to call itself something more ambitious. It puts one in mind, all this coming apart at the seams, of departed universes: philology, natural history, political economy, the Habsburg Empire. Inner differences are starting to tell.

 

Nevertheless, it is not this centrifugal movement, powerful as it has become, that is the main cause of the present sense of unease. History, philosophy, literary criticism, and even latterly psychology have experienced similar internal diversification, for similar reasons, and yet managed to maintain at least some general identity. The anthropology holding company will doubtless hold, if barely, for a while longer, if only because people interested in the human animal who don't care for sociobiology, or people interested in language who are unenamored of transformational grammar, can find a home there, safe from the imperialisms of entomologists and logicians. The most shaking problems are arising in the branch of the discipline which is still the largest, the most visible, and the one most usually taken by the world at large as distinguishing it (it is also the one to which I myself belong): social--cultural, sociocultural-- anthropology. If there is trouble in the marches, there is even more in the capital.

 

The first of the difficulties here, the most felt and the most commented upon, but I doubt the most important, is the ždisappearing subjectÓ problem. Whether žPrimitivesÓ ever should have been called such in the first place, or whether there were, even by the nineteenth century, very many really žuntouchedÓ peoples in the world, there are surely hardly any groups now deserving of such characterizations. Highland New Guinea, Amazonia, maybe some parts of the Arctic or the Kalahari, are about the only places one can even find candidates for (to invoke some other obsolescent terms of art) žintact,Ó žsimple,Ó želementary,Ó žsauvageÓ societies; and they, to the degree they exist as such, are rapidly being incorporated, as American Indians, Australian Aborigines, and African Nilotes were before them, into somebody or other's larger plans. žPrimitives,Ó even of the sort that made Boas, Mead, Malinowski, or Evans-Pritchard famous, are a bit of a wasting asset. The overwhelming proportion of social anthropologists are not these days sailing away to uncharted isles or jungle paradises, but throwing themselves into the midst of such formidable world-historical entities as India, Japan, Egypt, Greece, or Brazil.

 

It is not, however, the disappearance of a subject matter supposedly unique as such that has proved so shaking to the foundations of social anthropology, but another privation the involvement with societies less castaway has brought on: the loss of research isolation. Those people with pierced noses or body tattoos, or who buried their dead in trees, may never have been the solitaries we took them to be, but we were. The anthropologists who went off to the Talensi, the tundra, or Tikopia did it all: economics, politics, law, religion; psychology and land tenure, dance and kinship; how children were raised, houses built, seals hunted, stories told. There was no one else around, save occasionally and at a collegial distance, another anthropologist; or if there was--a missionary, a trader, a district officer, Paul Gauguin--he or she was mentally pushed aside. Small worlds, perhaps, but pretty well our oyster.

 

This is all no longer. When one goes to Nigeria, Mexico, China, or in my own case Indonesia and Morocco, one encounters not just žnativesÓ and mud huts, but economists calculating Gini coefficients, political scientists scaling attitudes, historians collating documents, psychologists running experiments, sociologists counting houses, heads, or occupations Lawyers, literary critics, architects, even philosophers, no longer content to ždraw the cork out of an old conundrum/And watch the paradoxes fizz,Ó are getting into the act. Walking barefoot through the Whole of Culture is really no longer an option, and the anthropologist who tries it is in grave danger of being descended upon in print by an outraged textualist or a maddened demographer. We are now, clearly, some sort of special science, or at least had better become one soon. The only question is, now that žManÓ is a bit much as an answer, of what?

 

The response to this tearing question has been less to answer it than to reemphasize the žmethodÓ considered, at least since Malinowski, to be the alpha and omega of social anthropology-- ethnographic fieldwork. What we do that others don't, or only occasionally and not so well, is (this vision has it) to talk to the man in the paddy or the woman in the bazaar, largely free-form, in a one thing leads to another and everything leads to everything else manner, in the vernacular and for extended periods of time, all the while observing, from very close up, how they behave. The specialness of žwhat anthropologists do,Ó their holistic, humanistic, mostly qualitative, strongly artisanal approach to social research, is (so we have taught ourselves to argue) the heart of the matter. Nigeria may not be a tribe, nor Italy an island; but a craft learnt among tribes or developed on islands can yet uncover dimensions of being that are hidden from such stricter and better organized types as economists, historians, exegetes, and political theorists.

 

The curious thing about this effort to define ourselves in terms of a particular style of research, colloquial and offhand, entrenched in a particular set of skills, improvisatory and personal, rather than in terms of what we study, what theories we espouse, or what findings we hope to find, is that it has been more effective outside the profession than it has been within it.

 

The prestige of anthropology, or anyway sociocultural anthropology, has never been higher in history, philosophy, literary criticism, theology, law, or political science, even to a degree in (the hard cases) sociology, psychology, and economics, than it is right now. Claude L»vi-Strauss, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Eric Wolf, Marshall Sahlins, Edmund Leach, Louis Dumont, Melford Spiro, Ernest Gellner, Marvin Harris, Jack Goody, Pierre Bourdieu, myself (to essay a list I shall doubtless live to regret) are cited everywhere, by everybody, to all sorts of purposes. The žanthropological perspectiveÓ is, so far as the general intellectual is concerned, very much žin,Ó and there is little sign that what the jargoneers call its žoutreachÓ is doing anything but growing. Within the discipline, however, the atmosphere is less upbeat. The very identification of žthe fieldwork cast of mindÓ as the thing that makes us different and justified our existence in a world made methodological has only intensified concern as to its scientific respectability on the one hand and its moral legitimacy on the other. Putting so many of one's eggs in a home-made basket produces a certain nervousness, rising at times to something very near to panic.

 

The worry on the science side has mostly to do with the question of whether researches which rely so heavily on the personal factor--this investigator, in this time; that informant, of that place--can ever be sufficiently žobjective,Ó žsystematic,Ó žreproducible,Ó žcumulative,Ó žpredictive,Ó žprecise,Ó or žtestableÓ as to yield more than a collection of likely stories. Impressionism, intuitionism, subjectivism, aestheticism, and perhaps above all the substitution of rhetoric for evidence, and style for argument, seem clear and present dangers; that most dreaded state, paradigmlessness, a permanent affliction. What sort of scientists are they whose main technique is sociability and whose main instrument is themselves? What can we expect from them but charged prose and pretty theories?

 

As anthropology has moved to take its place as a discipline among others, a new form of an old, all-too-familiar debate, Geistwissenschaften vs. Naturwissenschaften, has broken out afresh, and in an especially virulent and degraded form--d»jż vu all over again. Waddling in at this late date, as Forster once said of India, to find its seat among the nations, anthropology has found itself increasingly divided between those who would extend and develop its received tradition--one which rejects the historicist/scientist dichotomy in the first place and, with Weber, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Peirce, or Montesquieu, dreams of a science humaine--and those, afraid of being sent away from the table as improperly dressed, who would transform the field into some sort of social physics, complete with laws, formalisms, and apodictic proofs.

 

In this struggle, which breaks out everywhere from academic appointments in classy places to wild-eyed žreevaluationsÓ of classic works, and which is growing extraordinarily bitter, the paradigm hunters have most of the cards, at least in the United States, where, pronouncing themselves žmainstream,Ó they dominate the funding sources, the professional organizations, journals, and research institutions, and are nicely preadapted to the bottom-line mentality now pervading our public life. Cornford's earnest young men (and, now, women) determined to get all the money there is going are everywhere now, even if the money that is going doesn't come to all that much.

 

Yet even those on the (politically) weaker side, those more inclined to a free-style view of things, are afflicted with their own variety of failure of nerve, save that it is less methodological than moral. They are not much concerned about whether žme anthropologist, you nativeÓ research is rigorous than about whether it is decent. About that, however, they are very concerned.

 

The trouble begins with uneasy reflections on the involvement of anthropological research with colonial regimes during the heyday of Western imperialism and with its aftershadows now; reflections themselves brought on by accusations, from Third World intellectuals, about the field's complicity in the division of humanity into those who know and decide and those who are known and are decided for, that are especially disturbing to scholars who have so long regarded themselves as the native's friend, and still think they understand him better than anyone else, including perhaps himself. But it hardly ends there. Driven on by the enormous engines of postmodern self-doubt--Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Gramsci, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, most recently Bakhtin--the anxiety spreads into a more general worry about the representation of žThe OtherÓ (inevitably capitalized, inevitably singular) in ethnographic discourse as such. Is not the whole enterprise but domination carried on by other means: žHegemony,Ó žmonologue,Ó žvouloir-savoir,Ó žmauvaise foi,Ó žorientalismÓ? žWho are we to speak for them?Ó

 

This is hardly a question that can simply be dismissed, as it so often has been by hardened fieldworkers, as the grumbling of caf» or gas-station anthropologists; but one could wish it were being met with less breastbeating and lashing out at supposed failures of mind and character on the part of bourgeois social scientists, and more attempts actually to answer it. There have been some such attempts, hesitant and rather gestural, but at least as often hypochondria has passed for self-examination, and žDown with Us!Ó (for the malcontents are, after all, bourgeois too) for critique. The changing situation of the ethnographer, intellectual and moral alike, brought on by the movement of anthropology from the margins of the modern world toward its center, is as poorly addressed by crying havoc as it is by crying science. Mere malaise is as evasive as mere rigor, and rather more self-serving.

 

Yet, and yet, all may be for, if not the best, anyway the better. The Outsider view of anthropology as a powerful regenerative force in social and humane studies, now that it is at long last becoming so fully a part of them rather than a minor amusement off to the side, may be closer to the mark than the Insider view that the passage from South Sea obscurity to worldly celebrity is simply exposing anthropology's lack of internal coherence, its methodological softness, and its political hypocrisy, as well as perhaps its practical irrelevance. The need to think through, to defend, and to extend an approach to social research that takes seriously the proposition that in understanding žothers,Ó uncapitalized and plural, it is useful to go among them as they go among themselves, ad hoc and groping, is producing an extraordinary ferment. It is not perhaps entirely surprising that such ferment looks threatening to some of those caught in the middle of it--as Randall Jarrell says somewhere, the trouble with golden ages is that the people in them go about complaining that everything looks yellow. What is surprising is how promising, even salvational, it often looks to others.

 

The conjunction of cultural popularity and professional disquiet that now characterizes anthropology is neither a paradox nor a sign that a fad is being perpetrated. It is an indication that žthe anthropological way of looking things,Ó as well as (what are more or less the same thing) žthe anthropological way of finding out thingsÓ and žthe anthropological way of writing about things,Ó do have something to offer the late twentieth century--and not only in social studies--not available elsewhere, and that it is full in the throes of determining what exactly that is.

 

The expectations on the one side may be too high--in the first flush of structuralism they undoubtedly were--and the worries on the other too overdrawn. Nevertheless, pulled in opposed directions by technical advances in allied disciplines, divided within itself along accidental ill-drawn lines, besieged from one side by resurgent scientism and from the other by an advanced form of hand-wringing, and progressively deprived of its original subject matter, its research isolation, and its master-of-all-I-survey authority, the field seems not only to stay reasonably intact but, what is more important, to extend the sway of the cast of mind that defines it over wider and wider areas of contemporary thought. We have turned out to be rather good at waddling in. In our confusion is our strength.

 

 


Waddling In, in: The Times Literary Supplement, Nr. 4288 (June 7, 1985), pp. 623-624


cf. Available light: anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton/N.J./USA: Princeton University Press, pp. 89-97


 

online source: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99830258

 


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