Key Debates in Anthropology Edited by Tim Ingold General introduction Tim Ingold the nature of anthropological theory

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Key Debates in Anthropology

Edited by Tim Ingold
General introduction
Tim Ingold

Anthropology is at once the most resolutely academic and the most fiercely anti-academic of disciplines. Its commitment is to human understanding of a very fundamental kind, and it continues to exist and thrive only thanks to a university system which—at least in principle, if no longer in practice—is dedicated to the production of knowledge for its own sake. Yet at the same time, anthropologists have been foremost in challenging the claims of academia to deliver authoritative accounts of the manifold ways of the world, along with the implicit ranking of such accounts above those that might be offered by ‘ordinary folk’ whose powers of observation and reason have supposedly not been cultivated to the same degree. This challenge commonly appears in the form of a critique of the assumptions of so-called ‘Western discourse’, a discourse founded upon a claim to the supremacy of human reason and whose natural home and breeding ground is the academy. Through the practice and experience of fieldwork, anthropologists have been more inclined to privilege the kinds of knowledge and skill that are generated in the course of people’s practical involvements with one another and with their environments, in their everyday lives. The paradox is that by doing so, they are undercutting the intellectual foundations of an organization of knowledge without which anthropology, as a discipline, could not exist.

This paradox manifests itself in countless ways. One would have thought, for example, that having so effectively demonstrated the limited and historically contingent purchase of Western thought and science, and having thoroughly cleansed its own conceptual equipment of so-called Western bias, anthropology could move on to other things. Yet it seems that we are perpetually at it, caught in a groove of disciplinary auto-critique from which it sometimes appears there is no escape. The reason. of course. is that the bias we are so anxious to avoid, and the conceptual dichotomies that seem to hamstring our thinking, are continually reproduced in our own academic practice. Another manifestation of the paradox lies in the well-known fact that students encountering anthropological writing for the first time find it very difficult to understand, even though the quantity of jargon or specialist terminology is no greater—and probably a great deal less—than in most other academic disciplines. Why should it be so phenomenally hard to write about the stuff of ordinary experience in terms that others can readily comprehend? Novelists and poets often seem to make a better job of it, since they are not bound by the convention that what they write should take the form of definitive, context-independent propositions. They can guide readers into a world of shared experience, rather than seeking to represent it on an abstract, conceptual level. In attempting to convey everyday, local knowledge of an essentially non-propositional form in a decontextualizing language of abstract propositions, anthropologists cannot help but tie themselves in knots. Students quickly grasp the difficulty if asked to write an account of such a routine task as tying shoelaces. The simple knot soon becomes a verbal labyrinth.

A third manifestation of the paradox, which is of prime concern here, has to do with the status of ‘theory’. Celebrated as the most advanced products of human reason, theories hold pride of place in the academic pantheon. Theoreticians are ranked above observers, experimentalists and laboratory technicians, much as architecture is ranked above house-building, or intellectual over manual labour. All of these rankings are instances of a more profound dichotomy, heavily institutionalized in the Western academy, between design and use: the first a rational creation of the absolutely new; the second a mechanical execution of pre-existing plans. Thus it seems that theories are made by some for others to apply. Do anthropological theorists, then, design conceptual structures for lower ranking ethnographers (or research students) to carry with them into the field? Is the field merely an empirical testing ground for abstract theory? Most anthropologists would nowadays feel profoundly uncomfortable about such a division of labour. They would point out that their own ways of thinking, far from having been fully constituted in advance and then applied to field data, actually continue to grow and take shape within those ongoing dialogues with local people that go by the name of ‘fieldwork’, and that most so-called ‘data’ consist of their own experiences of, and reflections on, these dialogues. They might observe that the division between theory and data is just one of those artefacts of academic discourse that gets in the way of a proper understanding of human-lived worlds. Yet at the same time it is assumed that anthropology, like any self-respecting academic discipline, should have its theory, without which it would cease to have any intellectual coherence, becoming nothing more than an assortment of ethnographic narratives. In what, then, can this ‘theory’ possibly consist?

The present volume is offered in response to this question. I do not mean that answers can be found in the book, as though it were a showcase for the higher products of the anthropological imagination. I would rather suggest that the book be regarded as part of the answer, concrete testimony to the fact that anthropological theory consists, in the first place, not in an inventory of ready-made structures or representations, to be picked up and used as it suits our analytic purposes, but in an ongoing process of argumentation. In this sense, theory is an activity, something we do. The problem remains, however, of how to characterize more precisely the nature of this activity. We could begin by distinguishing between two arenas of activity in which most anthropologists are involved, whether serially or in parallel: the field and the academy. It would be fair to say that the settings for theoretical work are normally located in the academic arena; they include conferences, lectures and seminars, as well as the solitary spaces of the library or study. The field, by contrast, is not usually a locus for theoretical dialogue: thus the voices of local or native people do not figure in the exchanges recorded in this book and would certainly be out of place here. Admittedly the distinction is not hard and fast. The settings of academic debate are no more ring-fenced than the settings of fieldwork, and may even overlap to a degree. Both are situated in a social world in which we all participate. It can still be argued, nevertheless, that the kind of work we do in the academy differs fundamentally from the kind we do in the field, along the lines of a contrast between production and collection. According to this argument, the field is a site for the extraction of empirical information (‘data’) which is then processed by means of conceptual tools (‘theory’) perfected in the academy.

The point of departure for this volume is a different one. It is that the forms anthropological knowledge takes do not arise de novo as the creation of superior academic minds, whence they are handed down for application by the rank and file of researchers and students, but rather emerge and are sustained within the contexts of our mutual, dialogic engagement in social and intellectual life. True, engagements in the field do have a different character and dynamic from dialogues in the academy. But far from the one being extractive and the other productive, both are dialogues through which knowledge is generated. The difference is that the contexts of engagement in the field lie in the efforts of ethnographers to learn the skills of action and perception appropriate to particular forms of life, whereas the contexts of academic dialogue are removed from such practical endeavours and are framed by formal structures of teaching and learning. It is solely within these latter structures, themselves indifferent to what is learned or taught, that skills acquired in the field take on the appearance of information—that is, empirical content for the ideal forms of theory.

But in reality, anthropologists enter the arena of theoretical debate with far more than ‘data’. They come to it with a set of intuitions, sensibilities and orientations that have been decisively shaped by the field experience. The dialogue in the field, in short, is not just a source of ethnographic facts: for the fieldworker it is also an education. By the same token, there is more to anthropological theory than the fashioning of conceptual tools for use in the analysis of data. We should rather understand the process of theory as one in which the education provided by the field experience, or more generally by life, is brought to bear in a systematic interrogation of the foundational terms of Western academic discourse—terms like individual and society, culture and nature, language, art and technology, individuality and personhood, history and memory, equality and inequality, even humanity itself. And the engine that drives the theoretical process is the tension, intrinsic to the anthropological endeavour, between abstract philosophical speculation about what human life might be like, and our experience of what life is like, for particular people at particular places and times.

To outsiders, particularly perhaps to people accustomed to the ways of natural science, anthropologists seem to spend an inordinate amount of time quibbling about the finer meanings of words, instead of getting on with the job of explaining the data. There is plenty of that in this book. But I want to insist that there is more to such arguments than mere quibbling. For every word carries, compressed within it, a history of past usage, and it is only by unravelling such histories that we can gauge the appropriateness of particular words for current or projected purposes. In general, the meanings of words are shaped within contexts of dialogue, and this is no less true of the contexts of anthropological debate. The debates that make up this volume testify to the attempts of the several participants, educated through their field experience as well as by their formal academic training, to seek out a common vocabulary in which to cast the particularities of this experience, by stretching to the limits (and sometimes beyond) the potentials of an academic discourse which often seems singularly ill-suited to the task. The process of theory, as we read it in these pages, is tantamount to the fashioning of an anthropological language dedicated to establishing the commensurability of radically contrasting forms of knowledge and experience. This is why theory is an activity that we cannot and must not do without. A theory-free anthropology would be one that had reneged on its mission to bring academic scholarship and practical know-how into a productive and mutually enhancing engagement.


Despite the diversity of specific content, the debates reproduced here are connected in very many ways. Participants often commented, off the record, that it felt as though the arguments of each debate always appeared to turn, ultimately, on the same underlying problem. No one, however, seemed able to put their finger precisely on what that problem was. In editing the texts I have had the same feeling, and the same difficulty. On reflection, it seems to me that the source of the problem lies in the contradiction I have already identified at the heart of the anthropological endeavour, between the claim—central to anthropology’s constitution as an academic discipline—to be able to make representative statements about the conditions of human life in the world, and the essentially anti-academic critique of the supposedly ‘Western’ notion that it is by representing the social world that we come to know it. The way in which the problem generally manifests itself, regardless of the particular topic under discussion, is in the trouble we always seem to have with dichotomies. Academic discourse is notorious for its tendency to operate in terms of conceptual dichotomies, which are not so much accepted uncritically as indefinitely multiplied in the effort of their resolution. Even as (some) anthropologists set themselves up as champions of non-Western holism against the insistent dualism of Western thought, they cannot avoid reproducing the master dichotomy of anthropology itself, between Western and non-Western societies, characterized respectively as people who think in terms of dichotomies and people who don’t! Short of becoming poets, painters or novelists, there seems to be no way out.

The first debate, on the proposition that social anthropology is a generalizing science, at once plunges us into the midst of the problem with its focus on two of the most frequently invoked dichotomies: between science and the humanities, and between the general and the particular. Let me begin with the latter. Though explicitly raised in the first debate, the question of the distinction between the general and the particular lay also, if implicitly, at the heart of the second, on the concept of society. The parallel is this: both the concept of the general and the concept of society, at least in one of its senses, rest on a certain view of part-whole relations. Both assume a world that primordially consists of naturally indivisible entities or events—that is, of ‘individuals’—which may be added together to yield a totality of a higher order, a ‘whole’. Conversely, the whole may be divided up into its individual parts. A generalization is a covering statement about the whole, as opposed to statements about its parts; likewise statements about society refer to the whole comprised of the sum of its individual members. But if we understand the world to be one continuous process of becoming, of which our own lives are a part, and if our knowledge of the world is built up against the background of our active involvement in this process, then this logic of part-whole relations—and with it the oppositions both between the general and the particular and between society and the individual—disintegrates. Each one of us may be different, but these differences are constituted in and through our mutual involvement in the generative process of social life, they do not exist in spite of it. By contrast, to point to similarities—that is, to generalize across multiple instances—is to presuppose a world already fragmented into its minimal constituents. In short, it is difference that connects, whereas similarity divides.

What, then, becomes of the distinction between science and humanism? Or more specifically, what is entailed in the claim that anthropology is a ‘human science’? One answer might lie in a particular interpretation of the motion for the third debate, that ‘human worlds are culturally constructed’. While natural scientists set themselves up as disinterested observers of the phenomena of nature, anthropologists might see their task as one of registering the multiple ways in which these phenomena are apprehended within the representational schemata, or ‘world views’, of diverse cultures. These two projects are perfectly compatible, since they both place the observer—whether natural scientist or social anthropologist—at a point doubly removed from the phenomenal world. Ordinary human beings are one step removed, since they alone are said to reconstruct the world in their social discourse, along lines laid down by the categories of culture, whereas all other animals merely get on with the business of living in it. But scientists and anthropologists can be no ordinary humans, since to perceive cultural constructions as such, and to recognize the ‘real’ reality of nature that lies behind them, they must have taken a second step—not just out of the one natural world, but also out of the several worlds of culture that all other mortals inhabit. Where the first step marks the transcendence of humanity over nature, the second marks the triumph of reason over the forces of tradition.

It is possible, however, to argue for anthropology as a human science, and to support the motion that human worlds are culturally constructed, without having to endorse this claim to the superiority of reason. To do so requires a broader conception of science as knowledge, one that refuses to draw an absolute distinction between the processes of mind and nature, or between the knower and the known. Such a science would begin from the premise of our initial engagement with the world of nature, instead of our detachment from it. And in place of the idea that human beings ordinarily inhabit worlds of culturally constructed meaning, one could argue—as did the proposers of the motion for the third debate—that people ‘live culturally’. To take this view is to conceive of the life process not as accommodated within ready-made structures of knowledge, but rather as the very process wherein knowledge is generated. This conclusion would tally with my earlier remarks regarding the generation of anthropological knowledge within the dialogic contexts of both the field and the academy. And it would place the anthropological quest for meaning in human affairs on a par with that of people everywhere.

But if human beings do not just live, like other animals, but live culturally, what is it that enables them to do this? It was the search for an answer to this question that motivated the fourth debate. Human beings can live culturally, argued the proposers of the motion for this debate, thanks to language. For whether our concern be with the evolution of our species or with the ontogenetic development of every human individual, it is language that makes possible the transition from sign to symbol, that is from non-verbal gestures whose meanings lie in the material effects they bring about in the particular contexts of their production to verbal utterances which take their meanings from concepts and ideas in the minds of speakers. To have made the transition, according to this argument, is to be in a position to enter that traffic in representations technically known as the ‘cultural construction of reality’. As the debate revealed, however, there are two major difficulties with this argument.

First, a great deal of what we would normally take to be integral to living culturally apparently does not depend upon linguistic articulation, and seems indeed to be fundamentally resistant to expression in words or symbols. One has only to think of my earlier example of tying shoelaces. Language use, in short, appears to mark only the tip of the iceberg of cultural life. If language is the essence of anything, it is not of culture, but of the specialized practices of academic writing by which we seek to represent it. This conclusion, however, only serves to highlight the second difficulty, which lies in the extent to which these academic practices have influenced our idea of what language is. Once we cease to regard language as a domain of affect-free, context-independent propositions, modelled on that of the printed word, and focus instead upon speech as a situated social activity, the conventional dichotomy between language and non-verbal communication seems much less secure.

Arguably, both speaking and tying shoelaces are instances of skilled practice whose meanings lie in the effects they secure in the world. But surely the same goes for the skilled activities of non-human creatures. If so, there can be no radical contrast between the cultural life of humans and the natural life of other animals. The contrast, if it can be made at all, must be a soft or ‘fuzzy’ one, rather than hard and fast.

The root of the problem seems to lie in understanding the relation between the development of practical skills of perception and action, on the one hand, and the reconstruction of experience through verbal narrative, on the other. This was the central theme of the fifth debate, on the proposition ‘The past is a foreign country’. It figured in terms of an opposition between historical and memorial approaches to the past. As an object of historical narrative, the past seems cut off from the present: one can only talk about something that is already finished. Yet story-telling is itself a skill, which like any other skill depends upon the work of memory—that is, of capacities of feeling and response shaped through past experience. In this sense, then, the past is active in the present. Despite their differences, both sides in this debate were aware of the dangers of divorcing human capacities from the historical process of social life in which they come into being, that is of appealing to ‘universals’ of human nature that are somehow pre-specified as the properties of individuals, in advance of their entering into any kinds of relationships at all. The so-called ‘capacity for language’ is one such frequently posited universal. Another, which figured centrally in the final debate on the category of the aesthetic, is the capacity to make evaluative judgements of the impact of externally induced stimuli upon the senses.

Such capacities, it is widely supposed, must have become established through the evolution of our species, and must therefore be equally present in all human beings, ancient and modern. But if the past is indeed a foreign country, as the proposers of the motion for the fifth debate argued, then it cannot be populated by characters like ourselves, equipped with all the same capacities, propensities and dispositions. Recalling the argument against the opposition between the general and the particular, we are connected to the people of the past not by our similarities to them—by what we have in common—but by the fact that they, like us, were as much caught up as we are now in the overall historical process of social life. And if that is so, then human feelings and responses, just as much as skills and capacities of action, must be constituted within that process, rather than given independently and in advance of it through some kind of universal genetic specification.

This is to call into question yet another troublesome dichotomy, which turned out to be central to the argument in favour of the motion that aesthetics is a category that may be generalized across cultures: namely between the aesthetic and the semantic. Aesthetics, it was argued, is about the judgement of sensation, whereas semantics is about the attribution of meaning. The first, in other words, gives an answer to the question ‘How does it feel?’, the second answers the question ‘What does it represent?’ Yet as opponents of the motion pointed out, it is difficult to see how these two questions can be separated without presuming some kind of split between mind and body. If meaning is not added on by the mind to the world, but is rather gathered from the contexts of our engagement with its manifold constituents, then to feel things is indeed to discover what they mean. In place of the dichotomy between aesthetics and semantics we would then have a single anthropology or perception. But it is surely still the case that human beings can represent, in the imagination, what they perceive, and that these representations may, in turn, feed back to the activity of perception itself. Perhaps, if there is an overall conclusion to be drawn from these debates, it is that the most fundamental problem for anthropology lies in understanding this dialectic of perception and representation.


One of the challenges, in setting up these debates, has been to identify motions and to phrase them in such a way as to touch on a genuine division of opinion. It was easy enough to think of snappy propositions that would have commanded general assent or dissent within the profession, much more difficult to find ones around which compelling arguments could be made both for and against. Coupled with this was the logistical problem of finding four speakers, all available on the same day, two of whom were prepared to propose the motion and two to oppose it. The rather cumbersome and impossibly ambiguous wording of the motion for the first debate, ‘Social anthropology is a generalizing science or it is nothing’, was the result of protracted negotiation among the four speakers in an attempt to find a mutually acceptable formula. Science, of course, is one thing, generalization another, and the majority who opposed the motion were free to adopt their own, doubtless diverse and discrepant views of what anthropology might be, if not a generalizing science. Learning from experience, in subsequent debates we made it clear to potential speakers that the wording of the motion was not open to negotiation; at the same time, however, we encouraged speakers to take the otherwise rather unusual step of presenting only one point of view, even to the extent of acting as devil’s advocate, and to go out of their way to be deliberately provocative. In many cases, speakers could have argued as convincingly on one side or the other: Marilyn Strathern, for example, gracefully left it to us to determine whether she was to argue for or against the proposition that ‘the concept of society is theoretically obsolete’. And more than one speaker was set up to argue for a motion that, given the choice, they might have been more inclined to oppose: David Parkin’s defence of the proposition that ‘language is the essence of culture’ is a brilliant example.

There is a risk that to set arguments up in this way is to manufacture purely artificial divisions and disagreements, and thereby to generate more heat than light. The best insurance against this risk lay in the participation of the audience in the open debate following the four presentations. If the motion resulted in a contrived opposition, they would be the first to object; and object they did. By and large, contributors from the floor wisely resisted attempts to polarize the issues, pointing to areas in which both sides appeared to be in perfect agreement. However, when these areas of apparent consensus were further probed in discussion, it almost always turned out that behind them were more profound disagreements which had not been anticipated in the framing of the debate, and which came as a genuine surprise. For example, in the debate on the motion ‘Human worlds are culturally constructed’, the anticipated opposition from the socio-biological quarter did not materialize, and for a while it seemed that with minor allowances for differences in idiom, both sides were saying the same thing - until it transpired that the actual source of the argument lay not in the opposition between culture and biology but in the meaning to be attributed to the notion of construction. And in the debate on ‘Language is the essence of culture’, the real problem turned out to hinge on the issue of whether language exists at all as a discrete capacity of human minds, or whether the idea of such a capacity is the result of attempts by. linguists to create for themselves a distinctive object of study (in a manner strictly analogous to the anthropological invention of ‘culture’). And on this issue, both the proposer and the opposer of the motion found an unlikely ally in the seconder on the opposite side!

In the course of these debates, then, the initial issues were often significantly reframed. Old arguments were found to hang on illusory differences, while new divisions opened up in unexpected places. It was in this respect that each debate was a genuinely productive exercise. Not much significance, however, should be attached to the ballot taken at the end of every debate. The point of the ballot was in part to get a sense of where opinion lay, and in part to enhance the entertainment value of the event. There is no suggestion that intellectual issues can or should be settled by these means. The assumption that a particular position must be right because the majority think so has a long and dishonourable history in Western academia. Anthropologists, who are used to swimming against the tide, should have no truck with it. Just for the record, however, the voting figures are appended to this introduction, along with a warning that they should not be taken seriously. If they indicate one thing, it is that our efforts to phrase the motions in a way that allowed convincing arguments to be marshalled both for and against, were largely successful.

If there really existed an ‘average’ British social anthropologist (BSA), who adhered in every respect to the majority opinion, he or she would be perversely inconsistent! On the one hand, taking a stance against generalization and anthropology-as-science, our standard BSA would deny that language is the essence of culture, would rule out the cross-cultural application of the notion of aesthetics, and reject as obsolete the concept of society. On the other hand, this BSA would point to the centrality of language and aesthetic judgement in the constitution of culture, and to the distinctiveness of human social relations, in arguing that human beings live in culturally constructed worlds, and that their constructions of the past in the present are radically cut off from the pasts experienced (as their presents) by predecessors of earlier times. But while the standard BSA is, of course, a fictional character, theoretical inconsistency is nothing new in anthropology, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. For inconsistency is also a sign of movement, of a willingness to try out new ideas. Complete theoretical consistency, on the other hand, spells intellectual stagnation.


After every debate took place, the four principal speakers were asked to supply written texts of their contributions. These texts, slightly edited, make up the first part of the published record of the proceedings. The second part consists of an edited text of the open debate following the presentations, rounding off with final comments from the speakers. Preceding both parts is a short introduction, written after the event by the chairperson, and serving to draw attention to the main themes and to the significance of the debate as a whole.

The second part of the proceedings for each debate is very far from being a word-for-word transcription of what was said on the day. Rather, it has been constructed by first producing such a transcription (from audio-tape), and then completely rewriting each contribution so as to make the same point in the clearest and most economical way—even to the extent of reconstructing what the speaker would have said if he or she had had the opportunity to think it out more carefully. Wherever appropriate or possible, the words and phrases that speakers actually used have been incorporated into the rewritten text, but I have felt under no obligation to keep to them. In some cases the material has been reordered, to make for a more logical and coherent sequence of challenge and response; some contributions have even been split up into two or more segments and reinserted in different places. My overriding aim in this editorial work has been to produce a text that reads well, and that captures the spirit of the argument and the specific points at issue, rather than one that reproduces exactly what was said. Cutting out redundant material has generally led to a reduction (by comparison with the original transcript) of around one-quarter to a third. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, one or two contributions were lost from the debate ‘Human worlds are culturally constructed’, as were the final minutes of the debate ‘The past is a foreign country’.

The text of each debate is followed by endnotes including bibliographic references. The decision to include endnotes was taken while editing the first debate for publication: this, then, established a precedent which subsequent speakers have followed—with the result that the number of endnotes has tended to increase from one debate to the next! Where appropriate and helpful, I have also introduced endnoted references into the second part (the open debate).


Perhaps a few words are in order about how these debates should be read. The first point is that while readers will search in vain for ready-made theories, they are afforded unprecedented access to the normally invisible process of theory in the making. Each debate should be taken as an invitation to readers to join in, and to develop informed positions of their own. Second, rules of criticism that would normally apply to published work cannot be so strictly applied to the contributions reproduced here. Different rules, of course, apply to oral presentations such as in lectures and seminars. Indeed, the value of the seminar lies precisely in the opportunity it affords to launch ideas that are still so rough-cut or unrefined that one would never dare venture them in published form. But precisely because only the refined product ever makes it into print, the dialogic process of ‘working up’ remains hidden and mysterious to all but those fortunate enough to have been present and able to participate. This volume is intended to remove some of the mystery and to widen the scope of participation. In reading it, however, it would be wise to imagine oneself placed within the debating chamber, much as in reading the script of a play you might imagine yourself in the theatre. That is to say, read the words as if you were hearing them spoken.

There is one other reason why the debates reproduced here are closer to the improvised, oral discussion of the seminar than to the carefully controlled debates that typically appear in the pages of learned journals. This has to do with the dimension of time. In print, an author might criticize an argument published years previously by another; later on the latter may publish a further response to the former. The whole debate reads like a conversation among whales, echoing throughout the academic ocean in excessively slow motion. The debates reproduced here, by contrast, took hours, not years. However, the various positions taken by the opposed sides in each debate are still situated in the longterm flow. Thus each side develops its position in response to a view that is already established in the literature and is inclined to attribute that view to its opponents, while the latter vigorously deny any such attribution on the grounds that their position has been developed in response to something else! It is this feature of what could be roughly called ‘synchronic’ rather than ‘diachronic’ debate that leads to the impression, in many cases, that arguments are being conducted at cross-purposes. This can be frustrating, yet argument at cross-purposes is surely better than no argument at all, since only by first revealing misunderstandings can they be addressed and corrected.

The participants in these debates, however, are not responding only to currents of thought within anthropology. They are also sensitive to the events taking place around them. In reading the debates, therefore, it is important to bear in mind the year in which they took place, and what was going on in the world at the time. This is most obviously the case in the debate on the concept of society, held in 1989, when British academics were coming to terms with the wholesale destruction of the social fabric wrought by Thatcherite policies at home, and witnessing the collapse of communist Eastern Europe and the revival of nationalist fervour abroad. All of this lent a special urgency to our thinking about what was being done, or thrown out, in the name of ‘society’. But although contemporary world events thread their way through the following pages, this does not mean that the debates have been overtaken by history, or that their salience has been in any way reduced by the passage of time. The themes they address remain at the top of the theoretical agenda, and the debates themselves effectively register the pulse of contemporary thinking in British social anthropology.


Reproduced below are the results of the ballots following each debate. Note that these figures give nothing more than a glimpse of the balance of opinion, and should not be regarded as an index of the relative merits of alternative arguments.

Social anthropology is a generalizing science or it is nothing

For 26

Against 37

Abstentions 8
The concept of society is theoretically obsolete

For 45

Against 40

Abstentions 10
Human worlds are culturally constructed

For 4l

Against 26

Abstentions 7
Language is the essence of culture

For 24

Against 47

Abstentions 8
The past is a foreign country

For 26

Against 14

Abstentions 7
Aesthetics is a cross-cultural category

For 22

Against 42

Abstentions 4

1988 debate
Social anthropology is a generalizing science or it is nothing

Tim Ingold

Is social anthropology a scientific endeavour? Does it aim to establish general propositions about the conditions of human culture and social life? These questions are as old as anthropology itself; indeed, the tensions they imply—between science and humanism, between the general and the particular—are vital to the constitution of the discipline. Nevertheless their salience has changed, not only due to developments within the subject, but also on account of new pressures and expectations whose source lies in the societies to which we ourselves—as anthropologists—belong. At a time when we are increasingly conscious of the implications of our involvement with the peoples among whom we study, the gap between our own scholarly aspirations and what is practically required of us has grown wider than ever. In this situation, the questioning of the nature and objectives of anthropological inquiry has gained an added urgency. The motion for the first in this series of debates was phrased to reflect this sense of urgency.

Of course the question concerning science is, to some extent, separate from the issue of generalization, and the nature of the link between them depends both on what is meant by science and on the kind of generalization one has in mind. Apropos the latter, the debate reveals two rather different approaches. The principal target of Anthony Cohen’s critique, in his opposition to the motion, is the kind of generalization that screens out individual differences and idiosyncrasies, leaving only those characteristics that the members of some collectivity or other appear to have in common. This is what enables anthropologists to attribute beliefs and practices not to particular persons, but to entire ethnic groups like Nuer, Inuit or Australian Aborigines, or even to categories of people which exist only in the anthropological imagination such as hunter-gatherers, peasant farmers, or ‘Euro-Americans’. Behind this critique is a more deep-seated unease about the way we tend to speak of ‘societies’ or ‘cultures’ as collectivities whose members have more in common with one another than with members of other, equivalent groupings. For surely those differences that make every life-history unique do not appear in spite of people’s engagement in social and cultural life, but because of it. Yet the question remains: if societies or cultures cannot be defined by the limits of consensus among their members, then how can they be defined at all? And if they cannot be defined, except in the most arbitrary or provisional way, what becomes of the traditional anthropological project of cross-cultural or cross-societal comparison?

The second kind of generalization is closer to what is normally meant by the notion of the hypothesis in science. It is a statement to the effect that where certain conditions obtain, a certain result may be expected. An example of such a generalization might be that in agricultural societies with land-intensive techniques of cultivation, and where land rather than labour is a scarce resource, property will devolve to both men and women and marriage will be monogamous. That this is a general statement is undeniable, but whether it has been derived through a process of generalization is another matter altogether. The issue here hinges on the contrast between induction and deduction. Arguably, the notion of generalization implies an inductive procedure whereby certain regularities or patterns are drawn from the systematic review of a large number of empirical cases. But in supporting the motion, Anthony Good favours the kind of deductive procedure most prominently advocated by Karl Popper. According to Popper, every hypothesis is derived from a theory, but theoretical innovation is a matter of inspired conjecture, not scientific method. Hypotheses cannot be proven, but they can be refuted through testing against the evidence. When it comes to critical testing, Good argues that anthropologists are far more conscientious than many natural scientists (his example is chemistry); furthermore, anthropologists are a good deal more aware that such testing necessarily involves dialogue and debate within the scientific community.

However, Judith Okely, opposing the motion, objects to the Popperian version of anthropology-as-science, with its image of the fieldworker as technician, testing hypotheses and recording facts in the ‘natural laboratory’ furnished by other cultures. Anthropologists are involved in multiple conversations, both in the field and among academic colleagues. But it is hard to say of any conversation that it is one thing or the other, either an episode of theory building or an episode of critical testing. It is, however, to the language of positivism in which so much of contemporary science is couched that Okely directs her principal critique. Her objections, in other words, are not so much to science as to scientism. She would have nothing against the idea of anthropology as science if science were taken in its original sense, meaning simply ‘knowledge’. But scientism blocks knowledge by closing down or discrediting the work of the creative imagination. Okely makes it very clear that the source of this blockage is political. Mainstream science, with more power and resources at its disposal than anthropologists could ever dream of, can celebrate the genius and inspiration of its great thinkers. But in the public perception of anthropology, reliance on the imagination tends to be dismissed as evidence of ‘soft’ or sloppy thinking.

Though Keith Hart and Judith Okely contribute on opposite sides in the debate, Hart’s support for science resonates to some extent with Okely’s rejection of scientism. Like Okely, Hart objects to positive science’s obsession with method, at the expense of an awareness of what knowledge is for. Moreover, he is sensitive to the way in which the meaning of science has changed over the centuries. His strategy for revealing such changes is to show how successive generations have responded to the question of what science is not. Where once the antitheses of science were myth and religion, now they are the humanities and creative arts. Even the creativity involved in theoretical conjecture, according to the Popperian model, is supposed to lie beyond the purview of scientific investigation. However, positivism, Hart argues, is already obsolescent within mainstream natural science, and the rather jaded view that many anthropologists have of science—with its vision of men in white coats—is increasingly out of date. Attending to matters of history, reflexivity, language and so on should amount not to a rejection but to a reform of science, a reform that must ultimately lead to the dissolution of the disciplinary barriers between the natural sciences, the arts and the humanities that currently carve up the academic arena. In this, Hart argues, anthropology has a unique role to play.

Overall, the contributors to this debate seem virtually united in their dislike—indeed detestation—of the methods and presumptions of positivism, yet the relation between positivism and generalizing science is contested. Many would agree that modern science has become so corrupted by its association with positivist methodology, and by its subservience to commercial and military interests, that it has forsaken its original, humane objectives of creating a better and more just society—objectives to which social anthropology might very well subscribe. But do we embrace these objectives in the name of science or by projecting our discipline as a counter-science? On the one hand, it may be argued that we should not dismiss science simply because some of the work that goes on in the name of science strikes us as thoroughly disreputable. After all, anthropology’s record, too, is not exactly untarnished. On the other hand, even if a distinction is made between ‘real’ science and ‘pseudo’ science, a good deal of ‘social science’ in Britain is of the latter kind, as is the view of science enshrined in the dominant discourse of our society, and imposed upon us by our political and bureaucratic pay-masters. How, then, should we respond to these imposed definitions? Do we collude by presenting a public image of anthropology as a social science, whatever our private practice, simply as a strategy of survival in a philistine and competitive environment? Or do we justify our claims to be practising ‘real’ science? Or do we abandon science altogether, adopting a critical stance unequivocally rooted in the humanities? These are just some of the issues raised by the following exchanges. They make compelling reading for all who are concerned with the future direction of social anthropology.

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