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

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Part I
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At issue before us is an abstract idea, an object of thought. Clearly, it cannot be with abstraction itself that we disagree. We all make abstractions in order to extend our thinking. But it matters very much for how we extend our thoughts what abstractions we make. And the principal problem with abstracting ‘society’ as a concept lies in the other concepts it engenders.

An anthropological debate must appeal to anthropological reason, and theoretical positions have therefore to be understood in their cultural context. Whatever control we think we have over the development of our theories, they are also inevitably shot through with general habits of thought. Thus, in arguing that the concept of society is obsolete as far as anthropological theory is concerned, I am also arguing about a salient cultural artefact. Indeed, we are all living the disastrous outcome of a long cultural investment in the idea of ‘society’ as an entity.

This debate honours the memory of Edmund Leach. He was fond of pointing up the habits of thought that vitiated the theories of his colleagues, for example, the habit of dichotomous thinking. His 1961 critique 1 attacked the then fashionable dichotomies such as ecology versus social structure, locality versus lineage, village versus social group. There is, he argued, no autonomous realm of social existence to be pitted against the material facts of property or locality. Rather, such material facts are represented in and manipulated by social relations.

What gave the dichotomies a superficial realism was an overarching opposition between economy and society, and this in turn rested on the specific way in which the concept of ‘society’ was made into an abstract object of thought, on the form it was given. It was treated as though it were a thing. So it was possible to see this thing opposed to or in relation with other ‘things’, as in this case economy. But society, Leach declares, is not a thing: it is a way of ordering experience. 2 Such was the (cultural) tenacity of our habits of thought that Leach found it necessary to reiterate his view in the context of a strenuous objection to the way anthropologists talk of societies in the plural. 3

The points I address are the same. To think of society as a thing is to think of it as a discrete entity. The theoretical task then becomes one of elucidating ‘the relationship’ between it and other entities. This is a mathematic, if you will, that sees the world as inherently divided into units. The significant corollary of this view is that relationships appear as extrinsic to such units: they appear as secondary ways of connecting things up.

This was not quite how Leach put it, and indeed he could not have put it so. The maturation of these mid-century ideas provides us with our present position. It makes us realize the damage that the concept of ‘society’ has done. For it is not, I repeat, any old abstraction that we are debating. It is a particular one, and one that carries a specific set of consequences for the way we shape others.

Let me pause on the fact that to make abstractions seem real we routinely give them concrete form, and offer a brief review of the form taken by various ideas in British social anthropology at the time of Leach’s critiques.

First, as we have seen, ‘society’ was reified as an individual thing, set up as an entity in antithesis to entities of a similar conceptual order: society versus economy, the material world, even biology or nature. Although these could be seen as conceptual domains carved out of human life, thought of as ‘things’ they appeared to have an identity prior to their being brought into relation. In this company, ‘society’ referred generally to consociation. Any particular society then appeared as an individual manifestation of society in this general sense. This introduced a new concreteness.

Second, then, society was personified as a population among similar populations. Considered together, they appeared to resemble a collection of persons, except that as most societies were not in communication, the connections between them could only be typological. What were typed were the differences and similarities between discrete units. In the same way as one could count individual persons, it was thought one could also enumerate individual societies.

Third, each population could in turn be regarded as a collectivity of individual human beings who appeared as members of the ‘society’, as parts of a whole. Whether society was conceived as the sum of individual interactions or as an entity regulating the conduct of individuals, the point was the same. 4 In so far as ‘society’ constructed the set of relationships between its members, the individuality of the latter was taken to be logically prior. Individual human beings thus appeared as primary phenomena of life, relationships as secondary. Another dichotomy surfaced, here, between society and the people who composed it, so that when thought of as individuals, the latter were seen to have a separate existence.

The theoretical defects of these positions are well known. Once again we encounter problems raised by the initial concept.

Consider first the dichotomies between domains of study. The nurture/nature debate has run aground; the idea of society as being somehow opposed to biology has stranded anthropology at a distance from other fields of the human sciences; 5 while the exaggeration of society as an autonomous phenomenon has led us to discard whole areas of human competence as uninteresting ‘material culture’.

Second, as my opponent will surely agree, 6 comparative anthropology is at an impasse. One impasse derives from our mathematics of whole numbers, the tendency to count in ones. A marriage rule in twenty societies becomes twenty instances of the marriage rule! We knew there was a problem with thinking of societies as bounded units, in that we cannot really count them up. But this second absurdity was compounded with the first. Society is either half a phenomenon (of which the other half is everything else to be studied about human life); or else a whole phenomenon divided into parts—systems, institutions, sets of rules. Parts appear like individual components that can also be enumerated. Hence we enumerate phenomena across societies, so that a rule or prescription can also appear as an instance of something with a certain rate of occurrence.

Finally, the idea of society as a whole beyond the (individual) humans who make it up has lured us to another concretization, to elaborate on the idea of individuals as somehow members of it. This led, for instance, to a fatal equation of ‘society’ with ‘group’. 7 Group solidarity was interpreted as societal solidarity. It was fatal because it produced an internal canker of problems, such as ‘women’ who, because they did not belong to groups, seemed not to belong to society. Or it led to the bizarre idea that people everywhere represented society to themselves as an external object, enshrined in ritual cohesion or legal orders. The one abstraction proliferated others—religion represented society, law represented society—alike in being set against the individual who had to be ‘socialized’ into appreciating the power of this external entity. In short, what the anthropologist made into an abstract object of thought in the ordering of material had to be made visible as the object of other people’s representations. Hence the years of what now seems a futile search for social order.

Clearly, our theories have exhausted themselves. You have the evidence—endorsing a very simple point about the nature of scientific revolutions. Theories rest on paradigms. A paradigm becomes visible at the point of exhaustion. No longer a taken-for-granted way for organizing the world, it appears in retrospect as a set of tricks of analogy and metaphor. In particular, observe the analogies for the concept of relationship: we have relations between separate domains of study (relating society to other things), between discrete societies (cross-societal correlations.) and finally between individual human beings, where the external nature of relations is hypostasized in the concept of society itself.

The reifications, personifications and number games that we play with this concept, now in the singular, now in the plural, now related to other entities, now the sum of relationships, are exposed as rhetoric. Once understood as rhetoric, the concept of society cannot be reclaimed for theory.

The ground on which we move its obsolescence is simply that it is a calamitous ‘has been’. 8 I on one theoretical calamity.

I have pointed out that a problem with the concept of ‘society’ is the other concepts it produces. And the most problematic for anthropology has been that of ‘the individual. The two have operated as the poles of a pendulum between which twentieth-century theories have swung. 9

When ‘society’ encapsulated the further concepts of organization and rules, it drew attention to regularities in social life. But it then appeared as an order against which the individual actor constructed ambition or experience. So we are also familiar with the counterweight that came to be given to transactions in social analysis. Instead of a regulative ‘group’, society became concretized as an interactive ‘market place’. Similarly, when society was imagined as an object of people’s representations, it drew attention to the significance of symbolic activity, gave us a point of mutual comprehension: as ‘we’ imagine society as an external presence so must ‘they’. But representations were then seen to mystify forms of domination, as in gender relations, as though certain persons were acting ‘on behalf of’ or ‘in the name of’ society. Instead, interest groups came into view like so many contestants.

For as long as the pendulum was in motion, the concept of society was a useful resting place. But the pendulum has virtually come to a stop. Having swung from social morphologies to individual transaction, from collective representations to the ideologies of interest groups, late twentieth-century anthropology has landed in the morass of social constructionism. This is a kind of collapsed, imploded version of the society-individual dichotomy, in so far as the model takes inspiration from the idea of external forces impinging on the individual and the individual asserting personal experience against society.

My point is straightforward. The pendulum has been useful, it has provided creative positions and constituted much of the internal dynamic of the discipline. And for as long as the concept of ‘society’ served as a focus for thinking about social organization, collective life and relationships, it served a purpose. Indeed, it has afforded useful derivatives—the epithet ‘social’, the concept of ‘sociality’ as the relational matrix which constitutes the life of persons, and even ‘societies’ as a shorthand pluralism for populations with distinctive organizations. To none of these do we object, for all refer to the significance of the relations within which persons exist. Our objection is to the distortion that arises when the concept of society ceases to signal these relational facts and instead obliterates them. Instead of sociality being seen as intrinsic to the definition of personhood, ‘society’ is set against ‘the individual’. And because of the concreteness of individuals in our cultural worldview, it has been hard to shake off the assumption that the individual has a logically prior existence. Indeed, the priority accorded to the concept of individual is such that it has been applied to society itself: ‘societies’ take on the character of discrete holistic units.

The concept of society has thus existed in anthropological accounts as a rhetorical device—as a closure on ethnographic narrative, 10 fitting together parts of the analysis as though the social structure fitted together; as the possibility of theoretical integration made concrete in the encompassment of all social phenomena. Perhaps this may strike you as innocuous. In retrospect, however, rhetoric rarely turns out to have been neutral. I turn now to evidence from a different domain, one that forms the background to our present theorizing. It plays explicitly on the dichotomy between society and individual. It is, in fact, a terrible parody, a literalization of that theoretical pendulum, bashing us over the head with one of its poles.

When Leach said that society is not a thing, he meant that social practices are a medium of human behaviour and cannot be set against it. He was anticipating the pit into which our present mistress of self-fulfilling prophecies was to fall. I refer, of course, to the infamous declaration issued by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher:

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.

The statement shows us what has gone disastrously wrong with making an abstract entity out of the particular concept under debate. Listen to the consequences.

First, individual motivations appear the only reality. Today we live under a political regime that has tried to sweep away the collectivities that intervene between state and ‘citizen’, and organizations that promote specific interests. And it is the same assault on social diversity that has encouraged both the privatization of previously nationalized industries and increasing control over the social services. Diverse modes of social organization offend. Corporations must be moulded into one model; tolerated only if conceivable as individuals.

Second, we live under a cultural regime that defines the individual in a specific way—as financially self-sufficient. All enterprises—industrial, educational, artistic—have to behave like such individuals, enterprises of independent means who attend to their own needs, and who are therefore socially alike in the way they keep their books, achieve performance targets, and so on. They interact only as ‘customers’ of one another, social action becoming a question of the individual’s capacity to mobilize services.

Third, then, we live under a regime that would like to render invisible any form of social relationship that cannot be modelled on interactions between individuals and for which the market-place can serve as a metaphor.

Intolerance for diversity of social forms, individuals defined as consumers and providers of services, relationships rendered invisible—we see here the outcome of a long-established habit of abstracting society as an object of thought. It is because the concept of society had been bandied around as though it were some autonomous entity that it becomes possible to throw it all away and ‘reveal’ the seemingly concrete individuals underneath. For what Prime Minister Thatcher has done is a little obviation analysis on that concept—realizing that society is not after all a concrete thing but an abstraction. So, off with its head! The ‘real world’ consists of consuming bodies, rising from the table from time to time to check the share figures. Abstractions do not belong to this world; only individuals do. You see what has happened.

In one fell swoop Thatcherism could gather up all kinds of collectivities and organizations with a social presence, and in dumping the idea of society, dump them. They no longer derive legitimacy from their social nature because society no longer exists. Then what is substituted for the false ‘thing’, society, is the real ‘thing’, the individual. The form that the concept takes here allows this. Because society is reified it is also possible to reify the individual in antithesis. It is a sad cultural fact that the one always seems to precipitate the other.

Here is the absurdity, indeed tragedy, of operationalizing one pole of a dichotomy. Where the individual is thus produced ‘in opposition to’ society, the move conceals social formations and power relations. This is a prescriptive individualism that, among other things, makes invisible the massive commercial and military interests of multinationals, since all we ‘see’ is the extent to which the customer is the recipient of services. Moreover, it fosters the ecologically tragic promotion of consumer gratification. At this point one might argue for restoring the concept of society itself, for that would restore a balance. The cultural likelihood, however, is that it would not: it would only recreate its antithesis.

The motion that I put to you is that we do not need the concept of society precisely because we do not need the concept of the individual in contradistinction to it. As anthropologists, ‘we’ certainly have no business peddling that dichotomy. For what is calamitous for the nation at the end of the twentieth century is actually rather sad for us. In its early twentieth-century conceptualization of society as an object of study, anthropology started out with such good intentions. But I have shown the cracks that were already evident in Leach’s criticisms. We have now reached the point of having to tell ourselves over again that if we are to produce adequate theories of social reality, then the first step is to apprehend persons as simultaneously containing the potential for relationships and always embedded in a matrix of relations with others. Christina Toren will elaborate on what we mean.

Meanwhile, I can only take the following stand. Certainly we need an obviation analysis on the concept, but not in order to deny abstraction. We need to recover the original intention of the abstraction, which was to convey the significance of relationships in human life and thought.

Social relations are intrinsic to human existence, not extrinsic. As objects of anthropological study, one cannot therefore conceive of persons as individual entities. Sadly, it is our very idea of society that has been the culprit. The unfortunate outcome of conceiving of society itself as an entity has actually been to make relationships seem secondary and not primary to human existence. Quite simply, then, we have reached the theoretical point of recognizing that as a concept ‘society’ has come to interfere too much with our apprehension of sociality. I move that it be despatched as obsolete.
‘Society’ is a highly complex and many-sided notion. We can only debate its value realistically, giving due recognition to what people are actually doing with the concept, if we recognize the variety of its uses. We must refrain from defining it in a singular, particular way so that our view of whether it is a useful or outmoded concept becomes true almost by definition. Yet this is what Marilyn Strathern has just done. She has focused her attack on a particularly reified concept of society -one that has been influential enough in social anthropology—and has fairly criticized its ‘thinginess’. But matters are much more complicated.Several of the senses of ‘society’ are seen most clearly in relation to a particular antithesis: society versus the individual, versus culture, versus community, or, most pertinently, versus the State. We will proceed most appropriately if we treat ‘society’ as denoting a field of enquiry defined by the relations between all these senses.Since what we are debating is whether to take away the very subject matter of sociology, let us turn—for a definition of ‘society’ that is reasonably uncontentious—to one of the leading sociological theorists of our day, Anthony Giddens. In his The constitution of society he distinguishes two primary senses of the concept:

1 ‘The generalized connotation of social association or interaction’, i.e. patterns of relations between social actors.

2 A relatively bounded unity of social relations, a social system, contrasted to other surrounding societies. 11

The distinction, in other words, is between society in general and any particular society. The classical social theorists vary in their emphasis: Spencer and Durkheim chiefly mean the latter, Simmel and Weber the former. The contrast recurs in closely related forms: ‘grid’ versus ‘group’, for example.

When applied concretely, the two main senses differ in their reference. Sense 1 may be applied to a generic kind of society: capitalist society, industrial society, colonial society, plural society, Muslim society. The label designates some key integrating or constitutive principle. In Sense 2, if the reference is to a modern or large-scale society, there is the strong presumption that it means the system of social relations corresponding to a state: for example, Japanese society, modern British society, society and democracy in Germany. The usage is similar for the smaller units customarily specified in ethnographic study: Tiv society, Kayapo society, Melpa society. But at this level, as we all know, things are more problematic. The Tiv may be exceptionally bounded, but many peoples, as Leach showed in Political systems of Highland Burma, are not. 12 These ethnographic units may (or may not) be so defined by their members, and rarely coincide with a state. Typically, the limits of linguistic intelligibility are taken to provide the boundary—and so ‘society’ here comes close to being a synonym of culture.

Each sense of society can, of course, be more abstractly theorized -and this is indeed the central project of social theory. As regards Sense 1, what Giddens calls his ‘theory of structuration’ aims to reformulate the antithesis of society and individual as ‘the duality of structure and agency’. Ingold comes, by a different and more anthropological route, to a similar formulation in his Evolution and social life. 13 In Sense 2, society has been theorized in two main ways: in terms of ‘system needs’, as with Parsons’s functionalism; and in an architectural or layer-cake image, as with the three ‘instances of the social formation’ of the French Marxists.

Such, then, are some of the main ways in which the concept of society is actually used. But a motion which proposes that society is an obsolete concept invites us to view it historically. And a little intellectual history is illuminating.

In English, ‘society’—initially in Sense 1—was first used in the sixteenth century. We find Hobbes using this sense in the famous passage in Leviathan where he sees ‘no account of time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. 14 This passage also looks forward to Sense 2, since it makes society’s existence depend on the existence of a state: Leviathan is, of course, an argument to justify the absolutist state. In this empirical fusion (though conceptual distinction) of state and society, Hobbes looks back as well as forward—back to the Greeks in fact, who had no distinct term for ‘society’. Famously, they subsumed ‘society’ under their political form, the polis. (The Yoruba, I note in passing, do the same with their term ilu, and for some similar reasons.) It was not that other forms of society (as we would say) went unrecognized—the kin-based ethne of the northern barbarians, or the basileia, the Persian imperial order—but only under the conditions of the polis was real human fulfilment, social life in the fullest sense, possible.

What happened in Europe, in the century after Hobbes, was that society further detached itself from the state, yet remained unavoidably but problematically linked with it. Now political forms were seen to be conditioned by the forms of ‘civil society’. Society came first, not the state. Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society of 1767 was a classic statement. Why did this development occur? For three reasons:

(a) There was the emergence of the capitalist economy, which formally freed men as units of labour and revealed patterns of class relations more clearly for what they were.

(b) There was a new freedom of association, eventually leading towards democratic movements. Their greatest publicist, Tom Paine, gave a fine expression to the society/state contrast: ‘Society and government are different in themselves and have different origins. Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness. Society is in every state a blessing; government even in its best state but a necessary evil.’ Tocqueville would later go on to argue that political democracy is vitally dependent on ‘society’ in the sense of social institutions interstitial between individuals and the State.

(c) There was the rise of nationalism. A nation is a society in its cultural aspect, and now it was argued with growing force that states ought to correspond to nations, that they work best when attached to sets of shared cultural understandings derived from a people’s past.

Thus modern social theory emerged in the nineteenth century, with its two linked senses of ‘society’: as patterns of association and as that bounded entity which problematically connects with the state.

Now there are two essential worries which, to my mind, a social anthropologist might fairly have about a concept such as ‘society’, on account of its origin in a particular cultural milieu and a particular historical epoch. I believe these worries to be ultimately unfounded, but they need to be addressed.

The first worry concerns the cultural source of our concepts. To judge from her recent book 15 and her contribution to this debate, Marilyn Strathern feels keenly that so-called ‘Western’ concepts distort the analysis of non-Western (in her case Melanesian) concepts and practices, particularly as regards the cultural constitution of persons and individual-society relations. It is not possible here to go into this in proper detail. Suffice it to make a few observations. The problem is to develop concepts which allow the unprejudiced analysis of as wide a range of different societies as possible. In general, it is no more than to be expected that the social theory developed in large-scale, relatively heterogeneous and differentiated societies should have some capacity to embrace the realities of simpler and smaller-scale ones. Marx was right to consider that political economy—whose own claims to supra-historical transcendence he of course rejected—nevertheless yielded a superior account of earlier and/or simpler economic forms than was possible in the categories of societies where the economy was (in Polanyi’s terms) ‘embedded’. Beyond this, though, we should be wary of treating ‘Western thought’ as if it expressed a single, simple view of society, whether in itself or in relation to individual or state. When we read that, say, an antinomy between society and the individual is alien to the Melanesian view, but by implication typical of the Western view, we have to ask whether Adam Ferguson was not, after all, a Westerner. To make the argument by a sort of ‘reversed orientalism’ only confuses the issue.

The second worry is more substantial. It is that our concept of a society—here in Sense 2, as a bounded entity in which economic, political and cultural unities are superimposed—may be too removed from the salient empirical realities which social anthropologists now have to tackle. This concern is well expressed in Michael Mann’s The sources of social power, 16 which comes close to abandoning that concept of society, talking instead about ‘multiple overlapping and intersecting…networks of power’, which are variously economic, military, ideological and political. Anthropologists have often documented multiethnic social settings where there intersect such different spheres as, say, a national administration that speaks one language, local peasant communities where another is spoken, and traders belonging to an international diaspora who speak yet another. What need do we have of the concept of a‘society’ here?

But to draw such an inference is misconceived, since it presumes that concepts are meant to be shadows or replicas of social realities. In fact they stand in a much more dynamic relationship to reality—pertinent to it, certainly, but selective from it, according to principles of theoretical relevance. Even in the nineteenth century, the first heyday of European nationalism, the concept of ‘society’ was highly ideal in relation to much of the reality. It presented a model of coincident cultural, economic and political spheres at a time when, for example, much economic activity was still locally organized, while in other sectors international or transnational economic networks were coming into being. In the same way, while a given religion was often an important component of a society’s culture and a key source of national identity, minority enclaves and religious dissent within, and the formation (through migration and mission) of transnational religious solidarities, made it plain just how ‘ideal’ the notion of a national society often was.

But none of this invalidates the concept of a ‘society’. It remains a crucial reference point or bench-mark, just as does the ideal type of bureaucracy in relation to some chaotic and corrupt civil service. It remains the case that states and, if they are large enough, cultures, may be powerful tractive forces, with a potential to organize social and economic relations around themselves. And I hardly need to point out that, despite some countervailing trends, the idea of a homogeneous national society retains a powerful appeal to millions of people around the world. That makes ‘society’ a cultural reality, and therefore also a social one, that we cannot ignore.

A debate on this motion, at this time (October 1989), cannot fail to address the much-reported intervention of the Prime Minister in social theory. The proposer of the motion has bravely taken the bull by the horns, and sought—though unconvincingly—to neutralize the effect of what must be highly unwelcome support. ‘There is no such thing as society,’ Mrs Thatcher declared. ‘There are individual men and women and there are families.’ What does it mean, this radical denial of society?

The family, one is to presume, is abandoned to the sphere of nature. The interaction of individuals through the market is extended; and that too is essentially justified because it is supposed to be ‘natural’. But most significantly, to achieve this, the state is used against society, so that individuals confront a reduced yet more active state more directly than before. Its harsh liberalism invokes ‘Victorian values’ but diverges from them in major respects. Whereas Tocqueville grounded liberty and democracy in a vital civil society—that is, in collectivities or institutions that mediate between the citizen and the state—Prime Minister Thatcher relentlessly undercuts and devalues all such institutions: local government, trade unions, universities, churches, the BBC, even (in fact, though not in theory) the family What is not privatized is subject to much tighter state control. Here the Thatcherite outlook differs from even that most sweeping of nineteenth-century laissez-faire tracts, Spencer’s The Man vs. the State (1884). For Spencer deeply disliked nationalist politics, jingoistic wars, and the whole idea of the state as the instrument of a transhistorical abstraction such as ‘the British people’. Above all, he would have thought it monstrous that the state should entertain a project of radically changing the people’s culture, such as Thatcher’s promotion of ‘entrepreneurialism’.

For us, as social scientists, a most pertinent token of the practical drift of Thatcherite social theory has surfaced very recently. I refer to protests made at the Government’s manipulation of the work of the Central Statistical Office and at official proposals that its activities should be both reduced in scale and confined more closely to government objectives. A pressure group set up to challenge this, led by Sir Claus Moser, has made the essential point that the CSO should be seen as serving, not only government’s needs, but those of society at large. Those who would set society in opposition to the individual, or represent this as ‘the Western view’, are simply allowing Thatcherism to set the terms of argument; and when society goes, the individual is left confronting the state. Yet there is another, continuous strand in our tradition, which sees society as enabling, not as repressive, of individuals; and that often against the state.

We should not exaggerate the erosion of society in this country. But the relevance of the concept of society is seen even more strikingly outside Western Europe, where popular movements are directed against statist regimes of the Left. It is in the name of society that Poles, Hungarians and Czechs have overthrown ossified state structures, and here at least it is realized how much individual formation and fulfilment has society as its precondition, not as its antithesis.

The most telling and poignant case, however, lies even further afield, namely in China. Here we saw popular struggles for a democracy which the Chinese have never known, involving precisely a plea to their rulers that the state hearken to society. This phrasing was explicit in the Declaration made at the end of the Tiananmen Square occupation, one of whose four authors was a sociologist. What might especially instruct any anthropologist worried about the applicability of ‘Western’ concepts outside the West, is the symbolism adopted by the movement. Its very icon was the ‘Goddess of Democracy’, freely modelled on the Statue of Liberty, which points us directly back to the age of Paine and Tocqueville when the problematic of state and society was first formulated.

The motion invites you to deem the concept of society ‘obsolete’. I put it to you that, if the task of anthropology is to engage with human actuality, it is hard to think of a concept which is less obsolete.



Marilyn Strathern has shown us how the notion of ‘society’ carries with it the idea of the ‘individual’ and how, in doing away with the idea of society, we can finally dispense too with the idea of the asocial individual. In seconding the motion I shall concentrate on a particular theoretical domain. In essence, my case is this: given that meaning is—of its nature—inherent in social relations, given that we cannot even conceive of meaning unless we taken sociality for granted, we have inevitably to accept that the twinned notions of ‘society’ and the ‘individual’ (who is ‘socialized’ by society) are theoretically obsolete.

I ask you to consider a child, any child, a baby. Even before birth, it is in social relations with others in so far as others are implicated in and concerned about its expected arrival. At birth, it is immediately the object of other people’s attentions and its mode of being in the world is mediated by others—what it is fed and how often, how it is clothed, handled, allowed to sleep or wake, carried about, left to lie and so on. We think of the child as simply acted upon. Indeed, our notion of socialization—which emerged in the nineteenth century and which is present in virtually all twentieth-century European models of child-rearing from Freud to Skinner—builds on and transforms that Christian notion of the later Middle Ages that the child was to be moulded like putty or clay. However, as any parent knows, children cannot be so moulded, and in recent years even the less coercive and more benign notion of socialization has come to be seen as inadequate.

This is because the notion of socialization cannot account, even in theory, for the microhistorical processes by which that new baby comes to be, say, a Chinese People’s Republic doctor and leader of a women’s association, a Fijian retired primary school teacher now paramount chief, an Iban longhouse leader and manager of a copra co-operative, a Hawaiian champion of Japanese sumō wrestling, or an Australian middle-class anthropologist mother of one. If society is to be the source of such material possibilities, then it has to be materially located somewhere—but it cannot be located in individuals for they are by definition the antithesis of society, so it has to be outside and above individuals, a system that is greater than the sum of its parts, an abstraction. From this theoretical perspective we are forever in a dilemma that we can never resolve. We have no choice but to change the terms in which our questions are framed.

Over the past fifteen to twenty years, it has become increasingly clear to psychologists concerned with children’s earliest cognitions, that babies are born with cognitive abilities that are at once more extensive and more specific than had previously been acknowledged. For instance, in one experiment, pre-speech infants (6-8 months old) were shown pictures of objects and played a number of sounds; when they heard the drum beat twice they spontaneously looked at a picture of two objects and when they heard it three times they switched their gaze to a picture showing three objects. In other words, infants seem to have a basic ability for the sort of cross-model matching that underlies counting. Other experiments demonstrate that—well before they are speaking—babies are able, effortlessly, to form what are called ‘basic level’ categories—such as bird, dog, apple, doll, etc. Indeed, newborn babies can distinguish between living kinds and non-living kinds, and within living kinds, they can distinguish humans from other animals.

Now, most psychologists and even anthropologists have taken these findings to suggest that because they are innate, these cognitions are ‘non-social’. This is, of course, an artefact of our notion of ‘society’ as something that is above and outside the individual. But it is surely absurd to call these cognitions non-social, for what the psychological findings demonstrate is that we are innately disposed to attend to the world, a world that is characterized by a number of invariant properties. It is a world where gravity keeps us all on the ground, where water runs downhill, where there is a regular cycle of night and day and of seasons, where objects are stable rather than unpredictably made and unmade, and where there are always, for any and all of us, other humans. If we are biologically social animals—as everyone seems prepared to accept—then our cognitive activity is rooted in sociality. For however remarkable may be the cognitive abilities with which babies are born, they are as yet incomplete. Human babies are well adapted to knowing the world, but they do not yet know the world in its historical specificity.

One can only come to know the world in and through relations with others, but babies are not merely the objects of others’ attentions, nor is the world impressed upon them such that they become mere imitators or reflections of those around them. The psychological studies have made it quite plain that even the new-born baby is inevitably the subject of its own behaviour, active in the social relations in and through which he or she is already a particular person with a particular history. Each one is inevitably an active subject, not only because it is in the nature of humans to make meaning out of whatever impinges on them, but because each one actively seeks out information on which the mind may act. However, one cannot do this independently of others; such meanings as one makes are inevitably mediated by the manifold social relations in which one is always enmeshed and in which meaning always inheres. Indeed, the very notion of consciousness is predicated on an awareness of others in relation to oneself and of oneself in relation to others.

One becomes especially aware of this when looking at how children’s notions change over time; what one finds then is that in the process of making meaning out of their own experience children submit willy nilly to the meanings that others have made. I say children, but I mean ‘people’—for this is as true for us as it is for a newborn child or a three-year-old. This shows how inappropriate is the notion of socialization, with ‘society’ as its source. Of course, as Marilyn Strathern has already pointed out, concepts of sociality and social relations are derived from the notion of ‘society’. And, like ‘society’, they are also abstractions—but as abstractions they denote dynamic social processes in which any person is inevitably engaged, rather than a set of rules or customs or structures or even meanings that exists as a system independently of the individual who is to be socialized.

I remarked that, because meaning is inherent in social relations, one has, in making meaning, to submit to the meanings that others have made. By the same token, others stand in a similar relation to oneself. However, one cannot specify an end point to any domain of cognitive development, even while one may take such-and-such a construct to be ‘mature’ or ‘adult’. Of its nature, cognitive activity is creative in that even while one makes meaning out of the meanings others have made, one cannot help but constitute those meanings anew—and in the process introduce differences that are subtle or wide-ranging or even, sometimes, highly orginal. This perspective on meaning is inevitably historical for it allows our analyses to accommodate the material nature of social relations and thus to handle simultaneously both continuity and change.

I am asking you to reconsider our model of the human being, to give up the idea of the newborn child as a tabula rasa on which some abstract and disembodied society inscribes itself. I am proposing an idea of the child as being, and as coming to be, a particular person with a particular history, as coming into consciousness in and through the social relations in which he or she is at once the subject of his or her own acts and the object of the acts of others. Indeed, we have to conceive of the child—as of any person—as being in a social relation with itself in that it is at once the object of its own regard and the subject of its own actions. The baby who lies in its cot watching its own little fingers waggling does not have to make its hand part of its body by dint of some learned cognitive effort—all we know of children’s innate faculties suggests that what is fascinating about the waggling fingers is the embodied awareness that one makes it happen oneself. And this very relation to itself as at once the subject and the object of its own actions is, in any child, mediated by the social relations in which it is not only acted upon by others, but also always a subject—one whose own activity helps to constitute those very same social relations and the meanings that are made in them.

You will have realized, no doubt, that in talking about cognition, meaning, particular persons, consciousness and so on, I am arguing not only against the idea of society, but also against the idea of culture. This is inevitable, for the idea of society brings ‘culture’ in its train. But if in many, if not most, of our analyses we have taken for granted the psychological processes by which one might be supposed to become a particular person with a particular history, we have in so doing also taken for granted the psychological processes by which people might be supposed to constitute meaning. We have left that problem to psychologists and, if we bothered to think about it at all, have simply assumed that the reified ‘system of meanings’ which emerges from our theoretical analyses is—at least in part—transmitted, as it were, ‘ready made’ to each member of the group we have characterized as part of a ‘society’.

However, once we cease to use the individual-society dichotomy, once we realize that persons are not merely products of social and cultural processes but also, at the very same time, inevitably shaping those same processes, then we see that our analytical problems are problems of psychology as much as of social or cultural anthropology. I am not arguing that we have all to change the focus of our studies, but only that we have to be very aware of the model of the human being that our studies imply. The concept of society is theoretically obsolete, so is the concept of the individual. Let us take a new perspective—one where, at the heart of our studies, we locate persons who, as active historical subjects and the objects of others’ actions, are at once both products and producers of infinitely variable but not arbitrary meanings. Meanings are variable because they are made by human subjects, but they are never arbitrary because, inevitably, they are made in social relations, and thus always in reference to the meanings that others have made and are making. There is no society and there are no individuals—only the social relations in and through which we become who we are in play, in work, in eating together, in conversation, in war, in ritual, in love, and in debate.

You who sit here today as listeners to the arguments put forward by Marilyn Strathern and myself—I ask you all, as persons who are at once the active subjects of your own lives even while you are acted upon by others, to take our meaning and make it your own. You will have to support the motion.


Many years ago, at a seminar at the University of Edinburgh, my teacher James Littlejohn commented that in order to attempt the task of anthropological comparison we should aspire to ‘become coeval with our own history’. I shall take this as the motto of my contribution. Those who demand a radical break between the present of anthropology and its past must first be clear exactly about what that past contains.

The wording of this motion suggests a very odd idea of the nature and shape of anthropological theory. It conjures up a vision of the white heat of theoretical progress, in which bad ideas are exposed and discarded and new ones take their place overnight. In practice, as we all know, there are few ideas in the theoretical toolbag so bad that no one uses them, and obsolescence can only be judged by long years of utter silence, not by the presence of polemic and debate. At a guess, I would say that ‘primitive promiscuity’ is some way past its sell-by date, while it is some time since I heard anything really new on the topic of ‘animism’.

I would also ask you to remember that the proposers of this motion have set themselves by far the harder of our two tasks. While they are required to demonstrate that, always and everywhere, the employment of the concept of society will lead to confusion and error, we are simply required to suggest that in some contexts and in some uses we could imagine it providing some new insight. Not, please note, that everyone is required to use it; just that some may find it helpful some of the time.

I refer to contexts and uses in the plural because there is no simple unitary concept of society. Rather, it is one of those polysemic words—like culture or class—which have played a crucial role in the self-understanding of industrial society. Obviously, we must be wary of unproblematically transferring a word forged in such a specific context into another radically different context. But we should be just as wary of treating one contingent meaning of a word as historically transcendent.

Marilyn Strathern specifically objects to the concept of ‘society’ because it predicates an ethnocentric opposition between society and individual. Historically this assertion can be clearly shown to be untrue; whether or not it is true in the present is a matter for debate, and much, crucially, depends on how we view the tradition of European social thought from Marx onwards. Is this tradition first and foremost ‘European’, trapped within the narrow self-understandings of European societies as Strathern suggests, or is it, at least some of the time, oppositional, a tradition of critical thinking which has been pitched directly against the grain of dominant self-understandings? In the last analysis, I believe it is social theory’s internal critique of industrial society which has opened up the space for the more radical critique which Strathern offers. Her work would be impossible without the earlier arguments of those like Mauss and Marx, who wrote at once about the nature of modern society and about imaginable alternatives to it, and whose greatest writings were simultaneously analyses and interventions.

I shall have more to say about anthropology and social theory towards the end of my argument. First I need to dispose of the alleged necessary link between ‘society’ and ‘individual’. The original Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘society’ divides its senses into four primary groups with thirty or so sub-senses; only one of these sub-senses employs the word ‘individual’ in its definition. If one searches through all the two million quotations in the OED one finds about a thousand occurrences each of the words ‘society’ and ‘individual’, but only eleven quotations in which both words are used together. The earliest of these is from Blackstone in 1765, followed in historical succession by passages from Thomas Jefferson, Coleridge, Macaulay, Mill, Emerson, and Spencer. 17 But the earliest of these passages do not counterpose society and individual as separate and opposed things; for that we have to wait for the mid-Victorian period and particularly the writings of Mill. The opposition comes into very sharp and specific focus in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The word ‘society’ itself is several hundred years older than any of these examples, and its earliest uses incline more to the sense of companionship—which is the main sense of its Latin etymon societas—or association, senses which we can still just about discern when we talk of ‘enjoying someone’s society’. These senses are in fact much closer to Strathern’s approved notion of ‘sociality’ than to her understanding of ‘society’; the latter in fact represents one specific response to nineteenth-century history.

But of course it is not the only one. Mill’s talk of a ‘despotism of society over the individual’ 18 can be contrasted with Marx’s assertion that The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.’ 19 In the terms favoured by the proposer of this motion, it looks as if Mill was a Westerner, whereas the young Marx (like his mentor Hegel) was probably a Melanesian.

I now want to turn away from the negative part of my case and to attempt to put forward some more positive reason for continuing to talk about society. Even if Strathern’s fictional ‘Western thought’ only acknowledges one of several meanings of society, we still need some indication of new and potentially fruitful uses of the term. John Peel has already pointed out that society can be opposed to a number of different antonyms—society versus individual, society versus community, society versus the State. And these different senses have their own histories and historical preconditions. (In passing we might ask what exactly is wrong with dichotomies. Our opponents seem to think that the very fact that something is part of a dichotomy is sufficient reason to dismiss it as worthless; nevertheless some dichotomies—black and white, yes and no, p and not-p—really do signify important differences.)

In the Sinhala language there is a word samajaya which appears neatly to coincide in meaning with our own ‘society’. So, for example, I would explain away my research to the curious by saying I was studying samaja vidyava—Sociology or the study of society—while one of the oldest Sri Lankan political parties was called the Lanka Sama Samaja Paksaya—the equal society or socialist party. (In my experience the nearest word to individual, paudgalayek, is much less commonly employed and more restricted in both sense and context than its English equivalent.) Of course, the presence or absence of a word for ‘society’ is a matter of ethnographic interest, but in itself it is of no necessary theoretical consequence.

But let me contrast two Sri Lankan political representations, one involving this word for society and one not. In the 1860s a British civil servant got hold of a palm-leaf manuscript called Dharmarajapota, ‘the book of the righteous king’, which had been circulating in the Sri Lankan countryside. It foretold of the coming of a righteous king from across the water who would drive out the British and restore the old pre-colonial kingship. 20 In 1977 the main opposition party, the UNP, won a landslide electoral victory over the incumbent government with a campaign promising the building of a dharmista samajaya—a society in the spirit of the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. In both cases the ideal of the dharma was at the heart of the promised political order, but in the nineteenth century this was to be realized in the person of the king, whereas in the twentieth century it had given way to the building of a society.

This is, of course, only the beginning of a much more complex story. The commonest word used for government or state in Sinhala is still rajaya (thus the king is the polity and vice versa), and the attempted separation of society and state implied in the 1970s’ slogan has itself been overtaken by events. But what I want this example to show is that political action in the 1970s was being imagined in a different way, and one index of that difference is the emergence of ‘society’, samajaya, as a self-conscious element of political representation. An obvious reason why people should have become more aware of a gap between state and society in a country like Sri Lanka is the fact that a distinction of this sort lay at the very heart of colonial practice which, as in India, was based on the ideal of orderly government without active reform of local society; the area of custom and customary law, in particular and with a few famous exceptions, was to be left untouched by government action. But in indigenous formulations order was guaranteed and instantiated through the person of the king; the idea of a government quite separate from local society was deeply problematic and the promised return of the king was an attempt to deal with that problem.

A century and a half of colonial rule may have established the possibility of differentiating state and society, and this possibility is clearly acknowledged in the slogan of the dharmista samajaya, but actual differentiation of state and society is, if anything, even more problematic today than it has ever been. Since the 1950s politics and political alignments have infused the texture of everyday life in Sinhala villages to a frightening degree; in the last few years political violence has escalated to terrifying proportions. As the Sri Lankan anthropologist Valentine Daniel has very recently put it, ‘state and civil society…have been brought into active, even if explosive, engagement’. 21 Daniel’s characteristically provocative formulation is not an answer to the mystery of Sri Lanka’s political implosion, but it does indicate an area where we might start to look for such an answer, on the disputed boundary between state and civil society.

The example is obviously specific to Sri Lanka, and I do not claim that the problematic relation of state and civil society is going to be universally encountered. I think, though, that it will be manifest in virtually all colonial and post-colonial societies, and it is also quite easy to see areas of life in industrial society—the new social movements (including the women’s movement) for example—which can be analysed in these terms. The area of enquiry I have sketched also promises the possibility of obtaining an ethnographic purchase on politics in complex societies, and thus of rejuvenating the moribund subdiscipline of political anthropology.

Do we really need the word ‘society’ for this? I doubt if it is essential. Language is creative and, forbidden one word, we can easily put together a substitute to serve the same purpose. Classical Greek poets composed tricksy stanzas which avoided common letters like sigma, George Orwell wrote a whole novel without any semi-colons, and Gramsci, whose influence should be obvious in the above discussion, was forced to recast his prison notebooks in safe non-Marxist euphemisms. At the same time, I feel no threat from anyone who chooses to ignore the word, or who prefers to take her ideas from other areas like psychology, literary criticism, or wherever. Anthropology tends to be theoretically promiscuous, and I am far more interested in illuminating accounts of what it might mean to be human in some very different circumstances than in the arid task of policing ‘correct’ theoretical language.

But let me suggest some reasons why we should think twice before discarding the word ‘society’. First, history teaches that the road to theoretical heaven is not, on the whole, paved with circumlocutions, and it is surely more important to concentrate on the quality of the argument than on the precise vocabulary in which it is expressed. Only a very lazy critic would believe that the presence or absence of the word ‘society’ might signify good or bad anthropology.

Second, sometimes social facts are things. In some contexts it is important to remember the thinginess of society, the strength of the collective. ‘Sociality against the State’ somehow lacks the clout of Clastres’s original title 22 and, to me at least, conjures up Leonard Bernstein’s famous radical chic cocktail party for the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. Politics, resistances, involve more than dispositions (like sociality), they also involve aggregates or collectivities (like society). Any new political anthropology must necessarily question received ideas of power and the political, for example through Hannah Arendt’s idea of power as collective action rather than individual domination, 23 and this in turn requires a recognition of the existence of human collectivities.

This points to a final consideration: the question of intervention. The groups which have been in the forefront of the intellectual struggle against racism and violence in Sri Lanka have names like the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality, the Social Scientists’ Association, and the Campaign for Rational Development. Justice, equality, social science, rationality: we have here a formidable list of what self-styled post-modern critics would deride as the outmoded clichés of a defunct modernism. But I have no intention of telling the people involved with this work that they are the victims of theoretical misapprehension, trapped within Western categories that are theoretically obsolete. Instead I applaud their efforts to use whatever intellectual tools seem appropriate in order to understand the problems of their society.

I have deliberately drawn my examples from social theory rather than anthropological theory, and I have drawn them in order to illustrate this final point. As Cornelius Castoriadis puts it, ‘Here the idea of pure theory is an incoherent fiction…Every thought of society and of history itself belongs to society and to history.’ 24 My objection to this motion is the illusion it offers of an anthropology liberated from the social-historical circumstances of its own production. I suggest instead that we confront those circumstances, learn from them and, if we object to them, join together to change them. I suspect that our opponents in this debate might share this aspiration too.

In fact I suspect we are divided more than anything by the secondary ethnocentrism which derives from different regional traditions. Anyone who has worked in South Asia would wonder at Strathern’s account of prevailing anthropological assumptions; this is because of the enormous influence exerted on South Asian ethnography by Louis Dumont. I have talked overmuch of tradition, and compounded my fogeydom by starting this argument with a tribute to my first teacher. Let me close with Dumont’s tribute to his teacher: A fellow-student, who was not going to make ethnology his career, told me that a strange thing had happened to him. He said something like this: “The other day, while I was standing on the platform of a bus, I suddenly realized that I was not looking at my fellow-passengers in the manner I used to; something had changed. There was no longer ‘myself and the others’; I was one of them. For a while I wondered what the reason was for this strange and sudden transformation. All at once I realized: it was Mauss’s teaching.” The individual of yesterday had become aware of himself as a social being… This is the essential humanist aspect of the teaching of anthropology.’ 25 Today, this aspect of our work remains as true and as necessary as ever. I therefore call on you to reject this motion.

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