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

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Part II
The debate

MICHAEL ROWLANDS As the presentations of the four speakers fully confirm, the phrasing of the motion forces a rather stark polarization between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ notions of science, and between generalization and understanding or interpretation. This takes our attention away from two issues which are much more important: first, the nature of comparison; and second, the formation of concepts. Both of these cut across the simplistic dichotomy between science and non-science.

RAY ABRAHAMS I share this view. Had I been asked to propose a motion on this sort of issue, it would have been something like ‘anthropology is a chimera or it is nothing’. For it is the attempt both to generalize and at the same time to take on board the intensity of the fieldwork experience that is at the heart of anthropology, and of the anthropological monograph. The latter, too, can be neither wholly one thing nor the other. Like a Zande witch-doctor, I feel that although the monographs I have written are not as good as I would like, somewhere or other there are people who have been able to write them properly. There is, in my view, a middle ground which is not just a compromise, and which is absolutely central to the subject.

TIM INGOLD Can we compromise? On a number of issues the speakers have put forward directly contradictory points of view: one side argues that generalization is of the essence of what we do, although it is not all that we do; the other side argues that generalization is unprofitable. Should we aim for a compromise, or should we go for one argument or the other?

ELIZABETH TONKIN One cannot avoid generalizing. It is a condition of talk that we use agreed terms and categories. But what anthropologists are really trying to do is to consider specific conditions and to ask whether they can be systematically related in any way. Rather than producing a set of generalizations or a set of individuated portraits, we try to discover what conditions will lead to something else, what kinds of conditions yield certain types of solution.

PNINA WERBNER My concern is with the kind of relativism advocated by opponents of the motion, with its focus on the individual as interpreter, and its rejection of generalization. What they reject seems to be a sort of cultural generalization, which is not the true aim of anthropology as a generalizing science. I endorse the view that our objective is to analyse the structure of a society, with regard to its division of labour and its relations of power and dominance, and to understand how these are expressed in cultural terms. It is possible, then, to make cross-cultural comparisons without having to resort to stereotypical cultural generalizations. The latter, in my view, are almost racist constructs. They, it is said, are different from us; so different from us that we cannot compare them with ourselves. One has to be very careful with statements of this kind.

LYNN BRYDON Most of us would agree, I am sure, that science cannot be simply identified with positivism. Yet as soon as one begins to talk about generalization one is forced back to the tools of positivism. I have yet to see any literature which shows how generalization can be undertaken in a non-positivist way.

NICHOLAS FIDDES Referring to Anthony Good’s hierarchy of the sciences, which places social anthropology at the summit, I wonder how it should be distinguished from sociology? Might it be that sociology tends towards generalization and social anthropology towards particularization?

KEITH HART This is not an accidental question. The distinction between social anthropology and sociology is crucial. The confusion between them arose when social anthropology began to present itself as a ‘sociology of the primitive’ and to take on Durkheim’s project as its own—allegedly for export rather than home consumption. Since that notion has been eroded, the problem has become more acute. I argue that the academic division of labour is itself in dire need of reform, and that to allow social anthropology’s confusion with sociology to persist will be to the detriment of our subject. The only thing which can truly distinguish anthropology from the rest of social science is that it addresses human nature plus culture plus society. The fragmentation of nature, culture and society in the British version of the anthropological endeavour is at the root of the problem. To make the differentiation of sociology from social anthropology hinge on the general versus the particular is to fracture the dialectic on which all knowledge rests. Every kind of understanding requires us to postulate what is the same and what is different. The dialectic between the general and the particular is inevitable, and I cannot imagine how branches of knowledge could be divided on these grounds. But I would suggest that social anthropology in Britain has a very weak sense of its differentiation from sociology, and may indeed be undermined by that weakness.

ANTHONY COHEN I do not have any sense of a weak differentiation between social anthropology and sociology. Despite eight years in a department of sociology, I have never been able to understand what sociology, or what a sociology, is about. If there is a distinction, it lies in the greater sense of plurality and diversity within departments of sociology than is found even within our own malaise-torn discipline of social anthropology.

MARILYN STRATHERN When we set things up in terms of polarities, it often seems that the obvious solution is to compromise. In fact, both sides colonized the best points of the other, converting them into points of their own. But however much we may wish to borrow terms from one another, to compromise, to find middle ways, to imagine that we are doing bits and pieces of everything, we actually live in a social world which—looking in on us—asks the question posed by the motion. We are in a social situation where people use these dichotomies in relation to us: hard versus soft, general versus particular, scientific versus non-scientific. Should we, then, respond to our social environment, and if we do, should our response be couched in terms of these same dichotomies? Or should we escape? Two escape routes have been offered. The proposer offers an escape into the fantasy of some unknown future synthesis (and the trouble with immediate future syntheses is that all we do know is that they will be displaced in their turn). The opposition offers an alternative fantasy, into the imaginations of particular individuals.

MICHAEL ROWLANDS Rather than trying to escape, one alternative is to understand and criticize the conditions that leave us having to respond to these polarities in the first place.

MALCOLM CHAPMAN I believe the intellectual public is positivist in its overall outlook: it likes generalizing science. If anthropology pretends to be a generalizing science in these terms it is bound to fail. And what it will look like after that is precisely ‘nothing’.

WIM VAN BINSBERGEN In much of what has been said on both sides, I detect an enormous idealism, as if our main purpose in the pursuit of anthropology is to ‘be there’ and help other peoples, or to construct a universal edifice of knowledge. Taking a relative view, it is clear that our professional language, comprising the concepts and symbols we use, is grounded in specific material and social conditions. The production of anthropological knowledge is thus but one instance of the kind of process that we study among other peoples all over the world. Much of what governs our debate is therefore artificial, for science is a social process of production of knowledge, and in every case such processes contain contradictions that cannot be resolved, and indeed are not supposed to be resolved. Anthropology, likewise, is not one thing or the other: its internal contradictions are what keep it going, making it a living, social and (at times) a reflexive enterprise.

KEITH HART Since I have been accused of presenting a fantasy as my solution to the problem posed, I should say that my aim was to give a historical account of the social production of knowledge over the last three centuries, and to situate anthropology within that account as something which has not existed eternally and simply allowed its practitioners to get on with their job, but which has specific historical conditions of emergence. And the evidence, I believe, suggests that at this juncture the anthropological project is in serious danger of eclipse. Though I do not know what form a future synthesis might take, I do think that the synthesis on which we have been working for the last hundred years is showing signs of senility.

ANNE FINK The whole debate seems to resolve ultimately around the pursuit of truth: either truth in the sense that the positivists sought, or truth of the kind that Judith Okely suggests might lie in interpretation. Kolakowski, 20 in his book on Husserl’s critique of positivism, points out that for all human beings who seek after truth, knowledge or science, it is the actual task that is important. Kolakowski’s conclusion is that although we shall never get there, life is only worthwhile if we keep on trying. The point of our debate is to ask, ‘How can we go about finding out about things better than we are now doing?’ And I sense on both sides a desire for this ultimate goal.

MARILYN STRATHERN When I used the term ‘fantasy’, I meant it in the sense of an imaginative solution to a real-life dilemma; I did not mean it in the sense of something a-historical. We have to consider whether we wish to situate ourselves within the currently dominant discourse, or whether—as anthropologists with access to the thought of peoples whose premisses are not the same as our own—we can adopt a critical perspective on the kind of ‘bureaucracyspeak’ that informs (for example) the policy statements of government and research councils, and whose metaphors infiltrate the very way we think about our subject.

WENDY JAMES I should like to take up Keith Hart’s point that our central concern with human nature differentiates anthropology from other disciplines. Surely it is also characterized by a desire to get things right, to produce better ethnography. One sign of that better ethnography is the kind of concern with individuality that Anthony Cohen was talking about. Other disciplines actually produce rather bad accounts of peoples and cultures about whom we have a solid basis of knowledge in anthropological literature. Let me give you an example. I recently came across an account, coming from a philosophy department in Sweden, of the Nuer living in Ethiopia, otherwise known as the Nipnip. The book is called Beyond morals? Experiences of living the life of the Ethiopian Nuer. 21 The account does proceed from a contrast between this group and the Sudanese Nuer, who have become famous through the writings of Evans-Pritchard. However, the author ascribes the major differences between them to an overemphasis, in EvansPritchard’s work, on the existence of moral ideas and norms among the Nuer. Her main finding is that the Nipnip have nothing which could be called moral ideas or norms. She claims that ‘in contrast to most anthropologists’, she has ‘lived and worked with the people as one of them In order to turn myself into one of the Nuer people, I took off all my clothes’. That is her statement about her fieldwork, which lasted a full four months! She also claims that ‘Religion and magic have no great importance in the life of the Nipnip’. EvansPritchard, of course, wrote a substantial book on the subject of Nuer religion. Though the author of this account is familiar with the anthropological literature on the Nuer, she does not seem to have understood its meaning. I am sure everyone here would agree that her’s is an inferior account, which indirectly confirms the scientific validity of our own anthropological project—taking science in the broader and more old-fashioned sense invoked by Keith Hart.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER I am unclear from both sides of the debate about what they feel is the purpose of anthropology. Keith Hart wants to build a science of social behaviour. The other side advocates a reflexive stance, which tends towards a neo-colonialist endeavour of finding out more about ourselves by going to study other peoples. I wonder what they think the whole subject is for?

KEITH HART We cannot afford to forget the objectives of anthropology. Part of the problem is that modern science has become remote, authoritarian and bureaucratic, subservient to the military and industrial complex. Scientists themselves have lost a guiding, humanistic conception of what they do. They can avoid thinking about the human consequences of what they do because it is so successful, and because governments and businesses pay them to do it. As a result, many humanists are thoroughly disgusted with, and alienated from, science. But science was once part of the general human endeavour to create by rational means democratic societies fit for human beings to live in. I argue that it still ought to be that, and that we anthropologists could be part of such a project if it were posed in this way. However, this view has serious ethical, political and intellectual consequences. I believe that anthropology is an endangered fragment of an Enlightenment enterprise which risks extinction. It would be good for us to recognize that, and to proclaim it with more vision and vigour than we do at present.

PREVIOUS SPEAKER The main purpose of anthropology is to improve the circumstances of people by means of a better understanding between cultures. The limitation of anthropology to an academic discipline, and the retreat into the reflexive, do not appear to help that at all. There seems to be no attempt to find a compromise.

ANTHONY COHEN Nobody here has pleaded for a ‘retreat into the reflexive’. Moreover, the issue of compromise is getting a very good airing. What you are hearing are answers to your question ‘What is anthropology for?’, and these are easy to formulate. The execution of the answers is impossibly difficult; had we managed to find a way of executing them, this debate would be redundant. The object of anthropology is to understand, and through the approach we advocate we do feel, as Wendy James remarked, that we reach a degree and a depth of understanding that evades other disciplines. But we do not do this simply in order to reveal the anthropological self. Our object is not to get to know ourselves better by undergoing all the traumas of fieldwork and coming to terms with another people. Quite the opposite: by going through a process of introspection in struggling to make sense of what we see—and the process is an introspective one—we reach a quality of understanding of the peoples among whom we are living which is not accessible to other disciplines and through other methods.

WIM VAN BINSBERGEN Most of us are not qualified to propound really meaningful models of the natural sciences. But to set the parameters for an adequate anthropology one has to consider not only natural science but also history. The models and paradigms of historians are much closer to ours, and they have more successfully negotiated the tension between generalization, subjectivity, reflexivity and so on. The debate cannot be complete without comparing anthropology to history in the same way as it has been compared to natural science. In particular, the awareness of the production of historical knowledge as something fully rooted in our society, but which nevertheless yields meaningful statements about other societies, is very instructive for us. The extreme emphasis on generalization across the whole board of human experience and action is not something to which historical comparison leads us.

JUDITH OKELY In opposing the motion, we have been accused of ‘navel-gazing’. I cannot see why, since none of us have suggested it. I carefully avoided any plea for the use of autobiography in this discussion, and certainly did not represent anthropology as a neocolonial exercise. In fact, both I and Anthony Cohen have carried out studies in our own societies. These included ‘studying up’, looking at the powerful as well as the powerless. Moreover, being reflective is a political act. Someone who was truly reflective would consider the implications, for the people studied, of different ways of promulgating the results of research. One can write accessible reports or popular articles, or appear in the media, or become involved in political actions in which one’s knowledge is made available to interested parties. One can also write for an intellectual readership. I am angered by the notion that anything associated with literary sensibility is self-indulgent. Why should we cut out one side of our brains in order to be intellectuals?

JOY HENDRY I used to be a scientist, but am now quite confused about what science is, which is refreshing. However, I have a practical suggestion. There is, in the ‘outside world’, a strong view that science should be supported. Like Wendy James, I have read a great deal of bad work about the people I study, written by authors who are regarded as scientists and who can lay claim to a lot more money than can anthropologists. But if we at least pretend, to the outside world, that anthropology is a generalizing science, we might avoid the other outcome, that—through lack of support—it will become nothing.

ANTHONY GOOD This reflects a point raised by a previous speaker [Malcolm Chapman] that if we claim to practise science we would surely be ‘found out’, and would inevitably fail. But unless we claim to practise science, no one will give us a chance to fail. In order that anthropologists should be taken seriously enough to be employed on development programmes, or for their advice to be heeded, they have to claim to be ‘scientific’. For reasons I have given, I believe this claim is justified. But it has a strategic value as well. People who organize or have authority over development projects operate on the basis of a scientific model. Fortunately, we can legitimately claim to be scientists, and we should stress the fact that we are.

ANNE FINK I have been most fortunate in having received a substantial grant to study a subject in social anthropology by a committee of biological scientists. They did admit that they had never given money to a person like me before. But I did not have to offer them a hypothesis. I had to offer an area that I thought needed social observation in order to resolve a problem about which biologists were arguing. They were quite prepared to accept the need for social inquiry, and to give me funds to further my social observations. It is very important to distinguish real scientists from ‘pseudo-scientists’. Pseudo-scientific inquiry is positivism in its worst form, and has nothing to do with the work of those scientists whom I am accustomed to meet, and who are very open-minded.

JUDITH OKELY Anne Fink’s example proves my point: scientists have imaginations; they are open to creative ideas. But social scientists are so terrified about not being considered scientists that they clamp half their brains.

LYNN BRYDON We do not have problems with scientists. I do not think anyone would dispute that scientists are open-minded and imaginative. Nor do we have problems in justifying ourselves before historians, literary critics or whatever. The ‘clamp’ comes when presenting ourselves to bureaucrats and managers. This new breed is to be found not only in the civil service and university administration, but also as successful entrepreneurs in university departments. These are the people we are up against now.

SUSAN DRUCKER-BROWN Whether we call it science or not there is general agreement that anthropology involves the observation of the outside social world, however the interpretation and analysis proceed after that. And there is an inevitable tension between the particularities of that world and the analysis one is going to make of it. Surely proper scientists (as opposed to pseudo-scientists) appreciate the different ways in which an external reality can be apprehended, and the difficulties of so doing?

RAY ABRAHAMS I wonder why the term ‘science’ was selected for inclusion in the motion, since it seems to generate a good deal of mutual misunderstanding. Would the debate have been any different had the motion been proposed that ‘social anthropology is a generalizing discipline or it is nothing’?

TIM INGOLD The idea behind introducing the term ‘science’ was to raise precisely the problems and queries that have been discussed here: namely that those who both advocate and oppose ‘science’ in social research may be working with a view of science that scientists themselves have long ago discarded. If we were to adopt the kind of idea that contemporary scientists have of what they are doing, we might arrive at a new conception—indeed, a new synthesis—of what an anthropology of the future might look like.

ELINOR KELLY I should like to give an example of something based on generalized science, and which—for a number of reasons—had very deleterious consequences. It was the so-called ‘Rickets Campaign’. The campaign was liberally funded by bureaucratic agencies, and received much favourable publicity as doing something good for Asian immigrants. Doctors have published numerous articles that add up to an impressive body of material about the seriousness of rickets among Asians in Britain. Their findings are presented in the classic form of statistical generalizations, as percentage figures. But when we looked at the number of cases of rickets that had actually been reported, and at the numbers of individuals included in each sample, we found that the latter varied between seven and twenty-three! I mention this example because if we are talking about generalizing science and its relation to the power and financial structures of our society, we should be cautious. We may have an important role to play in discrediting the ‘scientific’ premisses of social or welfare policy.

MALCOLM CHAPMAN One should not overestimate the extent to which ‘proper scientists’ are friendly towards the kind of enterprise in which anthropologists are engaged. The overwhelming attitude in science is still a positivistic one. In my view social anthropology has an important job in opposing positivism, which is still virtually a religion in natural and social science, in welfare, and in ministries of intervention. One must, therefore, surely oppose the motion. I detect, however, a mood of ‘transcendent abstention’.

TIM INGOLD I hope there will be no ‘transcendent abstention’, since the two sides have presented arguments which cannot logically be endorsed at one and the same time. If people find themselves on one side or the other, they should come out and say so. My own experience with scientists is that they have very short memories. I remember hearing a talk by a distinguished geneticist who said he had just read The Origin of Species and was amazed to find how much of modern genetics was prefigured by what Darwin wrote in 1859. He had only just come to read work that was instrumental in laying the foundations for his own subject. In anthropology, by contrast, we are always referring back to the work of ‘founding fathers’ such as Durkheim, Weber and Marx. This sometimes leads outsiders to think that we have made no progress. But much ‘progress’ in science is achieved by leaving the underlying premisses of the enterprise unattended, thus freeing the hands and mind for more detailed and empirical work. Scientists, then, are apt to forget why they are doing what they do, whereas anthropologists are so busy remembering that they become paralysed when it comes to the doing.

KEITH HART Looking at anthropology since the Second World War, there is no doubt that most of the big new ideas have come out of the humanities (including linguistics). Many have come from France, and we tend to represent them as anti-scientific because they are not empiricist in the British style. Yet the proponents of these ideas regard them as scientific, and regard themselves as practitioners of science humaine. Of course science does not mean exactly the same in French as science does in English, or Wissenschaft in German. My point is not to draw a rigid dichotomy between ‘hard’ science and the ‘humanities’; it is rather that science is too important an idea to be left to the natural scientists. That is why I insisted upon the political context of whatever knowledge we produce, by drawing the link between science and democracy. If scientists support bureaucratic oppression or promote religious mysticism, we should seek to reform them in the name of science, not to oppose them in the name of anti-science. We should not reject science just because its practitioners are not what we would like them to be. The position I am articulating is idealism. It is a position based as much upon belief as upon knowledge. What I am emphatically not suggesting is that we should embrace empiricism, the appeal to normal experience which is the bread and butter of British social anthropology. Few social anthropologists are not, in their souls, empiricists. This is what underlies our current intellectual and political passivity, and I argue against it in the name of science, if not science.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER The opposition between idealism and empiricism is a problem for me. How far can we go in generalizing a human science in order to escape from this opposition?

MARY SEARLE-CHATTERJEE Several people, including Anthony Cohen, have argued that the role of anthropology is to adopt a critical stance towards generalization. Yet even someone as positivist as Popper puts his stress on falsifying rather than verifying, as part of the systematic process of trying to uncover knowledge. So you could hold the view that the role of anthropology is primarily critical, and still support the motion.

JAMES WOODBURN I believe that anthropology should be a generalizing science. I am not sure that it is, or is likely to be in the near future. For one thing, the extent to which we still argue ad hominem is extraordinary: one declares oneself to be, for example, ‘a supporter of Fortes’ or ‘an opponent of Fortes’. There is a tendency to accept or reject a person’s entire work rather than to look in it for particular ideas one can use. Another tendency that we have as anthropologists, especially if you consider those who are now senior in the subject, is to devote the greater part of our lives defending ideas and theories based on material gathered at the very outset of our careers. We might wish that our ideas would develop as we build on new experience, but this does not happen very effectively.

MICHAEL ROWLANDS Judging by the sense of dualism underlying this debate, the notion of science that Keith Hart is advocating is not generally understood. Given an outline of the social history of knowledge from the Enlightenment to now, of the kind that Keith Hart produced, the other side could produce an alternative history in which Vico would be opposed to Descartes, Hegel to Comte, all the way through to Husserl and the phenomenologists. That dualism has been fundamental, as a contradiction, to the generation of certain kinds of discourses, or of knowledges. Is Keith Hart saying that there is no way of being scientific without being caught in this kind of dilemma?

KEITH HART I argue that the notion of science, like other key words in our civilization—economy, nature, city and so forth—moves all the time. If we are not explicitly historical in this debate, if we do not indicate where the word ‘science’ is now, or to which part of its history we refer, we end up talking past one another. The debate about science should not be an in-house debate about scientific method, rather it should be about the modern historical context that would give unity to the notion of science as a human project—one suitable for anthropologists to adopt as their standard. There are many practices, within the existing bodies of natural and social science and the humanities, which could be enlisted in this project. I would follow Foucault, or for that matter Saussure, in suggesting that words like ‘science’ are best understood in relation to the synchronic sets of which they are part at particular moments in history. Thus, there was more in common between, let us say, natural scientists and humanists in 1780s’ Paris than between the natural scientists of 1780s’ Paris and the natural scientists of 1980s’ Los Angeles. Our problems in this debate stem from unspecific reference to the words we are using, and to the sets of which they are part. Up to a century ago, and in some parts of the world even now, the opposition formed by science was with religion. Our debate is essentially about the location of anthropology within a proliferating academic division of labour which is presently under extreme pressure, and which has to some extent lost its way because specialist practitioners have long ago given up justifying to themselves why they do what they do, and why society should support them in it. I suggest that if anthropologists pause to reconsider their objective social enterprise, it could usefully be seen as ‘science’. I do not seek an empiricist justification for this use of ‘science’. I agree with the deconstructionists that ‘science’ is largely a rhetorical element of modern political discourse. If we are to be part of that discourse, we would be unwise to abandon it.

ANTHONY COHEN I have two points to make. The first is that I do not recognize anthropology, as presented in Keith Hart’s account, as passive, depleted and demoralized. To the contrary: there are respects in which it is more vigorous and exciting now than it has been for a long time. There are no more theoretical monoliths, no shibboleths. We are not now struggling to understand other peoples for the sake of our own scholarly gratification or to build schools of thought. We do it so that others might be better informed. My second point is that this motion is not about whether anthropology is a science. It is about whether it is a science that accomplishes its object by generalization. In addressing this question, speakers have taken one side or the other, or argued for a merging of both. Ray Abrahams and Wim van Binsbergen, in his first contribution, argued that we need both. According to Malcolm Chapman, if we try to generalize, we fail. Pnina Werbner says we have to be aware of the dangers of exaggerated relativism. I do not think that we can produce accounts of the societies we study which are both one thing and the other. We can be suggestive and we can be comparative, indeed, we all are, but we cannot—to borrow Judith Okely’s telling metaphor—successively clamp one side of the brain and unclamp the other, and do a bit with both. We would become intellectually schizophrenic. What we do is to formulate a view, by experience, of the proper way to go anthropologically. And we have to go that way, else we shall end by doing nothing.

ANTHONY GOOD The motion does not state that anthropology is only a generalizing science, but merely that science is an essential prerequisite for anthropology, and that was the argument I was proposing. Some of the discussion has fallen into the common trap of confusing science and scientists. For example, stories of how bad scientists did bad science are not really relevant to the debate. We are concerned here with an ideal view of good science. In practice, natural scientists are as much prone as anthropologists to the faults mentioned by James Woodburn. They too indulge in ad hominem arguments; they too start out with notions which they spend the rest of their careers trying to defend. The idea that practising scientists, unlike ourselves, somehow follow an ‘onward and upward’ career path, progressively redefining or demolishing their earlier views or refining them in the light of experiment, is not really true. But the way they actually behave is not the point at issue. We are talking about how science, done properly, could be. We should not be confused by stories of bad scientists and bad anthropologists behaving badly.

JUDITH OKELY I would also like to refer to James Woodburn’s complaint that anthropologists are still looking through the mouse-droppings of their youthful fieldnotes. They have been guilty of ‘navel-gazing’, and should have been more reflective about their privilege and their intellectual practice. Had they been so, they would have moved on. Returning to the motion, I would still argue that what anthropologists take to be the meaning of science is what we hear through keyholes, and is a very impoverished view. That is why I oppose the motion.



J.L. Peacock, The anthropological lens: harsh light, soft focus, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 83.


B. Kapferer, Legends of people, myths of state: violence, intolerance and political culture in Sri Lanka and Australia, Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, passim.


A. Good, ‘The culture of kinship’, Edinburgh Anthropology 1, ed. M. Noble, 1987, p. 77.


L. Holy (ed.), Comparative anthropology, Oxford, Blackwell, 1987.


C. Geertz, The interpretation of cultures, New York, Basic Books, 1973, p. 5; D. Parkin, ‘Comparison as the search for continuity’, in Comparative anthropology, ed. L. Holy, Oxford, Blackwell, 1987, pp. 52-69.


J. Friedman, ‘Comment on Keesing, anthropology as interpretive quest’, Current Anthropology 28, 1987, pp. 170-1.


W.R. James, The listening ebony: moral knowledge, religion and power among the Uduk of Sudan, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988.


R. Keesing, ‘Anthropology as interpretive quest’, Current Anthropology 28, 1987, pp. 161-76.


L. Holy and M. Stuchlik, Actions, norms and representations: foundations of anthropological inquiry, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.


K.R. Popper, The logic of scientific discovery, London, Hutchinson, 1968.


M.D. Sahlins, Stone age economics, London, Tavistock, 1972, pp. 1-39.


M. Carrithers, ‘The anthropologist as author: Geertz’s “Works and Lives’”. Anthropology Today 4(4), 1988, p. 22.


J. Okely and H. Callaway (eds), Anthropology and autobiography, London Routledge, 1992.


G.H.von Wright, Explanation and understanding, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1971.


For a detailed critique of Jarvie and Horton, see R. Ulin, Understanding cultures, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1984, pp. 42-70.


R. Ulin, ibid., p. 66.


M. Agar, The professional stranger, London, Academic Press, 1981.


J. Okely, ‘The self and scientism’, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 1975; R. Ulin, Understanding cultures, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1984.


J. Llobera, ‘Fieldwork Fieldwork in southwestern Europe. Anthropological panacea or epistemological straitjacket?’, Critique of Anthropology 6(2), 1986, pp. 25-33.


L. Kolakowski, Husserl and the search for certitude, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1975.


A. Akalu, Beyond morals? Experiences of living the life of the Ethiopian Nuer, Lund. 1985.

1989 debate
The concept of society is theoretically obsolete

Tim Ingold

No term is more pivotal to the identity of social anthropology than that of ‘society’ itself, yet none is more contestable. The problems are several, and are indeed the central problems of the discipline. One is that, far from having devised the notion for its own theoretical purposes, social anthropology is itself a relatively recent product of a certain way of imagining and thinking about society which has a long pedigree in the history of Western thought. The challenge and the promise of anthropology is to bring ourselves to ‘think society’ in other ways, yet to do so is to undercut the very foundations of the discipline. No wonder, then, that anthropologists seem to live perilously on an intellectual knife-edge! Another problem, equally pressing, is that our own activity in thinking and writing is situated within a milieu in which ‘society’ is in common and everyday use, carrying powerful rhetorical overtones in the moral and political discourse of citizens as well as in the academic discourse of social scientists (who are of course citizens as well). There may well be debate about whether such a thing as society actually exists ‘out there’, but there can be no doubting the fact that there are people out there who regularly talk about it, and therefore that discourse on society is just as much a part of the reality we study as it is of our way of studying it, if indeed these two can be separated at all.

More than any other recent anthropologist, it was Edmund Leach who contrived to place the status of ‘society’ at the top of the theoretical agenda, at a time when—for most of his colleagues—the existence of societies ‘on the ground’ was a simple fact of life that required no further justification. The motion for the second in this series of debates was chosen to honour his memory, and at the same time to highlight the issues he raised in a way that speaks to pressing contemporary concerns.

In moving that ‘the concept of society is theoretically obsolete’, Marilyn Strathern and Christina Toren have in mind the specific sense of ‘society’ that has long been dominant in social anthropology, namely as a bounded totality or whole that is formed of the sum of its parts. Their objections lie not so much in the concept itself as in the other concepts it has engendered, notably ‘the individual’ as a pre-formed, natural entity and the idea of socialization whereby such entities are said to be moulded in the image of a collective ideal. Their plea is for an alternative conceptual vocabulary, anchored on the concept of ‘sociality’, that would enable us to express the way in which particular persons both come into being through relationships and forge them anew, without relegating both personhood and relationship to a domain of reified abstraction—epitomized by the concept of society—which, in a certain strand of contemporary political rhetoric, is but a prelude to their dismissal as illusory. While Strathern points to the disastrous consequences of such dismissal, Toren shows how a focus on sociality not only allows us to treat the developing child as an active subject at the centre of his or her own social world (rather than as a passive being on the margins of society), but also dissolves the conventional disciplinary boundary between social anthropology and psychology, allowing topics such as child development, once reserved for psychological study, to become legitimate areas of social anthropological investigation.

Opposing the motion, John Peel and Jonathan Spencer focus more on the word than the concept, stressing the plurality of connotations that—in different contexts—have adhered to ‘society’. While not denying the force of the proposers’ objections to orthodox social anthropological usage, their approach is first to go back into history for alternative senses of society, perhaps much closer to what is now claimed for ‘sociality’, and then to follow these senses forward to the present day along intellectual trajectories other than the particular route which engendered the discipline of social anthropology. Thus their appeal is to a much broader and more diverse tradition of social thought, and for an anthropology that would be eclectic in its search for theoretical inspiration. ‘Society’ for them is not a tool of analysis with a single, precise meaning, but the name for a problem space variably and flexibly defined by the co-presence in the same semantic field of other terms such as culture, community, nation and state. Nor can the analytic usage of the term be divorced from its political and rhetorical resonance. If, in some contexts, ‘society’ is called upon to represent the claim of the state upon its citizens, in others it may be mobilized to empower individuals or communities in their opposition to the state. As long as such struggles go on, argue Peel and Spencer, ‘society’ is a term that we are bound to go on using. Not to do so would imply that our theorizing could be somehow detached from the political realities of the world in which we live.

Contributors to the debate, as well as the four speakers themselves, are broadly agreed on two things: first, that the Durkheimian dichotomy between society and individual has become more of a liability than an asset to social theory; second, that theorizing about society is itself a social activity which takes its cue from a particular moment in history and intervenes in its course. The disagreements principally concern what theories and concepts are for. Should we, for example, strive for theoretical consistency and coherence across the discipline, regardless of ethnographic application, or are theories and concepts so inextricably tied to ethnographic experience that a common language is impossible—even undesirable? Is the concept of society applicable to some societies and not to others? The obvious paradox in the latter question leads to the further issue, already foreshadowed in the previous debate: if societies cannot be objectively defined as units of comparison, then what units do we compare? Or is comparative anthropology at a dead end?

Another, but connected, set of questions concerns the relations between theory and paradigm and the nature of advance within the discipline. For some, the paradigm is a kind of storehouse of theoretical concepts, for others it is the barely articulated ground from which they grow. The notion of ‘theoretical obsolescence’ suggests the passing of a paradigm, whose concepts no longer have a place in the new order of thought, yet it is doubtful whether paradigms succeed one another in an orderly, stage-by-stage series. If, by contrast, they course through history ‘in parallel’, then the possibility always exists to switch track, or for ideas to rebound repeatedly back and forth from one paradigm to another, becoming ever transformed in the process. Such, indeed, appears to have been the fate of the concept of society.

Behind the overt concern with ‘society’, however, the debate has a hidden agenda, always present but scarcely raised explicitly. This concerns the status of the very notion of ‘theory’. I conclude with one observation in this regard, which is that there appears to be a formal analogy between the way in which ‘theory’ has been constituted in social science through its opposition to ‘data’, and the constitution of ‘society’ through its opposition to ‘individuals’. In both cases, relationships are disembedded from the world and inscribed in imaginative constructs that have an existence apart, leaving a material residue in the form of populations of discrete, pre-constituted entities or events. Thus, to do away with the dichotomy between society and individuals is simultaneously to do away with that between theory and data. If we are to recast our concepts of the social to obviate the dichotomy, we must also recast our idea of the nature of anthropological theory. The following exchanges, perhaps, represent a step in that direction.

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