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

SUSAN DRUCKER-BROWN What would Marilyn Strathern do with the notion of culture? The antithesis between culture and society is what I find most central. Is ‘culture’ also obsolete as a concept?

MARILYN STRATHERN We have to be very careful about the forms into which we put our ideas. I am not throwing out ‘social’ in the sense of sociality or social relations, nor would I reject the notion of ideas as having a cultural source. My objection to ‘culture’ would be on precisely the same grounds as my objection to ‘society’, arising at that point at which we begin to manipulate it as an imaginary entity.

SUSAN DRUCKER-BROWN Yet even if sociality, in your sense, implies no contrast between the individual and a larger collectivity, it is still antithetical to culture.

CHRIS HANN On the point of their objection to thinking of society as a unitary entity, I have much sympathy with the proposers of this motion. Yet on most other matters I am more in sympathy with the opposition, to whom I should like to address a comment concerning the problematic nature of the dichotomy between state and civil society. You cited events in China and Sri Lanka, and I can think of many examples from Eastern Europe, where intellectuals have put themselves forward as representatives of civil society wanting to sweep away authoritarian states. This sort of discourse is extremely common among intellectuals, although it does not really correspond to folk concepts. If we retain the concept of society for this reason, then we need to look very carefully at the relations between intellectuals who are using the rhetoric of state and society, and what is actually going on outside such intellectual circles in the countries concerned. I would argue a rather different case for keeping the concept of society, particularly in the light of experience from Eastern Europe, in terms of the changes that socialist governments have imposed from above. This imposition has many crude and oppressive features, but in a sense (that ties in closely with nationalist ideas which socialist governments have not been slow to draw upon for legitimation), you could nevertheless speak of—say—Hungarian ‘society’, in that the villagers whom I studied there actually feel themselves to be part of a society. This is not the same sense as that invoked by intellectuals when they argue for civil society pushing back the state. In other words, the folk concept of society in those countries now is one that includes what we are labelling as the state. It includes all that has been done by these regimes from above.

Returning to the theorists cited by both speakers for the opposition, it is worth noting that Tocqueville does not set up a simple opposition between state and civil society; he rather introduces a third area which he calls ‘political society’. So long as we realize that the relations between civil society and the state cannot be simplified in the way that sympathetic elites are simplifying them in many parts of the world, and provided that we explore the notion of political society a good deal further, there might be a way forward. And we can retain the term ‘society’ in Tocqueville’s sense.

JOHN PEEL I said that the relation between state and society is problematic because there is certainly no one-to-one correspondence between them. Certainly, too, they exert a mutual influence on one another. Ernest Gellner 26 has written very astutely about the role that intellectuals play at a certain stage in the development of nationalism, in giving consciousness to peasant populations that had never hitherto thought of themselves as constituting—say—Hungarian or Czech society. Somewhat similar things have happened in Africa, but very often the society that African intellectuals have called into existence has been ethnic in character rather than one that has corresponded to a nation. The relation between state and society is also problematic because there are cases where the difficulties faced by an already existing state, and that can render it ineffective, lie in the absence of a society to which it might correspond. This is the case in many multi-ethnic national states in Africa, arbitrarily bequeathed by colonial politics, and in which intellectuals are asking themselves whether they can possibly bring a civil society into existence. Though the problem is expressed in terms of creating national consciousness, there are many other kinds of ways in which society and state can mutually influence one another. To call this relationship problematic is simply to draw attention to the whole field of issues entailed in it.

JONATHAN SPENCER Further to what John Peel has just said, I hope nobody took me to suggest that in a brief sketch I could explain all that has gone wrong in Sri Lankan politics. I was merely trying to indicate that an exploration of the different uses that people have made of the concept of ‘society’ is a particularly effective way of making ethnographic contact with the politics of complex societies. Another reason why we should investigate this usage is that, like any other term of social theory, the concept of ‘society’ serves at once to describe a given institution and—as Charles Taylor puts it—to constitute social reality. 27 The ways in which people actually use the idea of society create what that society comes to look like in the long run. We cannot, as I fear the proposers of the motion are suggesting, divorce our anthropological representations from the potential applications and interventions of politics.

CHRISTINA TOREN It was precisely my point that we are always implicated by our notions and theoretical assumptions. We, like our opponents, are equally concerned to investigate how these notions are understood. The burden of my contribution was to show that the only way to understand the rhetorical usage of ‘society’ is by comprehending the nature of the social relations constituted by such usage. These relations may indeed be divisive, repressive, and so on.

RICHARD FARDON Just to clarify matters, could I ask each of the four speakers to say what is the single thing they most disagree with in the position of the other side?

MARILYN STRATHERN I shall simply respond to one question put by the opposition: What is wrong with dichotomies? Prime Minister Thatcher’s implementation of a dichotomy, stripped of one of its poles, shows exactly what is wrong.

JOHN PEEL I disagree with hardly anything of what Christina Toren has said. But the idea she proposed, of individuals as both products and producers of social relations, resonates with a large tradition of nineteenth-century sociology which says just that. Weber, Simmel and the early Marx say it over and over again. Only by reducing the concept of society to a narrow, artificial construct can any plausibility be given to the motion at all. This is the single thing that I disagree with most.

JONATHAN SPENCER Marilyn Strathern’s recent comment exemplifies my objection, which is to the tendency to generalize from a single instance. That one dichotomy can be used in one particular set of political or historical circumstances in a particular way does not mean that all dichotomous thinking is necessarily bad. Likewise, that society has been posited against the individual by some people in some circumstances does not mean that ‘society’ has some magical power about it, or that it has some mana that will always result in its being used in that way.

MARILYN STRATHERN Yet the single instance of enterprise culture is poured over our heads through every conceivable orifice!

CHRISTINA TOREN Of course we are not saying that all dichotomous thinking is dreadful. Our concern is with the theoretical utility of the concept of society, and it is this that we argue against. Everything I said was indeed informed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century theories: material theories about social relations. To make these theories operationally more useful, I suggest that we move away from the individual-society dichotomy.

ALAN ABRAMSON The proponents of the motion were ready to perpetuate the notion of sociality, so that the question really turns on whether there can be sociality without society. For the proposers, this possibility must exist. But if sociality involves communication, then it surely entails a common language. A constituency defined by common language would seem to be a precondition for the kind of sociality that the proposers are talking about. Can one, then, have such a constituency without a society in some sense? The answer, I think, is ‘no’. Sociality thus seems to require some constituency reproducing verisimilitude in language, otherwise there could be no communication. So the question is: what reproduces common language? Though we may not have the answer yet, though the mechanism may remain ill-defined, we can still designate it by the term ‘society’. That we still lack a correct specification of society does not mean that the concept is obsolete, merely that other traditions—the Durkheimian tradition in particular—have the wrong answers. But the Durkheimian question remains absolutely valid. Why have common language? Why do languages exist?

LADISLAV HOLY I should like to return to the question of dichotomies. I would come down on the side of Jonathan Spencer, because without some dichotomy in mind it would be impossible to formulate. let alone to debate. the issue of the usefulness of the concept of society. That issue is itself the product of a certain kind of dichotomous thinking—for example society versus community, or society versus individual. Without these dichotomies we could not ask ourselves the question that we are asking today. The distinction we should draw is between use and misuse, rather than between utility and obsolescence. If the concept of society were abandoned as obsolete, then I wonder what other dichotomy we would come up with. We cannot escape dichotomy if we are ever to formulate any questions.

RONALD FRANKENBERG I agree that we cannot manage without dichotomies. However, dichotomous terms may be linked together rather than just opposites: for example whilst good is usually seen as the opposite of evil it can also be seen as coupled with evil but with the possibility of transcending it.

TIM INGOLD Two crucial issues have been put before us. The first concerns dichotomies, and it is clear that in our debate we have encountered two ways of thinking about them. On the one hand, we have been presented with such dichotomies as person-sociality or person-relationships, in which the paired terms signify mutually constitutive aspects of a single phenomenal field; on the other hand, we have dichotomies referring to a division between two independently constituted domains which may then be supposed to interact with one another. This latter view gives rise to the classic problem of dualistic thinking, namely, how is interaction possible between entities that belong to substantially separate domains, for example, of mind and matter? It is similarly hard to conceive, in Durkheimian terms, of an interaction between individual and society. From a purely neutral stance, there seems to be a dichotomy between two dichotomies: between a kind of relational thinking and a kind of entity thinking. Both ways of thinking entail dichotomies, but of different kinds.

The second issue concerns language. If I might put a question to the proposers of the motion: do they think that because the concept of society is, in their view, theoretically obsolete, the same applies to the concept of language? I particularly have in mind the concept of language that has entered the anthropological vocabulary in the sense of Saussure.

CHRISTINA TOREN The answer to that is ‘yes’. My own view of language is much influenced by the Russian school of Bakhtin and Voloshinov, 28 according to which we have to get away from the polarities of structure-process or langue-parole precisely because there is no point at which you can actually locate structure (langue). It can only ever be understood as an abstraction, because in reality language is a constant process of becoming. My view is thus radically contrary to that of Saussure.

ELIZABETH TONKIN If the concept of society forms part of a theory, we have still to address the question of whether different theories work more or less well in their application, in practice, to different bodies of ethnographic material. There are clearly certain empirical cases where it makes sense to speak of society as a causative agent, but in other cases this gives us a very poor model of what is going on. This may depend on whether one is up against such wellformed objects as a state apparatus, or concerned with more loosely articulated fields of relationships.

JOHN PEEL Though the concept of society is not exactly pretheoretical, it is nevertheless somewhat trans-theoretical in the sense that one finds it used in the context of various and often opposed theoretical positions. In the early eighteenth century, ‘society’ was defined in terms of classes or productive relationships, with the state playing the role of mediator or counterbalance towards conflicts generated in civil society. On the other hand, ‘society’ has been seen, above all by nationalists, chiefly as a normative construct, and the state as dominating rather than reconciling conflicts. To take up the theme of language in another way: clearly the reification of language was part of the nationalist project, with the creation of literary standards and the promulgation of the idea that the language of the people is natural and appropriate for expressing particular thoughts. It is a social fact that languages, as we observe them in their patterns of use, vary a good deal in the extent to which they have been effectively reified, in how much they are given in advance so as to facilitate state formation, or how much they are things that established states help to create. All of these processes are going on, and entail different and often opposing theories. That is why I would see ‘society’, as I suggested early on, as a medley of issues rather than as a concept wedded to a particular theory (for example, Maussian or Durkheimian).

MARILYN STRATHERN I would like to respond to Elizabeth Tonkin and also to Alan Abramson’s earlier comment. The sense of variability and multiplicity in the meanings of ‘society’, that our opponents are putting forward, belongs to the heightened selfconsciousness of late twentieth-century anthropology, which is beginning to look back and reflect on the rhetorical uses of the term. It is precisely this self-consciousness that makes us aware of how the term has meant different things in different historical epochs. I put it to you that this self-consciousness is also a symptom of the passing of the paradigm. Now, if nothing more were entailed than the replacement of one social theory by another, we could indeed regard the successor theory as providing a more refined or ‘better’ concept of society. We argue, however, that the concept is obsolete because we have to change in a much more radical way.

Let me briefly exemplify the problems to which we are led by theorizing on the notion of society. I refer to the way in which we produce abstract concepts, in the language of anthropological discourse, for the analysis of what have come to be known as initiation rituals. In the ethnographic context of the Papua New Guinea Highlands, these have been routinely understood in terms of processes of socialization. This is quite easy as long as one is dealing with boys’ initiation because boys can clearly be socialized into society, but it becomes rather problematic when looking at girls’ rituals as the argument has to be hedged around with all sorts of qualifications. Now what happens when the paradigm begins to become visible, and its potential exhausted, is that the theoretical puzzles to which the underlying concepts give rise accumulate to a point at which they outweigh the positive contribution of the concepts themselves. We are not, I think, required to spell out what kind of theory should be put in place of the old one, but I would venture one observation for your consideration, which is that I have found it far more helpful to think of initiation practices as ways by which people make known to themselves the fact that they can draw the capacity to make relationships out of persons. Boys, or girls, are put into a variety of situations in which what is demonstrated are the relationships that compose them and the relationships that they, in turn, can make. This perspective has proved useful to me.

JONATHAN SPENCER The example that Marilyn Strathern has just outlined is extremely interesting, but the fact of her using a different language and different terms does not present a problem for me. For I am not arguing that she or anyone else is obliged to talk about the individual, society and socialization. As Elizabeth Tonkin rightly pointed out, it is intuitively obvious that some ideas work better in some contexts than in others. All we are saying is that we can imagine certain contexts in which it would still be appropriate to use some idea of society.

PETER GOW In my own anthropological practice I am presented with the problem of how to deal with Amazonian cultures, and in this I have found the work of Marilyn Strathern extremely useful. But I fully accept that in drawing on it, I have started to write in a way that others might find virtually incomprehensible! I think it is dangerous to take the view that in one context the term ‘society’ is applicable and in another it is not. To say that the concept is useful in particular types of situations (such as Eastern Europe or post-colonial states in Africa) but not in others (such as Melanesia or Amazonia) is to invoke a sense of descriptive apartheid. And this raises the very serious issue of whether anthropology is liable to fragment into particular approaches to particular types of problems or whether it can remain as a single discipline with a shared theoretical language and a common arena of debate.

CHRIS FULLER The argument advanced by Marilyn Strathern appears to depend on the notion that we are engaged in a kind of anthropology that can be understood in terms of Kuhnian paradigm shifts, that there is some kind of paradigm that is now demonstrably cracking, and that we can now move on to another. This, of course, is precisely analogous to the Thatcherite notion that there exists some kind of statist view of the world which has finally been shown to be bankrupt and must be replaced. Both notions are equally fantastical. In the real world, as in the discipline of anthropology—or indeed any other contemporary intellectual discipline—such radical paradigm shifts simply do not occur. Things evolve, terms are recycled and reused. The premiss, that there is some new dawn over there to which we could move by ridding ourselves of the tainted concept, ‘society’, is sheer fantasy.

PAUL HENLEY The proposers of the motion proved their point about the divisiveness of dichotomies quite convincingly, but in so doing they completely undermined their own argument. For this depended on their setting up a false dichotomy between their view and that advocated by the opposition, by seeking to establish that there has been a long tradition in anthropology of dividing the individual from society. But as the opposition speakers demonstrated, the more subtle theoreticians—even in the nineteenth century—were well aware that individual and society are inseparable. I only began to understand the relevance of what Marilyn Strathern is proposing when she spoke about initiation rituals. Her point seems to be that we should be free to formulate finely textured explanations of what social institutions are all about. So the issue concerns the kind of interpretation or understanding that we are looking for in anthropology.

In this sense I think we should allow ourselves to be completely promiscuous in looking around the world, and around our own intellectual traditions, for whatever ideas suit our particular needs. It may be that certain paradigms are appropriate for certain kinds of problems, and that other paradigms are more appropriate for different sets of problems in different contexts and regions of the world. In one of his last papers, Meyer Fortes—referring to A.J. Ayer—distinguished between pundits and journeymen. Pundits are those who bring down theoretical tablets from the mountains, and try to impose them on the population; journeymen are workaday anthropologists who travel around the world buying their theories from a barrow according to their needs. I think the latter characterization better depicts our current situation. We should be free to delve into our historical traditions and use whatever theories are relevant to our needs. In this sense Marilyn Strathern is right: we have reached a point where there is no established paradigm. Instead we can mix ideas from diverse sources into a particular pastiche for dealing with the problem at hand.

TIM INGOLD We seem to be at cross purposes, since the proposers of the motion are really concerned with an anthropology that tries to understand, in some general way, the condition of human beings living in relationships, whereas the opposition is looking around for terms suitable to describe, interpret and understand specific historical situations which are going to be different, depending on whether they are in Melanesia, Sri Lanka, West Africa or Britain. Part of the division lies in the question of anthropological objectives. Do we seek limited understandings of particular historical circumstances in one continent or another at particular periods of time, raiding our theoretical baggage for whatever comes in handy for saying what we feel we need to say; or are we trying to discover something about what being human entails, which transcends the particularities of historical, geographical and regional circumstance?

JOHN PEEL While I accept Tim Ingold’s characterization of the dominant interests of the two sides, I rather take against Paul Henley’s celebration of pastiche. To draw on a theoretical tradition that runs back two or three hundred years (and I would certainly want to take it back beyond the nineteenth century) does not amount to pastiche. There was recently an exhibition at the Museum of Mankind by Eduardo Paolozzi, consisting of artworks from the ethnographic collections combined in various assemblages, which was shot through with the idea of pastiche. I felt it to be profoundly offensive precisely because it rested on the assumption that things could be wrenched from their specific spatial and temporal contexts in order to achieve an aesthetic effect. Considering Marilyn Strathern’s account of how she would view initiation rituals in Melanesia, and the very different interpretations that have been made of initiation rituals in West Africa, I wonder to what extent these differences are due to locally prevailing cultural practices, and to what extent they are due to the various theoretical predilections of anthropologists. It may be, of course, that Melanesia is just made for the post-modern phase of anthropology, but I am doubtful, and in any case the issue can only be clarified by returning to systematic, comparative exercises in which one would ask, for example, ‘Can Marilyn Strathern’s conceptual framework be applied to initiation ceremonies in West Africa, Amazonia or wherever and, if not, why not?’ Ultimately, if we are to remain faithful to the ethnographic enterprise, we must come back to such comparative questions, asking ourselves ‘Why is it different in these different regions?’ And the answer that we are almost bound to come up with is: ‘Because this is the way Melanesian or West African or Amazonian cultures or societies tend to be.’ This is potentially a much more interesting finding than that the differences are all due to the theoretical tastes of this or that anthropologist.

PAUL BAXTER It may be that the term ‘initiation rite’ is such a category of art that to compare what we denote by this term in West Africa (or East Africa, which is my own area of interest) and Melanesia is to compare totally unlike phenomena. Whilst that may be so, if we proceed too far in this direction, anthropology will become completely fractionalized and we could almost assemble our monographs in a random fashion. I am very concerned about this trend.

DANIEL MILLER I came to this debate with the dichotomy between society and culture, rather than that between society and individual (which was stressed by the proposers of the motion), at the forefront of my mind. I thought it a pity that the proposers concentrated so narrowly on ‘society’, since in my view it is society as it leads to various other notions such as social relations, sociability, social structure, kinship and so on—notions that are all very tightly connected—that constitutes the core of current anthropological practice, and that is potentially under challenge at this moment. It might, then, be more honest to widen the remit of the debate, and to ask whether a more fundamental paradigm shift is under way, and if so, what kinds of concepts would take their place in the discipline that social anthropology might eventually evolve into. Only if it can be shown that there are things which can be done with these new concepts that the traditional concept of ‘society’—with its attendant emphases and reifications—will not allow us to do, can we decide that the latter is obsolete. This, of course, entails a larger debate. However, we can reach this level of debate, not through simplification but only through gradual complication, through the incorporation of a more subtle appreciation of relationships, and through an awareness that the phenomena we aim to understand are more complex than hitherto recognized.

TIM INGOLD I have a further point relating to comparison. Traditionally, it was always assumed that societies are what one compares. Now we are being told that in some poles of the comparison, ‘society’ might be the appropriate term to use, whereas in others it might not be so apt. In that case, what are we actually comparing? I wonder whether the answer could be ‘qualities of relatedness’. Perhaps the term ‘society’ connotes a certain quality of relatedness which is not encountered in those situations where ethnographers who have attempted to use the term find that it fails to capture the essence of what they are trying to convey. Thus we could retain the concept of society, so long as we are able to specify the particular kind of relatedness to which it refers, and so long as we recognize that this is not the only possible kind.

PENNY HARVEY How is it that some societies come to constitute themselves as societies whereas others apparently do not? The proposers of the motion seem to offer a way of dealing with cases of the latter kind, where people do not constitute themselves as a society. The opposition, by contrast, seems unable to countenance such cases.

PETER WADE I should like to ask a question about paradigms. In what sense can we speak of a paradigm shift when the kinds of ideas that Marilyn Strathern and Christina Toren have been talking about, such as the mutual constitution of persons and social relations, can certainly be traced back to the young Marx?

MARILYN STRATHERN We are obviously agreed, the four of us, that we have a common enemy in the form of Thatcherite philosophy. The debate is about the best way to combat the enemy, and I think there is no disagreement on the necessity to do so. The political example I used, however, is but an example of the tragic way in which the concept of society has led to a proliferation of other, more dangerous notions. It is a red herring to argue that there is more to ‘society’ than the particular aspect I have chosen to criticize. The fact that this aspect is what trips us up from time to time is sufficient reason to dispatch the concept.

However the debate, and I have interpreted it narrowly, is about the concept’s theoretical obsolescence. Now, as both opponents of the motion have observed, the history of theory is a delicate matter, sensitive to time and context. I am quite unmoved by the fact that ‘society’ has been used, in the past, in senses much closer to what I would call ‘sociality’. I am unmoved by references to Marx and Mauss, and did indeed bring along my own quotation from the 1844 Manuscripts, 29 which I shall inflict upon you:

Above all we must avoid postulating ‘Society’ again as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being. His life, even if it may not appear in the direct form of a communal life in association with others, is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life.

I am unmoved by the attempt to snare my precise argument with the claim that I was speaking for all of Western society at all periods. Indeed, my plea is for a return to the pretensions from which we started out at the beginning of this century, pretensions which are enshrined, for example, in Durkheim’s manifesto. Durkheim said almost all the right things: that society is prior, that social life is prior, that persons are already embedded in relations. But the method by which social phenomena were to be thought of as things, the prioritization of society as an entity, endorsed the very individualism against which he argued, and (the whole history of Western society notwithstanding) we are heirs to the very specific devolution of those particular ideas.

I am unmoved, then, by general references to what happened in the 1860s here, there and everywhere; I am very interested in what happened in the 1960s because that has produced the generation of ideas which has brought us to our present pass in 1989. Of course I do not believe in a new dawn; I do not see anthropology as marching down a road either to a new dawn or into the sunset. Anthropology is a set of practices which is responsive to the particular situations in which it finds itself. We cannot, therefore, deliberately invent new paradigms; the point is that paradigms constitute the taken-for-granted grounds of our knowledge. It is impossible therefore to be specific about the paradigms upon which we are presently operating; however, we are required, as active, thinking persons, to remain active and to think about our current situation and specifically about the consequences of the political endorsement of what we as anthropologists have long held, very properly and very preciously, as a theoretical concept.

You will probably have heard from this debate that openness is being claimed both for and against both sides. Openness, or pluralism, is just a bit too easy to advocate. I actually have a problem with it, and that is with where the idea of pluralism comes from. Earlier I referred to mathematics, because there is a dimension I did not bring into the main point: sensitivity to the present world also requires new ways of conceptualizing relations for which the individualistic and totalizing parameters of our concept of ‘society’ are inadequate.

These days there seems too much movement, mobility, a kind of creolization, everything a part-culture or part-society. Transposed styles of life or ways of relating seem ‘out of context’, parts taken from some ‘society’ elsewhere. Yet we know that for the living of lives, the derivative, borrowed nature of people’s circumstances seem as ‘whole’ to them as anything. One cannot attach holism to some supra-level such as society when people migrate with their lives on their backs. Then we resort to self-pitying metaphors of fragmentation—when it is quite clear that lives have always been made up of such parts and bits. Our part-whole metaphors seem inadequate. So, we also know that there is something awry with our approach to representations. We are cautious of global accounts, wary of claims to authentic representations, and then look back in despair at the plethora we have created. There seems too much of everything—everything in pieces: ‘societies’ devastated by political or ecological regimes; multiple voices and the mushrooming of different perspectives one could take on this or that, by ethnicity, gender or whatever. In short: pluralism.

The point is that any totalizing approach that tries to reinstate some transcendent concept such as ‘society’ will only reinvent this as plethora—a sense of society cut up, diffracted into its individual parts. We need some other way of thinking relations.

For our perceptions have shifted, and we cannot undo this fact. We know that we live in a world system and in an intensely parochial one; that we travel and stay in the same place; migrate and meet migrants at home; consume the world’s products and contaminate our own resources. We see persons as parts of one another’s economies, biospheres, even bodies if one thinks of organ transplants, and certainly we speak with one another’s voices. With Leach’s dictum in mind, late twentieth-century anthropology could do with a new mathematic. Not a mathematic of units and a plurality of units, whole societies and individual persons; perhaps something closer to the mechanics of the ‘butterfly effect’—the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.

JOHN PEEL In the course of this debate, even speakers who seemed to support the motion nevertheless, in making their points, spoke of societies as societies. This is a term that people do use and that they will certainly continue to use. That tells us something about the sort of concept that ‘society’ really is. Theoretically, it is not a very committed notion. Rather than being tied to particular theoretical effects, on account of which Marilyn Strathern would move its abandonment, the concept of society is in our view deployed in a series of linked antitheses which together define a field of debate. The proposers of the motion have deliberately ignored the diversity of traditions in social theory. It is not a random chaos, and it does not reveal to us a succession of paradigms, each of which secures near universal assent before being replaced by the next. Thus at any one time, we have available to us a range of concepts of society. The essential question, I contend, is this: Will it be possible to talk intelligibly about situations and contexts and how they differ from one another, that is, to talk about them comparatively, without using some overarching concept such as ‘society’? I think not. It was suggested at one point that we should compare ‘qualities of relatedness’ in context, but what then are those contexts—if not societies? We all know that ‘society’ is a concept that we shall continue to employ; we find it useful, indeed unavoidable, precisely because of the structured diversity of the tradition whose heirs we are.

CHRISTINA TOREN John Peel is basically right. People undoubtedly (and unfortunately) will continue to use the term ‘society’. Our point is not that paradigm shifts are so obviously apparent, or that general shifts in theoretical thinking are easily accomplished. As Marilyn Strathern has made very plain, one paradigm is not simply and neatly replaced by another. Since the paradigm is the taken-for-granted ground from which one works, it cannot readily be made conscious to oneself.

However, we are arguing that, theoretically, the concept of society is obsolete. I agree (with Peter Gow) that we should strive for the kind of theoretical vocabulary that enables us to speak to one another. This is crucially important for me, since my interest in being an anthropologist is to understand what makes human beings who they are, and how they come to be the people they are. The only way in which I can conceivably begin to understand this is by focusing on some very particular and historically specific set of circumstances. Now, if you look at the processes by which people come to be who they are, you are looking at the ‘how’ of something, rather than at the ‘what’. And it is in looking at the ‘how’, the historical processes by which persons, through their mutual relations, come to be social beings, that we can realize the possibility of comparison.

JONATHAN SPENCER The central question that has emerged in the course of this debate concerns what theory actually is. There are radically different views on this. However, pluralism is something we have to live with, it is around us all the time and cannot be wished away by some desire for unity. We have to think of ways of coping with this. Peter Gow spoke of the danger of proliferating incommensurable theoretical languages. But this notion of incommensurability locks straight into the notion of paradigm, for we speak of people using different paradigms as talking incommensurable languages. However, our use of language is creative, and we can employ the same terms to mean different things. Whatever else may have emerged from this debate, it has proved that even if we differ in our conclusions, we can agree on what we are arguing about. The essential point, surely, is that we should keep on arguing.



E.R. Leach, Pul Eliya: a village in Ceylon, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1961.


Ibid., pp. 304-5.


Recapitulated in E.R. Leach, ‘Glimpses of the unmentionable in the history of British social anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 13, 1984, pp. pp. 1-23.


Many of these points are discussed in detail in T. Ingold, Evolution and social life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.


T. Ingold, ‘An anthropologist looks at biology’, Man (N.S.) 25, 1990, pp. 208-29.


J.D.Y. Peel, ‘History, culture and the comparative method: a West African puzzle’, in Comparative anthropology, ed. L. Holy, Oxford, Blackwell, 1987.


For a recent critique, see D.J.J. Brown, ‘Unity in opposition in the New Guinea Highlands’, Social Analysis 23, 1988, pp. 89-105.


E. Wolf, ‘Inventing society’, American Ethnologist 15, 1988, pp. 752-61. The concept,’ Wolf writes, ‘has… become an obstacle.’


For a longer view, see T. Ingold, Evolution and social life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.


R.J. Thornton, The rhetoric of ethnographic holism’, Cultural Anthropology 3, 1988, pp. 285-303.


A. Giddens, The constitution of society, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1986.


E.R. Leach, Political systems of Highland Burma, London, Athlone Press, 1954.


T. Ingold, Evolution and social life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Pt. 1 Ch. 13.


M. Strathern, The gender of the gift, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988.


M. Mann, The sources of social power, vol. 1, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.


The search was conducted on the Oxford University Press CD-ROM version of the First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.


J.S. Mill, Essay on Liberty, 1859, p. 29.


K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach VI, in The German Ideology by K. Marx and F. Engels, ed. C.J. Arthur, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1977, p. 122.


K. Malalgoda, ‘Millennialism in relation to Buddhism’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 12, 1970, pp. 424-41.


E.V. Daniel, ‘Afterword: sacred places, violent spaces’, in Sri Lanka: history and the roots of crisis, ed. J. Spencer, London, Routledge, 1990.


P. Clastres, Society against the State, Oxford, Blackwell, 1977.


H. Arendt, On violence, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970.


C. Castoriadis, The imaginary institution of society, Oxford, Polity Press, 1987, p. 3.


L. Dumont, Homo hierarchicus, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970, p. 42.


E. Gellner, Nations and nationalism, Oxford, Blackwell, 1983.


C. Taylor, ‘Social theory as practice’, in Philosophy and the human sciences: philosophical papers, vol. 2, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985.


V.N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the philosophy of language, trans. L. Matejka and I.R. Titunik, New York, Seminar Press, 1973.


K. Marx, The economic and political manuscripts of 1844, trans. M. Milligan, ed. D.J. Struik. New York, International Publishers, 1964, pp. 137-8.

1990 debate
Human worlds are culturally constructed

Roy Ellen

It is one of the aims of these debates that they address issues which are central to (and even constitutive of) anthropological theory, issues which - though they may enter into the deliberations of other disciplines—are seldom understood as their defining problematic. It is also one of their aims that anthropology should make some attempt to recapture its traditional ground, on the one hand, from encroachers and borrowers representing other academic disciplines and, on the other, from those who, while they describe themselves as anthropologists, nevertheless take an increasingly narrow definition of what the enterprise entails: I have in mind the extremes of biographical ethnography, textualism and neo-Darwinism.

This, the third debate in the series, amply fulfils these aims. It provides an opportunity to explicate the concepts of ‘human worlds’, ‘culture’ (of course), ‘organism’ and, perhaps more innovatively, ‘construction’. Much hinges on the meanings attached to these key terms, on varying metaphorical styles and on the demolition and re-creation of those dichotomies which we inevitably live by. Some insight into the raw co-ordinates of the debate may be gained by picking out some of the threads under three headings: organism, culture and construction.

The motion, as put, contains an implicit counter-suggestion: that if human worlds are not culturally constructed then they must, presumably, be genetically constructed. None of the contributors, as it happens, take this line, but all are aware of the trap, and their respective positions are evident from the ways in which they use the term ‘organism’. Wendy James is happy to concede that there are biological influences on human behaviour, but is steadfastly opposed to the reduction of humans to mere organisms, at least partly because in figurative language ‘organism’ carries derogatory (and deterministic) connotations which serve neither our understanding of humans nor of other animals. Far better, she avers, to conceptualize Homo sapiens as ‘body plus’. Similarly, Tim Ingold scrupulously avoids the possibility that he be mistaken for a closet sociobiologist, or even a fellow-traveller; but he does take great exception to the description of non-human animals as ‘mere organisms’. For him, part of the problem is that many contemporary biologists have abandoned the organism in favour of DNA, and with it the self-evidently correct notion that organisms develop interactively with others of their kind and with other constituents of the environment, making them anything but ‘mere’. By the same token, ‘body plus’ implies for Ingold the idea that culture is somehow ‘added on’ to nature, thereby maintaining a pernicious opposition with its consequent oversimplification of the notions of both organism, environment and culture. No doubt, had there been clandestine sociobiologists lurking in the wood-work of the debating chamber, some at least might have accepted the idea of ‘body plus’, whilst pointing out that whatever we decide to call the extended human phenotype, it will nevertheless have selective implications for the genome.

While Tim Ingold and Paul Richards go out of their way to deny any affinity with militant sociobiology, Wendy James and Roland Littlewood are anxious to defend themselves against the charge that they might be new wave post-modernists. What James, at least, does assert is her implacable opposition to the notion of culture as a ‘thing’, advancing the view that what is really distinctive about human culture is the ability to be reflexive (in other words, to ‘know what you know’), and stressing the ‘irreducibly cultural character’ of the way in which individuals, in a very real sense, create their worlds (that is, their ‘environments’) through sight, sound, touch and smell. Culture enters into the most trivial and obvious practical activity, including the sense of bodily presence and the way organic structures and sensations are translated by interacting wilful subjects. She suggests that in the contemporary uses of ‘discourse’, ‘practice’ and ‘habitus’ we find attempts to capture that pragmatic corporeal character of culture. As Littlewood puts it, our knowledge of the world only takes shape as culture, that is as our instruments or procedures for knowing (such as professional biology); we cannot experience the world out there as it really is, only in terms of what we bring to it, and that includes values. In this Ingold seems to find much with which to agree, and he is even prepared to claim that humans do differ from other animals in being able to make ‘imagined’ worlds. But he is not convinced that humans are uniquely privileged in their possession of a reflexive faculty. 1 Moreover, he objects indignantly to the notion that humans are somehow ‘suspended’ and act within some predetermined framework of meaning, and likewise to the idea that ‘real’ reality exists independently of the acting and perceiving subject.

If the discussion of organism and culture has a certain air of déjà vu, then the discussion of construction provided something altogether more original. Again, both proponents and opponents claim to share a common starting point, vigorously rejecting the outmoded stereotypes going back to Berger and Luckmann’s The social construction of reality. 2 Littlewood reminds us that for many the notion of social construction has become a convenient orthodoxy, emblematic of a special expertise which anthropologists (amongst others) are thought to cultivate. He begins by mocking and caricaturing the excesses of constructionism, and parodies the ludicrous irrelevance of asking what it might mean to speak of the ‘cultural construction’ of a child dying of AIDS. But this is by way of an apology. Though we may reject a passive interpretation of construction in favour of an interactive one, the idea is so compelling that it cannot easily be dispensed with. Tiresome it may be, but we must retain it. Both Ingold and Richards object in principle to constructionist logic, with its implication of building to a blueprint, and to the ‘arrogance’ implicit in the idea that ‘people make themselves’. In Ingold’s terms, perception is rather a mode of engagement with the world, not a means of constructing it; hence his preference for ‘dwelling’ rather than ‘building’. The world in which people dwell comes into being as we act in it, and ‘persons’ are constituted in turn by our engagement in that world, neither ‘given’ nature nor constructed culture. Richards prefers the active metaphor of performance—particularly musical performance—to both the sedentary sense of ‘dwelling’ and the mechanical sense of construction. We act as social agents, make mistakes, recover from both these and random disturbances and generally ‘cope’ in a world full of surprises. Plant breeding, for example, is not a branch of the cultural construction industry, but an intelligent awareness of Mendelian principles by people who dwell with plants. Social life is always provisional, ‘work-in-progress’, never completed and therefore not constructed in any ultimate way.

What strikes me about the debate, though it is characteristic of the genre and indeed of academic discourse more widely, is the extent to which divergences and agreements hinge upon the use of particular words and tropes, and on the dialectical invention, rejection and reinvention of analytic dichotomies. Assent and dissent in the realm of ideas depend not only on shared and contrasting metaphors, but also-and perhaps more revealingly—on shared words with different metaphoric extensions, and on the degree to which we emphasize or qualify in the oral mode what we italicize or place within inverted commas in written texts. The word ‘construction’, for example, as first used by Berger and Luckmann, had no conscious antonym other than, perhaps, ‘destruction’; but in a world where ‘deconstruction’ has a technical meaning, ‘construction’ is inevitably redefined; while in the hands of Ingold it has—as a synonym of ‘build’—come to be opposed to ‘dwell’ in the sense earlier employed by Heidegger. There are numerous apologies for the inadequacies of ruling dichotomies: as between etic and emic, given and constructed, nature and culture, organism and environment, sensation and intellection, animality and humanity. Neither side agrees with a particular version of cultural constructionism, though all versions are clearly perpetuated through an antithesis with an equally unsatisfactory ‘biogenetic determinism’. But beyond this we also find hostility to the conceptual paradigms in which we are forced to choose between such dichotomies. Ingold is all for transcending dichotomies—for example, by favouring the idea that persons and environments are reciprocally constituted. Littlewood concurs that there is an important sense in which everything is simultaneously natural and social, where ‘natural’ and ‘social’ are not different places but different maps. You do not have to deny the existence of the ‘natural’ map to be a social or cultural constructionist, or to use the notion of construction in a particular way.

What I find intriguing is the extent to which we can participate in that cultural event we call a ‘debate’ simply because it is assumed that we share a common lexicon and procedural know-how, only to discover that we are actually using words in subtly different ways which have very radical implications. This is a risk we run in any linguistic encounter, and unless we are persistent and repetitive we are inclined to interpret the utterance (we always interpret the utterance, rather than the message) in the form that is, for us, most easily comprehensible. This is what we call, when we recognize it, ‘talking at cross-purposes’, which is in effect to trivialize an inherent quality of human communication with dramatic and largely unexamined consequences. No doubt we have here plenty of grist for the textualist mill once it is through with ethnography; and I suspect that there is a fair probability that we may in ten years’ time be hotly debating the use of ‘resonance’ as an analogy, or protesting that we should transcend the false polarization between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ maps, or complaining that ‘dwelling’ is an entirely inadequate word with which to grasp the truly interactive qualities of the way in which our minds organize environmental knowledge. Such predictions only appear cynical if it is believed that arguing over words does not advance learning. It might not, of course, but anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of science will know that such disputes are never far removed from the frontiers of understanding. Long may they continue to be so.

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