Readers might find these responses of interest. Mostly I just laughed, though some of you may be a bit more serious than I, so if anthro-gibberish drives you crazy, don’t follow the links. As I told “ana” below a lot of the discussion we had was basically just talking past each other. I kept telling her she was vacuous because she was assuming presuppositions which I simply did not share as empirical background descriptions of the world (e.g., a strong form of linguistic relativism where the specific nature of a language shapes cognition). Though at least she was concise. On the other hand, see this small section of Creighton’s response:
I think this is what bothered me the most about Khan’s piece. No discussion of what poverty means, what it is, how it’s defined. I could be completely wrong, but that led me to feel that there was a high degree of Eurocentric neo-colonialism behind Khan’s proposition. Who is saying to who what “median human utility” means? Are we assuming that homeownership, vehicle ownership, and other tangible measures of economic prosperity are involved? Is access to fresh food and water part of this measurement? Khan didn’t discuss poverty at all and he didn’t acknowledge that the neo-colonial policies of certain nations are at least partially responsible for the long-term economic suffering of many of the people he is referring to. I just got the feeling that he was telling the people who belong to small language communities to accept defeat and learn English. It incited me even more that his justification for making this decision was in purely economic terms. Abandoning your heritage will pay out in the end. But will it?
Dhaka smells like human shit. That’s poverty. Most people think that to get rich is glorious, and an understanding of wealth is cross-cultural. Many anthropological types problematize too much for my taste. They confuse the nuance and shading which vary between societies, for the core truths, which are relatively culture-free. For almost all of human history most people lived at the poverty line, because Malthusian conditions were operative. The possibility for wealth, and consumer society, is new. Those who opt-out in modern societies do so for explicit ideological reasons and are aware of the trade offs (e.g., the Amish, Hasidic Jews, people who live in communes).
The point which I tried to emphasize a few times, but generally ignored by my interlocutors, is that people as individuals, and communities, make rational decisions in a world of constrained choices. Quite often, and especially today, language change does not occur from on high (in fact, the top-down imposition of standard national languages on the masses is more a recent feature of post-Enlightenment nationalism; Latin spread in the Roman Empire over centuries among the western peasantry). Most Africans who adhere non-world religions are shifting to Islam or Christianity. There is little explicit coercion in this (though a fair amount of social pressure from elites who find Vodun and other native traditions backward). The moral panic that many Westerners have over the extinction of small-scale societies is not shared by many members of those small-scale societies, who wish to opt-out, often for material reasons. And by material, I’m not talking McMansions, I’m talking having income above subsistence. The level of wealth of a Chinese factory worker, not that of an academic adjunct.
As for my critics, note that I don’t really engage them directly, because the theoretical frameworks we use are so distinct. They misunderstand me, and I misunderstand them (honestly, I have no idea what they’re saying most of the time in the broad sense, aside from the fact that they’re offended). I have as much respect for most American cultural anthropology as I do for Talmudic scholarship; I’m sure they’re bright individuals, but they aren’t doing anything which I think relates to a world outside of the minds of the practitioners.* Contrast that with Jared Diamond, who I think is positively wrong in many of his models (not to mention recent ethical controversies which have erupted), but, who I can understand in terms of what he is saying. Being wrong, and asserting things which turn out false, are essential in the process of building a better model of the world. Extreme projects in cultural relativism, and fixation on semantics, tells us more about the psychology of WEIRD people than anything else.
For a better understanding of how I approach anthropology, and the study of human culture, the first half of D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness describes it almost perfectly. If you continue to read this weblog, you’ll note that I have a deep interest in culture and history. But, my treatment is not going to resemble much of what would find in cultural anthropology in the United States. In fact, I’ll drive you crazy, and perhaps an r-squared here and there will strike as you positivist gibberish. No one’s paying you to read though.
Oh, and yes, I am Euro-centric. Some things can be stated as objective facts, but obviously where you start from impacts how you judge the import of particular facts. Though I think Epoche is methodologically useful. Or at least the attempt.
* To be fair, a large number of people do take the Talmud seriously, and so the scholarship does have an impact because people take the scholarship seriously. But I don’t think this is like mechanical engineering, where the reason to take it seriously from the outside is not dependent on a normative view of the importance of mechanical engineering. As for cultural anthropology, I don’t think it matters too much, aside from intellectual types who think that it is a form of scholarship with non-trivial empirical basis. I think most American cultural anthropology is about as empirically robust as astrology.
Related: Also see my post Knowledge is not value-free.