Against the cultural anthropologists

By Razib Khan | February 6, 2013 9:48 pm

My post below on Jared Diamond and his cultural anthropological critics has attracted a fair amount of attention (e.g., see the Twitter re-tweets of the post). But first I’d like to admit that I think it was wrong in its specific thrust. Though I’ve seen Stephen Corry of Survival International referred to as an anthropologist, he’s certainly not an academic. Corry is an explicit and open advocate, as is Jonathan Mazower. The Guardian piece which I linked to also was not entirely clear on this point. In other words, the example in that article was not particularly relevant to my broader thesis. But overall my position remains unchanged, because The Guardian was not presented as evidence, but an illustration of a trend which I have long commented upon. Many of the academics who re-tweeted my post focused on the assertion that “cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover.” Those who agree with my position understand exactly why I would say this.

For example, here is a portion of Armand Leroi’s comment:

Razib’s post is spot-on. Diamond *is* cavalier with the facts. I recall reviewing Guns & Germ & Steel, and finding its empirical basis utterly ropey. But at least he was doing science — macro, comparative, science — of a sort that was — is? — practically extinct in cultural anthropology. He was asking the right kinds of questions. He still does….

Taking a different tack, another commenter contends:

There’s always room for polemic, but in general it’s not the right tactic. Calm refutation is more scientific, and after all that’s what counts in the end.

For instance, we could do with reasonable discussion of the question what the costs and benefits of getting a state have been – more peace, but also more oppression, which I tried to discuss re Diamond vs Survival Int’l here

This misses the point. Many (most?) American cultural anthropologists do not consider themselves scientific. Cultural anthropology as it is practiced in many American universities is not a science, so the standard rules of engagement with science do not apply. Mind you, I have no idea what cultural anthropology is in terms of its systematic definition within a scholarly context. Rather, I know what cultural anthropologists do. Of course the rules of science don’t necessarily apply to history, but logic, a striving toward positivistic objectivity, and good faith must still be brought to the table in that case. I don’t use the same rules for cultural anthropology.

“Calm refutation” has convinced very few Creationists. Science, and scholarship in general, is exceptional in that there is a pretense, sometimes realized, often not, that logic, formal analysis, and inspection of the empirical evidence, are about uncovering the truth about the world out there, rather than personal self-validation or spears in the game of inter-personal signalling and status. There are cultural anthropologists who endeavor reduce the complexity to comprehensibility. Long time readers know I am a fan of Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Joe Heinrich, Robert Boyd, etc. Here is Dan Sperber responding to a question from me in 2005:

3) When I discuss with those with anthropological backgrounds the ideas I have encountered in your books (EXPLAINING CULTURE) and papers, or Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran’s books and papers, they seem confused and have little understanding of what I speak. Is your naturalistic paradigm more common among anthropologists in Europe than in the United States?

No, our common perspective (well illustrated also in the work of a few others, in particular Lawrence Hirschfeld – the four of us used to meet and discuss at my home in Paris in the early eighties) is still very much a minority view among anthropologists everywhere, as are all Darwinian views. On the other hand, I believe that our approach addresses maybe better and cetainly in greater detail than most other Darwinian approaches many legitimate concerns of people with a serious anthropological and ethnographic background.

And now L. L. Cavalli-Sforza in 2006:

4) Moving to, in the interests of frankness, less influential books, in “A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey” Linda Stone & Paul F. Lurquin note the relative lack of response to “Cultural Transmission and Evolution” within the social sciences. You seem to chalk this up in part to the lack of comfort with mathematical methodologies within cultural anthropology. Over the past few years a small group of anthropologists, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd and Joe Henrich seem to be continuing the attempt to model culture using the techniques that have been fortuitous in the biological sciences. Do you think that we are past the high tide of ‘interpretative’ anthropology and that a more explicitly hypothetical-deductive methodology may come to the fore?

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science – the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

The above highlights that cultural anthropologists may not believe in science, but scientists also don’t believe in them. In Theological Incorrectness D. Jason Slone has an excellent ethnography of the intellectual ticks of modern American cultural anthropology. While Scott Atran has pointed out that anthropologists who assert that due to the radical incommensurability of “ways of knowing” one may not be able to make general assertions of cross cultural nature, nevertheless seem to make an exception for their own situations, which often involves outsider scholars embedding themselves in other societies, and writing and thinking about the patterns they see. On a more concrete factual dimension cultural anthropologists hold to the sui generis characterization of Europeans and European culture. Inverting the old white supremacist model, for cultural anthropologists European culture is axiomatically evil. And, whether conscious or not, they also often promote the idea of a noble colored savage (complex non-white civilizations, like China, come in for far less critique than that of Europeans, so one must I think racialize the model, and not simply limit it to small-scale societies).

And yet why does this even matter? After all, the faculty of fine arts may espouse theories of aesthetics incomprehensible to scientists, but that is of little concern. The problem is that cultural anthropologists do not insulate themselves from the academy, and their cosmic Manichean intellectual framework bleeds out into the public forum. Despite the fascination with contextualization, complexification, “thick description,” and skepticism of a striving toward final objective knowledge, the young people anthropologists educate with bachelors degrees are quite clear and specific in many truths that their internalize. For example, that European imperialism is in some way a special evil, the original sin of the white race. Despite all the focus on “thick description” these individuals who went through an undergraduate program in cultural anthropology will be naturally confused at the fact of the naked imperialism of the Manchu dynasty in China contemporaneous with the rise of Europe, in the 17th to 19th centuries. They will not know of the genocide of the Oirat Mongols in the 18th century (some of whom fled to Russia, and founded modern Kalmykia on the Volga), or the disastrous Muslim rebellions of the 19th century prompted by ethnic conflict. After all, European colonialism is the apple of ultimate discord, no? Few thinkers would assert that oppression or unpleasant historical facts are only a function of European interference, but as a matter of reality detailed explorations of the topic are almost always presented in a Eurocentric context. The interactions of non-white peoples are of little concern without the European eye, or the shadow of European colonialism.

So it is clear I have strong disagreements with the way cultural anthropology as a scholarly field is organized and oriented. This is in large part due to my own interest in culture as a scientific subject. I believe this also motivates the attitude of someone like L. L. Sforza, and many scientists who re-tweeted my original post. This is a domain of knowledge which is nominally interesting to many! Cultural anthropology should be a fertile, exciting, and insightful topic, but it most certainly is not. So what is it? Works such as Higher Superstition have already tackled the ludicrousness of much of what falls under the rubric “Post Modern,” and this applies to cultural anthropology as well. There’s no point in reviewing that here. Rather, I want to focus on the issue that cultural anthropologists as a culture are a nasty lot with each other and those who tread into their territory, because they have totally erased the line between being advocates for their causes, and being observers of the world around them. Every conflict has grave consequences, with the personal, political, and scholarly are totally enmeshed.

Someone like me, who espouses a broadly conservative world view, is obviously the enemy. Thankfully I’m too small a fry to become the target of an organized academic mob assault which someone like Jared Diamond is subject to. But there are many small fry who aspired toward an anthropological career, but were found to be on the wrong side of the right side of some normative consensus, and were thrown to the outer darkness from the Elect. Academic politics is nasty and disappointing, but the sort of stuff I hear about anthropology departments often has a Maoist flavor, as “capitalist roaders” are smoked out, and deviationists chastised. In departments where the biological anthropologists are relatively well integrated there are strange tales of the exotic goings on of cultural anthropologists behind closed doors. Privilege. Oppression. Colonialism. Patriarchy. Heteronormativity. These are terms common in modern Left thought, but they are also widely used by cultural anthropologists. In sum, the field has become more political movement and social advocacy collective, than a scholarly enterprise. This is not true in all cases, but it is true in enough cases that there is an unfortunate dead rot at the heart of cultural anthropology as an academic domain of inquiry. The nastiness of academic anthropology is a function of its hyper-politicized nature.

Many cultural anthropologists need to move to staff positions at organizations like Survival International. They don’t belong in the academy. Those who remain should be scattered across other disciplines, such as economics, psychology, sociology, etc.  The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn’t that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy, just as Creationists have been extirpated from biology. They don’t belong at universities. Cultural anthropologists don’t know much about the world in any systematic sense, but they know what they believe about how the world should be organized. Let them do their organizing in their proper environment. Like exotic species without natural predators these political operators only cause mischief in academic halls.

This is obviously an assertion that will make me the target of invective. But I don’t care. As I said earlier, I’m a conservative, so I’m already fair game for attacks, because I’m on the side of evil in the eyes of many of these “scholars.” Second, I’m rather confident that I know a great deal about descriptive cultural variation, and wouldn’t learn much from anthropologists anyhow (the undergraduates who graduate with degrees in the field are singularly information poor). Additionally, unlike most American cultural anthropologists, who are white and native born (look at the officers for the Society for Cultural Anthropology), by my minority racial identity, and status as a naturalized American, I have deep and long standing personal experience with inter-cultural variation in a visceral and emotional sense. Frankly, I’ve long known that a lot of what cultural anthropologists said was bullshit before I read my first word of Scott Atran, because I’ve lived in the life I’ve lived. And that’s why I speak, and will continue to speak. An intellectual hegemony is bound to fail, and sometimes it helps to give it a push.


Comments (57)

  1. Your discussion of imperialism of China reminded me of the anthropologist/political scientist James Scott (of “The Art of Not Being Governed” and to a lesser extent “Seeing Like a State”) who has a very distinctly left-wing political perspective but definitely avoids that sort of inverse-eurocentrism and even seems to have a skeptical attitude toward “indigenism”*. His radical take leads to some theories I think quite wrong, but like Diamond he’s wrong in interesting ways.
    *He appears to believe the old ways are doomed, which is perhaps what permits him to think of his work as primarily analysis rather than advocacy.

  2. TheBrett

    Isn’t that pretty much what Biological Anthropology is – the reaction to Cultural Anthropology’s mounting irrelevance?

  3. Gregory Cochran

    I’m thinking they might have a future in food service. Soylent Green.

  4. This isn’t a simple left-right issue. The early deconstructionists were allied to fascism; Paul DeMan is a noted example. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza was a leftist.

  5. At least as a conservative you have the option to “not care”. The extraordinary takeover of liberal academia by evidence-free and rule-free “left-wing” thinking is a tragedy to those of us who still consider ourselves “leftist” in some sense. The best minds of a generation, ruined by bullshit. There is a real loss here. People with “touchy-feely” instincts have helped to soften many terrible aspects of human society…to lose such a large proportion of them to utter crap is a real tragedy and may have real consequences.

    • I’ve jokingly suggested there was a grand conspiracy to snap up the New Left into the academy in the 1970s, as otherwise so many of them might have gone on to do productive things with their leftist inclination, like go into politics, NGOs, or the labor movement. Academia provided a cushy place for many of them to work infrequently, be surrounded by like-minded people, and not do anything of importance to the wider world.

      • Pincher Martin

        Why posit a conspiracy? Read the Port Huron Statement It was always the New Left’s goal to take over the university and use education to change social attitudes.

        • Yes, but in the end, the colonization of academia by the New Left was a chump move. It surrounded them with like minded peers, and kept them away from the actual working class who could potentially be persuaded.

          The effect on even those who go to college has likely been minimal as well. People accept political ideals of the professorial cadre only if they see themselves as future academics themselves. If they don’t see their professors as elders they need to ingratiate, they see them as a hoop they need to jump through to reach their final goal.

          But it fit the paradigm of the day – that young minds were somehow uniquely impressionable, and that you could have more influence shaping a 18-year old into their adult self than if you worked with a 30-year old. Totally wrong, but understandable I guess.

          • Pincher Martin


            I think the effectiveness of the New Left’s effort to propagandize students is a separate issue from the fact that it deliberately chose to take over higher education to do so. Your joke falls flat because you obviously don’t need a conspiracy to explain it.

            But I also think you sell short the New Left’s other successes. Some of its members did in fact go into politics and NGOs. McGovern’s political coalition in 1972, for example, was the first foray of what would eventually be a successful takeover of the Democratic Party. Obama’s coalition today is remarkably similar to McGovern’s coalition of the early seventies.

            Why didn’t the New Left go into the labor movement? Probably because its early relationship with labor was always fraught with difficulty for the simple reason that many in the white working class were racists at the time. In some cases so were their unions. (Many labor unions and their blue collar members disassociated themselves from McGovern’s campaign in 1972.) The New Left identified more strongly with the Civil Rights movement, and later with the environmental movement, than with labor rights.

  6. toto

    If you’re going to call for such extreme measure you might want to include actual evidence in your posts.

    In particular, my memories of reading Claude Levi-Strauss (especially the passages about Pakistan) are hard to reconcile with your glib characterization of “cultural anthropology” as an entire field of knowledge.

    • razibkhan

      why should i include evidence? if i inveigh against creationism you wouldn’t ask for such, you’d understand it’s a waste of time. you can tell by the comments that some people agree with me, and some don’t. and you know from reading me that i’m interested in a lot of the notional topic of cultural anthropology. this isn’t important enough that i want to rehash all my experiences and the weird stuff i’ve read/heard about/encountered. those who have gone where i have gone and encountered what i’ve encountered know, and that’s sufficient.

      • Nansubuga

        “Mind you, I have no idea what cultural anthropology is in terms of its
        systematic definition within a scholarly context. Rather, I know what
        cultural anthropologists do.” If you don’t know/don’t care to know what defines systematic/methodological rigor within cultural anthropology, then it’s impossible for you to know what good cultural anthropologists do. No one expects undergrads in any field to be experts. Contemporary undergraduate cultural anthropology training offers an increasingly important theoretical/methodological foundation for interpreting/coping with complex phenomena beyond rigid binaries: black/white, conservative/liberal, science/art. Indeed, many good cultural anthropologists reject classifying their work as scientific because their results from their own systematic studies of science and scientific expertise recognize that science too is an art, that is to say, a very social thing.

  7. good piece, I’m studying social anthro at SOAS & I agree w/ a lot of this. my only comment would be that the reflexive anti-European positivism in anthropology isn’t so much about demonizing Europe as it’s due to a paralyzing fear that anthropologists will repeat the intellectual mistakes (ranking societies by progress, etc) that they made during colonialism.

    • chris_T_T

      This exactly. Cultural anthropology is a result and reflection of the immense cultural trauma suffered by the West during the first half of the 20th and immediately after.

  8. Elbow Speak

    This from a friend who would like to ensure an extra layer of anonymity:

    “While you are right about the pathology of modern cultural anthropology, I think you are wrong about why the discipline is pathological. I am an anthropologist who has to bear with an especially sanctimonious group of colleagues on a daily basis. They may talk a fashionable leftist game, but I see no evidence that they give a rat’s ass about actual people. They are not consumed with leftist politics or advocacy. Indeed, they are quite politically apathetic. What they all care about immensely is theory for its own end.

    It’s a common mistake for outside critics — especially conservative ones — to see what cultural anthropologists are doing as being overly political advocacy (see, e.g., Nicholas Wade). I can say from a comfortable position on the left that my colleagues at [Elite California School] are no great leftists. They are, as far as I can tell, a bunch of unreflective elitists who like to play at leftist cultural criticism but really couldn’t give less of a fuck about the struggles of actual people.”

    • This fits my own (more limited) experience with the cultural left in academia in general. The academic cultural left is more properly understood as engaging in a form of political religion than anything outwardly political.

      Politics is, after all, the use of discourse to influence the opinion of others to more closely mirror your own. I see no real desire on the academic left to do this. Indeed, if you’re in discourse with someone who disagrees with you in a manner you deem racist/sexist/homophobic (or whatever) it’s almost universally considered better to call them out in an insulting manner which causes them to be less open to persuasion. It’s also considered a-ok to say “your speech is out of line.” Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of how politics and human nature work should understand this is counterproductive.

      But they don’t care. Their peers are not those in traditional societies – they are their subject. Their peers aren’t even the general public Their peers are other academics with very similar publicly-stated stances. Accusing others of being morally incorrect both helps you gain recognition as part of the group, as well as potentially gain status over your competitors.

      This is different from how the real left works. Does anyone think that trade unions would be able to organize if they purposefully insulted anyone who initially disagreed with union premises? Some people are polarized and beyond debate, but engaging with some people in the “mushy middle” who may say things you disagree with is a central part of any organizing activity.

      • razibkhan

        very good points…. might update my post.

      • Though, there is the version that is overtly political as well. I work at a liberal arts school that is literally a propaganda piece for the left. It couldn’t be *more* political. They have tens of millions of dollars earmarked to recruit people to engage in “Social Justice.” And they teach The Narrative for a reason: that these indoctrinated values lead to a money/power gain for them, minorities and their philosophy of relativism. It is basically a factory for creating left wing drones that are programmed to convert others and make their mark on the world – complete with Social Justice and Diversity training seminars, political advocacy, a massive effort to recruit minorities (blacks), etc. Their goal is to reshape the world in their vision. This isn’t my interpretation of them – it’s their stated mission. They are convinced it will make the world better and more “fair.”

      • Sandgroper

        Yep, classic persuasion theory, beloved of politicians – demonise the opposition and aim to convert the waverers in the middle in the target group.

  9. martinhewson

    Here’s a specific example of what Razib is talking about:


    “A considerable portion of Eriksen’s work has focused on popularizing
    social anthropology and conveying basic cultural relativism as well as
    criticism of Norwegian nationalism in the Norwegian public debate.”

    “In a programmatic statement, he said that a main goal was to “redraw the
    map of Norway” to make it fit the new transnational, complex and
    globalised realities.”

    In other words, highly politicized, hyper-multiculturalist. Plus this example seems to have lots of access to the public media in his country.

    (Warning: I’m not an anthropologist, so this may not be accurate!)

    On the other hand, there are some few good apples in the barrel:

  10. chris_T_T

    Cultural Anthropology is a particularly intense manifestation of the doubt and self-loathing that has affected Western culture since the end of WWII (which was the culmination of what were essentially a series of apocalypses starting in 1914). As that trauma fades, CA will wither and disappear.

  11. A fantastic read. The take away for me is really just a feeling of disappointment as Anthropology is such a fascinating topic, that can also be understood by “normal” IQ people like me, when done right but was ruined by hippies with an agenda. What a waste.

  12. I came across this Atlanta Journal and Constitution article about a man who murdered three white women and then explained in court that he was motivated by what he had learned studying cultural anthropology. Teaching unbalanced young people like this shooter that white people and western culture are uniquely evil can have disastrous real world consequences:

    During his testimony Wednesday, Thandiwe suggested that
    his reason for even purchasing the gun he used in the shootings was to
    enforce beliefs he’d developed about white people during his later years
    as an anthropology major at the University of West Georgia.

    “I was trying to prove a point that Europeans had colonized the world, and
    as a result of that, we see a lot of evil today,” he said. “In terms of
    slavery, it was something that needed to be answered for. I was trying
    to spread the message of making white people mend.”

    He said the night before the shooting, he attended a so-called “Peace Party” intended to address his concerns about helping the black community find equal footing, but two white people were there.

    “I was upset,” Thandiwe said. “I was still upset Friday. I took the gun to work because I was still upset from Thursday night.”….as-blank/nWBB2/

  13. stevesailer

    Fire leftist anthropologists and use their freed-up salaries to hire leftist economists.

  14. Justaguy

    You use the fact that cultural anthropology writings can be difficult to read to discredit it as a field. Do you think that the ease with which a non-specialist can understand the literature of a field should be the standard by which it should be judged? How would particle physics fare by that standard?

    I’m a cultural anthropologist, who has taught undergrad courses and find most freshman who are paying attention can easily understand Geertz, Evans-Prichard and other central works. And while some work is, indeed, difficult, you find that in any specialized field.

    Personally, when I don’t understand what my neuroscience, math, or molecular biology friends say about their research I take that to mean that my understanding of their fields is insufficient. Perhaps I should just conclude they’re talking nonsense.

  15. Justaguy

    As a grad student in cultural anthropology I see nothing in anything you’ve written so far to suggest you have any familiarity with current research in the field whatsoever. Indeed, you seem to take your inability to understand anthropological writings to mean they’re worthless. I was unaware that ease of comprehension by nonspecialists was the standard by which research should be judged. And here I took my confusion when listening to neuroscientists discuss their research to mean I don’t understand neuroscience, when clearly it means neuroscience is worthless.

    And your critique that anthropologists speak clearly when addressing the public but use more difficult language when addressing each other could be applied to any field. Do climate scientists talk the same when talking to policy makers as they do when talking to each other? Are they similarly out of place in using their research to inform public discussions?

    As someone doing research in China I find the suggestion that anthropologists don’t criticize the Chinese state bizarre. And while I’m very interested in the Qing power structure – something I’ve learned about from anthropologists – you are correct that most anthropologists don’t discuss it. This is not because of a romanticized view of Chinese civilization which blinds them to the devastating effects of Zeng Guofeng’s scorched earth campaign against the Taiping Rebellion. Its usually because more people are doing research in areas which were colonized by Europe than were colonized by the Qing.

    And I could go on for pages pointing out how profoundly superficial and unserious your critique is. Which is my real problem with your attacks. I’m very open to critiques of anthropology which are based on actually understanding what it is we do. Outsiders can often see things which people within a discipline are blind to and can provide very productive feedback. But just rehashing stereotypes from the 80s about how we’re descending into post modern obscurity is worse than useless. But if nothing else, I’d appreciate it if you mocked what it is we’re doing now, not what anthropologists were doing 20-30 years ago.

    • Al West

      I was once a graduate student in social anthropology (as we call it here in the UK) and I had the same problem Razib does with the discipline. Razib is discussing what is happening now. Just because it is no longer called ‘postmodernism’ by its adherents, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fundamentally the same or similar to what it was in the 80s. Unfortunately, Razib is absolutely on the money; students of anthropology come away with almost no useful skills at all. It is notable that anthropology graduates are the least employable graduates in existence – not because of prejudice, but because of their total lack of skills (they don’t even learn how to think, because critical thinking isn’t part of the curriculum).

      • Justaguy

        So, in what ways is contemporary anthropology postmodern?

        • Al West

          That term cannot be satisfactorily defined, but anthropologists today are not scientifically-minded, don’t attempt to connect their research to broader scientific questions, and journals and discussions are dominated by politicised research – research that a) has amorphous, un-falsifiable, untestable ‘theory’ drawn from continental philosophy and b) is directed at prescriptive, rather than descriptive, ends. The term for that in the eighties was ‘postmodernism’. Today it’s ‘anthropology’. The obtuse language is less prominent than it was, I’ll grant – but the topics are just as stupid.

          I’m disappointed in the discipline more than anything. I don’t have an animus against it, and I don’t want it to disappear. But as it stands, social anthropology is mostly dreck, and good work on the real meat and potatoes of anthropology – non-industrial human societies – is now in a minority in anthropology departments, replaced by stuff that is, at best, shitty sociology.

    • There’s no way to give a critique that will be acceptable on Cultural Anthro’s terms because that would be like a World of Warcraft expert saying “You think WoW is stupid? Well, what’s your opinion on Orc Theory??” We’re not going to lower ourselves to your standards. It’s not that we can’t understand it it’s that we wouldn’t want to make ourselves dumber by learning it in the first place. It’s not like it’s an accident that virtually all of your “research” lends itself to a liberal world view. What is the point of doing what you’re doing if you’re going to make the same inferences every time you write a paper?

      • Justaguy

        If you’re going to take a stand for empiricism, it would be nice to make a argument based on evidence and not simply throw around vague generalizations unmoored to any specific facts. Otherwise, how would you even know that anthropologists are wrong? I’m not suggesting you should spend your time reading about things that don’t interest you, I’m suggesting you should avoid making conclusions based on assumptions about areas you’re unfamiliar with.

        Also, I don’t research anything related to any political issues I can think of. And, you’re right, if anthropologists reached the same inferences every time they wrote a paper it would be fairly pointless. Which is why we try to avoid doing that. But, if you accept that trends do exist, examining those trends sounds like something a scientist would do. Does the fact that climate scientists describe similar trends mean their research is invalid? Or that the trends they describe are real?

        • The trend is one that happens to perfectly and consistently agree with a liberal outlook. I know you’re very aware of the thrust of what im getting at. Its kinda how Antonin Scalia is an “objective” judge yet votes conservative every time. You could point to some “conservative” anthro articles to prove me wrong;)

          • Justaguy

            What do you mean by “liberal” or “conservative”? Sure, anthropology questions the underlying reality of a lot of social institutions, such as the market, race, gender, and the state. I don’t think of that as particularly liberal, but we might have different definitions of the word.

            If you are very politically invested in the idea the Chinese nation is 5,000 years old, you will likely take an examination of its relatively recent historical construction as political. If you believe that your own culture’s ideals of kinship, gender and sexuality are not arbitrary, but are fundamentally rooted in the nature of the universe as a whole, research which points to its arbitrariness might seem unduly political to you. But the relevant question isn’t if its contrary to your political beliefs, it is if it is accurate. (And to be clear, by saying that gender is arbitrary, I’m not saying that it isn’t rooted in an underlying biology, but that this underlying biology is expressed differently in different cultural contexts)

            But, read Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. Mahmood is a feminist who studied a woman’s pietistic movement in Egypt, in which women were turning towards a conservative brand of Islamic practice which she found antithetical to her feminist ideals. In her research she describes how the woman she studied empowered themselves by integrating themselves into social institutions which, to put it mildly, are not feminist.

            Or, how about Pun Ngai’s Made in China? Pun looks at female factory workers in Shenzhen. As a Marxist, she expected to find exploitation and resistance. Instead, she discovered that the workers found factory work empowering within their families, and transformative in a good way.

            Or Susan Harding’s Book of Jerry Falwell, based on her fieldwork among Falwell’s followers. She is not sympathetic to their politics at all, and is not a Christian. But, she gives a very good description of how their religious practices are compelling, and how they effectively bring one into a direct experience of the presence of God in one’s own life.

            Those aren’t conservative works – I have no idea liberal or conservative research would look like. But they’re instances of people doing research which in no way supports their own political commitments.

            And again, the measure of research into different cultures should not be its suitability to any one political perspective, but the extent to which it is accurate. If you want to discuss the ways in which to best do empirical research into different cultures, that can be productive. But simply dismissing research because you don’t like what you perceive to be its political implications is in no way “pro-science”.

          • So you’re actually claiming that Anthropology is not biased in favor of the political left? I’m sorry I just can’t take you seriously

          • Justaguy

            And since you do not actually cite any evidence, and explicitly say you feel justified in making sweeping generalizations about a topic you are unfamiliar with, I will stop taking you seriously.

          • You see, that’s the problem. The burden of proof is not on me to prove your bullshit wrong. Do you honestly think it’s an accident that people make fun of anthropology and not physics? I’m thinking they might be on to something;)

          • Justaguy

            I don’t think that’s how arguments work. That is, if you want to present evidence to support your assertions, I could then go and discuss that evidence. Instead you just make generalizations without providing evidence. And the fact that this is a comment on a blog post critiquing anthropology for being insufficiently empirical just makes the explicit pride you take in your ignorance of the subject you’re discussing even more absurd.

            And you don’t address anything I say. So, I take Salifist Islam to meet any definition of conservative you might want to come up with. And I gave you the name of a book by a prominent feminist anthropologist who writes about a Salifist movement among Egyptian women and uses it to critique feminism and secular liberalism.

            How does that fit into your stereotype of anthropologists?

          • The problem is that I can predict that it *would* fit the stereotype without even reading it.

          • Erik Bosma

            for all the “great leaps” that physics has made in the past 100 years – it’s easy to make fun of physicists.

          • Justaguy

            Also, just to be clarify what I mean when I say that anthropology isn’t necessarily liberal. I consider myself to be a Liberal in the classical meaning of the world. I believe that we are all possessed of an inherent human dignity, and that the best political systems are those which respect this dignity by ensuring the protection of fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, conscience, the right to meaningfully participate in one’s own governance, etc..

            Universal rights, human dignity, and related concepts are completely meaningless in anthropological terms. We can study them as cultural phenomena, but there is no abiding human nature outside of what a biologist or geneticist could describe. And there are plenty of critiques of the role that ideals of universalism have played in rationalizing colonialism.

            So, I find a lot of the foundational anthropological understandings of human nature, and of the Western Liberal tradition deeply antithetical to my political views.

          • razibkhan

            as you noted above your disagreement above isn’t too fruitful, because your interlocutor doesn’t take you seriously a priori. my point in the post wasn’t to make an argument, and as i made clear to some long time readers *I DON’T GIVE A SHIT AT ALL IF THEY AREN’T PERSUADED* if they don’t know what i’m talking about, they don’t. at the end of the day, they read me, i don’t read them. those who recognize the validity of my critique recognize it, and i am simply clarifying and amplifying. ultimately this isn’t a genteel intellectual discussion. it’s a culture war, and i want ‘my side’ to understand who and what they’re up against.

            if modern american cultural anthropology was more methodologically plural this wouldn’t be an issue. but for various reasons of the way academic politics works that’s just not a viable stable long term situation. kind of like how ‘heterodox economics’ has a very hard time in american economics departments, as everyone needs to speak in the same currency, so they go mainstream.

          • Justaguy

            That’s probably the most passionate and principled defense of having no idea what you’re talking about I’ve heard in a while.

          • Justaguy

            Oh, but to more directly respond to the don’t waste your time arguing with people on the internet who have already decided everything you could possibly say is wrong point. Sure, that is a waste of time. But I was actually hoping you would respond with a substantive critique of anthropology which would challenge me to reassess what I’m doing. I don’t know anything of your background, and assumed that being on the discovery
            website means you have some significant background in genetics, and know what you’re talking about in at least that field of research. You claim to be interested in culture from that perspective, and I’m genuinely interested in what that would look like, and how that could change the way I do my work.

            I’m open to the prospect that there are better ways to study the subjects I research, that I’m prey to unexamined biases which influence my work, or that there are glaring mistakes in what I do which my colleagues miss because they make the same mistakes. Which is to say that I know I am human – you can’t study the naturalization of arbitrary ideologies among other social groups without suspecting your own community does the same thing. There’s no way to know you’re not suffering from groupthink, but the best you can do is to seek out substantive critiques from people who disagree with you and honestly consider them.

            So, when I was asking for concrete examples of anthropology’s politicization which weren’t standard practice in other sciences, suggestions of how anthropological research methods could be improved, or criticism based on specific points and not vague generalizations, I wasn’t picking a fight, I was hoping for a substantive response that would challenge me to reexamine my assumptions. And so when I say you don’t know what you’re talking about, its in a tone of disappointment, not self-righteousness. Good critics keep you honest. Silly people talking nonsense on the internet, on the other hand, aren’t very interesting…

            Anyway, I wish you the best of luck in your culture war.

          • razibkhan

            s, suggestions of how anthropological research methods could be improved,

            i already made that clear by implication, but:


          • I remember a funny story one of my professors told me when I was getting my graduate degree. She was asked to review a dissertation. Someone else on the committee, in complete seriousness, said “I’m outside the field, and I understand every single word, so this must be bad.”

            Obviously my professor, despite being on the left, clearly understood the sickness in the heart of much of Academia.

  16. Erik Bosma

    anthropologists tell good stories – mark twain, charles dickens and fyodor doesteovsky were cultural anthropolgists for example.

  17. Erik Bosma

    oh, and of course there are some cultural anthropologists who are also great story tellers… geertz for example. but that is all they should do. tell stories. stories that make you feel as if you were there.

  18. Al West

    I agree that the continental theory is used primarily by academics who produce ‘bad anthropology’, and I know a great many fantastic scholars in anthropology departments. The problem isn’t necessarily with anthropology itself. But there are some very obvious problems with it. Unlike other disciplines, which focus on subjects (like the study of life or the earth or the physical properties of the universe), anthropology focuses on its method. If you study for a graduate degree in anthropology, you have to do fieldwork, very often in a society that has already been well-documented by other researchers.

    The idea of the method as central, as opposed to certain subject matter, is part of the problem. It means that the original focus of the discipline, on non-industrial, non-state, and/or non-literate societies (which is, by the way, still a valid academic concern, largely un-addressed by other disciplines), has been left by the wayside in order to focus on prescriptive assessments of modern-day life. Instead of finding out more about prehistory or the odd and interesting things people get up to, anthropology has actually become more present-focused and, frankly, ethnocentric, in attempting to tie all research to problems with neoliberalism or militarism or some other perceived conservative ideology. The original focus of anthropology is now a minority position. It is now possible to study for a graduate degree in anthropology and be in a minority in attempting to find out about lesser-known societies around the world (instead of researching cycling in Amsterdam in order to critique the highway system of LA, for instance).

    Take a look at the topic of kinship. Once, that was an important part of anthropology, because it was clear that kin relationships were much more important in structuring society in non-state situations than in state ones (usually). Later anthropologists seem to think that earlier research on kinship was blind to the idea that other principles are at work in structuring non-state societies, beyond allegiance on the basis of blood relationships, but in fact, by the 1950s, theories of kinship-based social structures had managed to avoid all of the pitfalls focused on by post-1980s anthropologists, and if you read articles on the topic by Darryl Forde, Clark Cunningham, or any number of other anthropologists from the pre-80s era, you’ll see just how highly-developed and nuanced it was. Kinship-based social structural theory had developed to a high degree of precision, and it was really only found in one discipline: social/cultural anthropology.

    Today, you won’t find any formal studies of kinship-based social structure on anthropology courses – certainly not as a principal component. Very often, lectures on the topic are optional, as they were at Oxford. It was, and is, possible to study for an entire degree in anthropology without learning even a little about kinship diagrams.

    That would be find if there were a good reason for it, or if it was all completely wrong. But actually, it wasn’t wrong at all, and now the only people with a good understanding of pre-state social structure are the few anthropologists and archaeologists who keep the flame alive by studying it on their own and specialising in it. The purpose of the discipline has been lost, such that instead of focusing on these important, interesting topics that really open up the history, prehistory, and proclivities of humankind, anthropologists now spend their time on prescriptive studies that take their method, rather than any particular subject matter, as the centre.

    The lack of interest in finding answers to problems in human diversity, history, and prehistory has meant that the cognitive sciences – clearly the way forward in understanding human beings – are neglected or even seen as an enemy of anthropology. There is real enmity there in some quarters.

    Beware of using the word ‘positivist’. It doesn’t really mean anything. When anthropologists refer to the pre-postmodern era as ‘positivistic’, what they mean is that anthropologists before then actually tried to answer questions about humans, and actually believed that answers were possible. There was absolutely nothing necessary or worthwhile about the postmodern movement in anthropology, and it merely served to set real anthropological theory back a few decades (even into a still-continuing dark age).

    • Justaguy

      A few things. I disagree that anthropology doesn’t have a subject, only a method. We study human culture. That’s a subject, albeit a very broad one. And, sure, there is definitely less of a focus on small scale societies. But, I don’t see how you can say asking the same questions of large scale societies that you do of small scale ones is somehow a bad thing. Or even a different category of study – Wall Street investment bankers are in a very different cultural and institutional environment than the Kung!, are organized on a larger scale, have more technology, resources, etc.. But at the end of the day, its all people acting within social contexts. And I do my research among management of multimillion dollar companies, but I see the same sorts of thing you see in smale scale societies. Maybe we’ve erred by putting too much focus on the other extreem, but it is still a related set of inquiries.

      Yes, I agree that we need to look at kinship more, and that there is a lot of good kinship literature which is sadly neglected. My advisor made me read a lot of earlier kinship studies (kicking and screaming at first), and you can see that someone like James Watson looks at diaspora, globalization, the intersection of legal regimes with gender and ideas of tradition, etc. that became hot topics starting in the 80s, but he gets neglected because he doesn’t use the same sexy theoretical lingo. And while there were problems with the literature overall, its a shame people don’t look at it more. That said, I’d hate to go back to the day where 80% of anthropology was kinship.

      And I think we’re heading back there. An anthropologist I know took the last graduate seminar taught by David Schneider. It was on kinship, and two people signed up. He took that as his cue to retire, saying he wanted to cut kinship down to size, but not get rid of it entirely. But there’s starting to be a renewed interest in the subject, and when a kinship seminar was offered a few years ago (the first in a decade) it was packed.

      I’m less convinced that most anthropology is based on political commitments, or that research that is based on political commitments is inherently bad. Most of the grad students I know are not working on topics that they have a strong political stake in – I know I’m not. But research should be judged on its accuracy, not its motives.

      I use positivist to refer to research which is too ambitious in its conclusions and does not take the situated nature of ethnographic observation into account. I think the disagreement is largely one of literary style – you can’t read Evans Prichard and not see an awareness of the colonial context in the Nuer, he just doesn’t foreground it as much. And some Post Modernism went way to far in the other direction. But that said, we’re back to a better place – where we’re more critical about our data, but are less likely to get involved in epistemological hand wringing about representation.

      But, I don’t know how you can say we’re no longer interested in answering questions about humans. What else are we doing?

      • razibkhan

        “But that said, we’re back to a better place – where we’re more critical about our data, but are less likely to get involved in epistemological hand wringing about representation.”

        that is not my impression. can you recommend a cultural anthropology textbook of recent vintage which accurately reflects the contemporary state of affairs?

        • Justaguy

          Carrol Delaney’s Investigating Culture is pretty good. And if you want to read a good recent ethnography, I’d recommend Karen Ho’s Liquidated, which is her study of Wall Street investment bankers – looking at how the rise of financialization in the 80s was spurred by a new model of the market, how investment banks socialize employees to think in terms of this model, and the kinds of decision making it promotes (i.e. prioritizing short term benefits over long term performance, being willing to engage in risky behavior because you’re encouraged to think of yourself as brilliant, etc.) Its also a good example of research on a politically charged topic – she basically explains why the financial crisis happened – that doesn’t have any particular political axe to grind.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar