Table of Contents
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of May 23, 2022 (Week 13)
Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/13
Main reading: de la Cadena (2010)
Other reading: Bessire and Bond (2014)
In the shadows
Is there a “shadow biosphere” populated by living things that appear to be nonliving things, like the spreading (or, self-replicating, growing) varnish on desert rocks (Conover 2015; Scoles 2015)?
- Life itself has no single, simple definition. The working assumption is that all living things are related through a single evolutionary origin.
- To identify something as a living thing is essentially to say that it has a common ancestry with other living things, and thus has something in common with them, even though we may not know precisely what “it” is.
- What if there was another origin of life on Earth, and a completely separate evolutionary tree branched out from that point?
- These living things would appear to be nonliving to us, because they don’t have any common ancestors with us.
Anthropology, the study of cultural diversity in humanity, is today asking the same thing.
Should we be looking for otherness, or should we continue to search for sameness?
A single humanity
The concept of culture in anthropology originates in the development of a single, universal concept of human.
- Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish missionary in Mexico in the 16th century, argued against the colonial system of conquest, violent pacification, and slavery of indigenous societies of the New World.
- His argument for people’s natural sovereignty was based on the fact that indigenous people were human, and thus fundamentally the same as Europeans. They had the same intelligence and capacity for reason, and thus their social forms were fundamentally the same in spite of differences of appearance (Losada 1971, 285–86).
- The fundamental sameness of New World Indians and Europeans meant that Europeans should educate Indians to become literate so that they would convert to Christianity.
Universal humanity and the colonization of consciousness
A singular, universal definition of human also displaces other ways of knowing oneself as human.
- Orokaiva people know themselves as human, but this is a new sense of humanity that includes waitman (Bashkow 2006).
- Auhelawa people have always seen themselves as tomowa, a type of being that exists alongside other beings seen and unseen. Today tomowa is a narrower category because people limit its meaning to the same as the English word human.
- Being tomowa is defined in opposition to nature, rather than coexistence with many different beings.
- People take for granted that papuwa (Papuans) and dimdim (white people) are both tomowa because papuwa and dimdim are God’s children. By contrast, spirits and dwarfs are beliefs people have about the world, not facts.
A universal humanity is a basis for human equality: All people are equal because they are fundamentally the same.
Yet this universalism also creates inequality of another kind: Alternative conceptions of oneself as a person don’t have the same credibility and authority as the dominant conception of the human subject as an individual. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o says in a recent profile in The Atlantic (Gibson 2022):
“The problem with language is hierarchy,” Ngũgĩ said. “It must have come with the conception of the modern state: ‘One language, one language!’ But it is hierarchy. It’s the oppression of many languages in favor of the one. In order for one language to be, others must die. It’s so backward and unproductive.”
Should anthropology instead be based on multiple humanities?
Universalism and particularism
This can be seen as a longstanding tension within anthropology between universalism and particularism.
Just like in Las Casas’s time, there have always been people who argued for multiple, distinct kinds of human.
- Human polygenesis (Keel 2013; Knapman 2016)
- Eugenics and other racial theories of human difference (Sussman 2014)
Cultural anthropology has always been a response to this.
- The most important differences are cultural, acquired traits.
- Everyone is fundamentally the same, and specifically has the same capacity to acquire a cultural pattern.
Yet if every person is the same because they can be molded by their particular social environment, then it will be hard to make universal, general claims about human life.
- Some things about a community cannot be translated; they only make sense in that particular context.
- Theories of society will not be relevant in all places and all times.
Ethnography would seem to resist the idea that there is a universal theory of human society.
Us and them
Ethnography is what makes anthropology different from other studies of social life, and not just because it is very descriptive
- When anthropology uses ethnography, it is with the aim of confronting people with the limits of what they know and understand.
- Louis Dumont conceived of anthropology in terms of comparison of social wholes. Rather than argue for a general model of society, he instead said there were different types of society based on different values (Dumont 1986,  1980).
- For Dumont, people in Western culture can only see other people’s ways of life in terms of individual choices and decisions. He would use cultural description to challenge his audience’s assumptions about universals.
A lot of anthropology may indeed imply that there is a dichotomy of West and Rest (or West and East).
Many anthropologists are drawn to the idea of the Other because they want to undermine the idea that the Western self-conception is objectively universal.
Historical anthropology and a new universalism
Historical anthropology as advocated by Wolf (1982) and to a lesser extent Comaroff and Comaroff (1992) turns away from ethnographic particularism toward universalism
- Ethnographic descriptions create an artificial picture of a social totality in a timeless present.
- Differences in social form and cultural ideas are less important than the universal fact that people depend on nature.
In a more general way, many anthropologists are skeptical of ethnography itself, and believe it should be subordinated to theory.
- Ethnography by itself is just description.
- Ethnography should be part of a broader inquiry into facts for the purpose of finding true causes.
Roots and branches
Without sensitivity to particularism, we become blind to alternatives.
Evolutionary biology assumes that all life can be traced back along branches of descent to a common root. There is a hierarchy of types:
Life > Domain > Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species
Historical anthropology is not interested in origins. It does assume the same kind of hierarchy of causes.
Humans as homo faber > Material struggles > Social hierarchies > Cultural ideas
The so-called “ontological turn” in anthropology is a response to the universalisms in anthropology, including historical anthropology (Kohn 2015).
Consider what universal assumptions are involved in even the most basic concept of agency, that is, the capacity to act.
Actual people act as individuals, but the effect of these actions depends on the reactions of others.
- Wearing sackcloth and ashes is either
- an act of sorrow, or
- an act of an insane person, that is, someone who cannot be responsible for action.
Groups also act, but in individualist cultures, the actions of groups are usually only recognized because the groups are seen as big individuals
- Actions of a corporation, a nation-state, or another organized collectivity are credited to the leader or founder.
- When individualist cultures recognize the agency of groups, they usually ignore the role of larger social resources that enable the group’s actions.
- Corporations can own property and accumulate wealth, like individuals. The role of social networks in creating this wealth is ignored.
An individualist conception of agency assumes that nature cannot have agency, and yet natural forces can channel human agency.
- Forest fires are a symptom of natural processes and social processes, like social systems that produce excess CO2.
If agency is always relational, then many more things besides individuals can be agents. They act as agents because they have relationships to other agents who react to them.
Each society is not an instance of a general type of purely human phenomenon.
- It is not reducible to a universal theory of humans as social beings.
- It is a unique combination of relational beings, a world unto itself.
This is a kind of anthropology that puts a lot of value in the encounter with an Other, especially an “indigenous” Other.
Yet it is also an effort to help people see beyond nature–culture dualism, and thus to see their own relational existence rather than differences in thought or representations.
References and further reading
Bashkow, Ira. 2006. The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bessire, Lucas, and David Bond. 2014. “Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique.” American Ethnologist 41 (3): 440–56. https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12083.
Cadena, Marisol de la. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond ‘Politics’.” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334–70. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01061.x.
Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. 1992. Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Conover, Emily. 2015. “‘Shadow Biosphere’ Might Be Hiding Strange Life Right Under Our Noses.” Science, February. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaa7865.
Dumont, Louis. (1970) 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 1986. Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gibson, D. W. 2022. “Ngũgĩ in America.” The Atlantic, May 20, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/books/archive/2022/05/ngugi-wa-thiongo-kenyan-writer-irvine/629923/.
Keel, Terence D. 2013. “Religion, Polygenism and the Early Science of Human Origins.” History of the Human Sciences 26 (2): 3–32. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695113482916.
Knapman, Gareth. 2016. “Race, Polygenesis and Equality: John Crawfurd and Nineteenth-Century Resistance to Evolution.” History of European Ideas 42 (7): 909–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2016.1161535.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2015. “Anthropology of Ontologies.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44 (1): 311–27. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102214-014127.
Losada, Ángel. 1971. “The controversy between Sepúlveda and Las Casas in the junta of Valladolid.” In Bartolomé de las Casas in history: Toward an understanding of the man and his work, edited by Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen, 279–307. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. http://archive.org/details/bartolomedelasca001566.
Scoles, Sarah. 2015. “Does Earth Have a Shadow Biosphere?” Aeon, July 9, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/does-earth-have-a-shadow-biosphere.
Sussman, Robert Wald. 2014. The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674736160.
Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.