Mediating Anthropology’s Feuding Factions

The radical cultural relativism popular in contemporary anthropological thought presupposes that cultures are incommensurable* with one another.  On one level, this is true, on a higher level, it is a truism–they are still both ‘cultures.’  Cultures, as considered here, is a fundamental psychological mechanism that is included in the homo sapiens adaptive package.  

This is not a reductionist call to arms.  By reference to biology and physics, we anchor the human experiences to the same weight–we do so with awareness of the western biomedical paradigm which we in the western sciences use to see–we do not do so to reduce the human experiences to the same end or to the sum of their parts, as much as out of respect to those who would be upset were not to acknowledge our own self-awareness (I find this practice tedious and unnecessary, but I am pliable).

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The elegance of anthropology is not to be found in the creation of axiomatic laws of culture nor can it be found with long-winded diatribes that can appear to be little more than an appeal to authority–not a legitimate data source.  

Its elegance lies in its ability to elucidate the unseen and unseeable veil of the unknown and the unknowable.  It is the notion of experiencing that meta-pattern which is the epi-phenomenon of our actions and thoughts and their innumerable interactions and influences.  “Except in pure mathematics, nothing is known for certain (although much is certainly false).”(Sagan)

To tack the discussion back towards something more tangible, there exists a black and white distinction within the hard sciences in regards to what is scientific and what, conversely, is not scientific: does it meet the standards of the scientific method (is it repeatable, is it measurable?)  Yes or no?

“Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions.”(Sagan, a candle in the dark).


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Whereas a biologist can confidently announce, ‘yes, this is so’ (assuming proper lab conditions and standards); a social ‘scientist’ cannot.  A social scientist has reservations and restrictions: about the repeatability of the experiment and the repeatability of the experiment’s environment, about phantom variables that may not have been controlled for, about the success of maintaining objectivity during methodology.

The biologist’s evidence is ‘scientific’ by definition and thus the biologist’s conclusions are sure-footed, so to speak (even if they are not directly on the bull’s eye).  The social scientist’s evidence is ‘take my word for it’ or ‘you had to be there’ (i.e. others have no way to verify the data or methodology and thus the social scientist’s conclusions are grasping at straws (even if the analogies appear to be commonsense).  

(1)  Whether the social scientist’s conclusions are correct in the ultimate sense, is not the the concern here.  The concern is the social scientist’s conclusions are intuitions but there is not a whole lot in the way of objective evidence for the social scientist to point at and say ‘see for yourself.’

(2)  The heart of what this blog tries to get at directly reduces to the phenomenon of a priori reasoning.

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Many physicists, especially of the theoretical persuasion, use a priori reasoning and only afterward design and perform an experiment.  But when social scientists, particularly anthropologists, use a priori reasoning they construct a paradigm or viewpoint, a perspective, from which they will watch the experiment as it unfolds.  What they see and what they do not see will be determined by this a priori explanatory paradigmatic scaffolding.  When someone later on questions this constructed meaning-making paradigm, you can point to the experiment; but, what has happened is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

You decide what “culture” means scientifically, measurably, precisely, and consistently.  To prove this definition you cite the experiment you performed using your personal or externally referenced paradigm of what culture is.  But, your experimental evidence does not confirm or support your paradigm necessarily, it reflects the assumptions you made before you even began experimenting.  You did not really learn anything, you saw what you set out to see.  

I owe some references here and will cite sources shortly.

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