Anthropology’s Big Fight

The Great Divide

I’m not an anthropologist and have had reservations, about which I’ve written here, about anthropology as a discipline.  That said, this little essay is making me realize that what I’m concerned about might reflect a division among anthropologists about what the discipline itself is about.  Discussing the rise of evolutionary anthropology, Tim Ingold, chair of Anthropology at Aberdeen, notes a flavor of discourse that I find quite familiar:

“They seem to be stuck on a very rigid form of argument, and it’s one which they’re not prepared to question. They already assume they have the correct answer. It’s extremely frustrating. They’re not prepared to accept any kind of criticism from people on the social side,” Ingold says. “From where I sit, the biggest obstacle to satisfactory integration in this way is this dogmatic adherence to a fairly orthodox neo-Darwinian paradigm.

I’ve wondered, in this blog and elsewhere, whether philosophical debates between materialism and its alternatives might be the root of the so-called evolution/ID debates, and now I see that a similar and similarly unnamed dispute over metaphysics might be at play in the social sciences.  Perhaps surprisingly to those who consider “evolution” to be the intellectual territory of “liberals” (but of no surprise to people who are familiar with the history of the controversy), a common worry about the rise and belligerence of evolutionary anthropology has to do with its affinity for right-wing ideologies:

The Royal Anthropological Institute is at the vanguard of a new unity within the discipline. Hilary Callan, the institute’s director, says the charity exists to represent the interests of all anthropologists. As such it has inevitably faced its critics.

“The discipline has suffered from the progressive divergence between the sub-disciplines. There has been a tendency for the biological end to be associated with the political right and the sociocultural with the political left. I would not support that polarisation. I think it’s a false one,” she explains.

“We are positioned as an institution that’s representative of all of the subdisciplines. There have been debates about whether there has been over-representation of the interests of social anthropology at the expense of biological and evolutionary anthropology.”

But Callan is optimistic, and such criticisms have not deterred the institute from its aim of getting biological and social anthropologists talking to each other. The institute is hosting lectures with a focus on all disciplines bringing the two forks together – psychology and behaviour; nature and culture; Darwinism and religion.

Once again, as someone who tends to land on the cultural/social/Aristotelian end of things, I tend to think that strong materialism and other reductionistic theories tend to be inadequate to actual human experience of the world, but I can already hear the counter-claim that I’m a superstitious twit.  The more and more of this stuff that I encounter the more I’m convinced that Milbank’s final argument in Theology and Social Theory holds some water.  He finishes that bombshell of a book by arguing that in cases of incommensurable philosophies’ encountering one another, what ultimately wins out is not intellectual rigor (after all, any closed system will increase in rigor over time) but aesthetics.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Anthropology’s Big Fight

  1. iniet0

    Indeed division on materialistic paradigm and conceptualistic paradigm is very fundamental in anthropology.What shape or reality? Determinism of matter or determinism of culture (concept)? Tim Ingold is a great resercher who is trying to find connections beetwen these two (also philosophical) paradigms. I’m agree that “strong materialism and other reductionistic theories tend to be inadequate to actual human experience of the world” I’m shure there isn’t simple answer…

  2. Wow. If that came from a dada engine, it’s really impressive. If you’re a grad student, not so much. 🙂

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