Thanks to all the members for their participation and comments during the first series of debates.  I would like to open the second in this series of debates by inviting the next motion from the membership.  After a few days, if I do not get any suggestions, I will post the next operative question and invite members to argue for or against, and for any suggestions on how the question could or should be reframed.


Again the rules for the debate are as follows:


1. Debate starts with the reading of the operative question and the selection of participants;

2. This will be followed by a brief period for points of clarification;

3. Debate is set to a minimum of 2 rounds but can be extended upward to four if requested by either participant;

4. Although there is no specific length to statements or rebuttal, we ask that debate be as concise and to the point as possible;

5. Following completion of the rounds, the operative question will be opened to discussion from the membership;

6. Participants may be asked if they are open to points of information following their respective rounds; and

7. Points of inquiry from the membership (to the participant) can only be made following the complete series of rounds.

8. After a period of one week, we will move to the next operative question.


Thank you…




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UPDATE: Daniel Lende has an intriguing post at Neuroanthropology on what anthropologists might contribute to the study of premature mortality. Harvard MD/sociologist Nicholas Christakis has recently become newsworthy with the publication of his and James Fowler's Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They....

John McCreery said:
It is hard to argue with the proposition that one of the major challenges of anthropology is the redefinition of the concept of society. The redefinition of society in light of forms of social life unfamiliar to the larger audiences to whom the anthropologist hopes to speak has long been part of the discipline's stock in trade. We are, as Mary Douglas once put it, the people who read a sociological proposition, raise our hands and say, "Not in Bongo-Bongo."

Keith points, however, to a deeper problem, i.e.,

an attempt to make the national model of society universal by finding its principles everywhere, even in so-called primitive societies. These principles included cultural homogeneity, a bounded location and an ahistorical presumption of eternity.

Few here would disagree that the principles listed here are demonstrably false in a world of multicultural nations, global diasporas, and what at least appears to be accelerating change.

The question is, then, what anthropologists have to contribute to a larger conversation about what society is and properly demands of its members. Keith suggests that we need to,

renew our engagement with the discipline's 18th and 19th century antecedents, with a humanist philosophical critique aiming at democratic revolution and a world history adequate to our current planetary dilemmas.

This is certainly one possible approach, but not the only one. I think of the renewed interest in the relationship of human biology to human behavior exemplified by sites like Neuroanthropology or the current Edge debate "The New Science of Morality." These look forward instead of backward, to current science instead of dusty philosophies. The same might be said of the social network analysis in which I am currently engaged.

Philosophy, or science, or both? An what can we, as ethnographers or as scholars with a broader than usual awareness of the range of human possibilities contribute to these enterprises? These, I suggest, are the questions to which this discussion points us.
Keith writes,

If I were framing a question along these lines, it would be: Anthropologists have never been serious about the study of contemporary society and now less than ever, but they ought to be. Discuss. Then someone else could come in with a critique of the idea of society that might lead us to abandon the concept altogether.

An interesting suggestion, but, I suggest, likely to proceed a bit too much along the lines of an old-fashion debate in the history of ideas. I offer once again what is, to me, a more promising perspective rooted in what P.W. Bridgman called "operationalism," which seems to me congenial with both a properly social anthropology and current trends in science-and-technology studies and economic sociology.

At the heart of this approach is the proposition that instead of endless debates about the academic genealogies and subtle variations of ideas, we focus instead on what people have done with ideas and the social and material conditions in which ideas were deployed. In this spirit, I have already suggested that, operationally speaking, what "society" meant to British social anthropologists in the heyday of structural-functionalism was a set of basic, and typically interrelated, questions about ownership and transmission of property, kinship, marriage and succession to office. Answers to these questions became a framework on which discussion of customs, habits, conventional sentiments, myths and ritual symbols could all be hung. The operating assumption was the presence of a body of jural rules (the unwritten equivalent of law) that applied to those living within the borders of a particular administrative/geographical units.

The attempt to extend this approach to, for example, defeated Native Americans living on reservations, members of immigrant diasporas, or jet-setting cosmopolitans, like the overseas Chinese "flexible citizens" studied by Aiwah Ong, were bound to run into trouble. Whose laws apply becomes a question of extreme sensitivity. The notion that people's lives are primarily constrained by a local set of jural rules becomes increasingly implausible.

One observes that the Jewish merchant whose sheep were stolen by the Berber tribesmen whose case illustrates Clifford Geertz's call for "thick description" got his sheep back under the watchful eye of the French Foreign Legion. Instead of a "these were the rules" analysis, more careful attention to the various perspectives of merchant, tribesmen, and colonial military enforcers and how they interacted was called for. As the title of Chinua Achebe's Things fall apart suggests, the old notion of a society as a cohesive unit held together by shared rules had come to seem absurd.

These are the "facts on the ground" to which we must attend as we reconsider what society might mean in this the 21st century. Looking at how anthropologists now address them may be a more useful exercise than resurrecting the ghosts of social theorists past. On this point, what Keith has written is, to me, spot on.
In trying to catch up with the course of discussion, I’ve found myself thinking again of the practice-based model in anthropology as discussed among others by Ortner who considers society as not only responding and adapting to the particulars, but is governed by certain social practices within an integral whole. As a consequence of the reinterpretation of cultures, these practices have shown that although some societies are experiencing dramatic changes, leaping from an agricultural-based society to industrial or information or knowledge society for instance, previous social practices remain relatively unchanged in the course of a heterogeneous global culture.

I view such argument as one of the logic to argue behind the process by way some societies in the developing countries responding and adapting to information technologies. In dealing with such reinterpretation, practice-based model for instance focuses on power relation, historic turn, and culture found among the works of some anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers such as Scot, Bourdieu, Giddens, Sahlins, Geertz, and Foucault, with Marx and other marxist’s anthropologists in the backdrop. (I wouldn’t hesitate to place Laclau and Moufee, Zizek, and Deleuze and Guattari to address certain issues around this model). It is through this thread of thinking that I found that ideas of societies developed through their inclinations towards history, power and culture particularly as shown in the debates within Marxist and Weberian anthropology, very valuable to begin thinking of digital divide.

By looking at the ideas that power relation, historic turn, and culture as the base of change and continuity, following Gramsci who emphasized the process or the becoming and its consequences, I’ve found myself also reflecting on what Tsing termed as frictions within those integral whole or universals as a consequence of the global connection or interconnection. In pursuing mobilization for freedom and justice and empowerment in the face of a global scheme through the dynamic dialogs between culture and power as a result of the heterogeneous and unequal encounters, she regarded frictions in terms of how this duality framed in those universals becomes the challenges for anthropologists to deal with.

With these ideas in mind, while realizing the many lapses, I’ll say that the idea of society has continued to be in a complex dialog between power, history, and culture or in other context between praxis, utility, and the symbolic to understand how its evolvement around certain configurations has continued to show negotiated and/or articulated implications in terms of how social relations hold structure, change, and continuity. This reflection would probably be my strategy to meet further discussion on the network society.
I am not in debate but when I think about society redefinition or try to adapt the traditional concept to the current times in which globalization (different ethnic backgrounds) and increasing numbers of different "communities" (sub-cultures of a society maybe? common status?) that one can belong.

Our current "society" or "community" definitions, especially as a person's identity or to refer to a nation/town/community in whole, have grown much more complex, especially when one is now part of many different societies/communities in different levels... I would like to hear what you guys have to say about that.
A superficial answer is "Of course." A somewhat deeper answer is to say that we need to consider how multiple identies affect particular lives; but that is only to pose the problem. One critical issue is how to assess the relative salience or importance of the identities in question. One possible measure might be the amounts of time invested in one or the other. Thus, for example, it is often noted that in classically modern societies the workplace and home are separated. For men one typical result has been more time invested in the job than in the family. This finding suggests cross-cultural and historical comparisons. The organization men described by William Foote Whyte (USA, Chicago, 1950s) were typically home by six o'clock in the evening. They had time for dinner with the family, neighborhood baseball games and other community activities. Longer working hours, after work socializing, and longer commutes meant that their Japanese counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s had far less time for family and community. If there was any substance to 1950s/1960s American moral panics about absent fathers, there was far greater reason for concern in Japan a couple of decades later.

Time invested is not, of course, the only possible measure of importance. A judge, for example, may spend more time sleeping than pronouncing judgments in court. To those affected by the judgments the amount of time the judge sleeps may be of little concern, unless, of course, he was sleeping during relevant testimony. Lots to consider here.

Carolina Maria said:
I am not in debate but when I think about society redefinition or try to adapt the traditional concept to the current times in which globalization (different ethnic backgrounds) and increasing numbers of different "communities" (sub-cultures of a society maybe? common status?) that one can belong.
Our current "society" or "community" definitions, especially as a person's identity or to refer to a nation/town/community in whole, have grown much more complex, especially when one is now part of many different societies/communities in different levels... I would like to hear what you guys have to say about that.
This brings the debate series to a close. A sincere thanks to all who contributed and participated.


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