What is this madman McCreery up to, interrupting a conversation about ideas about democracy with, on the one hand, the suggestion that political and economic ideas may be essentially irrelevant in a world where the haves increase and hold on to what they have while the have-nots get increasingly screwed until things get so bad that they fall apart and, on the other hand, in the same conversation, posting notes on a condominium association special committee meeting in Japan?

I am, as I see it, examining the ideas I hear from my colleagues from two complementary perspectives that, to me, define anthropology.

One is the big picture. I  see an appeal to a bit of mainly European intellectual history, talking about ideas salient in the way the world works for the last two or three centuries. I want to step back and say, "Whoa, there. How does this work in terms of what we know about primate behavior, human evolution, bands, tribes, chiefdoms, the origins of the state, and comparable ideas from other parts of the world?"
The other is up close and intimate. The ethnographer wants to know how those ideas we are talking about fit into microscopic situations in which, in whatever locally altered form, they are only one of the elements in the messy realities that our field notes try to capture. 
To me, being an anthropologist means a commitment to examining social theory from both these perspectives, to see what is missed by theorists with narrower local or disciplinary perspectives and to look for what I can add to extend and enrich their theories to account for more, in more detail,  of the hugely messy reality called human life on planet Earth.  

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Comment by John McCreery on October 22, 2012 at 2:23pm
Sure, why not? I have a couple of writing projects that need some serious attention this week, and next weekend my wife's younger brother and his wife are arriving for a two-week visit to Japan, their first trip outside the U.S. or Canada. A certain amount of time-consuming hospitality will be required. I will happily join you in a few weeks silence and hope that other voices appear.
Comment by Keith Hart on October 22, 2012 at 10:51am

To ignore this, John, would be disrespectful; but to respond is to perpetuate a pattern that may deter others from participating. You and I together contribute a large part of what goes on in these threads. Whereas we both want to combine the big picture with close-up, a process that Bateson labelled schismogenesis occurs, where the parties to the dialectic respond to a caricature of the other by plugging away at the opposite extreme. It often looks as if no-one is listening to anyone else, just sounding off while using the other as a trigger.

I entered anthropology as an ethnographer and have since often found myself berating anthropologists for their lack of historical and theoretical awareness. Although I believe my own writing is informed by both sides, I often come across as being one-sided, as in the exchange with Huon on ethnography and history in the thread that spawned this one. Equally I sometimes find that you don't engage with the substance of my arguments, but prefer to use the occasion to tell one of your own stories.

I am particularly sensitive to occasions when people who rarely contribute enter our exchanges and are sidelined for the sake of continuing this non-conversation. Actually, for obvious reasons, these newcomers are rare and they usually don't come back.

Apart from the online seminars, I am willing to take a short sabbatical from these fora and hope that you will consider it too, to see what happens if neither of us is dominating the space with our repeated bouts of insular self-expression.


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