The Relevance of Anthropology? A Marxist Response


The Relevance of Anthropology? A Marxist Response



Firefly: My friends, this man’s case moves me deeply. Look at Chicolini! He sits there alone, an abject figure.


Chicolini: I abject!


Firefly: I say, look at Chicolini. He sits there alone, a pitiable object – let’s see you get out of that one! – surrounded by a sea of unfriendly faces. Chicolini, give me a number from one to ten.


Chicolini: Eleven.


Firefly: Right.


Chicolini: Now, I ask you one. What is it has a trunk, but no key, weighs two thousand pounds and lives in a circus?


Prosecutor: That’s irrelevant.


Chicolini: A relephant! Hey, that’s the answer. There’s a whole lotta relephants in a circus.

                                                   (The Marx Brothers, Duck Soup, 1933).



Once again, anthropology finds itself in the dock, in the soup – it is irrelevant: a dead duck, a white elephant. Or so, at least, go the diagnoses. A recent, uneasy assessment was offered by Maurice Bloch, whose worry was, ‘Where did anthropology go?’ Well, wherever it went, it didn’t go very far, since anthropology has arguably been a constant goner for decades. As Ulf Hannerz has reminded us, the discipline has been ending, disintegrating, or otherwise ‘in question’ since at least the 1960s. Rather like a Barbra Streisand farewell tour, it just keeps carrying on.


No matter. The latest diagnosis comes from Pascal Boyer (in a forthcoming article, 'From studious irrelvance to consilient knowledge', which Boyer has generously posted on his website). His opinion is that the majority of socio-cultural anthropology is afflicted by a ‘plague of irrelevancy’, so that, by and large, no one listens to anthropologists any more because they have nothing to say, and further, that whatever currently passes for anthropological talk consists of a kind of free association of themes and ideas, pretty much meaningless to anyone else. Everything happens as if, asked to pick a number from one to ten, anthropology says, ‘Eleven’.


But if anthropology is infected by irrelevance, then how has it spread? It would seem that the vector is relativism. (In another place, Boyer remarks that it is anthropology’s ‘occupational disease’.) As to what kind of relativism this is, Boyer does not say, save for the following hasty portrayal: ‘each culture to its own, values are culture bound, cultural concepts are untranslatable, etc.’ But the plausibility of such depictions depends, in no small measure, on their anonymous character (for instance, another cognitive anthropologist, Stewart Guthrie, refers vaguely to ‘Postmodern anthropologists [who] decry comparativism and maintain that one can interpret only a culture at a time’). To echo Clifford Geertz: which anthropologist is it, exactly, who holds these views? At least, the relativism as presented here is no relative of mine.


Further on, however, Boyer attempts to substantiate these claims, when he gives a sketch of the style of anthropological inquiry that is apparently to blame for its current plight. This style consists, he says, of a more or less arbitrary association of topics and concepts, rendered authentic by means of pious reference to the work of some saintly past master (Foucault or Adorno, say) whose authority is untouchable. Thus, Boyer offers the following representative case of what’s gone wrong with anthropology: ‘a study of gay fathers in the Caribbean in the framework of Benjamin’s and Bourdieu’s accounts of culture, technology, and late capitalism. Steel drums and strong rum prop up the local habitus of globalized self-empowerment.’ Predictably, perhaps, this example is attributed to no one, and the general impression one gets is that he wishes to imply that research of this kind is not only arbitrary – hence, irrelevant – but also somehow absurd. ‘Try telling a biochemist,’ Boyer continues, in an attempt to emphasize the entirely fanciful nature of such studies, ‘that Walter Benjamin’s essays are a great backdrop to a description of gay fathers in Trinidad.’ Well, now I ask you one: for precisely the same reasons, why should a historian suppose that biochemistry is any more relevant to this case than Benjamin or Bourdieu?    


After all, just what is it that constitutes an adequate description? Just what it is that does becomes clear when Boyer gets round to prescribing his remedy for anti-relativist anthropology. The cure, he says is for the discipline to combine with cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and economics, to form a ‘vertically integrated’ programme of research. But verticality carries the implication of hierarchy – it is not irrelevant to observe that the term ‘vertical integration’ derives from economics. Thus, it becomes evident that management of the programme will be in the hands of naturalism, so that, what we might call, ‘control over the means of explanation’ will be given over to cognitive science and cognate disciplines. As for all the phenomena of anthropology – nationalism in Sri Lanka, Balinese cockfights, kula rings, and – if you like – gay fathers in Trinidad – all this is to be treated as so much data for the production of naturalist explanations.           


But, with regards to Boyer’s own argument, I believe that there is, as it were, a relephant in the room. It is that the approaches he promotes have their own problem of pertinence, vis-à-vis anthropology. Boyer holds, for instance, that ‘We cannot provide good accounts of human culture without placing it in its evolutionary context.’ Taken as a research imperative that would cover all cases, this would imply that a historian whose subject is the Roman Empire, or an anthropologist who works in Cuba, can’t be said to have given an adequate account of the ‘human culture’ in either case unless and until they combine their findings with research coming out of evolutionary biology.


As for Boyer’s belief that ‘Economic theory provides us with the most precise way of describing opportunities and predicting choices’, perhaps the best one can say, in the current climate, is that economists’ supposed grip on precision has slipped a bit. (Perhaps they ought to have read Bourdieu – specifically, his remarks on the objectifying allure of economic models.)


Boyer’s own area of expertise is the cognitive anthropology of religion. This is a research programme that has, I think, so far produced theories of dubious usefulness, compared to the sensational claims that have been made on their behalf. (If you doubt this, then consider that one of Boyer’s books is called Religion Explained, an assertion which, were you to read the book all the way through, might lead you to justifiably lodge a complaint with Trading Standards.) But, more seriously, since the theory is concerned with the innate cognitive capacities of human beings, part of its argument is to demonstrate how religious ideas are made up of intuitive ontological assumptions (innate notions of motion, of psychology, of natural kinds, etc.) combined with counter-intuitive concepts that violate the former in certain specific ways. It is this specific combination which makes any particular religious idea ‘catchy’, or otherwise.


In order to demonstrate how the theory plays out in practice, Boyer gives illustrations from his own fieldwork with the Fang of Cameroon. Thus, Fang people speak of a class of ancestor-ghosts (bekong) which live in the forest and can visit illnesses on people if they do not receive the proper ritual respect. Armed with the theory, Boyer argues that these ideas are striking precisely because they combine intuitive assumptions about psychology (assumed to be like people, Fang ghosts are attributed with intentionality, they have beliefs, desires, etc.) along with other assumptions which are variance with them (unlike people, Fang ghosts can’t be seen, they are capable of walking through walls, etc.). All very interesting, no doubt; but can this be said to add up to a good anthropological account, or an adequate analysis of Fang ghosts? After all, it pretty much amounts to the trivial assertion that ghosts are person-like, but invisible.


It is almost as if Boyer himself recognizes the thin dividends that such descriptions produce when he remarks at one point (in Religion Explained) that, ‘All this may seem rather banal – and as the old Groucho Marx joke goes, don’t be deceived: it is banal.’ Right, so it’s banal.           


Indeed, it is difficult to see how the adoption of this mode of description would improve what currently count as ‘good accounts’ in anthropology. To give an instance, Heonik Kwon’s recent ethnography, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, is an exceptional account of the restless and dislocated spirits of the war-dead that populate contemporary Vietnam. What makes it so good – and, unfortunately for the biochemist, Kwon does indeed mention Walter Benjamin – what makes it so good is the extent to which he allows his ethnography to inform his analysis; in other words, the extent to which he takes seriously what his Vietnamese informants take seriously. A cognitive anthropologist, by contrast, were she to follow Boyer’s own example, would doubtless treat the same ethnographic data as so many apt illustrations, props for the demonstration of cognitive theory; in other words, what the informants take seriously would instead be treated as just a bundle of ideas in their heads.  


There is one point, however, on which I agree with Boyer, and that concerns the contemporary relevance of anthropology. But it seems to me that integration – vertical or otherwise – is very far from being the answer. Right from the start, anthropology was a big tent discipline – what the OAC is, in fact – or, as the poet William Empson (quoted by Geertz) pictured it, ‘the gigan-/-tic anthropological circus riotously/[Holding] open all its booths’. But, were cognitive science to become the ringmaster, the circus would quickly fill up with a whole lotta relephants.        



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Comment by Victor Grauer on December 22, 2011 at 5:23pm

Thanks so much, Huon, for that extremely interesting video clip. It's one of the most succinct and dramatic examples of a scientific experiment I've ever seen. Also quite convincing. But what it tells me is not (necessarily) that color perception is dependent on language (we have no way of knowing what came first) but that color perception, like language, is fundamentally semiotic. Apparently, we see colors in a manner analogous to the manner in which we hear phonemes. And to the extent that semiotic issues are not, or only rarely, considered by cognitive scientists, this is, as I see it, a huge problem for this field. A huge problem for anthropology as well, I might add.

While semiosis is no longer fashionable, it can't easily be dismissed. It lies at the heart of linguistics, of course. But it's important in many other areas as well. It can't really be reduced to cognition or psychology, though it plays, or should play, an important role in both fields. The Whorfian hypothesis appears to be the first example of the recognition of semiotic principles in anthropology. However, Whorf apparently had little or no awareness of semiosis, so he had no choice but to attribute such effects to the influence of language.

Comment by John McCreery on December 3, 2011 at 4:38am

Anyway, to get back to Boyer. His '3 modes of scholarship' model is, in my view, a self-serving, more or less rhetorical division designed to make his own position (cognitive science) seem reasonable and anthropology (at least, of the putative anthropology of Bourdieu-Trinidad-gay-father connections) seem bad.

Different readers, different responses. With no political axe to grind—I have no career at stake—and a scientist's view of models—they are always imperfect but may nonetheless be illuminating, I read Boyer more charitably. I note, in particular, that he is not condemning all of anthropology. He points out, for example, the robust health of both archeology and biological anthropology, in which, he asserts, the combination of science and erudition to which an earlier anthropology aspired remain alive and well. His critique is directed at cultural anthropology, by which he means a type of anthropology in which the speculative search for salient connections has displaced science and erudition as valued forms of knowing. 

One could certainly and sensibly observe that not all cultural anthropology takes this form. I might, for example, point to work like Ted Bestor's Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World or Ellen Oxfeld's Blood, Sweat and Majhong: Family and Enterprise in an Overseas Chinese Community as superb examples of multi-sited ethnography that address contemporary issues in a solidly erudite and humanistic vein.  One can also observe that works like these are not at all in the cite a famous ancestor and apply his ideas cookie-cutter fashion to cherry-picked cases vein that Boyer's model describes and wonder why they are less celebrated than, say, the works of Mike Taussig, which, while often insightful and disturbing, constantly teeter on the edge of theoretical chic as opposed to solid scholarship.

One might, of course, say the same of Boyer, whose work on religion might be described as theoretical chic of a different, currently fashionable "evolutionary" flavor. Be that as it may be, however, I would like to see someone here take on the eighteen points in his models and show us precisely where they need to be rejected or improved. That is probably too much to ask in a forum where most conversation remains at the level of bar chat, albeit the kind of chat one hears at professional meetings where people talk shop in their cups.

Comment by Philip Swift on December 3, 2011 at 3:14am

Okay. Sorry I was away for a bit. 

I won't wade into Berlin & Kay. Although, should anyone be interested, I think that Michael Forster's critique* of their thesis is pretty devastating. (Forster is not an anthropologist, but a philosopher whose specialism is German philosophy, and it's clear he has no particular axe to grind on this issue.)  (More brackets, but, I saw the BBC programme Huon has added below, and I found that particular bit fascinating.) 

Anyway, to get back to Boyer. His '3 modes of scholarship' model is, in my view, a self-serving, more or less rhetorical division designed to make his own position (cognitive science) seem reasonable and anthropology (at least, of the putative anthropology of Bourdieu-Trinidad-gay-father connections) seem bad.

Now, I think that one could object, first of all, to the portrayal of anthropology that Boyer presents, and that, on a perfectly evidentially basis. (I'd like to point up, but I won't elaborate on, what I think is a kind of conservative attitude which Boyer seems to me to imply in his choice of this - probably fictitious - "gay fathers in Trinidad" example. Perhaps he didn't mean it, but for me, it seems to imply that he wants us to understand that there's something ludicrous about this kind of study...)

As for the evidential basis, Boyer's views of what (most) anthropologists are up to, is either dubious, or flatly false. In the essay I'm having a grouch(o) about above, he suggests, a propos most anthropology (confined to the 3rd mode of scholarship - "salient connections") that such accounts are cobbled together arguments and ideas, sanctified by means of due genuflection to certain holy masters. Boyer goes on - in what I think is grotesque caricature - to say that such authors "are never shown to have been wrong" (B's italics). Frankly, this is just plain false. It makes me wonder just how much anthropology Boyer has read. After all, does B. seriously believe that no one has, or does, criticise Bourdieu? (Bourdieu is his example.) I don't know where to start. Perhaps he should read Paul Rabinow. I can cite many others.

The other claim which Boyer asserts about what it is that (bad) anthropologists do, which I think is worth mentioning, is highly dubious. This idea of his is, like Sperber's, central to his vision of what is wrong with anthropology, and I think it is also a complete caricature. Boyer asserts in The Naturalness of Religious Ideas -   

that, for (most) anthropologists, "propositions extracted from historically specific 'collective representations' (that is, ritualised statements, explicit theories, myths, cosmologies, etc.) are considered direct evidence for cognitive processes". A few pages later he argues that anthropologists have given us "a distorted view of..cognitive processes".

But, following what I said above about straw men attacks on relativism, what kind of anthropology is this, that Boyer imagines, is considering its data to be "direct" evidence "for cognitive processes"? Boyer's idea of what anthropologists are/were doing is a fantasy, I think. I think one could cite almost anything. But let's do with  Evans-Pritchard's classic study of Azande witchcraft, which was great, precisely because it was a study of, among other things, the sociology of knowledge, of kinship, the sense of morality, and, not least, of just how a people can calculate just what it is that counts in life. Like any anthropology that aspires to be as wide, and as deep as this, I can't see how Boyer can argue that anthropologists think they are simply making mistaken claims about cognitive processes. Boyer is, I think, talking nonsense. 

But what counts for me now is, having written this, I have to get a night bus. I

Comment by Huon Wardle on December 2, 2011 at 3:22pm

As I say, the relevant bit is about 3 mins in...

Comment by Huon Wardle on December 2, 2011 at 3:11pm

Comment by Huon Wardle on December 2, 2011 at 2:22pm

On reflection, let's take the categories as Boyer imposes them. The answer is that anthropology does now and has always used a mix of scientific, erudite and simply 'salient' ideas. It has had interesting debates about 'rationality' and other topics that move across these ways of talking. It doesn't have a firm basis in, or connection to, laboratory science. Instead, it offers a range of ways of doing things and styles of debate. It has never succeeded when it has started harassing or haranguing people to join one exclusive version of its loosely interwoven methodologies, theories and worldviews.

Comment by Huon Wardle on December 2, 2011 at 12:41pm

Unfortunately for Boyer, and Philip has pointed out various examples of this, the argument here is itself a good example of the 'salient connections' approach. In a rather attention-seeking way, Boyer, uses various rhetorics (including guilt by association) but says very little that is concrete - and who, anyway will read this stuff? Disgruntled anthropologists I suppose.

On our other topic, this bit of a video from the BBC has a nice little illustration about Himba 'colour' perception which, as with a lot of recent research, adds credence to Whorf's ideas about the connections between language and perception.

The relevant section starts about 3 minutes in:

Comment by John McCreery on December 2, 2011 at 4:51am

<previous comment continued>

   6.There is no agreement on what constitutes competence, aside from lists of a few acknowledged

Boyer's central argument is that cultural anthropology, once conceived as a synthesis of science and erudition has become largely a matter of asserting salient connections. Is this a fair statement? If not, is there anything we would add to or subtract from Boyer's three modes and eighteen points to produce a more accurate model of the situation in which cultural anthropology is said to find itself? 

Comment by John McCreery on December 2, 2011 at 4:44am

Huon, suppose we both settle down and conduct a proper debate on the ideas in Pascal Boyer's from studious irrelevancy to consilient knowledge: modes of scholarship and cultural anthropology1.  I emphasize the ideas because I don't want to be distracted by questions of offensive rhetorical strategy, failure to provide citations, or the relationship of the argument advanced to the quality or lack there of what Boyer says in other contexts, e.g., his theorizing about religion. I hope to be able to discuss the ideas as we might discuss Newton's physics—without, that is, dragging in Newton's even more voluminous astrological writings.

The Ideas in question are as follows. Scholarship falls into three modes:


  1. There is an agreed body of knowledge...
  2. The fundamentals of the discipline and its results are explained in textbooks and man- uals that are all extraordinarily similar, as the essential points and the way to get there are agreed in the discipline.
  3. It does not really matter who said what or when.    
  4. People typically publish short contributions.
  5. The typical biographical pattern is that the aspiring member of the guild is intensively trained from an early age in the specialized field and makes important contributions after only a few years of training.
  6. There is a large degree of agreement (because of the various features already men- tioned) on whether a given person meets the requirements for being a practitioner of the particular field, and there is also a large agreement on how important each individual’s contribution is.


  1. There is an agreed corpus of knowledge. There is also a large agreement on what remains to be done.
  2. A great deal of knowledge is not made explicit in manuals. One picks it up by working under the tutelage of more experienced practitioners and immersing oneself in the material for many years.
  3. The history of the field matters and practitioners generally know it....
  4. People often publish short descriptive contributions, e.g., the first description of a new insect genus or the phonology of a specific language. They also compile mono- graphs that incorporate vast amounts of information about a particular domain...
  5. Age is a necessary component of competence. Older experts are generally better, because expertise consists in the accumulation of vast amounts of specific facts, also because an expert needs the kind of intuition that is only shaped by long-lasting famil- iarity with the material.
  6. Within a narrow field, people agree on whether a given individual is competent or not, generally based on that person’s knowledge of a monograph-sized subfield.

Salient Connections

  1. There is no agreed corpus of knowledge.Indeed,there is no “knowledge” in the sense of accumulated and organized information, but rather a juxtaposition of different views on different topics.
  2. There are no manuals, no agreed techniques or methods. Indeed, each contribution constitutes (ideally) a new paradigm or method, each author is an island.
  3. The history of the field,its self-definition,as well as the reframing of past theories,are crucial.
  4. Books are more important than articles. This, in part, reflects the fact that each con- tribution should ideally re-frame a field as a whole, introduce a new way of looking at issues, and so on, something that cannot be done in a short article.
  5. Thereisnospecificdevelopmentalcurve.Someauthorsproduceinterestingconnec- tions in their first piece of work, others are seasoned specialists of the erudition mode who, at some point, decide to let their hair down, as it were, and let salient connections govern their next project.
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 1, 2011 at 3:54pm

Having said that:


John, you really need to stop puffing yourself up in these discussions - it seems like any attempt to discuss things with you where you want to put forward one of your idees fixes is met with the most explosive nonsense possible.



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