Monday, June 29, 2015

Universals and particulars in anthropology

Anthropology has had a difficult relationship with acknowledging human universals. The contradiction is that the claim that all cultures are particular and all universals are social constructs particular to the culture in question logically leads to a conclusion that humans share noting in common.

Dealing exclusively with the micro-level of cultural particulars is well known to result in culturalism and villagism, known malaises amongst anthropologists. However, those who work with the macro-levels, like political scientists and IR people, tend to zoom out of even such staples as ethnicity, gender and even political economy. But what if all of them are correct, but not completely? Like those blind men touching the elephant, they all make correct guesses but miss the entirety of the picture. This article (albeit I do have some beef with it) offers a handy way of thinking about what we have been discussing here: (Bloch's Blob)

Traditional anthropology is holistic only to a limited degree on the micro-level, looking at the social context of the tail, not just the tail itself and also somewhat aware of the hind legs (say, political economy). The rest of the elephant and the biology of the tail escapes the view. What would really come in handy, is an awareness of that fact and participant objectivation Bourdieu-style, the deconstruction of the Homo academicus. But then again, that would take another level of self-reflexivity and painful soul-searching. It is a huge individual endeavour and not everyone would be willing to put themselves through that...

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