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Anthropological Quarterly 77.2 (2004) 311-322

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War, Mead and Nature of Criticism in Anthropology

San Francisco State University

Herbert S. Lewis (1998) has described in detail problems with criticism in anthropology with a focus on the period after the 1960s. His comments clearly demonstrate how subjective these criticisms were and it is important for us to understand the social context in which criticism arises in any field as Kuhn (1970) established. Geertz (1973) reminds us that the "clash of ideologists" may bring a problem to attention, but so charge it with emotion that "...any possibility of dealing with it rationally is precluded." Nevertheless, there is another element to criticism which is important to consider, the degree to which a valid criticism differs from a subjective personal attack which verges on a desire for publicity. Recently, The Exchange across Difference section in American Anthropologist contained an article by Paul Roscoe which follows in that old academic tradition, so ingrained in Anthropology, of "beating a straw man with a dead horse." The straw man being any of those quaint romantic fantasies of the 19th and 20th centuries about the exotic other. The "dead man" being, well, usually Margaret Mead or Ruth Benedict, those favorite targets of Postmodernist male critics. In this case, Roscoe has done one better by attacking both. He blames Mead's errors on Benedict. [End Page 311]

In a recent book Clifford Geertz referred to anthropologists as "merchants of astonishment," it seems, however, that we have really become purveyors of confusion and discord. Micaela di Leonardo has written a succinct commentary regarding the social and political context of Roscoe's criticisms of Mead as well as situating his attitude within the history of gender issues in anthropology. I will, therefore, pass over these topics. Rather what my essay is concerned with is the role of criticism in anthropology and I use the issue of war raised by Roscoe versus that of peaceful behavior. My point here is that to criticize the work of others we must have a clear conception of what they were attempting to achieve, what definitions of categories they were using and, finally, how effective their work was in both explaining events they experienced and how their explanations fit into later analysis and restudies. What Roscoe's work displays is a popular trend in anthropology where restudies and criticism attempt only to compare the reports of earlier workers with later reports. In this process if the early work does not show a correspondence with the later work, it is deemed faulty. This is a failure of anthropological theory where the field has abandoned efforts to understand cultural adaptation of societies as integrated entities in exchange for a atomized and fragmented study of components of culture. This problem has had a long history, but generally originated in the early part of the last century.

The 19th century concept of determinism emanating from single causes and traceable through long periods of history in varying patterns, was replaced by the cautious "search for multifaceted relationships and fields of interactivity" of the 20th (Steward 1955). In most fields in the social sciences no alternative theory appeared to replace it. As Talcott Parsons (1968) stated in the Preface to the paperback edition of The Structure of Social Action, this tendency had become so entrenched in American social sciences by that time that " still hear very strident voices about the virtues of the sheerest empiricism- especially if quantitative, and about the dangers of theoretical speculation—especially if tending to produce 'grand theory'." Since we have decided to ignore the existence of any mechanics of social adjustment, we are left adrift unable to predict how societies will change and denying the existence of patterns in the past, in history, that can be used to frame actions in the present. Partly also this is because, ideologically, we have denied the value of history as a body of biased perceptions. Of course, one has to reflect on this in a relative sense, given the fact that economists cannot predict where the economy will...


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