Anthropological Theory

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people have issues with Marshall Sahlins. From his anti-sociobiology standpoint and disagreements with Napoleon Chagnon on the matter which lead to Sahlins’ resignation from the National Academy of Science six years ago to his complaints about the degradation of anthropology as a discipline through its rejections of its roots two years ago, Sahlins has been a disliked figure on both sides of the science wars.

Sahlins’ rant on the end of anthropology as we know it.

Personally, I think Sahlins represents something being lost in cultural anthropology as we move forward, namely: theory. No one knows what anthropologists do anymore, what theoretical approaches exist are being rejected time and time again for relativist positions (an inherent rejection of any unified human theory). In this modern era, Sherry Ortner, once seen as a postmodernist by some in the field, is under attack (she has in fact, been called a racist). A recent paper by Michael Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich is proposing that much of the issue we see now in the psychological and social sciences is the lack of a cumulative framework.1 I think they are onto something, and although the two argue that dual-inheritance theory (whereby culture and genes are both replicated and inherited by people in a selective process) is a good framework, readers might be reminded that it’s not the only one. We need not make the same mistakes that Marvin Harris made in his rejection of EO Wilson. Both cultural materialism and sociobiology could have worked. This is dual-inheritance theory in action.

This resistance to theory is not new to the field of anthropology. The same issue was faced by Leslie White, who felt that the anthropological approaches which came before him were encyclopedic, rather than theoretical in nature. One thing we must be reminded of is that different theoretical approaches aren’t bad, it’s a lack of theory which is. I have long argued that my own former field of primatology, is in something of an end-game for itself. The use of sociobiology in primatology was one of the greatest things that ever happened, but its instantaneous rejection at its height led to a dearth of interesting and continuous questions to ask.

Aside from the flourishing approach of sensory ecology a la Nate Dominy, the field as a whole has no unified theoretical approach as it did under its American founder Sherwood Washburn. Washburn’s essay, The Promise of Primatology, promised its theoretical approach would be to relate primates back to humans.2 This is not the case anymore, and many anthropologists remain confused as to why primatology is still placed in anthropology departments in the United States. The answer is most obviously historical consequences, primatologists simply keep training primatologists through our non-anthropological end game; but nonetheless attempts have been made to argue that primatologists are still anthropologists although many of them all-the-while fail to argue what any of this has to do with humans.3

Unfortunately, popular articles written by primatologists do the field no justice in the face of its many critics. This title leaves everyone asking: What’s the point?

A lot of people I know now focus on conservation (which is important, but not anthropology), but the best primatologists I know end up seeking theory one way or the other. The other students in my former lab were pretty good at this.

I’ve started this writing about Marshall Sahlins because I think after reviewing the controversy surrounding him, I’ve come to a new-found respect for him. What we see in him is a dedicated concentration on the cross-cultural comparative approach which anthropology has lost, a non-myopic commitment to his career, and a somewhat strict belief that humans around the world are the same; although I’m not sure how I feel about this last part. Interestingly enough, I recently came across a quote by Sahlins on his former advisor Leslie White which I feel is worth sharing now that I am diving into the literature on semiotic theory. I’ve found this non-materialist and symbolic perspective that Sahlins describes of interest in the last few weeks. It describes the distance between ideational (dealing with mental processes) and materialist (dealing with the material relationship of these processes) theories:

Progress in the Neolithic, he claimed, came from the increase in the amount of energy harnessed per capita because of plant and animal domestication. He was not amused when I objected that energy “per capita” was the same as in the Old Stone Age, since the primary mechanical source remained the human body.

On the other hand, I have never repudiated White’s concept of culture as a thoroughly symbolic phenomenon. I never tired of repeating his dictum that no ape can appreciate the difference between holy water and distilled water — because there is none, chemically speaking. That, for me, resolved the contradiction in his own teaching and that of the many human scientists who separate culture from practical activity, as if the symbolic dimension of economic behavior were an afterthought of the material. The “economic basis” of society is culturally constructed. Even our supposedly “rational choices” are based on another, meaningful logic that, for example, makes steak a more prestigious food than hamburger, or women’s clothes different in significant ways from men’s. It turns out that materialism is a form of idealism, because it’s wrong, too.

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1Muthukrishna, M. and Henrich, J., 2019. A problem in theory. Nature Human Behaviour, p.1.
2Washburn, S.L., 1973. The promise of primatology. American journal of physical anthropology, 38(2), pp.177-182.
3Strier, K.B., 2011. Why anthropology needs primatology. General Anthropology, 18(1), pp.1-8.

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