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Anthropology's heterodoxy


By Ton Salman            In the following blog, Ton Salman reacts to Matthias Teeuwen’s contribution to Standplaats Wereld of 13-2-2017, titled “Is Anthropology the most Humanistic of the Social Sciences and the most Scientific of the Humanities?

First of all, allow me to thank Matthias Teeuwen for, once again, an intriguing and pertinent contribution to the ongoing dialogue on the nature of anthropology and its potential contribution to contemporary societal issues and challenges. The question is not a new one – but it is correct to make it a persistent one in anthropological reflection, because the –always provisional– answers have real consequences for what sort of endeavor anthropology in the end might be and what its ambitions may entail. A frequently heard characterization of anthropology is that it is something “between the sciences and the humanities”, or “the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities”. The phrase is indeed often attributed to Kroeber, but sometimes also to Eric Wolf or Edward Sapir. But let that be the least of our worries. The substance of the matter is of course about the métier’s epistemology, methods and relation to other disciplines and professions like philosophy and text exegesis, but also sociology, political sciences and other social sciences.

Matthias makes a plea for abandoning this “in-the-middle”-position and move more towards the humanities. He argues that anthropology’s main mission is to understand rather than explain “the other”. Hence, hermeneutics ought to be our central approach towards “the other”: instead of measuring or expounding or revealing the “real reality” of what-is-out-there in a detached way (as if the researcher was un-involved), it is our task to interpret, in dialogue, the reality we share. A reality that, moreover, we come to create in the interaction between two knowing, reflecting subjects embedded in all the things around and in us. In Matthias’ words: “…the other is not an object under study but someone who speaks to us”.

I believe Matthias is right and wrong at the same time. He is right about the (inter)subjectivity of knowledge and about interpretation and hermeneutics being essential components of our pursuits. But anthropology, at the same time, is something else and something more than a discipline confining itself to the hermeneutic interpretation of texts, perceptions, or testimonies. Anthropologists do attempt to bring in, through description, evocation and portraying, the concrete setting or context in which people talk to us, interact with us, and give us their accounts. Of course, this is not about objectively or unequivocally measured or about exactly registered and represented phenomena. There is human, interpretive mediation involved. Which is why anthropological results, stories and analyses are always accompanied with caveats, reflective considerations, and, often, accounts of the conditions under which the information or insights were created.

But still, there are claims about people’s realities, as perceived by those people – but also as they may condition those perceptions. Which is why, contrary to humanities’ disciplines like philosophy, arts and literature studies, anthropology is hybrid. Its research focus is the human (inter)action as embedded in the quotidian flow, in culture and routines, in the constant contexts in which it evolves. This means that no real testing, no unchanged regularity or pure replicability, no “laws” or unequivocal evidence, shape its approach. But neither is it as purely exegetical or unworldly or transcendentally interpretative as these purer humanities. Anthropology is also empiric. There is real materiality, observation, tangible and physical reality there. Anthropologists observe, gather “data”, material, substance. To reach out for those, they often combine observation, archive-studies, physical checks and inspections of logistic, technical and material features, descriptions of landscapes, geographies, infrastructures and climates, portrayals of livelihoods, and much, much more, with hermeneutics.

Of course, we will never forget the realization that it are not the facts, but the things that people make of the facts, that are really important if we want to understand people’s meanings and actions, people’s “world-making”. But that doesn’t mean the facts evaporate – it means we only have access to them through cultural, historical, religious, political and other filters. Their filters, our own filters, and the filters we continuously create in our interactions. And yet, we need to do more than try to enter in hearts and minds and texts – we also need to enter the worlds in which they live.

That is what ethnography is about. In Matthias’ understanding of anthropology, ethnography would largely wither. We would give up the attempt to come as close as possible to people’s real, daily flows of actions and meaning-giving, without reducing the –by definition– uncontrollable events into (dependent and independent) variables that in turn can be pointed at as causes. Life is a whole. Life cannot be reproduced, replicated or re-played. But it can be observed, and it can be joined. That is what ethnographers do. And it is why anthropology is not only humanities nor only social science– it is the possibly somewhat uncomfortable but at the same time enriching position of being the heretic in both universes.

Ton Salman is als universitair hoofddocent verbonden aan de afdeling Sociale en Culturele Antropologie van de Vrije Universiteit.


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