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Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, And Science_ a Modernist Critique MELFORD E. SPIRO

Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, And Science_ a Modernist Critique MELFORD E. SPIRO

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Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science: A Modernist Critique Author(s): Melford E.

Spiro Source: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 38, No. 4, (Oct., 1996), pp. 759-780 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/179198 Accessed: 15/08/2008 16:58
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PostmodernistAnthropology, Subjectivity,and Science: A ModernistCritique
MELFORD E. SPIRO Universityof California, San Diego

is Centralto the postmodern projectin anthropology its critiqueof science and the scientific method, a critiquewhich it shareswith (becauseit was borrowed from) postmodernist thoughtmore generally.However, unless otherwise spewill refer cified, in what follows the termspostmodernistandpostmodernism more generto postmodernist anthropologyspecifically,not to postmodernism thoughtin general, ally. (For a superbsurvey of the historyof postmodernist see Harvey [1989], especially chapter3.) The postmodernistcritique of science consists of two interrelatedarguments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based, however, on the centralpostmodernnotion of subjectivity.First, because of the subjectivityof the humanobject, anthropology,accordingto the epistemological argument, cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivityof the human subject precludesthe possibility of science discoveringobjective truth.Second, since its much-vaunted objectivityis an illusion, science, accordingto the ideological argument,serves the interestsof dominantsocial groups (males, whites, Westerners), therebysubvertingthose of oppressedgroups(females, ethnics, third-worldpeoples). Since both of these argumentsstem from the central emphasis that postmodernists place on subjectivity, my primaryconcern in this essay' is to and assess the postmodernist interpretation use of thatcriticalconcept. Hence, in what follows I shall do threethings. First, I shall summarizethose claims of view of subjectivitywhich, in my view, are valid. Second, I the postmodernist shall argue that although valid, these claims are not new, having been innovated many years ago by the foundersof the Cultureand Personalitymoveinnovationshave unfortunate ment. Third, I shall arguethatthe postmodernist for anthropologicalscholarship. consequences
I A short version of this essay was presentedto the Symposiumon PostmodernSubjectivities at the 1993 annualmeetings of the AmericanAnthropologicalAssociation, organizedby Claudia Straussand TakieLebra.I am indebtedto David Jordan,MarcSwartz, and DonaldTuzinfor their helpful criticisms of earlierdrafts. 0010-4175/96/4609-0100 $7.50 + .10 ? 1996 Societyfor Comparative Studyof Societyand History


postmodernists must attendto subjectivity. Freud was the inspiration for the founders of the Culture and Personalitymovement.that the anthropologist not only observes the natives but is also observed by them. however. Indeed.760 MELFORD E.however. correctlyin my view. but also his own (the human subject). I had read Freud and Sapir. that even seemingly meaninglessphenomena(such as neurotic symptoms. thatthe anthropologist since field work is a two-directional. investigatesmeaningsand if meaningsare found in the psyches of persons. "appearsto be the first casualty of the battle over the soul of anthropology" [1992:196]. . first published one hundredyears ago (Breuer and Freud 1893).Rather. which consistently emphasized that what was criticalto the elucidationof actors' ideas. postmodernists also stress. That inspiration. that the anthropologistmust attend to the subjectivity not only of the natives (the humanobject). and wishes. beliefs.Moreover. because like Kant.not a one-directionalenterprise.and the other founders of the Cultureand Personalitymovement for whom the subjectivityboth of object and subject was a truism. who claimed to have been awakenedfrom his philosophicalslumberby readslumberby readingthe ing Hume. Eriksonand Kluckhohn. I was awakenedfrom my anthropological it is because much before the advent of postmodpostmodernists. since the anthropological agree investigatoris an actor in a social field thatincludesboth himself andthe natives. I agree with all of the above propositionsnot. and values is an of understanding their intentions.are producedby. SPIRO THE IMPORTANCE OF SUBJECTIVITY Postmodernists stress thatthe understand(like symbolistsand interpretivists) of personsand groupsrequiresan understanding theirmeanings-and I of ing with them. correctlystress. their meanings (unconsciousas well as conscious). and consist of. in short.among otherthings. came not from his anthropological but his psychological work."Appell has written. Moreover. they emphasize. thatfield work is dialogical. ernism. quoted in Lewis [1994]). Mead and Benedict. the interactionbetween the anthropologistand the natives. But if the anthropologist. Once again I agree with them. one of Freud'srevolutionary innovations is his claim. and that dataare not producedby the anthropologist's action alone nor anthropological consist of the natives' actions alone but. ("Historicaltruth. desires. dreams. CULTURE AND PERSONALITY The Subjectivityof the Object Arguably. DuBois and Kardiner. then it follows. Hallowell and Devereux. and parapraxes)are meaningfuland that the task of the analyst is to discover their meanings.it also follows. rather.

moreover. in the worldof meanings may subjective in abstract himselffromhis participation theseinteractions" for unconsciously (Sapir 1957:151). on the whicheach one of theseindividuals side.the most significant meaningful of to as individual experienced himandin terms whichhe thinks. as early as 1932. of is of necessitythe material presented us in data to Presented us in thisform. It should be noted. Devereux 1951. in Mandelbaum To offer only one more example.thesecultural do notpermit to apprehend. still fromthe standpoint an outsideobserver. nor with some notable exceptions (for example. Freudintroducedhis second revolutionary contribution of to the understanding the subjectivityof the human object: the process of "transference" (Freud 1912).is motivated act.In this article. Crapanzano1980. I.then EdwardSapir was clearly its father. an and aspectsof the worldof the integralfashion. Kracke 1978. 1932. of If Freudwas the grandfather Cultureand Personality. Sapir emphasizedthat culturepatterns"cannotbe realisticallydisconnected from those organizationsof ideas and feelings which constitute the individual"because of the true locus of cultureis in the interactions specificindividuals and.With some few exceptions. that Hallowell was not content to rely on empathy and insight alone for elucidating the "meaningfulaspects of the world" of individual actors. Hallowell arguedinter alia that while "culturecentered"ethnographieswere valuable for both "comparativeand analytic" purposes. S. by andsatisfieshis needs(Hallowell1954:79).In this regard. when his pathbreaking three decades earlier) was discovered by a new generationof anpublished thropologists. including the anthropologist-nativerelationship. LeVine 1981) is it emphasizedin contemporarypsychological anthropology. Thus. who acknowledgedthe influenceof both Freudand Sapir. Hallowell's influence was not felt beyond the small circle of Culture and Personality article on the self (though specialists until the 1980s.latersocial theorists extended its application to other emotionally significant relationships. he influencedonly a few of his contem- .he pioneeredthe anthropological use of the Rorschachtest as a means for obtainingan objective assessmentof their subjectivity. as early as 1938 A. however (for example.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 761 Two decades later. Sapir emphasizedthat the individualand his subjectivity-he used the term personality-was absentfrom the anthropologyof his time. Gladwinand Sarason 1953). whose psychology he took as his model.however. one that could make possible more precise cross-group comparisons. Ewing 1987. Like Freud. transferencewas rarely considered in early Cultureand Personalitystudies. Hallowell. Nevertheless.began to publisha series of articleson Ojibwasubjectivity(Hallowell 1938). Although Freudhimself was mainly concerned with this process in the context of the analyst-patientrelationship. Consequently.

2 The Subjectivityof the Subject Freud. Rabinow 1977). respectively). first emphasizedthe importance of the subjectivityof the subject-in this case. see Schwartz[1992:338-40]. in the 1950s. Unfortunately. This was not the fate. however. least in my view.so the critics alleged. who once again is the pioneerfigure. like that of the psychological anthropologists who also stressits importance very differentfromthatof manypostmodernists (for example.of anotherearly. Wallace (1952). psychoanalysiscame to view counterbut transferencenot only as an obstacle to objective understanding also (if properly understood and dealt with) as an importantinstrumentfor such understanding (Tyson 1984).) Beginning. is reflexivity. only few contemporaryfieldworkers(see DeVos andBoyer 1989. in the strict sense of the term. SPIRO poraries. however. Marcus and Fischer 1986:ix-x. so far as I can tell. that anyone is capable of the kind of self understandingwith the honesty that genuine self-reflexivityrequires. Hallowell (1955: ch.and hence not suitable for the investigationof non-Western groups. Despite the influence of Freud. that few of these critics had a first-handacquaintancewith these studies that employed them. early Cultureand Personalityresearchers in seem not to have attendedto the role of countertransference anthropological field work. (Since he believed it highly unlikely.workwhich (though not explicitly psychological nor even. the first ethnois graphicinvestigationto attendexplicitlyto countertransference Gladwinand Sarason'snuancedstudy of Trukesepersonality(Gladwinand Sarason 1953).) . For while the former two deploy their counterthe transferential experience in the service of understanding object (patients and non-Westernpeoples.a clinical psychologist. Viewing the analyst's countertransference a formidableobstacle to objectivity. has lost a valuableopportunity establishobjective. In this regard. the latter-or at least some of them-deploy it instead in the service of their own "self-growth"(for example. In fact. Spindler (1955). the analyst-in his concept of as "countertransference" (1910). that these studies produced neithervalid nor reliablefindings.they relied for the most parton secondhandreportsof Lindzey's assessment (Lindzey 1961) which had demonstrated. as a consequenceof the uniformedviews of the early critics.Suarez-Orozco1989) continueto employ projective at to tests. Indeed. perhaps because of its heavy use of projectivetests. Rather. Gladwin and Sarason (1953). althoughhis balancedassessmentof these studiesdealt with theirweakness as well as their strengths. In any event.Freud[1937] recommended that every analyst undergo a personal analysis as well as a periodic self-reflexive reexamination. Henry (1947). inter-group psychological comparisons. (For a similar view. including DeVos (1954) DuBois tests nor with the anthropological (1944).762 MELFORD E. the others arguing that projective tests were culture-bound. however.but highly influential. I dare say. said nothing of the kind.the psychoanalysts'stress on selfdiscussed below. and has been neglectedever since. and anthropology. he stressed the paramountimportanceof self-reflexivityas a means for dealing with this obstacle. Lindzey. at least not explictly. 3). Ruby 1982). however. ethno2 It is a safe bet.this admirablestudy was still-born.

It was Devereux who. for example.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 763 graphic) dealt even more extensively with the anthropologist'scountertransference. loneliness. to Tristes Tropiques(Levi-Strauss 1955). Devereux not only addressedthe but distortingeffects of countertransference also emphasized its use "as an and even indispensable source of relevant supplementarysocial important science data"(Devereux 1967:30). Westernculture (Levi-Strauss1964:381. I am referring. Briggs (1970). personal values.culturalbias.produce serious distortionsin the collection and reportingof ethnographicdata. the liberal political ideology of most Western anthropologists. While these claims. and so forth. have typAlthoughaside from psychological anthropology. As in the case of the recent (La views of psychoanalysismentionedabove. As he saw it. Crapanzano(1980). is an inescapDespite such training. professional ambition.of course. inner conflicts.their lingering noble savagism.cannotbe disregarded. Fromthe evidence of all these works. thoughoften exaggerated. Read (1967) and R. italics in original). and their alienationfrom. provided the theoreticalrationalefor the importanceof countertransference. as well as my own fieldwork experience. Here. I have in mind. gender. a variety of anthropologists have discussed their own countertransferential reactions in field work with admirablehonesty and courage. novice field workers have been warnedof the distortinginfluenceof theirculturalbiases. in a brilliant if exasperatingtour de force (1967). It is worth noting that in a preface to this book La Barrecommentedthat with its publication"the un-self-examinedanthropologisthenceforthhas no right or business anthropologizing" Barre 1967:ix). togetherwith those engenderedby colonialism and imperialism. 388). claim.postmoderniststend to disregardother biases inherentin the Westernethnographer's subjectivity which are the reverse of those which they emphasize. social class) that comprise partof their subjectivity. arethe otherbiases (such as racial. investment in favoritetheories. which are usually subsumedunderthe concept of ethnocentrism. Kracke (1987). Bohannon[Bowen] (1964).and these biases. stem from theiranxieties. not only in anthropologybut also in the other social sciences as well.like those of clinical analysts. I would mentionespecially the studiesof L. if not hostility to. anthropologists dimension of the anthropoloically not attendedto the countertransferential gist's subjectivity. Rosaldo (1984). and anthropological training has attemptedto minimize such biases by requiringthat graduate students acquire ethnographiccompetence in a wide range of non-Western societies and cultures. I would suggest that the countertransferential reactions of field anthropologists. Beginning with Boas.neverthelessvirtuallyall of them have persistentlyemphasized others of its dimensions. More recently. which argua- . so postmodernists of able characteristic all Western as ethnographers. but the ignoring and mismanagement countertransference [that] is the real source of sterile error"(Devereux 1967: 202. "it is not countertransference of per se.

friendswill no doubtfeel thatI have Thatbeing so.and not merely communicative. culture.though true. and althoughI regretthat. since postmodernist are anthropologists as diverse a groupas any other. In short. of course. are not new-as is also the case. SPIRO bly account for the idealization of non-Westerncultures that characterizes more than a few ethnographies. of them. contrary postmodernism. as it is variouslycalled. but not all. with postmodernistthoughtmore generally-we may now turnto my contentionthatin some critical respects its innovative claims are invalid. . I trustthey will appremisrepresented ciate that an essay of limited space must confine itself to centraltendencies. reality exists independentlyof human representations.which. some of my postmodernist their views.This. the following generalized and schematic summaryof their views applies to most. it is important note that my assessment of from a particular point their innovationsis offered from the point of view of what John Searle calls and the "Western RationalistTradition" its epistemologicaland metaphysical Because the postmodernistproject takes the repudiationof this postulates." Second. First. to the extent that postmodernistshold a theory of truth-many of them. has referential. any true statement about the world refers to "actual situations"in the world which correspondto such a statement. stems to of view. I shall explicate in a set of six.Having now examined my contention that many of the postmodernistclaims concerning subjectivity. language serves not only to communicatemeanings but also to refer to objects and situations in the world that exist independentlyof language. according to Eysteinsson (1990). interrelated. since any theoreticalposition. this postulate holds that language.race. following Searle(1993b: 60-68). contraryto postmodernism. as postmodernists rightly stress. to Fourth. which signifies. is objective. In short. reject this concept as "essentialist"-stands in sharpcontrastto their "coherence"or "narrative" theory.knowledge that the truthof any knowledge claim is independentof the motive. social class. ethnicity. Second.764 MELFORD E. statementsare true or false dependingon whetherthe objects and situationsto which they refercorrespondto a greateror lesser degree to these statements. of course. Rather. or genderof the person(s)who makesuch a claim. it is perhapsuseful to briefly summarize these postulateswhich.this externalreality"which (in postulate holds that there is a "mind-independent the language of philosophy) is referredto as "metaphysical realism. contraryto postmodernism.propositions: and First. is the "correspondence theory"of truth. POSTMODERNIST INNOVATIONS REGARDING SUBJECTIVITY Before assessing the postmodernist innovations. I wish to register two of caveats-the first relatedto my representation the postmodernistposition of and the second to the representation my own. traditionas one of its centralaims.functions.its truthdepends on the empiricalsupportadducedon its behalf. Third.

and other kinds of accounts. I now wish to assess these claims insofar as they relate to anthropology. Thus. contrary to postmodernism. the subjectivityof the human subject entails that it is impossible to discover (what might be termed)objective or intersubjective truth. however.methods.Beginning with the first. Rabinow and Sullivan 1987. which reflect what the philosopherAdolf Griinbaum [1984:3] has characterizedas the "ontologically reductive notion of . Sixth.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 765 Fifth. just as culturalmaterialistsdeny thatthese mentalevents have causal relevancefor the creationand persistence of culture. I would submit. 1]). just as a causal account of mind refers to the firing of neurons. then anthropologycan only be in the business of discoveringmeanings. that this materialistconception of cause represents an older view that is hardly credible today. in the hermeneutic view that the scientific concept of cause refers to materialconditions alone (Habermas1971. According to this postulate. is as true as Darwinism. Second. the subjectivity of the human object entails that the human sciences cannot-indeed ought not-be a science. the secretionof hormones. Althoughthe term meaning is the black box of the anthropologicallexicon.(The following assessment is taken in part from Spiro [1994: ch. The Rejectionof Anthropologyas Science Anthropologycannot (and should not) aspire to scientific status. logic and rationalityprovide a set of procedures. there exist valid criteria (both objective and intersubjective)for judging the relative merit of statements. interpretations. then their opposing of meaningto cause only makes sense. still since postmodernists believe (as I do) thatcultureand mind can be understoodonly by referenceto intentions. If that is so.First. Rosaldo 1989. purposes. validity.that shamanisticexplanationsof dissociative states are as veridical as those of clinical psychiatry. Postmodernistsrepudiatethese six postulates of the WesternRationalist Traditionbecause of what they take to be two epistemologicalentailmentsof their conception of subjectivity. Vendler 1984). desires. I take it that they are indicating these subjective entities when they refer to meaning. however. To be sure. and so on. whereasif the subjectivity of the human object is taken seriously. postmodernists argue (for example. and standards (of proof. that the geocentric view is as correctas the heliocentric. or reasonableness) which. the action of neurotransmitters. and the like. Tyler 1987) because science is in the business of discoveringcauses. Ricoeur 1981. on that view a causal account of culture refers to ecological niches. for example.but these views. it is not the case that Creationism. purposes. and desires serve as causes of action. modes of production. subsistence techniques. enables one to assess competing knowledge claims. and so forth. psychological behavioristspersist in denying that non-materialthings like intentions. theories. explanations.

in the study of atoms. Althoughempathy.beginning with the Culture for and Personalitymovement. such as insight. molecules. intentions. is usually regarded as a technique unique to the human sciences. "If I were an electron. grounds(in this regardat any rate)for denying thatanthropology or at least in principlemight be.Now with the exception of a few remaining scientistic (not scientific) diehardsamong us. Indeed.That paradoxaside. however. as far as in that of they go. the developmentof methods which. As construedby even the most tough-mindedphilosophersof science. for example. SPIRO scientific status. then why do they insist that such subjective events are critical for anthropologicalinquiry?'Tis a paradox. if causal explanation is centralto the scientific enterpriseand if these subjective events do have causal relevance.RichardFeynman. at least in principle. for whereas techniques refer to the empiricalproceduresemployed for obtainingor eliciting data. John Dewey put it this way. a science. have insisted thatthey are critically important of the understanding mind and culture. not techniques. Verstehen. but whether it is such as to permit .Since postmodernists. satisfythe logicalconditions haveto be satisfied otherbranches (Dewey1938:487). Thus.he merely asked himself. it is precisely because they hold that such subjective events are causal that most psychological anthropologists. that is not the case. and desires. .they can be verified or falsified. still it is not entirely absent from the physical sciences.purposes.3 3 This.there are no valid is. while subjective techniques. of If now the scientific methodconsists both of the formulation explanatory and theories in respect to some subject-matter the employmentof empirical and logical proceduresby which. Thus. I dare say that virtually every one else (postmodernistand modernist alike) agrees that the study of the human world requiresvery differenttechniquesfrom those employed for the study of the physical world. and galaxies. Hempel 1965:225-58). . Gleick (1992:142) writes that Feynman'scolleagues suspectedthat if he wantedto know what an electron would do undergiven circumstances. and so forth.do not believe that intentions. then the remainingquestionregardingthe scientific statusof anthropology is whether its modes of inquiry conform to this paradigm. however. then. what would I do?" . methodsrefer to the logical conditionsthat must be satisfied if the data are to be judged evidentially relevant for the acceptanceor rejection of an explanation or interpretation." are dead as a dodo bird.766 MELFORD E. Writing more than half a century ago. have causal (explanatory)relevance. in his biographyof the brilliantphysicist and nobel laureate. for all their being subjective. is not always the case. contraryto postmodernism. desires. inquiry Notice that Dewey refers to methods. is The question not whether subject-matter human the of relations anthro[including a is pology]is orcaneverbecome sciencein thesensein whichphysics nowa science. are no less causal than hormonal secretions and subsistence techniques (Griinbaum1984:69-94.for example.and empathy are critical in the study of mind and culture.

the subjectivity of the in human object requires that subjective proceduresof empathy. In anotherarticle.added (Rudner require different logic of inquiry emphasis). to "privilege"such a "phallocentric" interests. Verstehen) be used not only as techniquesbut also as methods of inquiry. such methods are not appropriate the human sciences. are typical of the genre. As the philosopherRichardRudner(echoing Dewey) put it: Toholdthatthesocialsciences methodologically are distinct fromtheother sciencesis to holdnotmerely perhaps at all)thebanal not viewthatthesocialsciences (or employ different of but the view thatthe social sciences techniques inquiry. however. criteriaby which conflicting interpretations be adjudicated. then this subjective methodology suffers from critical logical and empirical problems (Rudner 1966:5-6). insight." would suggest. virtuallyall postmodernistsdismiss the empiricalproceduresof the scientific method(when used in the humansciences) as positivistic. Although it might now seem evident that. both in the Newsletter on Feminism publishedby the AmericanPhilosophical Association. I and so forth.Verstehen.But if "method.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 767 This consensus. because if empathy. a highly pejorative term in their lexicon. in the context of justification." as hermeneutiststhemselves recognize. Thus. "If my interpretation decipheredmeaningor or chologist is radically different from and even contradicts yours. this is an example of how logic subserves the patriarchal oppression of women (Ginzberg 1989). Such a view is "startling. since many women do not recognize this logical law as a valid form of inference. scientific) methods not only in the physical but also in the human sciences. the authorwritesthatmodusponens was inventedby males as a means for determiningwho counts as a rationalbeing and that. on empathic grasp whose empathy of interpretationdoes one rely for knowledge?" (Eagle: 1984:164).then view is hardto this credit. the "hermeneutic circle.empiricaland logical. hence. As for the former. In addition. postmodernists(and others who follow in the hermeneutictradition)maintain that.As the psycan MorrisEagle puts it. Logically. it is of course hopelessly circular. intellectuallyresponsibleinquiryrequiresobjective (that is. whereas the physical sciences employ objective methods. In one. refers to the logical conditions that must be satisfied if data are to be judged evidentiallyrelevantfor the acceptance or rejectionof an explanationor interpretation. many (but not all) of them also reject (Western)logic as a "logocentric"and "linear"discourse invented by "hegemonic" Westernmales and used by them to dominate non-Westerners and discourseonly serves to females. especially in those all-too frequentinstancesin which the interpretations differentinvesof it is useless: It provides no objective or intersubjective tigators disagree. explanations. are employed not only as techniquesfor generatingdata."as I have already observed. does not obtain in respect to methods. and interpretations context of discovery) but also as methodsfor (the assessing their truthvalue (the context of justification). rather startling a 1966:5. In short.4 (I confess that I would look more perpetuatetheir "patriarchal" 4 Two articles. the author . Empirically. postmodernists rejectthis argumenton two grounds.

1).768 MELFORD E.and brotherhood displayed by insiders for insiders . borrowedthem. all fieldsin connection (Dewey 1938:535). and how one chooses among them dependson one's taste. Sincescientific methmethods inquiry a specialized competent) in available a given at ods simplyexhibitfreeintelligence operating the bestmanner fromthe failure use to that and waste. females with matter(Cope-Kasten1989). 5 Bert States' insightfulcomments on the functions of the repetitionof these cliches in postcode"-also apply to postmodem literarycriticism-he refers to them as the "poststructural modern anthropology(which. for Clifford. and polyphonic). The Rejectionof ObjectiveTruth Having examined the postmodernists'contentionthat the subjectivityof the cannot (andought not) aspireto scienhumanobject entails thatanthropology tific status.and it tendsto relegatescientific(thatis. is there to be clear about. The formulaicuse of the terminologyapparentlyfosters confidence. not only. the code has much in common ing the code doing its workof recontextualizing with the Hari Krishnachant that achieves its remarkablemesmeric purity througha deliberate poverty of invention. as they of see it.. and in the latterregardthe critical issue. the problem (mentioned above) is primarilya problemof textualauthority(1983:142).. For consistent with the postmodernistview that the concept of objective truthis "essentialist" (anotherpejorativeterm in theirlexicon). it contributesto women's marginalizationand subordinationbecause traditionally males are associated with form. theirprimaryintellectual worries relate not to ethnographicresearch but ethnographicwriting (Cliffordand Marcus 1986). Commenting on a similar attitudeprevalentin his time.. dialogical. from literary criticism). It is only in a footnote that Clifford mentions "modes of authoritybased on natural-scientific epistemologies. as the "authority" ethnographictexts.... Clarityis beside the point: what.. since all 'ideas' are only context-dependentlogocentric re-inscriptionsplundered from anotherdiscourse-in effect. Thus. theirinterestabsolutelyexhaustedin theirmission of demonstratothercodes. SPIRO kindly upon the postmodernistproject if its proponents could resist such drearyand endlessly repeatedcliches. the cultural withall problems.confusion distortion results time. In my view this cavalier dismissal of "natural-scientific epistemologies" would. incalculable is in thesemethods. among code users . of course. after all. for scholarship but also for civil society itself. interpretive. if taken seriously. Dewey observed that it it of beforemethods of obscurantism. Thus.)5 It should be noted that both argumentsare reasoned.. States (1994:113) writes because the termsare aestheticallyinert.promotes acceptance beliefsformed encourages theirpresentstate. have disastrousconsequences. of which he distinguishes four "modes" (experiential. The code's value consists simply in being uniformity. re-tautologizations? . as it has so much else.. is not so much the truthof ethnographic findings. not capricious. I now wish to examine theircontentionthatthe subjectivityof the argues that since the Aristoteliansyllogism separatesthe form from the materialcontent of an argument. inquiryhad reached of to technical field." and then only to say that he does not intend to discuss them (1983: n. however. Hearingthese clich6s over and over again-"providing one is inside the code"-is not a problem.

since cultures not only are different but radically different. see Rudner[1966: ch. I shall begin with the restrictedform. biological. This contention takes two forms: a restrictedform.recognizing this paradox. I shall treat it only briefly. meanings-are wholly culturallyconstructed. The contentionthat anthropologycannot discover objective truths about the non-Westernhuman object is a conclusion derived from two postmodernistpremises. in this regard. then how can a Western anthropologistcomprehendtheir meanings when. their meanings are incommensurateone with another.however. anthropologistsalso view the elucidaAlthough many non-postmodernist tion of meaningsas one of their centraltasks. than reiteratemy reasons for rejectingthe premises. Wikan [1993]). then the very foundationalclaims of postmodernism-that meaningsare wholly culturallyconstructedand culturallyrelative and that culturesare radicallydifferentand incommensurable -can only remainunfoundedspeculationswith no empiricalwarrant(see. 1) and since Gellnerhas recently subjected it to an incisive analysis (1992: 22-71). psychological. here I only wish to observe that the conclusions are both paradoxical and selfdefeating for the postmodernistproject itself. (For an illuminating discussion of the concept of objectivity as it relates to the social sciences.and. . but since I have alreadyaddressedit at length elsewhere (Spiro 1984. Rather. that is. which denies that there can be objective knowledge of any object. since they do not view cultures as incommensurable. and an unrestrictedone. ex hypothesi. 1990. 4]). which denies that there can be objective knowledge of the non-Westernhuman object. their minds and culwhich precludesthe possibility of a tures opaque to objective understanding. For while they too are impressedby the extraordinary range of culturaldiversity. in my view (Spiro 1986. purposes.l) both the premises and the conclusions are false. have bitten the bullet and have turnedtheir attentionto the study of Westernculture. 6 To their credit. they cannot be known?6Moreover. 1994: ch. they retainthe traditional conceptionof anthropologyas a comparativediscipline. 1986. Second. comparativestudy Althoughthese conclusions follow validly from theirpremises. From this postmodernists are argue that the meanings of Westernanthropologists thus incommensurate and that for Westernanthrowith those of the non-Western peoples they study pology non-Westernpeoples are wholly Other. and desires-that is. some postmodernists. if their Othernessprecludesthe possibility of a comparativestudy of culturalmeaningsystems. of culturalmeaning systems. The restricted form. they recognize (or at least many of them do) that there are importantconstraints(for example.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 769 human subjectprecludesthe discovery of objective knowledge. meanings are culturally relative. 1994: ch. human intentions. seeing that cultures differ one from another. First. If (as postmodernistscontend) anthropologicalinquiry is concerned with the study of meanings and if (as they also contend) non-Westernpeoples are Other.

I am concerned not with metaphysicalidealism as such but with the epistemologicalimplicationsthat postmodernistsderive from it. presuppublic language is publicly poses the existence of a publicly accessible world . mostly postmodernist. is perceived and . Rabinow 1986). then. Since here. (For an importantdiscussion. metaphysical is realism.they reject the notion anthropologists.770 MELFORD E. unlike the first. butrather thereis a is to that for way thatit is. Since the external world. is decisive. not to the non-Westernhuman object uniquely but to all and as objects (non-human well as human.Westernas well as non-Western). I wishto argue. to the episdraw from it. Thus.examinationof the concept of objectivity itself. intelligibility intelligible.they deny the existence of a mind-independentreality. is the testimony of many field workers. see the collection of essays in Megill [1994].. This. in my opinion.this is not the case for most postmodernist rather. because publiclanguage is presupposes publicworld. of human representations(for exthat such a reality exists independently ample. postmodernismis committedto metaphysicalidealism. or as we mightbe. Wheneverwe use a language to The of we ourselves realism. for example. however. at least. my evaluationof this philosophical position can be expressed by a single passage in Searle (1993a:38-39) which. To put it differently. us When[metaphysical idealists] they present withan argument claimto do so in a that But. In short. as such. for them culturaldiversitydoes not entail ing non-Western that the non-Western object is Other. SPIRO differencesin meanecological) on thatdiversity. Paul (We should be wary of social science theories that do not come "close to correspondingto what one's own actual experience of being alive is like" [1990:433])..cross-cultural from understanding systems are not so radicalas to precludeanthropologists peoples. Erikson("Youwill not see in another what you have not learnedto recognize in yourself" [1964:29]).. and R. to thatpurports havepublicobjects reference. including. Bourguignon("The differseasoned ences between human groups are not so radical that we cannot recognize ourselves as we are. it is groundednot in the postmodernistconception of culture but in its metaphysics and epistemology. see Reyna [1994]. The unrestricted form. commit that as commitment nota specifictheory to howthe worldis.) In opposition to the metaphysicalrealismof the WesternRationalistTradition. E. For an illuminating. especially as they temological implicationsthat postmodernists relate to science.consequently. andthatpresupposition metaphical Let us now turn. Although some metaphysicalidealists rejectthe very notion of an objective reality. Bruner("We otherpeople and theirexpressionson the basis of our own experiunderstand ence and self-understanding" [1986:6]). they argue.it is self-refuting someone claimin a publiclanguage a a realism false. from metaphysicalidealism. in others"[1979:79]). This form of the contentionthat the subjectivityof the human subject precludes the discovery of objective knowledge applies.

as in most others. For one not so balanced. economic) of the story tellers. but virtualreality"(Kelley 1993:64). given thatuniversitiesalreadyemploy people to explainwhy knowledge is impossible (in philosophy departments)." a New YorkTimesreporterwrites. sexual. the influence of Foucault on postmodernist which also emphasizes the thoughtis prominent.it should be noted that "criticalanthropology. is impossible." asymmetriesof power in ethnographicfieldwork and writing. 10 Since postmodernistthoughtis cross-disciplinary. now. . "Thereare not facts. but only interpretations. 9 Although in this respect. 1991. [it is unclear]why. and the critiqueby Spencer 1989). in somewhat amateurishfashion" (1992:29). knowledge-claims are also necessarily relative. like those for any other story. then scientific theories rest not so much on objective knowledge and an objective logic as on the 'interests' (racial. "means in effect the abandonment any serious of attemptto give a reasonableprecise. if warfare. hardly any one would deny that science is influenced by ideology and interests. it requires but a short step to conclude that to "privilege"the knowledge claims of Westernscience is hopelessly ethnocentric.science is a form of dominationwhich.anthropologyshould reduplicatethis task. its truth claims are not so much empirically as ideologically grounded.What is importantis the perceived image of what he is and what he does. Said 1989. Gellner observes. then as Nietzche (to whom postmodernismis profoundlyindebted) argued. is not surprisingthatthis anthropologiit . postmodernistthought has already had an impact on American politics."all knowledgeclaims (whether of the physical or the human world) are "culturallyconstructed.1? In short.As Feyerabend(who both influenced and was influenced by postmodernistanthropologists)put it."7 If. But if science is just anotherkind of story telling. and testable account of anything .see Diamond (1980: Introduction)and Wolf (1980). "arenot really important.9 Since. according to Clausewitz. however. none at any rate that can be agreed upon-then argue. That being so. . if knowledge-claimsdo not correspond to any facts. since every cultural disall course is arbitrary. what makes the postmodernists'view exceptional is that. Politics is not about objective reality. can only be subjective. gender. Given this view. is evident in the asymmetriesof power that characterizeethnographicfield work and writing(see Fabian1983. documented. 8 In this regard. arose independentlyof Foucault. and science is only objective knowledge. is diplomacy by other 7 Since such a stance. moreover."hence necessarily subjective. since scientific stories are derived from one or anotherdiscourse.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 771 understoodby means of one or anothercultural"discourse. there are only interpretations-hence."what sort of person a politician is and what he actuallydoes. postmodernists a particularkind of "story telling. Rosaldo 1986. Since. "There exist no 'objective' reasons for preferringscience and Westernrationalismto other traditions"(quoted in Rorty 1995:34). in the case of anthropology. then. According to the "new faith" in Washington. they are not one aspect of science but the whole of it: Ideology and interests do more than influence the conduct of science. For a balanced advocacy of critical anthropology. the criteriafor their assessment. Haraway1989. Lutz 1990. see the collection of articlesedited by Nencel and Pels (1991)."8 Moreover. they dominate it. for them. ethnic.

science-to borrowan expressionfrom Haraway (1986)-is politics by other means.from the contam(1986:88).then what makesone scientific storybetterthananotheris not. and other peoples" (1994: 205).""uncontrollable. Thus.imperialistic no access to true explanation."Or considerCatherineLutz on the scientific study of emotion. objective scientific account" (1986:93). .. As summarizedby Appleby and her associates. . Hence. inatingcontextsthroughwhich they are extracted" Rosaldo continues.a scientific story is "good"insofaras it "empowers" subjugated cal argumentfinds an exact parallel in history. .Again. and to bracketthe purity of [the] data. Bruno Latour. Rosaldo's critique of The Nuer which. Rosaldo asks us to consider two rhetoricalquestions:"Why did the government of the Anglo-EgyptianSudanrequesthis report?" "How much did it and pay for the researchand the publicationof its results?"(1986:88). she and "chaotic." "danclaims. SPIRO means. . If now science is ideologically motivated storytelling whose function is domination. Just in case." it is then evident-never mind that both claims are false (Spiro on 1993)-that "theacademicliterature emotion can be considereda form of discourse on gender relations.. we mistake EvansPritchard's "persona. finally. other races. for Bob Scholte the concernof the physical sciences with discoveringlawful relationsand order-his example is the concept of biological constants-is primarilyideologically motivated.whose studies of the laboratorysciences are widely cited by postmodernists. Consider.772 MELFORD E." and since moreoverthese are the very qualitiesby which they "define gerous" women.knowledge."he writes (1984:964). given their moral and political commitments. that one is true and the other false but that one is good and the other bad. ratherthan admethods or the accuracy of his findings-what dressing Evans-Pritchard's one would normally expect of a critique of an ethnographicmonographaddressesonly Evans-Pritchard's allegedly "close links to contextsof domination" and his putative attempt"to deny the connections between power and knowledge . 1994:205). They reinforce the hegemony of white Westernmen over women. . "Law and orderin 'nature'. view emotions as "irrational. historical 'facts' "do damage. the latterqualities being taken here not as cognitive but as moral and political predicates. . so postmodernistscontend. In that attempt. "becomescientific means to rationalizelaw and orderin society. Since Western students of emotion. That literaturearises out of and political reenters a field of power struggles for the definition of true womanhood" (Lutz 1990:78). Moreover.holds that scientific laboratoriesare entirely shaped by political agendasand that"nothingof any cognitive quality"takes place in them (1983:161. Evans-Pritchard implictly"askshis readersto set aside the context of colonial domination and view his study as [an] . . my addedemphasis). postmodernisthistoriansargue that the temporal orientationof history is "merely the willful historicalconsciousness. however. or understanding" (Appleby et al.it provides impositionon subordinate peoples of a Western.. . of the detachedironicobserver"from the real thing. then for postmodernists.

I be misunderstood. however objective. I would add. That this Enlightenmentconception. 1994. knows that scientists are motivated not only by the Holy Grail of knowledge-nor only.they 11 In this connection. [T]heiractions and thought[are] more free from the influence of passion. It is precisely. and an assortmentof other.let me stressthatnon-cognitivemotives are never. is the influence of these motives necessarily negative. because of these non-cognitive motives that science (and. malice and envy. can eliminate them. are operatingon crowds of obscurepeople. absent from scientific (or any other type of) inquiry. as I emphasizedin a previoussection. whether as participant or observer. uniquely. though he is obliged to recognizethe powerfulinfluencewhich these wild forces have exercisedon [the rest of] mankind. for the truth-valueof and these (and all other)ideas. . the student of science. of course. however.rangingfrom unwittingdistortionsand misinto terpretations the willful cooking of data and the falsifying of reports. (Indeed. third-world peoples) and "bad" insofar as it perpetuatestheir subjugation(see Abu-Lughodand Lutz 1990. Scheper-Hughes1992. fury and madness. however. . in the context of discovery. I might add. all too human motives. wealth and prestige. however. in my view. Anyone acquaintedwith the conduct of science. . . we are told. seem quaint beyond belief: [Scientists] are not studying or attemptingto study the workingof those blind forces which. they may generateimportant and ideas. been capableof discovintellectual ering objective knowledge. [W]hen the action of the mind passes out of the intellectual stage. Thus. For an importantanalysis of this "moralmodel" of science. . accordingto which science is the disinterestedpursuitof reliable knowledge. . women. by the political and power motives stressed by postmodernists-but also by ambition and envy.) Lest. I would add. in 1871. I would suggest that the cavalierdismissal of science by postmodernistsis stunning. findingsto be established. Lutz 1990. In order. in which truthand errorare the alternatives. the following excerpts taken from James Clerk Maxwell's Inaugural Lecture as Professor of ExperimentalPhysics in the University of Cambridge. interpretations. in view of its extraordinary achievements. has been honoredmore often in the breachthanin the practiceis. Moreover. It is now perhaps evident that this conception of science is far removed from-indeed it is an explicit critiqueof-the WesternRationalistTradition. Nor.into the more violent states of anger and passion. however.requiresuch a method that science.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 773 groups (ethnic and racial minorities. findings. . as he calls it."l It is also well-known that the influence of such non-cognitive motives on the conduct of science (but also on every othertype of knowledge production)can be disastrous. and no method. posthas modernistclaims to the contrarynotwithstanding. is perhaps in some measure disqualified from pursuingthe study of this part of human nature (Quoted in Gillispie 1960: Foreword). see D'Andrade[1995]). or (more grandiosely) Truth. interpretations.it is objective methodas a means for counteracting because scientific norms. a truism. any disciplined search for knowledge) needs an theirinfluence. fame and power.

For if. if ethnography. then by the communityof scientists. AlthoughI have done so before (Spiro 1986). It is not only fallacious but will irresponsible. In sum. For if subjectiveinterestsareformidableobstaclesto objectivity.774 MELFORD E. findings of and the individual scientist must first pass throughthe crucible of the scientific method.sexist and feminist-is much the greater. this does not entail that the empirical . in the context of justification. unlike the rest of theirsubjectivitybut becausethe latter's mankind. for example in physics. for example in anthropology. if science has discoveredobjective knowledge. are conflicting interpretations merely differentstories to be accepted or rebecause one is morally or politically better than another-then anyjected thing goes. ethnographers techniqueseven in the context of discovery. then sooner or later-more often later than sooner-the distortions and misinterpretations engenderedby the biases and interestsof the individual scientist are discovered(and usually rectified). on principle. the need for objective proceduresis arguably more importantin the human than in the physical sciences. In short. althoughthe scientific methodis applicableno less in the human than in the physical sciences. then surelythey are even more so. racist and anti-racist.but also efficacious. it is here. if not by the individualscientist him or herself. in order to gain acceptance by the scientific community. in the context of justification. in which case the ethnographic enterpriseis not only empirically dubious but intellectuallyirresponsible. no matterhow empathicor insightful the ethnographer? to Hence. it is not because scientists.as postmodernists(and others) insist. more often thannot.the ideas. it is perhapsuseful to emphasize once againthat. that the objective procedures of the scientific method-procedures which assess the truthof an idea or the validity of an interpretation testing its predictive or retrodictive by consequences-are indispensableif objective knowledge is to be discovered. neutralized by the norms of science as a social institution. in which the potentiality for ideologically motivated distortion-imperialist and anti-imperialist. ethnocentric and multicultural.Thus. just as it is a genetic fallacy for scientific materalists contendthat must employ objective are because interpretations subjective.arecapableof transcending banefuleffects on the conductof science are.and it is in this phase of scientific (or any other)inquirythat it is critical that the influence of non-cognitive motives be counteracted. so also it is a logical fallacy for interpretivepostmoderniststo insist that they can only employ a subjective method even in the context of justification.For if.how much credence can be placed in any interpretation. interpretations. is an interpretiveenterare prise and if the ethnographer's interpretations processed (as they surely all those and other ideological filters. consequently. Not only indispensable. SPIRO must be tested. then without objective are) through assessment procedures. I would now contend that.ethnographers not employ an objective methodfor assessing the validity of their interpretations-and.

forcriticizing politico-ideological of history particuand lar . while I have no principledobjectionto laboratory Hence. however. while sharing(as I do) some of the moral and political commitments of postmodernists. is rightor it is not. reject both their politicized conception of science and the metaphysicalidealism from which it derives much of its intellectualunderpinnings. physics. for is.. first. George Fredrickson(1993:32) writes that these critics to factsexternal the historian's of or the [question] existence a reality set of objective viewedas a formof fiction. say.the scientific method is pluralistic (not only across disciplines. . for example. "I used to think. [That beingso] we havea responsibility historical in abuse the factsin general. the words of a distinguishedMarxisthistorian. for assessing the validity quantification. which imply that all "facts" of and ularlyin departments literature anthropology..nuclear thattheprofession history.thatthere are existence simplyintellectual objective claiming even fact is no cleardifference between andfiction.Butthere andforhistorians. the to between ones themostmilitantly us. I do not believe. as I indicatedearlier. but also within them). refer to the logical conditions that must be satisfied for assessing the validity of an interpretation explana(or tion). . thatthis is the case in regardto that method itself. Consider. the most reliable method (so far at least) for achieving that aim is the scientific method. antipositivist among theability distinguish We fundamental. I believe that in practice these procedures are only rarely appropriate(or efficacious) for that purpose. government. the words of anotherprominenthistorian. partic[One reason] is the rise of "postmodernist" . nonethelessthe empiricalprocedures employedin physics.POSTMODERNIST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODERNIST CRITIQUE 775 proceduresthey employ in compliance with that method must be the same.. In constructions. experimentation." Eric Hobsbawm(1993:63) writes. But though holding that in regardto its assessmentprocedures. Eitherthe present two is absolutely in of whichdeniestheattempted Turkish genocide theArmenians 1915.. then regardless of discipline.Now I knowit can. For while methods.couldat leastdo no to harm. modeling. is for "discourse" [because them]history increasingly are revisionists wrongin someinarguable [But]if we cannot provethattheHolocaust way.. of unlikethatof. and so forth. cannotinventour facts . Consider..Defending John Hope Franklin(the distinguishedhistorianof the Americanblack experience) against his postmodernistcritics..we areclearlyin deeptrouble.I believe ChairmanMao's dictum that 100 flowers should bloom-nevertheless.mathematical of ethnographicinterpretations-on the contrary. in for achieving such a valid assessment may be inappropriate anthropology. CONCLUSION I wish to conclude not with my own words.again. but with those of a heterogeneous group of prominentscholars who.. short. intellectualfashions .. If the aim of responsibleinquiryis objective knowledge.

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