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Society for Comparative Studies in Society and History

Theory in Anthropology: Small is Beautiful? The Problem of Complex Cultures


Author(s): Ulf Hannerz
Source: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 362-367
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Theory in Anthropology:
Small Is Beautiful? The Problem
of Complex Cultures'
ULF HANNERZ
University of Stockholm

The recenthistoryof anthropologicalthought, SherryOrtnerhas shown us in


her enlightening overview, has included the development of symbolic anthropology, cultural ecology, and structuralismin the 1960s; a Marxist (or
Marxizing)structuralismand political economy in the 1970s;and an emergent
concern with "practice" in the early 1980s. More in passing, we can also
catch an occasional glimpse in Ortner'sarticle of the ethnographicmaterials
that have helped anthropologistsfashion theory duringthis twenty-yearperiod: New Guinea pig slaughters, South American myths aboutjaguars, Balinese conceptsof time, the arrivalof CaptainCook in Hawaii. Exotic stuff all,
for a largely Westernaudience.
But where are the least-understoodcultures now'?In Lagos or Paris, San
Francisco or Bombay, cities with slums and skyscrapers,places at least as
likely as Oceaniaor the Amazon. They are the culturesof cities, nations, and
the world system, ratherthan of villages or bands. To recognize this is to
acknowledge what anthropologyhas accomplished in its traditionalfields.
But it also goes to say that a considerablepart of the unfinishedbusiness of
anthropologyinvolves developing a coherent theoreticalstance towardcomplex cultures.
I am concerned here especially with culturaltheory, with ways of understandingsystems of meaning-the kind of effort most unambiguouslyassociated, among the theoretical tendencies discussed by Ortner, with symbolic
anthropology. So I do not use the terms complex culture and complex society

interchangeably.Whateverweaknesses the anthropologyof complex societies


still may have, there has at least been more work on the nature of social
The point of view expressed here will be furtherelaboratedelsewhere. These comments were
preparedwhile the author was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral
Sciences, Stanford,California. I am grateful for financial supportprovidedby the Tercentenary
Fund of the Bank of Sweden and by the National Science Foundation(United States) (BNS
8011494).
l Comments inspired by Sherry B. Ortner's article, "Theory in Anthropology since the
Sixties," ComparativeStudies in Society and History, 26:1 (1984), 126-66.
0010-4175/86/6109-0010 $2.50 ? 1986 Society for ComparativeStudy of Society and History

362

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THEORY

IN ANTHROPOLOGY

363

relationsin them than on their orders of ideas. A culturaltheory adequateto


the task of understandingcomplex cultures must be able to deal with the fact
thatthe division of laboris in large parta division of knowledge, makingvery
problematicthe notion thatcultureis by definitionshared. It should illuminate
the shifting and often contested boundariesbetween domainsof expertise and
common sense. It should help us see in all their haziness the views people
have of other people's views, and offer some indicationof the significance of
that metaculturalsensibility which may build up when people are aware of
culturalalternatives.For a last example, it should offer some insight into what
happens when the connection between culture and locality is attenuated,so
that someone may be more linked through his ideas to an individual living
thousandsof miles away than he is to his neighbor next door.
Why anthropologicaltheory has until now done so little that is useful for
such purposes is something which Ortner's article goes some way toward
explaining-sometimes straightforwardly,at times obliquely. The cluster of
issues that I will comment on here, with Ortner's discussion as a point of
departure,includes the difficulty anthropologistshave had in giving a balanced attention to culture and to social structure;the relationshipbetween
actor and system, and between micro and macro levels in analysis; and our
shifting understandingsof what anthropologyis really about. The last question is one about which Ortnerin fact says little explicitly, but it is the one
with which I will begin.
Anthropologyhas always been, if not unique, then at least unusualamong
the human sciences in not concentrating most of its attention on Western
society. Since it became politically and intellectually unfashionable, and in
fact no longer true, to say that its field of study is non-Westernor even
primitivesocieties, there may have been two majorways of characterizingthe
anthropologicalenterprise. One has been to say that anthropology is concerned with "the Other", the culturallydifferent. The second is to propose,
more prosaically, that anthropologytries to build a comparativeunderstanding of humanways of life and thought. It may seem that the two formulations
amountto much the same thing, but I do not think this is quite true.
Ortnermay come closest to the first of these views, as she suggests thatthe
distinctive contributionof anthropologyto the humansciences is the attempt
to "take the perspectiveof the folks on the shore." Indeed, she observes that
the ability to see otherness becomes even more important as more anthropologists do their field work in Western societies. This concern with
othernessand difference is a majorintellectualresourceof anthropology.Yet
I think that some of its value is lost when it turns into a more exclusive
concernwith the most other. I preferan anthropologythatexamines the entire
spectrumof variationsbetween most otherand self, deliberatelyavailing itself
of opportunitiesto learn from contrastsbetween them as well as interactions
among them.

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364

ULF HANNERZ

When the concern with othernesscomes to dominateanthropology,it turns


away from the large-scale, complex Westernsocieties in which it is, after all,
intellectually rooted. And it turns to what is not only geographically and
culturallymost distantbut also to the organizationallymost different. Consequently, small is beautiful. The anthropologyof the Otherthrives in the local
communitywhere the division of labor is strictly limited, where there is little
diversity of experience, and where social contacts are face-to-face, with
meaningscarriedby body movements and spoken words, or by song, dance,
and ritual. The particulartheoretical problems involving large-scale, high
degrees of organizationalcomplexity and variedtechnologies of intellect and
communicationare, conversely, low-priorityconcerns for this anthropology.
It flirts with them, in occasionally expounding on the view from Bongo
Bongo towardmodernsociety, but this seldom results in any serious engagement.
For culturaltheory, this may have particularlysignificantimplications.The
several recent tendencies in anthropologicalthought have differed in their
backgroundassumptionsconcerningthe natureof anthropology,but I suspect
thatthe anthropologistsconcernedwith systems of meaninghave been particularlyapt to become preoccupiedwith otherness, with graspingalien perspectives. And from this it follows thattheir biases of attentionwill be incorporated into culturaltheory.
Of the remaining theoretical strands identified by Ortner, the one least
concerned with otherness, and most immediately engaged in developing a
view of all human societies within one theoreticalframework,is that of the
political economists. These, however, Ortnersuggests, have often been "too
economic, too strictly materialist," not even political enough. At least in an
early period, certainly, few of them showed any real interest in systems of
ideas and symbols. So we have here the problemof attendingat the same time
to the structureof social relations and to culture. While symbolic anthropology and cultural ecology in Ortner'sjudgment have both been lacking in
systematic sociology, the theoreticaltendencies that emerged later may have
done better in this respect-but at the expense of an understandingof the
subtle and manifolddimensions of meaning systems. The structuralMarxists
have shrunk the culture concept to ideology. The growing number of adherentsto conceptualizationsof practice may not make much of any distinction between the social and the cultural, but in fact rathersimilarly concentrate on how ideas serve the political animal in strategies and structuresof
dominationand resistance.
If we count the political economists among the one-worlders of anthropology, structuralMarxists are again more concerned with otherness. In
no small part, as Ortnersuggests, their enterprisehas been to rethinkclassic
Britishsocial anthropology.With regardto those for whompractice is the key
word, it is not yet so easy to discern whetherthey have any sharedvision of

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THEORY

IN ANTHROPOLOGY

365

the properobject of anthropology.As the works of Antonio Gramsci, Pierre


Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, and RaymondWilliams appearagain and again
as major references, however, it may be that the concern with the Other
matters less here. What these thinkers have in common is certainly not a
concern with the exotic. Ortneralso notes the affinity between the practice
points of view and earlier anthropologicalconceptions of the place of choice
and decision making in social life. We should remember here that such
interests have been conspicuous in the development of the anthropologyof
complex societies, where they have been expressed not least in studies of
entrepreneurs,brokers, and the active manipulationof networks.
If practiceis not remarkablyconcernedwith the Other, however, it may be
another kind of celebration of "small is beautiful" when it tends toward
actor-centeredness. (Agent, individual, self, action, experience, performance, all have the sound, in these 1980s, of the vocabulary of a yuppie
anthropology.)Actor-centeredness,of course, can become anothermeans of
avoidingthe intellectualconfrontationwith problemsof scale and complexity.
Such avoidance takes many forms. Life histories or analyses of particular
institutionsare examples of genres of anthropologicalwritingthat select convenient ethnographicslices from an often vaguely conceived societal whole.
Studiesof subculturesoften similarlymanageto ignore the significance of the
prefix by giving only minimalconsiderationto their embeddednessin a wider
system.
In other words, we tend to get microanthropologiesand macroanthropologies: anthropologiesconcernedwith actor strategiesand personalexperiences,
and anthropologiesconcerned with the working of whole social and cultural
systems. And practically the normal state of affairs seems to be a failure to
bridge the gap between them, a failure that becomes more conspicuous the
more complex are the wider units involved. Among recenttheoreticaltendencies, culturalecology, political economy, and structuralMarxism are more
clearly macroanthropologies.Ortnerpoints to some of the problemsinvolved
in relatingactor to system in the analysis of practice. Symbolic anthropology
certainly at times aspires to be a macroanthropology,but it does so most
successfully when the societies dealt with are themselves small scale and
relatively homogeneous, when the weakness of its sociology is least glaring.
And it is noteworthy that a possible convergence between symbolic and
cognitive anthropology has recently been described as resulting in a
microanthropology.
On the basis of this extremely rough characterizationof some dimensions
of recent varieties of anthropological theory, what can we say about the
chances of a more satisfactorytheoreticalunderstandingof complex cultures,
as forms of the social organizationof meaning?It appearsthat neitherof these
orientationshas all the featuresthatare requiredfor the task:an understanding
of anthropologyas concerned with the comparativestudy of all humanforms

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366

ULF HANNERZ

of life, ratherthanjust the Other;an intensive engagementwith the study of


systems of meaning that has at the same time a strong sense of social structure; and clear macroanthropologicalambitions coupled with an active concern with the problems of deriving macro-level conceptualizations from
micro-level phenomenaof great diversity. On the other hand, this adequate
theoreticalstancetowardcomplex culturesseems to requirenothingthat is not
in one way or anotherpresent in currentanthropologicalconcerns or conceptions of the discipline. The elements would only have to be assembled in a
differentway: the emphasis on meaning from symbolic anthropology,a systems view from culturalecology, the view of the world as one from political
economy, and so on.
Reflectingon Ortner'sreview of theory, I am also promptedto commenton
changingalignmentsof interdisciplinarity.The variousrecent theoreticaltendencies have all had their outside connections with different -ologies and
-isms, at the same time in some way retaininga distinctive anthropological
characterand thereby making their own contributionswithin the intellectual
division of labor. The reluctance to move toward a systematic engagement
with complex cultureis undoubtedlyoften based on a feeling that this field is
really already crowded, that there is nothing in particularthat anthropology
could add to its illumination.I do not believe this assumptionis quite valid. If
we see anthropologyas detailed ethnographycombined with the theoretical
aim of understandingwhole systems, there may still be an identifiably anthropologicalview of complex cultures.
At the same time, there are openings for new dialogues. It is noteworthy
that even in those theoreticalorientationswhere there has been a more sustained concern with the structureof social relations, the links with academic
sociology, going beyond the classics, have mostly remainedweak. There may
be reasons to regret this. As far as culturaltheory is concerned, it is not that
the sociologists already have a developed understandingof complex culture.
The sociology of culture seems itself to be in a formative stage now, partly
through a convergence of sociologies of art, literature, science, and other
subfields. There is hardlya conception of the over-all organizationof culture
within differentiatedsocial systems, such as anthropologists(one hopes) may
want to look for. On the whole, also, even the sociologists of culture have
worried less about problems of meaning as such than have, for example,
symbolic anthropologists. But they have much to say about the conditions
especially for the more deliberateproductionof culture, and aboutthe organizationalforms which carryit. To arriveat a comprehensivedistributivemodel
of culture, furthermore,anthropologistsought to pay more attentionto the
sociology of knowledge, in several of its varieties. When Karl Mannheim
made "perspectives" a central concept for the sociology of knowledge in
Ideology and Utopia, he emphasized that it would offer a richerview of the
links between ideas and social involvements than the preoccupationwith

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THEORY

IN ANTHROPOLOGY

367

ideology had done. And a sophisticated conception of perspectives and their


interactions in cultural process may yield the best understanding of complex
cultures we can get.
In addition, an anthropology of complex cultures, involving not least a
study of the interpenetration between more self-conscious and reflexive
modes of thought and the cultures of everyday life, must have much in
common with intellectual history, itself increasingly aware of anthropological
concepts and styles of analysis. This would be an aspect of the general
anthropological turn to history-a realization that seventeenth-century New
England and fin-de-siecle Vienna have much to teach us about the continuous
shaping of systems of meaning.
Finally, there is the field of media studies, often much too segregated from
a general understanding of culture. Because so much of anthropological theory is based on the experience of face-to-face community life, even the anthropology of literacy still remains on the outskirts of the discipline. Gutenberg and Marconi, William Randolph Hearst, and Alan Turing have yet to
affect the anthropological view of the world significantly. As for media studies, they tend to view each medium separately, in terms of its possible implications or real effects; and the media theorists that appeal most to the public
imagination are often those who make the most exaggerated claims of techmedium is the message." A satisfactory study
nological determinism-"the
of media in culture would entail an analysis of the interplay between the form,
content, and social context of media, and the relationships within the entire
assemblage of media that occurs in a society, or in different parts of a society.
There is more to this, also, than just the debate about the stratification of
culture into "high" culture, "popular" culture, and the like, with which
media studies have perhaps also become too closely identified. The way
people think now, in much of the world, is shaped by books, postcards,
telenovelas, and the evening news, as well as by the words and gestures of
their immediate surroundings. If anthropology is to understand the complex
cultures that are now almost everywhere, this fact also must inform theory
during the next decades.

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