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Epistemic artefacts: on the uses

of complexity in anthropology
Talia Dan-Cohen Washington University in St Louis

Distinctions between the simple and the complex have enjoyed a long and varied career in
anthropology. Simplicity was once part of a collective fantasy about what life was like elsewhere,
tingeing studies of tribal life with human longing for simpler ways of being. With the reflexive turn and
the rise of cultural critique, simplicity has been all but excommunicated in favour of widespread
diagnoses of complexity. In this article, I tease out some transformations in the uses of complexity in
anthropology, and weave in some critical responses to these uses, spanning many decades, from
within the discipline. I pay special attention to recent critiques by anthropologists who are beginning
to grow weary of complexity as both an end-in-itself for scholarship and an empirical diagnosis. For
these critics, complexity is deeply entwined with anthropological methods and knowledge practices.
Drawing on these critical views, I suggest that complexity may be an epistemological artefact, rather
than something that can be diagnosed out there, and offer a way of reframing complexity as a
dominant problematic in anthropology and beyond.

My main ethnographic project over the last few years has been an examination of
knowledge practices among synthetic biologists. It was through this ethnographic work
that I began engaging with the issues involving complexity discussed in this article.
While synthetic biology today describes a diverse set of approaches to the construction
of novel life forms, the specific kind of synthetic biology practised in one of the labs in
which I conducted fieldwork involved assembling biological parts out of stretches of
DNA and then wiring these parts together to try to build predictable and controllable
biological systems. The practitioners pursuing this approach were largely engineers,
and their work grafted principles from electrical engineering and computer science
onto the design and construction of novel organisms. They toiled amid a steady hum
of cynicism regarding the viability of their approach, a cynicism grounded in the newly
affirmed complexity of biological systems.
The conditions under which that complexity became a matter of concern are
quite specific. In the last couple of decades, complexity has come as somewhat of a
surprise in molecular biology and genetics, particularly in the wake of the Human
Genome Project. In the immediate years following the projects completion, a deluge
of sequence information gave geneticists a clearer sense of yawning gaps in knowledge,

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and ushered in what science writer Erika Check Hayden (2010) terms a complexity
explosion. Thus, synthetic biologists took on biological design precisely at the moment
in which assessments of biological complexity, and appreciation of gaps in knowledge,
had increased precipitously. To this, the synthetic biologists with whom I spoke
responded with the hope that a constructive approach to biology would allow them
to reduce complexity in their designer biological toolkit. Lurking behind the ambition
of building a simpler toolkit, however, was a simmering suspicion that some of the
complexity touted or lamented by diverse experts would be tamed or even erased
by knowledge practices borrowed from engineering (Dan-Cohen 2016). On this view,
complexity would emerge as an artefact of particular epistemic practices, rather than
an inherent quality of things. Since diagnoses of complexity run rampant within and
outside of anthropology, my ethnographic work provided a context and an impetus for
interrogating this artefactual view of complexity more broadly.
My present aim is to turn attention to some features of the roles complexity has
played in anthropology and highlight some responses to these roles. I say roles
plural because the logics or rationalities from which complexity emerges have
been many. Simplicity was once part of a collective fantasy about what life was
like elsewhere, tingeing studies of tribal life and village-as-microcosm with human
longing for simpler ways of being. The identification of certain groups with simplicity
played a methodological role as well as an analytical one, insofar as simplicity
justified the feasibility of relatively short-term fieldwork. At the same time, classic
anthropological studies also worked to undermine some corollary assumptions tied to
native simplicity, supplying the discipline with a constitutive tension. Mid-twentieth-
century anthropology expanded focus from the simplicity of tribal groups the
fields traditional subject matter to complex societies, a concept underwritten by
several theoretical threads. With the reflexive turn and the rise of cultural critique,
complexity has figured in two different discourses. In one, distinctions between simple
and complex societies have been all but excommunicated in favour of an evenly
distributed, egalitarian complexity (Bunzl 2008). Simplifications are partial, political,
and ideological. Complexity is everywhere and it belongs to all human sociality,
whether tribal, communal, or cosmopolitan. The other usage of complexity follows
a more epochal or temporal logic. According to this logic, complexity accompanies
globalization and heightened connectivity, finding expression in problems like climate
change and global capital flows. In this account, complexity is something that has
accelerated and requires a particular methodological response tuned to a changing
world, but this framework also subtly extends or reinstates the notion that some
societies are more complex than others. Here, then, complexitys pervasiveness is rooted
in historical processes, rather than a conceptual revision of original simplicity. In the
earlier part of this article, I trace these imbrications between diagnoses of relative
complexity, methodological concerns, and shifting politics of representation, in order
to highlight the slipperiness of complexity as an empirical diagnosis, one that may tell
us more about anthropology as a discipline than it does about the different objects of
anthropological study.1
By pointing to this slipperiness, I follow Annemarie Mol and John Laws (2002)
lead in modulating focus from complexity to complexities, and in resisting the urge
to celebrate complexity as a homogeneous triumph over simplifications. Mol and Law
draw attention to a variety of critiques of simplification within the social sciences and
humanities. The argument has been that the world is complex and that it shouldnt be

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tamed too much, they write (2002: 1). Examples include arguments from history and
political theory criticizing rationalization and bureaucracy as menacing forms of power
that reduce complexity by ordering, dividing, simplifying, and excluding (T. Mitchell
2002; Scott 1998). In science and technology studies, Mol and Law point to critiques
of simplification that focus on the difficulties of shifting from controlled experimental
settings to large-scale technologies or from clinical trials to sick patients. The general
shape of these critiques, write the authors, is to argue that simplifications that reduce
a complex reality to whatever it is that fits into a simple scheme tend to forget about
the complex, which may mean that the latter is surprising and disturbing when it
reappears later on and, in extreme cases, is simply repressed (2002: 3). Instead, Mol
and Law favour an approach that neither attributes undue homogeneity to complexity
nor renders it in triumphalist terms.
Yet, while I support Mol and Laws call to reframe complexity as an object of
anthropological attention, I find that their approach sneaks in an additional ontological
manoeuvre. That is, while weary of its celebration, they take pervasive complexity as
settled fact. And while emphasizing the relational aspects of complexity, they attribute
that settled fact to a world out there when they insist that [n]o one would deny that
the world is complex, that it escapes simplicities (2002: 1). Such certainty about the
ontological status of complexity, the sense in which it is out there, must somehow square
both with the way complexity has attached itself to different projects, rendering different
phenomena complex under different circumstances, and with a view of complexity that
links its diagnosis to particular knowledge practices and aesthetics (Strathern 2004
[1991]). Furthermore, the convenience of such wholesale attributions of complexity
to a world for twenty-first-century anthropology might itself be cause for suspicion.
Stated as an ontological fact about the world, complexity is the discovery of our time.
We have learned that the world is complex and emergent. After the much eulogized
demise of modernitys project, finding complexity furnishes an achievement in the
domain of knowledge that simultaneously responds to the legacy of Reason (of the
capital R variety), and grounds a raison detre for a human science in postmodernity.
Complexity can be recruited into projects that claim for themselves both the future of
knowledge and the end of modernity, both the apotheosis of knowledge/power and its
demise. Complexity science, after all, describes the new fantasy frontier from which
will emerge the master equation that will unify the sciences (and much else) (Lewin
In the later part of this article, therefore, I pay special attention to recent scholarship
by anthropologists who are beginning to grow weary of complexity as an end-in-itself
and diagnosis. For these scholars, complexity has sometimes entwined with, and erupted
out of, anthropological knowledge practices and their aesthetic effects (Bunzl 2008;
Candea 2009; Miyazaki & Riles 2005). Three decades of reflexive critique have trained
anthropologists to cast their doubts upon the simplifications of others by showing how
ethnographic studies capture things that are left out. The minute scale of anthropologys
qualitative methodology enables this manoeuvre in nearly all circumstances. But this
has made it all too easy to practise a form of qualitative gotcha scholarship that points
to the way reality is always more complex, always amenable to more complexification
(Bunzl 2008). Hidden within this complexification and the notion that one can capture
complexity is a new kind of epistemological holism guiding projects and methods
(Bunzl 2008; Candea 2009). Drawing on both the historical slipperiness of complexity
in anthropology, and the tenor of these recent critiques, this article raises the possibility

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that complexity is sometimes a convenient epistemological artefact, something that is

particularly difficult to diagnose as out there (Miyazaki & Riles 2005).
Thus, where Mol and Law take for granted the complexity of the world as an
ontological starting-point with methodological implications, I would like to suggest
that anthropologists might instead be better served by holding complexity open,
without settling its existence or non-existence in advance, at the same time finding
ways to interrogate it ethnographically. This requires sensitivity to the ways complexity
gets caught between epistemological and ontological concerns, in and outside of
anthropology. My own ethnographic work, for example, suggests that other fields
and practitioners might themselves be involved in attempts to disentangle the ontology
of complexity from longstanding and layered epistemic practices that generate their
own complexity effects.
In the concluding section of this article, I suggest a way of framing complexity as a
dominant problematic that generates certain effects (Ferguson 1994), while expanding
the focus of discussion beyond intramural anthropology strife. This framing offers
one way of repurposing the reflexive critique offered in this article towards analytical
ends. I draw my example of a fairly problematic use of complexity from philosopher of
science and defender of emergent properties Sandra Mitchell. Concern with emergent
properties (properties possessed by a system but not by any of the discrete components
of the system) and concomitant arguments for and against reduction fuel discussion
in an array of fields, from philosophy to the natural sciences. While these discussions
may seem to offer different conceptualizations of complexity than the ones that have
been dominant in anthropology, these, too, as I show, sometimes manifest some
of the difficulties involved in sorting epistemological and ontological ascriptions of
complexity. Yet these difficulties prove illuminating for figuring out what ascriptions of
complexity might do in contemporary settings.

Simplicity in Samoa
To understand the many ways complexity has appeared in anthropology, we must first
recognize that complexity played not only an analytical role in the early years of the field,
but also a methodological one. The analytical role is prominently seen in nineteenth-
century attempts to wed evolutionary thought to the comparative development of
civilization. The orthogenetic bent in evolutionary thought, for which evolutionary
processes possessed a teleology, motivated a view of social development as leading to
increased complexity. Thus, it is among evolutionist thinkers that the link between
primitive people and simplicity became endowed with a source of specious theoretical
coherence. Portions of both Malinowskis and Boass writings can be read as challenges
to this coherence, pulling in the direction of native complexity.2
Boas and his followers famously eschewed the developmental or evolutionary logic
undergirding assessments of relative simplicity and complexity. Yet Margaret Mead
still put such assessments to methodological use. In the 1920s, when Mead published
her work on Samoa that questioned the universality of the troubled adolescent, the
distinction between simple and complex cultures was seen as the set-up for a natural
experiment. This methodological dimension of the distinction is thus a constitutive part
of Meads classic Coming of age in Samoa (2001 [1928]). In the book, Meads avowed
concern is the phenomenon of the troubled youth in America: restless, maladjusted,
and rebellious. These traits were hallmarks of a stage popularly taken to be general and
necessary in the organic life of the individual, through which everyone must pass. The

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physiological changes of adolescence were assumed to be accompanied by inevitable

psychological strife. The cautious psychologist would have objected that this construal
of adolescences essential hurdles was underdetermined by data, but in the absence of an
experimental approach, education and family dynamics of the time, to Meads dismay,
were nonetheless tailored to the belief.
In place of psychology, argues Mead, anthropology offers a different way of settling
the question about the nature of youth. Already, through studies of other cultures,
anthropologists had learned the immense role played by the social environment in
the formation of human psychology and personality. In the absence of laboratory
conditions, the comparative method of the anthropologist serves to unfasten an array
of traits from human essence.
For the anthropologist, not just any comparison will do. The study design, claims
Mead, requires research among simpler groups. She explains:

For such studies, the anthropologist chooses quite simple peoples, primitive peoples, whose society
has never attained the complexity of our own. In this choice of primitive peoples like the Eskimo,
the Australian, the South Sea islander, or the Pueblo Indian, the anthropologist is guided by the
knowledge that the analysis of a simpler civilization is more possible of attainment.
In complicated civilizations like those of Europe, or the higher civilizations of the East, years of
study are necessary before the student can begin to understand the forces at work within them. A
study of the French family alone would involve a preliminary study of French history, of French
law, of the Catholic and Protestant attitudes towards sex and personal relations. A primitive people
without a written language present a much less elaborate problem and a trained student can master
the fundamental structure of a primitive society in a few months (2001 [1928]: 7).

Meads concern with complexity has much to do with negotiating the limits of
anthropological investigation. James Clifford (1988) has noted the important role Mead
played in authorizing studies based on relatively short-term fieldwork. Mead herself
spent mere months in Samoa. The notion that one could complete a study of a cultural
group in a short time was reliant upon a delineation of simple peoples whose ways of
life the anthropologist could master through brief immersion. Since relative simplicity
furnished the methodological impetus for studying one group rather than another, and
was the motivation for the study rather than its outcome, the qualities that constituted
complexity had to be easily discernible.
What qualities, for Mead, distinguish the complexity of the French from the relative
simplicity of the Samoans? The most easily identifiable traits are literacy, law, religion,
and history. One cannot talk about (or teach) Mead today without observing that she
removed the Samoans from the context of unfolding historical events and processes.
She did so not by writing out the existence of missionary encounters and institutions,
which are mentioned, if cursorily, in the book, but by highlighting the robustness of
traditional ways of life to the perturbations of missionary presence, and by sequestering
the essence of Samoan culture from the influence of missionaries. The simplicity of the
Samoans was a characteristic that had to be managed in the text.
The link between simplicity and primitive, or tribal, or small-scale societies, and its
methodological implications, was not left unchallenged in the first half of the twentieth
century. Twenty years after the publication of Meads classic book, in 1946, as part of
a symposium on Africa held at the American Anthropological Association Meetings,
William Bascom delivered a paper on the complexity of non-literate groups. Bascom
was a Madison-trained Africanist whose major contributions spanned topics such as
art, culture, and folklore, and his writings give a sense for shifting representations of

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complexity in anthropology. Indeed, twenty years had wrought major changes in the
politics of representation in the field. In Bascoms short paper, the term primitive is
firmly ensconced between quotes, its use framed explicitly as a reluctant concession to
the distinction between literate and non-literate people. Bascom begins by observing:
Simplicity is commonly cited as a characteristic of primitive cultures (1948: 18).
Such simplicity, he explains, is associated with loose and irregular institutional life,
general religious notions, and few forms of artistic expression, categories that are not
in themselves questioned in Bascoms text, though one might be able to attribute to his
description of primitive simplicity some subtle derision (the spoken talk would be more
informative here). In place of these generalizations that make up simplicity, Bascom
provides a catalogue of complexities, gleaned from ethnographic and demographic
studies of African indigenous groups. This catalogue moves from one analytical sphere
to another. In commerce, art, religion, and political organization, Bascom declaims the
intricacies of indigenous life, highlighting social differentiation of roles (revealing the
Durkheimian underpinnings of ascriptions of simplicity at this time) and multi-faceted
institutions, as well as the wealth of detail and distinctive concepts, statuses and forms
(1948: 20).
The immediate implication of this widespread complexity is the adjustment of
the timeframe of field research. Bascom laments that the cultural and institutional
intricacies of primitive peoples present a challenge for fieldwork. The normal duration
of a year in the field, he explains, is barely adequate for some initial sampling and
preliminary, broad sketches of the cultural whole. Mead had staked a claim to speedy
mastery on the simplicity of the Samoans and had thus shrunk the duration of fieldwork.
Without this handy contrivance, complexity engendered a sense of ethnographic
insufficiency, and the need for more familiarity, more data, and more knowledge meant
much more time in the field.

Complex societies
Bascoms objection to the classification of indigenous groups contrasts with much
anthropology of his time. The 1950s and 1960s saw a profusion of attempts to
bring anthropological methods to bear on complex societies, implicitly or explicitly
associating tribal life with simplicity. In 1966, John Gillin made the study of complex
societies the main concern of his presidential address at the American Anthropological
Association meetings, in a talk titled More complex cultures for anthropologists.
Gillin made a programme out of an anthropological approach to complex societies,
though he seems to have treated complex cultures, complex societies, and complex
systems interchangeably. Study of such systems, Gillin argued, would require teamwork
involving scientists and humanists (1967: 301). This teamwork was contrasted with
the sufficiency of the ethnological method for the study of simple groups. Gillin

The field ethnologist working with a simple tribe had to be something of a jack of all trades. He
had to understand the making and use of artifacts, the social organization, religious and magical
rituals and so on. But compared with modern cultures, the customary patterns were relatively few
and comparatively uncomplicated (1967: 301).

Gillins address is noteworthy for its optimism about the possibility of covering
complex civilizations as closed wholes. Through co-operation with developing new
breeds like behavioural economists and political scientists, who, Gillin explains, get

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out and try to see and understand what people are actually doing, saying, and thinking
(1967: 302), anthropologists might hope to cover the whole system.
In Gillins address, as in many writings on the subject at the time, the general
concept of a complex society is never explicitly treated, suggesting instead a common-
sense distinction between small-scale tribal societies, seen as the traditional subject
matter of the discipline, and most everything else, sometimes modern, sometimes not.
Yet discussions of complexity also drew on some familiar and emergent theoretical
co-ordinates. The distinction between simple and complex societies in mid-twentieth-
century anthropology in some ways mapped on to canonical sociological distinctions
from Tonnies and Durkheim, where complex society was akin to the formers
Gesellschaft, with organic solidarity providing the main source of integration (Salzman
1978). Yet another thread in the conceptual frameworks underlying ascriptions of
complexity was the appearance of cultural ecology and the return of evolutionary
thought in anthropology as a direct response to the Boasians (Sahlins & Service 1960).
For instance, Talcott Parsons began a chapter on primitive societies in one of his two
volumes on societal evolution with the observation: Socio-cultural evolution, like
organic evolution, has proceeded by differentiating from simple to progressively more
complex forms (1977: 24). The emergence of community studies in anthropology also
invigorated interest in complex societies, since such studies produced understandings
of the relationships between parts and wholes that challenged additive models. Eric
Wolf (1956; 1966) contributed substantially to the ethnographic concern with complex
societies, and his later work reflects a view of the world as an interconnected manifold
that is misapprehended when broken into bits (Wolf 2010 [1982]).
At the same time that complex societies furnished cultural anthropology with
newly framed concerns and topics, the frequent absence of a definition of the term was
noted by critics and observers on a number of occasions (Bennett 1967; Leach 1961;
Salzman 1978; Schneider 1961). In 1967, for example, John Bennett, who contributed to
the anthropological corpus of community studies in rural North America, published a
paper in American Anthropologist that began by questioning the coherence of the notion
of social complexity. In the paper, Bennett asserts that the term was vague because it
moved between criteria of contemporaneity or antiquity, on the one hand, and indices
of social complexity or simplicity on the other (1967: 441). In other words, Bennett finds
problematic the neo-evolutionist tendency to add a temporal dimension to ascriptions
of complexity. Instead, he suggests that a complex society is any society that is regularly
required to take account of external phenomena in making internal decisions (1967:
441). Bennetts definition accommodates the needs of community studies, for which
relations between microcosm and macrocosm proved a major area of focus, and for
which system-theoretical paradigms were perhaps the most fruitful.
Concern with the imprecision of comparative social complexity had also surfaced
earlier, in 1961, when Current Anthropology published a fascinating exchange on the
topic. The first part of the exchange was a lengthy review essay by Israeli sociologist
S.N. Eisenstadt (1961a) on the possible contribution of British structural functionalism
to the study of complex societies. Eisenstadt takes the meaning of complex societies
largely for granted, distinguishing them only from primitive ones, and in a cursory
fashion. He was then taken to task for his fast and loose usage of the term by
two pre-eminent anthropologists: Edmund Leach and David Schneider. Tellingly, in
Eisenstandts essay, the few mentions of the word primitive peppered throughout the
text are quote-free, while the same term is set in quotes in several of the responses. The

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epistemological and political problems with primitive simplicity were perhaps more
apparent to anthropologists than to sociologists, and were also beginning to erode the
self-evidence of social complexity.
Leachs acerbic comments are a series of admonishments. The first addresses
Eisenstadts vague and confused use of the distinction between simple and complex
societies, though Leach finds the existence of such a distinction a matter of common
sense. No doubt, writes Leach, there is a sense in which Londoners and Norwegians
belong to more complex societies than do Nuer or Tallensi tribesmen, but
when Eisendstadt implies that Malay peasant society is complex, while modern
Uganda is not, the distinction is obscure (1961: 214). In contrast, Schneiders
comments evince deep suspicion of the distinction itself. With a whiff of derision,
he gestures towards the meaninglessness of the term complex as anything other than
a residuum of nineteenth-century social science coupled with presumptive Western
exceptionalism. He also attributes much of its mishandling to the wayward discipline of
I would raise only one point: Eisenstadt begs the question of dealing directly with complex societies
and what they are. He does not define this category; nor does he do more than distinguish it from
primitive, without defining that category either. I am puzzled by his classing the small Norwegian
hamlet studies by John Barnes with the Nupe, and the Nupe with southeast China, London, and
Malabar. Are the Tswana complex or just numerous? Is the Murngin social system complex or just
difficult to understand? (1961: 215).

Schneider continues further on:

Eisenstadts treatment of this problem of complexity seems characteristic of the treatment generally
accorded it today, which consists mainly in simply referring to complexity and then ignoring the
matter. One suspects that a professional bias might be involved. The profession of sociology has been
reared in a climate of opinion which still implicitly accepts as a fact the idea that modern mass
industrial complex society is a thing apart, an entity in itself, a radical departure from all other
forms to be found on earth (1961: 215).

Schneiders further point is that being different along one dimension doesnt entail
being different along all dimensions. Societies could be more and less complex than
each other depending on what features are highlighted, what dimensions ground the
comparison.3 Finally, Schneider concludes: . . . I find it difficult to explain [Eisenstadts]
designating as contributions of English social anthropology what seem to me to be
commonplace and reasonable expectations about the structure of any society, regardless
of its complexity, modernity, degree of industrialization, urbanization, or the magnitude
of its mass (1961: 215, original emphasis). In other words, observations purportedly
true of simple societies, made to accommodate complex societies, do so because they
are observations about societies in general. The distinction is a superficial roadblock in
what is a unified area of study.
In his own response to Leach and Schneider, among others, Eisenstadt explains
that the notion of a complex society was largely derived from Durkheim, but
the difficulty of defining complex societies, as distinct from simple (or tribal) societies. Certainly
both terms, to some extent, constitute residual categories. But it is possible that an explicit analysis
of the major characteristics attributed to each of these types, as well as the analytical models implied
in them, may greatly enhance our understanding of the extent to which it is useful or meaningful to
employ these categories (1961b: 220).

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One more of the responses to Eisenstadt seems worth mentioning, and that is the
one that directly follows Schneiders, written by Laila Shukry El Hamamsy:

Eisenstadts review of the contribution of social anthropology to the study of complex societies
comes at a well-chosen moment. There is no doubt that the time has come for social anthropology
to scrutinize itself and question its earlier specialization as a discipline concerned with so-called
primitive, simple, tribal societies. World-wide developments clearly indicate that anthropologists
would need to look far and wide to find such societies today societies which are not themselves
developing greater complexity, or that are untouched by forces originating in more complex societies.
The examination of social anthropological approaches to the study of complex societies, therefore,
should be of concern not only to a special group of anthropologists interested in complex societies
but to the whole field of anthropology (1961: 216).

I quote this passage to highlight the epistemological morass into which anthropologists
had fallen with the diagnosis of relative complexity and the shifting sources of
complexity during this period. The morass concerns the traditional subject matter of the
discipline. El Hamamsy distances herself from the descriptors that had accompanied
this traditional subject matter with the scornful so-called and the placing of the
words primitive, tribal, and also simple in quotes. But the empty referent remains
with the insistence on the changes wrought by contact and complexification on such
societies today. By retaining the scale or spectrum of complexity while discarding
simplicity, El Hamamsy effectively suggests that simplicity is an empty set. Yet, if we
allow that the opposition between simple and complex is constitutive for this text, then
simple remains in quotes, while simpler runs free. The sting of the castigation against
simplicity is thus weakened by the continued evocation of complexity as something
that can arrange societies on a continuum, and the resulting politics are obscure at
best. El Hamamsys larger point, however, seems to be that whether there were ever
simple societies or not (and the tone suggests not, though the capacity of societies to
increase in complexity suggests perhaps yes), world-wide developments render the
question practically moot. The world-historical focus brings a new logic to complexity,
through the interactivity of what was termed the world system in the 1970s, and later
globalization. El Hamamsy provides a bridge from 1960s usages to contemporary ones,
where complex societies give way to a complex world.

Complexity and contemporary anthropology

Complex societies continued to be a matter of concern in cultural anthropology
through the 1980s. Alongside this sociological label that explicitly or implicitly drew
on a distinction with premodern societies and distributed complexity unevenly to
different ways of life and different parts of the globe, other uses of complexity emerged
in the 1970s and 1980s. These uses corresponded to a shift to world-system, postcolonial,
poststructuralist, and postmodern strains in the discipline that reorientated both the
subject and project of anthropology. To help explain the shift we benefit from the
invaluable aid of anthropologists who have recently identified and questioned the role
that complexity plays in contemporary anthropology: Matti Bunzl and Matei Candea.
Mati Bunzls (2008) essay on the epistemological pitfalls of a complexity-chasing
anthropology guides our way from the 1960s to the present. Bunzls own starting-
point is the contemporary insistence on and celebration of complexity in cultural
anthropology. Noting that anthropologists have had trouble engaging a wider public in
recent years, Bunzls paper begins by identifying one attempt to remedy anthropologys
current irrelevance. That attempt was an ambitious volume published in 2005 with

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the confrontational title Why Americas top pundits are wrong: anthropologists talk back,
edited by Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson. Bunzl points to the highfalutin
rhetoric of the book, the title of which he quickly abridges to Pundits. Sold as a
heroic intervention that would reclaim the legacy of Margaret Mead, Pundits, laments
Bunzl, was an inside job, a book written purportedly for public engagement but more
convincingly understood as an opportunity for anthropologists to clobber the terms of
public discourse in ways that preach to the choir.
Pundits takes on the usual suspects of public popular debate: Huntington, Krugman,
Kaplan, and so on. In responding to these public figures, argues Bunzl, the collection
exhibits traits symptomatic of the current state of knowledge in anthropology, a state
that renders impossible the kind of public engagement sought by the anthropologists
who contributed to the volume. Bunzl offers snippets of Pundits prose to illustrate, as
At the heart of Pundits is the charge that the work of the targeted authors is simplistic. And it is
repeated again and again. Pundits, the modern-day mythmakers, are said to make false sense of
complexity by reconcil[ing] contradictory realities (Gusterson & Besteman 2005: 3). The results
are big generalizations that are dangerously simplistic (Gusterson and Besteman 2005: 2). More
specifically, Huntington presents cartoonish caricatures of complex cultural traditions, operates
under simplistic assumptions about kinship, and blur[s] diversity of opinion and belief within a
society, necessitating a more complex and counterintuitive approach to counter his simplifications
and false assumptions (Gusterson and Besteman 2005: 12-13) (2008: 58).

Bunzls point, reiterated at several junctures in the article, is not that the guilty pundits
get it right or that their view isnt in some crucial senses simplistic. Rather, the
argumentative manoeuvre to which he objects involves posing complexity as a self-
evident antidote to any form of abstraction, which is always inherently suspicious. This
critique of generalization through the insistence on complexity, writes Bunzl, is the
basic move . . . of so much of contemporary sociocultural anthropology (2008: 58).
How did anthropology get to this point?
Bunzls analysis begins with the pivotal work of Clifford Geertz, and traces
anthropologys trajectory through the provocative and hugely influential critiques laid
out in the 1986 volume Writing culture. Prior to the 1960s, the regnant paradigms in
anthropology all borrowed from natural-scientific epistemologies and practices. Model-
building, value-neutrality, and hypothesis-testing grounded a scientistic positivism in
anthropology that was exposed to scathing critique in a set of essays by Geertz (1973),
who dismissed the notion that anthropology is a social science in search of laws,
reframing the endeavour of the discipline in semeiotic terms. The goal of anthropology,
he argued, was the interpretation of cultures. Geertzs stance was that culture is a
complex phenomenon and the task of the anthropologist was to render this complexity
Geertz, notes Bunzl, never hesitated to refer to what he did as science. In place of
truth or falsity as standards of appraisal, Geertz modulated the terms of assessment to
the evaluative criteria better or worse. And he vehemently denied that interpretive
social science amounted to mere subjectivism. Rather, the aim of the endeavour was
generality through empirically motivated distinctions. Geertz ushered in what came
to be known as the interpretive turn.
In the 1980s, another critical wave swept the discipline, this time in the form of
a volume of collected essays edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus. The
set of critiques contained in the volume, notes Bunzl, was not meant to point the

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way forward, yet to a surprising degree it has provided disciplinary co-ordinates

for the past thirty years. Writing culture (Clifford & Marcus 1986) continued the
critical project begun in anthropology in the late 1960s with the rise to prominence
of Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial critique. Yet its true target, argues Bunzl, was
Geertz. Bunzl concisely summarizes: Writing Culture sought to free anthropology from
the false confidence of Geertzs epistemology (2007: 55). While echoing dimensions of
Geertzs anti-positivist stance and emphasis on the textual dimensions of anthropology,
the new generation of critical perspectives marshalled these moves not only to
measure anthropologys limitations, but also to suggest that anthropological knowledge
was caught up in the reproduction of a power field that stabilized differences
between Self and Other. The path forward, therefore, was deconstruction, which to
a surprising extent recommitted anthropology to its empirical basis in fieldwork. Bunzl

What did this deconstructive agenda mean in practice? For one, it should be noted that it was not
seen as a cause for empirical despair. On the contrary, Writing Culture was widely interpreted as an
exhortation to, and revivification of, fieldwork. The outcome of these endeavors would be different,
however. Ethnographers would no longer provide data for a broadly comparative science of man
but, rather, evidence for the specificity of all cultural configurations along with the recognition of the
invariable partiality in any attempt to represent them (2007: 56).

In the 1990s, ethnographic writing often emphasized partiality and incongruity,

within frameworks that explicitly rejected the notion of culture, among other
generalizations. The result, argues Bunzl, was a retrenchment in particularity that
exhibited its own kind of positivism, insofar as it advanced a fundamentally empirical
claim, namely that what has been misinterpreted as homogenized culture is really
a set of complex negotiations and contestations (2007: 57). Moreover, in rejecting
all essentializations and generalizations, contemporary anthropologists had orientated
themselves towards the task of rendering culture in all its particularity, but the resulting
view of the world, geared towards exactitude, was entirely unwieldy. In their insistence
on complexity as a sufficient grounds for dismissing all forms of generality and
simplification, argues Bunzl, anthropologists find themselves rendering a map of the
world purportedly at the level of detail of empirical reality itself. The catch is that
this task is in fact an endless one. The anthropological sense of the real is guided
by a fetishization of analytical insufficiency because one can always add empirical
detail. Marilyn Stratherns Partial connections (2004 [1991]) makes a similar point, while
locating the impetus for this state of affairs in trends outside of the discipline proper.
Strathern identifies a telescoping effect whereby changes of analytical scale produce
the sense of increased complexity there are always potentially more things to take
into account though she notes that anthropologists do not produce this sense of
complexity unaided. Their discipline has developed in a cultural milieu committed
to ideas of pluralism and enumeration and with an internal faculty for the perpetual
multiplication of things to know (2004 [1991]: xiv).
Matei Candeas suspicions trace a slightly different path, one that begins with the
perceived challenge, articulated in the 1980s, of adapting anthropological methods
to the demands of a world deemed increasingly interconnected and seamless. Here,
then, we take up El Hamamsys observation that we are all complex now. The primary
responses to this challenge for the ethnographic research imaginary were calls for
multi-locale or multi-sited fieldwork, in place of the traditional model of intensive

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participant observation in a bounded location. Multi-sited fieldwork abandoned the by

then increasingly specious claims to localized holistic studies of a culture (Candea
2009: 26) in favour of a more fluid fieldwork strategy that free[d] ethnographers
from the conceptual boundaries of the delimited site, and allow[ed] them to follow
movements of people, ideas and objects, to trace and map complex networks, and in
so doing, to weave together accounts of ever-increasing complexity, in multiple spaces,
times and languages (2009: 27).
Candeas main concern, which resonates with Bunzls, has to do with the holism
that underwrites multi-sitedness as a field method. Candea quotes Marcus and Fischer:
Pushed by the holism goal of ethnography beyond the conventional community setting
of research, these ideal experiments would try to devise texts that combine ethnography
and other analytic techniques to grasp whole systems, usually represented in impersonal
terms, and the quality of lives caught within them (Marcus & Fischer 1986: 91, as
quoted in Candea 2009: 36). To this, Candea responds: In itself, the desire to break
out of bounded sites presupposes a totality out there . . . which the bounded site
prevents us from investigating fully (2009: 36). Interestingly, Candea notes that Marcus
and Fischers research imaginary seems to oppose the aesthetic and epistemological
commitments of postmodern ethnography with its insistence on the partial and the
fragmentary. In this sense, he shows that complexity was equally formative for a
discourse that emphasized endless fragmentation and for one that tried to describe a
new kind of whole. But Candeas larger point has to do with the bounded fieldsite. Rather
than throw it out, he suggests that boundaries can be reinscribed in the disciplinary
toolkit as the explicit methodological choice of the ethnographer. Taken together, Bunzl
and Candea draw our attention to different aspects of the epistemological after-effects
of the Writing culture moment in which suspicion of abstractions and attention to
fluidity and interconnection both manifested themselves in diagnoses of complexity.
Both these authors also question the endgame of an anthropological project that takes
a complex world as its object. Should ethnography mirror the complexity of the world
or at least attempt to render it intelligible?

Complexity and failure

Our last critique of complexity links complexity and failure. In his novel Austerlitz
(2001), W.G. Sebalds titular character gives an account of fort-building in the sixteenth
through eighteenth centuries that hints at a relationship between failure and complexity.
Austerlitz explains: No one today . . . has the faintest idea of the boundless amount
of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the
geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses
of the professional vocabulary of fortification and siegecraft (2001: 18). From these
long-forgotten materials a particular form crystallized: the star-shaped dodecagon
surrounded by trenches. The construction of these forts was widespread in Europe
in the eighteenth century, built in total ignorance, Austerlitz tells us, of the way
large fortifications attract larger enemy forces and fix the position of the fortified
while also guarenteeing them a defensive role. The failure of fortification, marked by
the destruction of the fort itself during a successful siege, often after weeks of fighting,
spurred further architectural elaboration, thus increasing the time it took to construct
the forts and ensuring that these monumental and paranoid monstrosities would be
out of step with changing circumstances. Nonetheless, forts grew more elaborate, the
failure of each contributing to the intricate extravagance of the next. In some sense,

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then, forts grew more complex, but their complexity can only be understood in light of
the failures of a misbegotten strategy.
In a chapter for the edited volume Global assemblages, Hirokazu Miyazaki and
Annelise Riles (2005) offer a critique of ascriptions of complexity in anthropology
that similarly implicates relations between complexity and failure. The diagnosed
complexity of social worlds, they argue, may index relations between anthropological
knowledge practices and the excesses for which they fail to account, telling us more
about the discipline of anthropology than about the sites anthropologists are studying.
Anthropological analytical strategies, write the authors, in response to the apprehension
of the endpoint of their own knowledge, . . . retreat from knowing. And they also retreat
from the recognition of the failure of their own knowledge by locating indeterminacy
and complexity out there (2005: 327). In other words, complexity may be an
effect generated by outmoded or failing analytics, which then hides in the purported
complexity of that which is to be explained.
Miyazaki and Riless intervention invites a further distinction between what could
be termed epistemological complexity and ontological complexity. Epistemological
complexity arises when a model or analytic produces a sizeable residuum, giving the
impression that the world is complex. This complexity, however, is directly related
to the epistemic setting that produces an unwieldy overflow. Ontological complexity,
on the other hand, refers to complexity that is independent of knowers and their
models, theories, or analytics. For Miyazaki and Riles, much anthropology purportedly
grappling with the complexity of the world mistakes epistemological complexity for
ontological complexity, and is thus tackling a problem of its own making. The Writing
culture critiques were largely about collective failure. The response, on the other hand,
has been further fortification.

Conclusion: a dominant problematic

Attention to the epistemological dimensions of complexity is perhaps especially timely
given the recent and sudden interdisciplinary reclamation of the route to the really real
in the guise of the ontological turn (Law 2004; Law & Mol 2002). The ties between
some more STS-inflected approaches to ontology in anthropology and diagnoses
of complexity are perhaps best summed up by returning to the introduction to
Complexities, and the authors cosmic assertion that [n]o one would deny that the
world is complex, that it escapes simplicities (Mol & Law 2002: 1). The conflation
of the two assertions that the world is complex, and that it escapes simplicities
is key. Seeming equivalents, the two constitute radically different claims. That the
world escapes simplicities does not entail that it is complex. All we learn from these
escapees the anomalies, the unintended consequences and residuua is that models
and ways of ordering and understanding produce excesses. But excesses are produced
through many different kinds of relationships. Excesses appear between different kinds
of representations with differing pragmatic orientations, between expectations and
results, between the end of one conceptual regime and the beginning of another, and
so on. Such excesses might be signs of the ontological complexity of the world, or
they may instead tell us something about the artefactual dimensions of complexity
that can themselves be placed at the centre of both historical and ethnographic
What might that investigation look like? In a famous critique of what he terms
the development apparatus, James Ferguson (1994[1990]) reframes development as a

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dominant problematic or interpretive grid and separates the genealogy of development

from questions regarding its operations and effects. Following Fergusons suggestive
move, I would like to propose a somewhat parallel approach to complexity, noting
that, like development, complexity might be viewed as a dominant problematic of
our times. The pervasiveness of complexity diagnoses are then a matter of historical or
genealogical study sensitive to the many ways dominant problematics delineate the very
objects they impel us to know. This still leaves us with the second task of figuring out
what kinds of things (again, plural) complexity might do. That is, what kinds of effects
might it generate? The three critical moves Ive mapped above provide a fairly sizeable
hint, with their respective emphases on positivism, holism, and misplaced concreteness,
suggesting that taking complexity for granted from the outset is problematic precisely
because complexity itself can be made to bolster out-thereness. I draw my example of
this effect from philosopher Sandra Mitchells recent book Unsimple truths, which argues
for a re-evaluation of the methods and aims of the sciences, philosophy of science, and
policy, in light of the pervasiveness of complexity. Since the book is squarely concerned
with complexity as emergence and multiple causation, it also serves the purpose of
showing that even some of the more stately discourses of complexity afloat in the
sciences, social sciences, and humanities might prove slippery on closer examination.
Mitchell is sensitive to the epistemological dimensions of complexity. The partiality
of representation, for example, is crucial to her arguments against reduction and for
the existence of emergent properties.4 But while Mitchell rejects reductionism on
epistemological grounds, much of her book in fact argues for the inherent complexity
of myriad phenomena. Her example of a real, actual, complex phenomenon is clinical
depression: Major depressive disorder is a complex behavior of a complex system
that is dependent on multiple causes at multiple levels of organization (chemical,
physical, biological, neurological, psychological, and social) (S. Mitchell 2009: 7). Her
description of depression draws heavily and explicitly on the diagnostic criteria
catalogued in the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental
disorders (DSM-IV).
The choice of clinical depression raises a host of problems. In his review of
Mitchells book, Hans Radder writes of her analysis of clinical depression that because
she mentions neither the extensive dispute as to how to define depression in the
first place nor the substantial role of the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical
industry, her analysis of the disorder is seriously incomplete (2011: 386). One might
be tempted to then pile these neglected domains on top of the ones Mitchell already
catalogues, and argue that clinical depression is even more complex than her account
suggests. Pulling in the direction of historical ontology (Hacking 2002), however, we
might note how attention to these other sorts of shifts dissolves the self-evidence of
the object in question. For example, in their essay on the history of the DSM, Rick
Mayes and Allan V. Horwitz (2005) suggest that re-evaluation of diagnostic categories
in the 1970s was based on a new synergy between biological and disease models of
psychiatric disorders, professional pressures, and economic interests, which superseded
the dynamic models of mental illness. The new clear-cut diagnostic categories opened
the door for insurance reimbursement, while also providing pharmaceutical companies
with categories of disease to which they could tailor products, greatly spreading the reach
of pharmacological approaches to mood disorders. The turn to biology also restored a
professional monopoly to psychiatrists, something they had lost with the appearance of
the cheaper talk-therapy services offered by psychologists and therapists. The general

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formal characteristics of this kind of argument, mounted against a strict naturalization

of mood disorders, is likely familiar to many readers. And the implications are also clear:
to hold the DSM-IV version of depression steady as proof of complexity and lament
the failure of reductive explanation is to obscure historical and epistemic formations
and the remainders they generate. Yet the manoeuvre itself affirms a particular disease
nosology. That is, dubbing clinical depression complex weaves together the disparate
threads of a disorder that could also be seen to be coming apart, locating it out there
and shoring up concreteness.
The ascription of complexity today to everything from mental illness to markets
certainly warrants ethnographic attention. Yet, if complexity can be used to shore up
concreteness, then it is particularly problematic to posit ontological complexity as our
starting-point. Doing so merely amplifies its effects. Instead, by reframing complexity
as a dominant problematic, we sensitize ourselves to the ways it both structures and
responds to the contemporary predicament of knowledge, instantiated in different
fields, anthropology among them.

For their generous and helpful feedback, I would like to thank John Bowen, T.R. Kidder, Nicolas Langlitz,
Anthony Petro, and Kedron Thomas, as well as Matei Candea and the JRAIs two anonymous reviewers.
1 What I offer here is by no means intended as a comprehensive history of complexity in anthropology,

the writing of which would require paying close attention to many strands of scholarship I have omitted.
For those interested in teasing out some of the more prominent of the neglected threads, Gregory Batesons
contributions (e.g. 1972) represent an early attempt to bring cybernetics and systems-theoretic approaches to
bear on anthropological problems. In the contemporary corpus, Niklas Luhmanns work on social systems and
Gilles Deleuzes emphasis on multiplicities and emergence have left their mark on discussions of complexity
in anthropology (see, e.g., DeLanda 2006; Gershon 2005; Luhmann 2013).
A thorough catalogue would also involve much closer observation of the traffic in complexity discourses
between cultural anthropology and different subdisciplines and disciplines: archaeology, biology, and
ecology, to name a few. Archaeologists in particular might well sense echoes of their own shifting practices
and ontological commitments in this article, many of which are still employed today. This is because
some discourses of complexity that have withered in cultural anthropology have continued to flourish in
2 Malinowskis classic description of the Kula is one among many examples from his own ethnographic

corpus of an attempt to capture the complex organization of native life. Furthermore, his ethnographic work
would later lend empirical support to the substantivist views on economy and exchange, which themselves
challenged a set of pervasive simplifying assumptions.
3 That complexity involves comparisons along particular dimensions of interest, which may shift over time,

is further evidenced by recent scholarship that attributes complexity precisely to those modes of sociality and
knowledge-making considered simple by early disciplinary rubrics. James Scott (1998) argues that modernity
and projects of modernization often brought into existence thin simplifications based on abstract knowledge
tied to the application and management of state power. These simplifications are contrasted in Scotts book
with ways of life in which practical skilling and local knowledge rule supreme, which capture something of
the complexity of the world, largely taken as an ecological problem. Scotts work fleshes out a natives point
of view revenge on small-scale simplicity.
Shirley Strum and Bruno Latour (1987) likewise cut across common ascriptions of relative complexity in
a piece on baboon social relations. Adapting ethnomethodology for baboons, they argue that a performative
view of baboon sociality, in which social links are a matter of constant negotiation for baboons themselves,
introduces a new way of understanding relative social complexity. Since baboons have only themselves, only
their bodies as resources, the task of building stable societies is difficult (Strum & Latour 1987: 790). Unstable
social links, involving multiple factors, require constant negotiation. Baboons must therefore assimilate a
variety of factors at all times, rendering their sociality complex (1987: 790). If baboons live in complex societies,
argue Strum and Latour, humans live in merely complicated ones. This is because [m]aterial resources and
symbols can be used to enforce or reinforce a particular view of what society is and permit social life to
shift away from complexity to what we will call complication. Something is complicated when it is made of

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a succession of simple operations (1987: 791, original emphasis). Strum and Latours use of complexity runs
against the current of much scholarship on the evolution and progressive complexification of social life.
4 The epistemological dimensions of Mitchells argument against reduction raise the possibility of inter-

representational complexity. She writes:

Any representation be it linguistic, logical, mathematical, visual or physical stands for something
else. To be useful, it cannot include every feature in all the glorious detail of the original, or it is just
another full-blown instance of the item it represents. Something must be left out, and what is left out
is a joint product of the nature of the representing medium (Perini 2005) and the pragmatic purposes
the representation serves.

She goes on: The partiality of representation leaves open the possibility that the two representations will
simplify the phenomena in incompatible ways (S. Mitchell 2009: 31).

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Artefacts e pistemiques : des usages de la complexite en anthropologie

Les distinctions entre simple et complexe ont connu des fortunes diverses au fil de leur longue
histoire en anthropologie. Il fut un temps ou` la simplicite sinscrivait dans un fantasme collectif de ce
quetait la vie ailleurs, et ou` les e tudes de la vie tribale se teintaient de la nostalgie dune existence plus
simple. Avec le virage reflexif et lamplification de la critique culturelle, la simplicite a e te e vincee par la
nouvelle orthodoxie des diagnostics de la complexite. Lauteure decrit ici quelques transformations des
usages de la complexite en anthropologie, en intercalant des reponses critiques a` ces usages e tendus sur
plusieurs decennies, depuis linterieur de la discipline. Elle attache une attention particuli`ere aux recentes
critiques formulees par des anthropologues qui commencent a` se lasser de la complexite, a` la fois comme
fin en soi de la recherche et comme diagnostic empirique. Prenant appui sur ces arguments qui consid`erent
que la complexite est imbriquee dans les methodes et les pratiques de connaissance anthropologique,
lauteure sugg`ere que la complexite est peut-etre un artefact e pistemologique plutot que quelque chose
que lon peut diagnostiquer au dehors . Elle propose une mani`ere de recadrer la complexite comme une
problematique dominante , en anthropologie et au-del`a.

Talia Dan-Cohen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in

St Louis. Her research focuses on relations between knowledge practices and disciplinary formations. She
has previously conducted ethnographic research among synthetic biologists and is currently launching a new
research project on the meanings and uses of complexity.

Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St Louis, Campus Box 1114, One Brookings Drive,
St Louis, MO 63130, USA.

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