Question No. 1

by johnmccreery

Over on Savage Minds, Kerim Friedman asks if it would make sense for anthropologists to try to formulate a list of fundamental unsolved problems, analogous to the 23 problems proposed by mathematician David Hilbert in 1890. In response, I have written

Question No. 1: Is culture enough? Especially if analyzing culture is defined as attempting to answer the question,

“What are the cultural logics that make X actions thinkable, practicable, and desirable?”

Am currently reading Mike Davis (1999) Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, which is, among other things, a compelling demonstration of what can happen when cultural logics run up against material conditions in a space where sudden, wide fluctuations in those conditions are the local norm.

No question about it that the interpretive anthropological critique of simplistic x therefore y models of material, social or economic explanation were important and have lead to richer understanding of many cultural phenomena. One wonders, however, if even our thickest descriptions aren’t too thin without close attention to more than the cultural logics of thoughts, practices and desires.

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3 Comments to “Question No. 1”

  1. Is this an unsolved problem? Or is it a research orientation? I agree with your point, but I’m not sure the frame works. An analogous question in maths might be “Are numbers enough?”

  2. If the population you are studying generally gives you good feedback on your conclusions about them, then as far as I’m concerned, it is “good enough” if you endeavor to do your utmost to translate those observations as accurately as possible so as to clearly show the world view and issues of this population that you are conducting research on. I am always shocked by how all too often social scientists fail to share their conclusions with the people they are studying in order to get constructive feedback.

  3. I am always shocked by how all too often social scientists fail to share their conclusions with the people they are studying in order to get constructive feedback.

    Why shocked?

    It is not, for example, common practice for market researchers to share conclusions and strategies with those who participate in focus groups or surveys. It is the sponsors of the research who own the results.

    Or, a less crass example, I imagine a linguist trying to share her analysis of phonology, morphemics and syntax with a native who is not himself a trained linguist. How, exactly, is this supposed to work?

    There are also questions related to local rules that restrict knowledge-sharing. Does the anthropologist share what he has learned in the men’s house with the local women when revealing men’s secrets to women is strictly taboo?

    And how does one define “the people” in question? Must I solicit feedback about everything I write about Chinese popular religion from every individual in a quarter of humanity?

    Or, a smaller problem, must my wife and I check with all four million inhabitants of Yokohama when we write something about the city in which we live?

    Or, an even smaller problem, I am currently working with data on the 8,000+ individuals who have worked on 4,000+ ads that have won awards in Japanese advertising contests. Must I show each and every one of them the network diagrams and the various measures of centrality that my software generates for me?

    How would you answer these questions?

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