Tag Archives: anthropology

Transformative Anthropology – update on project

draft view of some of the nodes of transformative anthropology–click for lightbox enlargement

I’m sorting out the turning point, concerned with the presentation of my main research focus in the open-source of the web.

The first step was to create a page for the work-in-progress notes about so-called Transformative Anthropology. This will be temporary in the sense that I’m will eventually shutter the Transformative Tools blog, folding it back into Explorations (here,) and then reconfiguring the SquareONE web site so it can allow ‘research subjects’ (you?) to input their personal recollections.

Those personal recollections are qualified by the parameters given by my research into life-altering serendipities; although the more meaningful term is a necessary conceptual coinage: chance strategic contingencies. This is the kind of recollection I’m interested in documenting.

I’ll track changes to the Transformative Anthropology page—as updates–here, yet, at some point in the near future, those notes will be organized by the structure of the reconfigured ‘main’ web site.

(The music sites, nogutsnoglory studios and Rhythm River, aren’t effected by any of this.)

The principal objective sometime in the not-so-near future, is to beta test experiential learning tools based in the as yet un-implicated instrumental, (thus constructivist,) conceptions of Transformative Anthropology. Yet, here’s a clue: would a learner assimilate to a novel, modestly salutary, self-understanding, were he or she to go through a learning process aimed to sensitize the learner to the ingredient of chance strategic contingencies discoverable in their own life? Are life’s chance strategic events consequential as part of the terms for self-reflection?

Ha! I don’t know, yet, if I’m onto something.

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I Love Ardi

Huge news in the field of paleoanthropology: in an unprecedented publication of eleven papers in Science, researchers will release today the fruits of 15 years of investigation of fossil remains, including much of a skeleton of Ardipithecus Ramidus.

Evidently, the research argues for a shake-up* of the evolutionary tree. John Hawkes:

What’s the big deal?

If you want a basic description of the facts, here they are. Today’s series of papers is basically unprecedented in paleoanthropology. There are eleven papers in total, giving comprehensive coverage of the anatomy, paleoenvironment, and evolutionary interpretation of a new skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus and dental remains representing more than 30 additional individuals. They have been published simultaneously in a coordinated effort including excavation, faunal correlation, microscopy, palynology, CT-scanning, three-dimensional reconstruction, isotopic analysis, and lord knows what else.

It’s the closest thing we’ll ever see to a big science effort in the little field of human evolution – like Tim White was building a supercollider under everybody’s noses.

The skeleton has been nicknamed, “Ardi” and it is 4.4 million years old. The site is Aramis, Ethiopia, in the Middle Awash field research area. The skeleton includes most of both arms, except the humeri, both hands, both feet, the right leg, the left ox coxa and part of the right ilium, a bit of sacrum, a couple of vertebrae, and a near-complete skull and dentition. It’s a bit more complete than Lucy, although preserving different parts.

See John Hawkes’s Ardipithecus FAQ

Anthropology.net Ardi page

* White and colleagues 2009b give a long table of “derived” characters in Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, but they are “derived” only with reference to their inferred state in the human-chimpanzee LCA. But elsewhere in these papers, they argue that some of these “derived” characters are actually primitive morphologies for apes, for which chimpanzees are independently derived. For many of the dental features, if we supposed a Miocene ape ancestor, the broadened mandibular body, thicker enamel and so on would look primitive, not derived. In the table, they list upper and lower canine traits separately, and break them up into six or more for each. That’s a quick way of making one morphological change look like twelve or more instances of independent evolution. Talk about atomizing traits!

So I wonder if a real cladistic analysis might not place Ardipithecus with the australopithecines. Especially if it included a proper sampling of Miocene ape taxa.

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Steve Beyer on Jung’s Collective Unconscious

For me, Jung’s conception of the collective unconscious is not essential to a comprehensive perspective concerned with how it is symbols, meaningfulness, and evocative patterns are necessary to, and featured in, human personal and social generativity.

Beyer, in his fine overview, gently presents an obvious critique. I’ve excerpted below Beyer on James Hillman.

The Collective Unconscious

Just how many archetypes are there? There appears to be no constraint on their number or nature. Steven Walker, a scholar of comparative literature sympathetic to Jung, says that “the list of archetypes is nearly endless.” There can be an archetype for just about any possible human situation, it seems; and conversely each archetype can produce an indefinite number of archetypal images. And apparently we can make up archetypes at will. Is there a solar penis archetype? That seems surprisingly narrow for a fundamental a priori category of the imagination. A few minutes thought can yield a dozen archetypal possibilities, from masculine generativity to magical control of the weather. In the endless list of archetypes, how do we decide?

And if the person who has produced the numinous image gets to decide with which mythic motif or fairy tale situation it most clearly resonates, then it is not clear why we need to postulate transcendental archetypes of the collective unconscious at all.

Psychologist James Hillman faced this issue squarely, and he chose to eliminate the noun archetype altogether, while preserving the adjective archetypal. The problem, he says, is that Jung moved “from a valuation adjective to a thing and invented substantialities called archetypes… Then we are forced to gather literal evidence from cultures the world over and make empirical claims about what is defined to be unspeakable and irrepresentable.”

But we do not need to take the idea of the archetypal in this reified sense. Any image can be archetypal, Hillman says; it need only be given value — archetypalized or capitalized — by the person experiencing it. “By attaching archetypal to an image,” he says, “we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest, and deepest possible significance.”

This view informs Hillman’s approach to dreams, which is not hermeneutic, as it is for Jung, but rather phenomenological or, in Hillman’s term, imagistic, image-centered. “To see the archetypal in an image,” he says, “is not a hermeneutic move.” He thus sees little value in traditional amplification. “Hermeneutic amplifications in search of meaning take us elsewhere, across cultures, looking for resemblances which neglect the specifics of the actual image.” Instead of asking how an image is related to an archetype, the patient begins with and concentrates on images in all their multiple implications — a process psychologist Stephen Aizenstat calls animation, “entering the realm of the living dream.” The idea is to personify the image, ask it questions, interrogate its purposes, engage it as a teacher — even identify with it and question its meaning as one’s own. Hermeneutics is replaced by imagination.

By all means, read the entire article over at singingtotheplants.

Hillman’s heresy is mostly on the money for me.
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From Eye On Arnie to Eye on Culture Wars

Brand new anthro blog.

An Eye on the Culture Wars
An anthropological view of all things in dispute…

by Louise Krasniewicz, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. She co-authored Arnold Schwarzenegger: A Biography.

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Space, The Final Frontier

(click for large windowbox version)

If I reflect upon phenomenologists about town…well, there aren’t many of us. Anyhowsa, Frank M. Mills is one of the few. In the past few days, he’s melded his family of web media locations into emptyspaces. This will make it easier to keep track* of Frank.

I’ve done a little walkin’ and talkin’ with Frank years ago. With Frank, if you walk down–say, Virginia Street (above) in Lakewood–he’ll stop and talk with people and stop and contemplate and, otherwise go about it as if the real deal isn’t between points A and B. Great fella with which to get lost in space.

…since KW has gone off grid, I better look him up. Frank and KW are the only flâneurs I’ve ever met.

* or sniff his trail

“Better to follow the perfume, than the tracks.” (Shams)

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Blog: Africa Is A Country

Sean Jacobs authors the excellent Africa Is a Country blog.

His blog sets the bar high for any area-interest blog: diverse, well written, very smart, and, oft Sean bears down on a subject with laser focus.

hat tip to Sean, for this:

Sean Jacob’s summary-bio at the Graduate Program in International Affairs, New School.

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Paris Marashi’s videos of Tehran and Iran are lovely. 


In urban Iran, Sufi poetry oracles are sold on the street.

Paris Marashi youtube

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Not Everything Happens (Transformative Anthropology cont.)

Following from our discussing with a friend my conception of Transformative Anthropology, and its central conception, the decisive yet happenstance contingencies that irrevocably alter the course of one’s life and development, she tweeted a question:

How has randomness played a key role in your life?

To which a tweet fluttered back:

How can randomness exist in a universe where everything is connected?

Okay. As I unfold the provisional conceptions given by the phenomenology of necessary contingencies, I wrestle with both randomness and connection. Randomness, event, and connects are joined at the foundation. Yet, this is not a tight join by any means. To peal away what are presumptive aspects of both randomness (or happenstance,) and connection, is to jiggle and then separate the join.

The tweet’s import obviously accomplishes this without any qualification. It provides a proposition:

Where everything is connected, randomness cannot also exist.

Everybody is familiar with this proposition’s folk social-psychological rendition: everything happens for a reason. About this, there is a question: does this mean an a priori reason is revealed by eventuation? The event happens, and reveals the reason already concealed, as-it-were, in the event.

Judith spoke of this as being effectively like the collapse of the wave function.

Or, is the reason attached to the event as a post facto rationale?

In the case of the a posteriori rationale, how would one know which among several reasons, is correct? This same question arises with the a priori reason, but in its case there would have to be a correct reason, because–after all–it’s “all ready” in the event.

The idea that randomness is not compatible with a priori reasons given in a comprehensive universe of “nothing but” connections, would need to be unpacked by an advocate of that position. It is interesting to note that proponents of the idea, everything happens for a reason, almost always hold the a priori posit. In turn, this putative position is often dismissed as a self-deception.  

Not withstanding facile dismissals, the questions begged by this position are very challenging.

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Transformative Anthropology III – Gas Stop

I had the good fortune to reacquaint myself this week with a friend from 40 years ago. After explaining my research into the fragile contingencies underlying life changing events, she offered a terrific example, and, additionally brought a new term into my thinking on these matters.

She told me about meeting a future employer at a gas station, on the occasion when both had stopped at the same station, you know, for gas! The thing is: a stranger approaches her, recognizes her because she had taken note of her reputation in some public notice or the like, and strikes up a conversation.

What followed, eventually, was a job offer. And, what followed from taking the job were all sorts of other events that, in concrete respects, stand on the foundation of her changing jobs.

What would have happened had the soon-to-be new employer and employee not stopped in the gas station at the same moment? No one can say, but it’s as if such a speculation is about an alternative universe, rather than the universe in which this life altering and happenstance event took place.

My friend called the event, random. “Random” hadn’t occurred to me as a qualifier. It’s a good term because it strips away something of the various evaluative adjectives which follow from a random event turning out to be positive or negative.

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Transformative Anthropology I.

I’m going to try here to rope in a few colleagues to respond in public–here–to something I’ve been playing around with off and on for four years. To set this up, here is an edited version of an email I sent to a friend in February.

I have a very important intellectual inquiry to address to you.

Here’s the context. In 2005 I trained ‘street anthropologists’ to conduct informal inquiries about why members of their community had landed in that community. It was framed for me as a Boas-like drill down and the results were given by respondents as simple phenomenological answers. Since the goal was more to learn from the process of inquiry than to generate research for other uses, the debrief was as much about what it was like to experience the act of asking and listening.

However, something became obvious when we debriefed the survey. It was this: almost everybody surveyed ended up living in the community due to a priori features of their personal circumstance prior to their relocating to this community. These features turn out to be extremely fragile. Which is to say: that the features are each contingent on other fragile features.

So: the features are both necessary and also contingent upon other necessary features. What necessarily promoted the decision to relocate fanned out into very fragile webs of necessary “prior” conditions. Had one of those conditions been slightly different, the decision would have been different and the respondant would have ended up locating somewhere else.

I’ll give an example I have used to illustrate this. In 1974 I was working in a record store in my hometown of Cleveland and on a June afternoon a robber stuck the store up, marched me into the backroom, had me lay down, and shot me in the back. I was not badly wounded, but the bullet struck me two inches from my spine. A month later I decided to move (the hell) away from my hometown and took a bus to Vermont. Being shot allowed me to re-rationalize my–at the time–confused sense of where I was going in my life.

In Vermont, over time, I met my wife-to-be, developed my ‘karass’ and met lifelong friends, read through shelves of books while working at desk in the back of a book store, had remarkable encounters, met important influences, had wild once-in-a-lifetime experiences like staying up all night with John Cage (who became very close to my then wife,) and on and on. My intellectual preoccupations became diversified in ways I attribute to the flux of bohemian, new age, post-professional, outsider, academic, circumstances I encountered.

So, the upshot is: in what way was the robber a key mover for setting me on this unplanned vector?

Alternately, if he had not walked into the store on that afternoon, and done so based on his own contingencies, everything goes in a different direction. Literally, nothing that came after would have ever unfolded.

I have amplified this weird conjunction and necessary “generativity” of bullet and 19 year old hippie, by thinking out loud in front of workshop participants,

“Would I–today–wish for this robber not to have come into the store, and into my life?”


Armed with this insight, in a second round of surveys we asked questions aimed to evoke identification of the subject’s own necessary contingencies. The question: What brught you to Lakewood? Later, in my own one-on-one inquiries, it has turned out that all sorts of developmental ‘moves’ rest upon all sorts of fragile happenstance.

Several further insights: it’s apparent that we are not hard wired to view our own identity in these terms at all. I have not once made an inquiry to discover that the fragility of necessary conditions had already occurred as an insight of the subject.

Secondly, I have been asked “So why is this important?” To which I have replied, that understanding the fragility of what were/are necessary conditions, may offer us the opportunity to experience more accurately the reality of that which underpins our development in one direction, but not another. And, there’s lots more that could be said about what is the value of recognizing the ‘fragility of it all.’

As an aside, when Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, his recent book about the conditions which underpin success, I wondered if he would remark on the fragility factor. He does not, and refers to conditions simply in terms of ‘because ofs’ without ever assessing how fragile they are.

My questions is this:

Where is this fragility previously recognized by those who have reflected upon the structure of necessary conditions underneath human development?

(added note; August 2009)

I’ve stepped around how this could be considered in abstract terms or in “spiritualizing” terms. I’ve searched high and low for any commentary that addresses this in pragmatic and developmental terms. The reason I’ve gone in this direction is because I find the intersection of the objective-structural web of contingency, with, the possible import of these true features being well known by the subject, to be a pragmatic instance.

By pragmatic I mean in someway understandable by the subject, (in contemplating their own developmental contingencies,) as a truth, or verity.

Incidentally, this brings to my mind a pragmatic autopoiesis about the deep nature of human development; and given to this are random constitutive-generative “facts.”

I did find an august philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, who wrote a book, Luck: The Brilliant Randomness Of Everyday Life, that, surprisingly, qualifies everyday randomness brilliantly without qualifying the web of contingency.

Go figure!

Now I’m going to turn the loving screws to some friends a bit and learn more. What say you?

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A Good Example of Transformative Anthropology

A Man Walks Into a Pub

Well, hops- he only had one leg.

A man who had his leg amputated when he was 29 after a benign tumour was removed was in the process of saving up forty grand to buy a “bionic” one he had read about in America. Now 42 and not having saved anywhere near the amount he needed, he popped into his local for a pint, where he met another chap, also enjoying a beer.

Luckily though, the second man was a surgeon who specialised in fitting the computer-controlled limbs, and he mentioned he had a spare leg and could fit it for free. Which he did. 


Posted by Karter, September 30, 2008 @ k’telontour blog

Comment–good example of a phenomena of what I term transformative anthropology. (This is ill-named, but I’m sticking with it for the time being.)

A phenomena of this kind is described as exemplifying the initiation of a dramatic and lasting change in a person’s life for which happenstance is a necessary feature.


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Sustainability, Systems Awareness, Eros

There are times when I compel myself to withhold an astringent critique. If I’m on the ball, I can figure out how to render a sweeter critique delicately, when the circumstances call for this. Tonight presented such an occasion.

After a roundtable, leaning toward my very close friend Holly, leader of the fine local sustainability organization E4S, I posed the following thought problem:

“What if it turns out ten years from now that sustainability activists came to realize that more thinking and less activism would have been more effective than the opposite?”

The roundtable was about Sustainable Business Development and Poverty. Almost since the inception of E4S I have been making suggestions to Holly about the human (and social,) system that any business system is but a part. Now E4S has widened its context to consider the how sustainability might be positively related to poverty. This is very exciting, but having contemplated something of these relations for almost 30 years, I’ll admit there a number of astringent critiques that lay close at hand.

The above thought problem is really a type of meta-thought problem. It doesn’t regard specifics, it just provides an inversion of the current normative tendencies ‘here on the ground’ which favor instrumental activism over robust and studious “social-critical” contextualizing.

In the background, there may be lots of collaborative thinking time given over to consideration of critiques and practical system factors such as leverage points, dependencies, interdependencies, and, to more foundational aspects such as core assumptions, and, certain operational conceptions/suppositions. However, if this is going on, not much of this bubbles up into the publicized open source. And, the public dialogs are almost entirely about what needs to be done and doing.

As a movement, is sustainability often one-sided in this way?

If so, there likely are a number of reasons for this, yet the most practical reason would be that, by definition, implementation, (those activities which are manifestations of instrumentalism,) always begin in real world actualities. At least in this, the instrumentalist, so-to-speak, keenly appreciates what the current, actual social system is able to provide for, produce, and support.

However, as my thought problem proposes, there’s no self-evident reasoning that supports the bias in favor of doing, (and the bias disfavoring more cogent understanding of systems,) as being, per force, optimal. In fact, there is a strong argument able to be made that a cogent understanding of systems may turn out to be mission-critical.

Let’s suppose this kind of awareness of systems, knowledge of context, and understanding could be a high value requisite of high leverage point activism and instrumentalism.
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Anthropology Carnival #70

Heads up, ye sapiens sapiens: @afarensis99 – Four Stone Hearth Volume 70.

Field reports to follow…

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In this excerpt from my film “Zrareet ! ” my mother-in-law explains how to train a Moroccan husband with a great sense of humor. They have been married for over 60 years.

wifechadly Youtube channel

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Big find in the world of old artifacts: a female figurine was unearthed (New York Times), and its age was estimated at 35,000+ years. Hohle Fels Cave near Ulm in the Swabian Jurain Germany. It’s a fantastic find.

But, then came the finder’s modest speculation, and, next came projection. The key word for the latter was: pornographic. This following from the quote of one of the finders,

“It’s very sexually charged,” said University of Tuebingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard, whose team discovered the figure in September.

Later, an expert commentator remarked,

If there’s one conclusion you want to draw from this, it’s that an obsession with sex goes back at least 35,000 years,” University of Cambridge anthropologist Paul Mellars told LiveScience. He was not involved in the new finding. “But if humans hadn’t been largely obsessed with sex they wouldn’t have survived for the first 2 million years. None of this is at all surprising. The figure is explicitly — and blatantly — that of a woman, with an exaggeration of sexual characteristics (large, projecting breasts, a greatly enlarged and explicit vulva, and bloated belly and thighs) that by twenty-first-century standards could be seen as bordering on the pornographic.”

Then the Huffington Post headlined the story this way:

Venus of Hohle Fels: PREHISTORIC PORN

And so it goes, as Mr. Mellars’s odd sense of ‘the pornographic’ gets driven as a meme through all the media channels.

Also, of interest to me, is the difficult problem inherent in offering speculative yet informed descriptions of paleolithic life using modern categories. Those categories are abstractions with respect to what might be called ‘proto-categorality.’ Even to use ‘obsess’ may reach in too over-determined a way toward whatever were the affectual energetics–subject to being named–of paleolithic life.

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“History” (excerpt from A Bibliography On America For Ed Dorn)

click to see large version
“Theory” Theory of Society

click to see large version
(source: Additional Prose of Charles Olson Four Seasons Foundation 1974)

I offer three pages for closer inspection, the only way to start —

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Last-Minute Changes. Scientific orthodoxy says that human evolution stopped a long time ago. Did it? (Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009) Christopher Chabris ‘psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.’

 Where it is written:

But scientists do disagree over the pace and time-span of human evolution.  Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending begin “The 10,000 Year Explosion” with a remark from the paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, who said that “there’s been no biological change in humans for 40,000 or 50,000 years.” They also cite the evolutionist Ernst Mayr, who agrees that “man’s evolution towards manness suddenly came to a halt” in the same epoch.

Gould and Mayr do not constitute an orthodoxy. There is no orthodoxy that makes the claim Chabris has attached to it.

Evolution doesn’t stop, and it doesn’t stop for the cockroach and the hagfish and those bacteria that are apparently little changed over half-to-a-billion years. So the tag to the headline is a classic strawman. Chabris, you done over heated your pan o’ pablum. The controversy about the pace of human evolution is not very interesting to me personally, but there is no question about, nor orthodoxy suggesting, that the process of evolution can halt itself. It is, as it were, a dumb, albeit dynamic, kind of natural machine. Snails pace or cheetah; likely to vary for a lot of reasons between really really slow and faster. I suppose evolutionary homeostasis sort of happens given specific homeostatic environs, but I don’t know any biologist who claims mutations then halt.

Meanwhile, as long as anthropologists are coming under attack, they’ve earned the dull point of Richard Dawkins’s toy spear. Dawkins on Darwin. Why we really do need to know the amazing truth about evolution, and the equally amazing intellectual dishonesty of its enemies

Here is yet another article I would peg in the vain of post-sokalism. (I hope you get the ref.) Dawkins is (always) exercised at those who would seemingly relevatize scientific truth. He will eventually go off in the article on proponents of pseudo-science, but anthropology earns his ire in this dim section:

A scientist arrogantly asserts that thunder is not the triumphal sound of God’s balls banging together, nor is it Thor’s hammer. It is, instead, the reverberating echoes from the electrical discharges that we see as lightning. Poetic (or at least stirring) as those tribal myths may be, they are not actually true.

But now a certain kind of anthropologist can be relied on to jump up and say something like the following: Who are you to elevate scientific “truth” so? The tribal beliefs are true in the sense that they hang together in a meshwork of consistency with the rest of the tribe’s world view. Scientific “truth” is only one kind (“Western” truth, the anthropologist may call it, or even “patriarchal”). Like tribal truths, yours merely hang together with the world view that you happen to hold, which you call scientific. An extreme version of this viewpoint (I have actually encountered this) goes so far as to say that logic and evidence themselves are nothing more than instruments of masculine oppression over the “intuitive mind

Actually, Richard, scientific truth IS only one kind of truth. However the valency attached to any truth has to do with how it’s kind has been worked out. This inquiry into what are the applications of, and explanatory frameworks for, and what are consistent evaluative regimes, and, pertinent supportive logics and schemes of quantification, theorization, (etc.,) are crucial for the work of biologist and anthropologist and tribe. (Of course the tribesman’s points of emphasis and methodology may be quite different.) The kind posed by scientific truth is required to be scientifically worked out, but other kinds of truth are not required to be scientifically worked out. This isn’t to say science isn’t enabled so as to contest some other kind of truth–it may well be–but those other kinds of truths may also be of a different kind too. And, sorry Richard, but science literally came along in the history and development of, what I will term, sentient empiricism. So it strikes me as banal to suggest that scientific truth is per force superior if you don’t also proscribe the scientific domain and give it a historical qualification too.

I don’t see how relativism poses much of a threat to science. Two things I do know: scientists all the time do good work without being adept at the philosophy of science, and, some kinds of scientific truths are required to be provisional, and in a strong sense are thus relative to future developments.

Anthropologist Maurice Block wrote,

“If culture is the whole or a part what people must know in a particular social environment to operate efficently…” (in Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science; 1991)

Full stop. Such peoples must know a bunch of unscientific and no less effective truth. Almost everybody is superstitious, hardly anybody is scientific, yet the anthropologist or some other kind of social scientist, may aim at giving an account for the basis of human efficiency given in a particular social environment, and include all sorts of other kinds of truths. These will be the truths the tribe deploys. In doing this, given are the many domains of inquiry that are commensurate with different  kinds of tasks of understanding the nature of the tribal truths.

I decry the imposition of pseudo-science, such as creationism, into the science curriculum, but I am also fascinated by what accounts for the social impetus granted in the wish of people to have creationism taught in biology classes. Biology has nothing to say about this social phenomena. Except for polemicists who savage the implicit oddness of humans who are moved to promote pseudo-science.

There is so much long-standing controversy in anthropology and meta-anthropology over the valence of materialism and causal regimes and other knotty problems of reflexivity and stance and culturated bias and, in a word, subjectivities, that I would say to Dawkins, ‘anthropology has its own conundrums.’

(Dawkins) Like tribal truths, yours merely hang together with the world view that you happen to hold, which you call scientific.

This nominalist threat poses no contest to science at all. Yeah, it may be aggravating in the battle for column inches! Scientific truth is true in its well worked out ‘kind,’ or,–better–domain. Also, any anthropologist who maintains that scientists happen to hold a world view needs to explain what he or she means by ‘happen!’. But, who claims this?

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Why Music?, appearing December 19 in The Economicist, summarizes some of the theories evolutionary anthropologists have been floating to explain why music is a pervasive feature of human life.

In reading this article about subject matter I am long acquainted with and, moreover, about a question I have recently focused upon, I saw how the treatment circles back to a previous posting here about the fault line drawn between evolutionary and social anthropologists in the academy. (We post-anthropologists, being heuristic whores, simply see poorly sighted researchers fondling the part of the elephant nearby.) This divide seems clear enough in pondering the biological fact of sound organization, and, the function of music in a social context.

These two concerns, twin concerns if you will overlap:

A second idea that is widely touted is that music binds groups of people together. The resulting solidarity, its supporters suggest, might have helped bands of early humans to thrive at the expense of those that were less musical.

The evolutionary conceit requires function to advantage selection, or, as Stephen Pinker would have it, a function can also be equivalent to detritus if it implements no clear advantageous function. The rejoinder from the side of culture obviously stands on the ground of functionality being–at least–clearly advantageous to, well, culture.

The article is decent enough, and, the comments are also worthwhile. As is the usual case, some of the comments express various ideas of ‘folk’ anthropology, or how the uninformed necessarily look at the subject. My own view is that those informal views figure into it too in the sense that they are self-reports of the value of music.

The uncredited (online) author of the article ends with a weird and untrue assertion:

The truth, of course, is that nobody yet knows why people respond to music.

Actually, the truth is that neuroscientists understand all sorts of stuff about the effect of music on the brain. These insights don’t answer the entire question of ‘why,’ yet they answer the necessary mechanical half of the question.

See Dr. Daniel Levitin on this, and, don’t read his two excellent books-check out the audio book (Amazon) equivalents with their audible samples.)

The other half can be approached by asking people why they respond to music. Right? (The phenomenologists day is never done!) Obviously, this real time inquiry can’t address the departed subject, but there is no lack of secondary and tertiary material.

There is a third interdisciplinary move too: which is to admit into the field of consideration esoteric, yogic, meta-physical, perspectives and flesh out a primary supposition concerned with the integral vibrational nature of, as it were, the inside and the outside. On a gross level, this can be approached simply by blocking one’s ears so as to become more acutely privy to what the body is sounding all the time. Try this if you never have before. There’s no reason to exclude such suppositions from research focused on higher conceptual orders of musical life because those suppositions are explicit features, are facts discoverable in all sorts of cultural instances and locations, such as the Berber and Gnawa cultures in North Africa.

(There are some reference suggestions over at the Rhythm River complex; see Resources.)

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I came across Hannah Fearn’s article The Great Divide, about the battle between social anthropologists and evolutionary anthropologists, (in Times Higher Education; Nov 20:2008) several days after it had been published and decided to let the comments percolate a bit. It’s not a very good article in the sense of offering any substantial definition of the controversy.

It revolves around Fearn’s awkward formulation:

Put crudely, social anthropologists describe and compare the development of human cultures and societies, while evolutionary anthropologists seek to explain it by reference to our biological evolution.

I will forgive the tautological miscue, “explain development by reference to evolution” and forgive the superficial “describe and compare,” while I chuckle to myself about a half century’s worth of controversy in anthropology, hapening just among social anthropologists!

I suppose in jockeying for grants and assistants and for promoting prominence in curricula, there might be lots of snobbery acted out between socios and evos, but nothing in the article points to how actual distinctions of difference have been hashed out in anthropology, the philosophy of science, and the application of theoretical meta-science in anthropology. This, doh, only reveals once again that most scientists don’t have to be expert in the philosophy of science. (If they were, they would be adept at playing the devil’s advocate against their own ‘brand.’)

The concise way to settle this controversy isn’t given enough weight in the article. It’s a controversy about what part of the elephant the different blind researchers are touching is the “best part of all.”

Obviously, both evolutionary and social anthropologists generate hypotheses and then deploy stable evidence and secure suppositions from within a proven methodological and self-consistent verification regime yada yada yada. I would guess there are evolutionary anthropologists who propose that quantifiable research, based in strict nomothetic frameworks, utilizing only biological scale evidence, offers a more veracious result. Whatever. There is no ground to stand on with such a claim, or, maybe one can visualize the elephant standing on the bio-anthropologist’s head in such cases.

Because we could classify entire classes of inquiry to be both worthwhile and also immune to the minds, tools, and procedures, of evolutionary anthropology, there is sometimes no possible discussion about what is a more appropriate road for investigation. (Roughly the instructive point is: what kind of investigation best matches what one wishes to know.) This, basically, is a kind of didactic point of meta-science. I also suppose it is today ironic that evolutionary anthropologists work in the same field that has such sturdy offshoots oriented around a critique of science and scientism. But, nevertheless, an anthropologist could become interested in making an account for the existence for some evolutionary or another kind of reason of just these kinds of divides!

Anyway…the comments to the article are better than the article but nothing there really acknowledges the actuality of a philosophy of the various schemes (sub-disciplines,) of anthropology.

(Note my own interest in all of this issue from my low position as a lay reader, albeit one whose reading tends these days to focus on subject matter more in the camp of evolutionary anthropology. However, I have a long-standing fascination with meta-science and, specifically, the problems of verification and what conceptual structures are necessary to truth claims.)

My mentor Mulla Nasrudin shall have the last word:

See: Philosophy of Anthropology and sociology; Turner and Risjord.

A favorite volume I recommend:

Anthropology In Theory; Moore, Sanders, ed. Blackwell | Amazon (Editor Henrietta Moore is a preeminent scholar on the philosophy of anthropology.

December 15 (add)

Nicholas Baumard’s article Neuroanthropology or Ethnographic Neurosciences, at Culture and Cognition, can be read as a practical view on the controversy.

Oliver Morin supplies a single comment, from which its first of two paragraphs is:

Interesting point. I am afraid things are likely to evolve in exactly the opposite direction: methods and skills are more bankable than theory in many fields. Using a specific, easy to identify method gives an immediate appearance of professionalism. Theories are much more common, and their quality is much more difficult to control. Even if a theory has powerful implications about, say, the way the brain processes a sentence, if it makes no predictions in terms of localization or cell activity (many excellent theories of syntax do not provide such predictions), it won’t be considered neuroscience, even though no one can deny that your object of study is the human brain. The shiny “neuro” label is much praised and envied, so scientists try to control what gets the label and what does not in the cheapest and easiest possible way.

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John Perkins.

The categorical splitting between masculine/feminine; head/heart; thinking/feeling; (etc./etc.) is at least interesting for this splitting maneuver being long-standing. It sometimes says more about the splitter. It carries with it the appeal of heartfelt reductions. On the other hand, for me, a useful dichotomy or polarity–and they are a crucial structural aspect of some of my work–requires them to be the ground for a substantial and oft fuzzy and meaningful richness. What’s the overlap between head and heart? …for example.

In terms of favored investigations into the phenomenology of folk psychology, a dichotomy such a head/heart often turns out to be robustly reified in self reports.

However, casting backward upon indigenous peoples contemporary theories of mind as if these peoples were able to psychologize about themselves as moderns do is mistaken. This is an error of reflexivity: our self sense confirms a bias about other, olden selves.

In doing this it is possible to buffer away actual differences. And next to simplify; while at the same time dropping modern tools, tools which could come in very handy in integrating, as it were, head and heart.

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