The real damage to anthropology, however, is the paradoxical retreat into conservatism, from which the discipline’s founders painstakingly broke: the deployment of one’s own beliefs and values as heuristics for the study of all human life. The consequences of this retreat are many and I shall mention here only two. The first is the persistence of functionalism, or the reduction of social analysis to a set of ready-made beliefs, whether beliefs in the primacy of the physical world (materiality) or in the individual’s inner, psychological life (affect) or in the universal pursuit of autonomy (resistance). The second is anthropology’s ambient pietism, or the displacement of analysis with assertions of one’s own moral or political stance. It is all very well to believe in gender equality or the evils of colonialism, but when our own normative position is deployed as fundamental social theory—such as feminist or postcolonial theory—it does little more than reassert the already-held beliefs. The evaluative judgment built into it blocks social explanation and generates results that are complacent, conventional, and closed to the discovery of new things. The confusion of advocacy for analysis has made contemporary anthropology allergic to any kind of genuine moral or political difference. If earlier generations saw the comprehension of fundamental moral difference—head hunting, cannibalism, tribal warfare, and the like—as their duty, the new clings increasingly to the familiar close to home. Theoretically, what has displaced different people’s cosmologies are “common sense notions—of polity, self, and essential, shared humanity—that metropolitan actors and institutions foist upon the world” (Scheele and Shryock in press). The result is the growing poverty of anthropological theory, and the retreat of the discipline from the frontline of social theory.
Piliavsky, Anastasia. 2017. “Disciplinary Memory against Ambient Pietism.” HAU-JOURNAL OF ETHNOGRAPHIC THEORY 7(3):13–17.
In saying that what anthropology must do is to interpret, Geertz was asserting that the kind of explanation it should seek to offer is qualitatively different from that pursued in the natural sciences, which had provided models and inspiration for other schools of sociological and philosophical thought, most proximately in anthropology at the time, in the diverging approaches of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Leslie White and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The distinction between interpretation and causal explanation has roots in German historical thought, in the idea that the possible forms of explanatory success are fundamentally different in the sciences respectively of nature and spirit (Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften). The foundational claim is that human beings are, in Charles Taylor’s resonant phrase, ‘self-interpreting animals’. On this view, the ideas and values people have inform their self-descriptions, and those self-descriptions stand not merely in an external causal relation to what they do, but are internally constitutive of who they are and what they are doing. If this is so, then explanation of human conduct in terms of causal laws, on the model of the natural sciences, must be a flawed ambition. It is not merely that such ambitions are impossible to achieve in practice; it is a mistake in principle even to aim at them. An entirely different set of criteria is required for success in an interpretive enterprise. This much was common currency in the linguistic turn, and Geertz expressed the general position forcefully. In addition, he argued that it is a fact about human evolution that we have developed in such a way that being shaped by culture is now part of human ‘nature’, so that without culture, humans would be radically incomplete and unviable. So, for Geertz, there was a firm scientific account of why human conduct, being inherently meaningful, could not be subject to scientific explanation.
Laidlaw, James. 2018. “Interpretive Cultural Anthropology: Geertz and His ‘Writing-Culture’Critics.” Pp. 148–158 in Schools and Styles of Anthropological Theory. Routledge.