Cultural Anthropology & Science, ANessay

The Logic of Things That Just Happen
By: Lee Drummond
Cultural Anthropology and Science
This little essay is intended to be a synthesis of sorts, but, like any
remodeling project, it produces a good deal of rubble along the way. Its immediate
inspiration is the call, in the April 1995 Anthropology Newsletter, for comments on
the imposing topic of the relation between anthropology and science. I suspect,
however, that many AN readers will view this invitation in a rather more focused
light: as an occasion to thrash out the issue of whether cultural anthropology and
science have any meaningful connection. Although I certainly cannot speak as a
member of the intellectual communities formed by archeologists, paleontologists or
linguists, it is my strong impression that most of these specialists have already made
their separate peace with the anthropology-and-science conundrum. They may not
all have decided that, yes, anthropology is a science, and yes, we are scientists, but
they have, I think, more or less concluded that the issue itself is far less important to
them than determining the key factors in the origins of urbanism, the evolution of
the Homo line, or the spread of languages. It is only cultural anthropologists who
are left dangling on the tenterhooks of an identity crisis that continues to provoke
lively, heartfelt, and acrimonious debate.
Science, Genuine and Spurious
Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that the question whether or not
anthropology is a science matters a great deal to cultural anthropologists. It matters
so much, in fact, that they have formed themselves into rather snitty little factions
based on the exclusionary "yes" and "no" answers to that question (those who would
answer "maybe" -- or even "who cares?" -- are branded "generalists" and scorned as
pariahs by both camps).
Without sorting through the labels and their theoretical nuances here, it is
probably safe to say that those in the "yes" and "no" camps draw their lines in the
sand over the issue of objectivity. Members of the "yes" camp (whose totemic
emblem is Marvin Harris) embrace the idea that there exists a clear separation
between the observer and observed, and that the latter (which they call "facts")
manifest an inherent connectedness and regularity (which they call "laws"). This
matter-of-fact, empirical orientation to the world, when dressed up in philosophical
garb, is called positivism. Members of the "no" camp (whose totemic emblem is
Clifford Geertz) maintain that anthropological observer and observed, being
persons, can only artificially be segregated into subject-object categories, and so
knowledge of the observed is inherently inter-subjective and context-specific. This
rejection of a conventionally scientific outlook in favor of approaches taken from
literary criticism and philosophy has been called interpretivism or, following the
fashion, postmodernism. Anthropological positivists believe there is a social world
out there which can be known objectively, while their opposite number, the
postmodernists, believe that all knowledge of the social world is itself a product of
social forces, of inter-subjective understandings.
In attempting a synthesis here, I do not propose to borrow a bit of one theory
and a dash of another in order to cobble together something that should please
everyone (but that, like Bill Clinton's politics, winds up pleasing no one). Nor, you
may be relieved to know, am I going to take sides and contribute to the polite namecalling that characterizes the anthropology-and-science debate. Rather, I want to
suggest that both approaches are very seriously flawed, for both stereotype and
misconstrue the nature of "science" so badly that it makes little sense to say that one
approach is "pro-science" and the other "anti-science." If cultural anthropology's
stock-in-trade is to understand what "those others" in the world are about, I am
afraid we have failed miserably where "those others" turn out to be, not exotic
tribesmen or ethnics, but those rather bland characters in our midst whom we label -often with a tinge of a racial slur that would not be tolerated in other circumstances - "scientists."
Schismogenic Anthropologists: The Double Paradox of Our Identity Crisis
This breakdown in our ethnographic sense of the world has resulted in a
bizarre double paradox that does far worse than obscure our understanding of the
anthropology-science relationship. It ties it in knots. The double paradox is just
a. While positivists stridently claim to follow the "scientific method," the
matter-of-fact, nuts-and-bolts social world they describe is nothing at all like
the world of physical reality as that is presented in contemporary physics,
cosmology, and chaos-complexity theory. Anthropological positivists are thus
very unscientific, both in their approach and in their depiction of social reality.
Their nostalgia for a scientific worldview of cause-and-effect determinism
allies them, not with a putative empirical tradition handed down from Francis
Bacon, but with other religious or ideological movements. Positivists are
myth-makers, who tell the myth of Science.
b. While postmodernists are as strident as positivists when they denounce
the notion of a privileged, objective description of the world following
scientific canons of observation and analysis, the circumstantial, intersubjective social world they do describe bears a surprising resemblance to the
physical world presented by practicing scientists and mathematicians. Despite
their efforts to distance themselves from the whole enterprise of science and to
ally themselves with the "discursive strategies" (as they like to say) of literary
critics and hermeneutic philosophers, postmodernists are actually quite
scientific in their depiction of social reality. It is just that, like the fellow who
had been writing prose all his life, they didn't know it.
This double paradox (which is much like Gregory Bateson's notion of
schismogenesis) locks postmodernists and positivists in a ritual of mutual
antagonism and perhaps (as our tribal elders fear), destruction. For all their
differences, both are myth-makers who tell themselves a myth of Science.
Curiously, their discord arises from telling themselves what is essentially the same
myth: that of science (or Science) as an ideological affirmation of a world of causeand-effect determinism. They are drawn into battle under this common banner. In
such a situation there can, of course, be no winner -- any more than Bateson's Iatmul
could triumph over the stereotypes of friend and foe, man and woman that filled
their lives with suspicion and violence.
The Logic of Things That Just Happen
At this critical juncture in the (d)evolution of cultural anthropology, I believe
it is essential that both positivists and postmodernists take stock of the exciting
developments in the disparate fields of elementary particle physics, cosmology, and
chaos-complexity theory. For these have much more than a general intellectual
interest: besides bringing the anthropology-and-science debate into focus by
showing us what scientists are actually doing and thinking, they suggest close
parallels with vexing theoretical problems in the analysis of culture.
In the limited space available here, let me put my case as starkly as possible.
Positivists intent on producing a "science of culture" place their faith in the idea that
there is an order, a pattern, a "logic" in social life, that our actions and beliefs have a
connectedness and determinacy about them. Things don't just happen, and things
don't just mean whatever you or I or even an exotic "native" says they mean. Things
have an objective, patterned nature. Postmodernists are forever doing a fan dance
with nihilism, for they deny the existence of an underlying order or logic, claiming
instead that whatever passes as "knowledge" or "truth" is itself a socially wrought,
motivated form. Even granting them the knowledge-power complex, it is still true, I
think, that for postmodernists things just happen.
Where could a synthesis of these antithetical positions possibly lie? How
might we salvage the idea that events have an inherent order or logic and the claim
that things just happen? I suggest that the only way to deal with the paradox(es)
before us is with another paradox: we need to find a logic of things that just happen.
Quixotic as that search sounds, it is the very goal that workers in the fields of
quantum mechanics, cosmology, and, more recently, chaos-complexity theory have
been pursuing -- and with staggering successes. While anthropological positivists
chant their mantras to determinism and postmodernists dance on the sands of
contingency, sober-minded physicists and mathematicians are busily sketching the
outlines of a physical world which combines a sublime logic with an indeterminate
welter of nearly chaotic events. Bit by bit, they have been assembling a logic of
things that just happen.
Suppose, for example, that we have a very simple physical system before us,
say a tiny cloud of electrons confined within a magnetic field. This system is
installed in our laboratory, where we have hooked up loads of instruments to
measure everything about its action. We know that the kinetic energy of the
individual electrons is too low to smash through the confining magnetic field, so
whatever else we can or can't say about the system, we are confident that it is whole
and stable as a group. Yet when we check on our apparatus the next day, we
discover that a few electrons have escaped. How could this have happened? We go
over the pile of data produced by our instruments during the last twenty-four hours
and learn that nothing spectacular went on in the chamber -- except that from time to
time an electron simply got out. There was no identifiable cause-and-effect event,
such as a collision, nor was there even any temporal regularity to these electron
escapes. (The Aztecs didn't run low on protein one day and start eyeing their
neighbors in the next valley and licking their chops. The Hindu priests didn't figure
out that it made more sense to keep stray cattle around rather than throw another
Zebu on the barbie.) Here, at the most minute and simplest physical level, with
loads of instruments to keep track of everything, we are confronted with a world in
which things just happen. For the positivist, anthropological or otherwise, this is, as
Sly says to the bad guy in Cobra, your worst nightmare.
And things only get worse when a quantum physicist drops by the lab and,
seeing us scratching our heads, takes a minute to explain to us poor sods that those
electron escapes are to be expected. True, the particles do not have the physical
energy required to penetrate the magnetic field confining them, but from time to
time an individual electron just "tunnels" through the barrier. As the physicist
explains, there is always a small degree of uncertainty about an electron's position,
and sometimes that uncertainty simply locates it on the other side of the barrier.
Elementary particle physics, surely most people's candidate for the "hardest" of the
sciences, revels in this "magic and mystery" of the physical world (the phrase is
Roger Penrose's, in The Emperor's New Mind).
Postmodernists cannot spend much time rejoicing over their positivist
colleagues' frustration, however, for the physicist has some unsettling news for them
as well. She goes to the blackboard and begins scribbling down some truly
formidable quantum field equations, which she says rigorously describe the
particles' behavior and tie that behavior into a grand scheme of physical theory.
There is an inherent logic to the physical system, but that logic does not and cannot
specify just which particle will "tunnel" through the barrier next nor when that event
will occur. It is a logic of things that just happen. No amount of "contextualizing
discourse" or "experimental modes of ethnographic writing" will alter the
implacable truth of the system. To the postmodernists' chagrin, they have glimpsed
the future -- and it resembles Foucault less than Plato.
Life in the Ruins
If cultural anthropology is to survive the growing schism between positivists
and postmodernists, where does it look for its reintegration? What hope is there of
the synthesis I spoke of at the beginning of this piece? How, as southern
Californians love to say, will we Grow In Our Relationship? I would suggest a twostage process to promote said Growth. First, it is essential that we recognize the
debilitating effects of what I have called the double paradox that afflicts all our
thinking about the role of science in cultural anthropology. The distressing truth is
that our differences, which are all too real, are based largely on notions of "science"
that are riddled with stereotype and conceit. Second, I think an inevitable result of
learning even a little of what contemporary scientists are up to will be to invigorate
and deepen our quest for the meaning of cultural processes.
For those thinkers are truly onto something (and some of them, perhaps
remarkably for physicists and mathematicians, even sound like they are on
something). They seem to be peeling back layers concealing a universe that displays
an astonishing combination of the logical and the mystical, of determinism and
chance. Consider only a few of the titles by one of the most prolific and profound of
today's physicists, Paul Davies: The Accidental Universe, God and the New Physics,
The Ghost in the Atom, The Cosmic Blueprint, The Matter Myth, and (the audacity
of these physicists!) The Mind of God. Although we cultural anthropologists are not
likely to tap into the Mind of God in the foreseeable future, I believe we can
participate, and participate fully -- not just as lapdogs of the physicists -- in
exploring the mystical and logical workings of that entity that is every bit as
mysterious and magical as the quantum world: human culture.
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