Anthropology is Not Ethnography

Ingold, Tim 2008. Anthropology is Not Ethnography. Proceedings of the British Academy 154: 69-92.

He [Radcliffe-Brown] did so in terms of a contrast, much debated then but little heard of today, between idiographic and nomothetic inquiry. An idiographic inquiry, Radcliffe-Brown explained, aims to document the particular facts of past and present lives, whereas the aim of nomothetic inquiry is to arrive at general propositions or theoretical statements. Ethnography, then, is specifically a mode of idiographic inquiry, differing from history and archaeology in that it is based on the direct observation of living people rather than on written records of material remains attesting to the activities of people in the past. Athropology, to the contrary, is a field of nomothetic science. (Ingold 2008: 70)
From this light semiotics of culture is closer to anthropology than ethnography. Although, it does seem to combine the idiographic and nomothetic. Go and figure.
The distinction between the idiographic and the nomothetic was first coined in 1894 by the German philosopher-historian Wilhelm Windelband, a leading figure in the school of thought then known as neo-Kantianism. Windelband's real purpose was to lay down a clear dividing line between the craft of the historian, whose concern is with judgements of value, and the project of natural science, concerned as it is with the accumulation of positive knowledge based on empirical observation. But he did so by identifying history with the documentation of particular events and science with the search for general laws. And this left his distinction wide open for appropriation by positivistic natural science to denote not its opposition to history but the two successive stages of its own programme: first, the systematic collection of empirical facts; and secondly, the organisation of these facts within an overarching framework of general principles. (Ingold 2008: 70-71)
Put this way the distinction is probably comparable with Dilthey's "explaining nature" and "understanding history". But only on the surface, because there seem to be quite different matters at work.
One way treats every entity or event as an objective fact, the other attributes to it some meaning or value. [...] Contemporary readers will immediately recognise in this a forerunner to the so-called etic-emic distinction. (Ingold 2008: 71)
As Mary Ritchie Key put it in 1979, the etic/emic distinction is not often understood. Here etics treats "every entity or event as an objective fact" and emic "attributes to it some meaning or value". Making unjust generalizations again, semiotics of culture seems to deal with the emic side more - but this hunch is based solely on the hint towards "meaning or value".
The theoretician operating in a nomothetic mode imagines a world that is, by its nature, particulate. Thus the reality of the social world, for Radcliffe-Brown, comprises 'an immense multitude of actions and interactions of human beings' (1952: 4). Out of this multitude of particular events the analyst has then to abstract general features that amount to a specification of form. (Ingold 2008: 72)
This sounds acceptable, but what does "a specification of form" entail? Is it something like a typology of forms (of actions and interactions)?
Let us suppose, Nadel postulated, taht between persons A nad B we observe diverse behaviours denoted by the letters a, b, c ... n, but that all index a condition of 'acting towards' - of A acting towards B and of B acting towards A. We denote this condition with the colon (:). It then follows that a formal relationship (r) exists between A and B, under which is subsumed the behavioural series a ... n. Or in short:
A r B, if
A (a, b, c ... n): B, and vice versa
∴r ⊃ Σ a ... n
My purpose in recovering this formulation from the rightful oblivion into which it quickly fell is only to highlight the sense of integration epitomised in the last line by the Greek 'sigma', the sign conventionally used in mathematics to denote the summation of a series. The abstract relation, here, takes the form of a covering statement that encompasses every concrete term in the series. (Ingold 2008: 72-73)
Category: failed attempts to apply logical thinking in the study of behaviour. Aleksei Lotman's 1988. "On axiomatic method in ethology" belongs to this category. What is frightening about this is the notion of "series". Especially in Jakobson and Tynyanov's 1928. theses the notion of "series", as an synonym for "system", produces an eery feeling that there has been a lot of quasi-mathematical dabbling going on without us non-mathematically thinking ignorants really understanding what's going on.
When Kroeber spoke of 'descriptive integration', however, he meant something quite different: more akin, perhaps, to the integration of an artist's picture on the canvas as he paints a landscape. To the artist's gaze, the landscape presents itself not as a multitude of particulars but as a variegated phenomenal field, at once continuous and coherent. Within this field, the singularity of every phenomenon lies in its enfording - in its positioning and bearing, and in the poise of a momentarily arrested movement - of the entangled histories of relations by which it came to be there, at that position and in that moment. And as the artist tries to preserve that singularity in the work of the brush, so, for Kroeber, does the anthropologist in his endeavours of description. This is what he meant when he insisted that the aim of anthropology, as of history, must be one of 'integrating phenomena as such' (1935: 546). (Ingold 2008: 73)
A nice analogy that can be compared with the discrete/continuous distinction in the semiotics of culture, at least when viewed from Langer's dscursive/non-discursive standpoint (as I was told by Indrek Grigor, viewing the d/c distinction as the d/n-d distinction is "ideological", so I'm keeping open an option that there are many interpretations of what the d/c distinction entails; perhaps several interpretations are valid, perhaps not and mine is wrong).
Thus what Kroeber called the 'nexus among phenomena' (ibid.) is there to be described, in the relational coherence of the world; it is not something to be extracted from it as one might seek the general features of a form from the range of its concrete and particular instantiations. For precisely that reason, Kroeber thought, it would be wrong to regard the phenomena of the social world as complex (ibid.). Contemplating the landscape, the painter wolud be unlikely to exclaim 'What a cpmolex landscape this is!' He may be struck by many things, but complexity is not one of them. Nor is it a consideration in the regard of the historically oriented anthropologist. Complexity only arises as an issue in the attempt to reassemble a world already decomposed into elements, as a picture, for example, might be cut up to make a jigsaw puzzle. (Ingold 2008: 73)
Here I actually feel that the issue is "ideological". Or, rather, methodological? I believe that the social world is indeed complex. The artist's rendering and the social anthropologis's - for a lack of a better world - conclusion may indeed be simple, but... Argh. I guess we have a classical noumenal/phenomenal or Ding-an-sich problem at our hands (donotwant.jpg).
But like the painter, and unlike the puzzle-builder, Kroeber's anthropologist seeks an integration 'in terms of the totality of phenomena' (1935: 547) that is ontologically prior to its analytical decomposition. (Ingold 2008: 74)
This is where I recall that Kroeber advocated something termed cultural holism.
Yet if the anthropologist describes the social world as the artist paints a landscape, then what becomes of tmie? The world stands still for no one, least of all for the artist or the anthropologist, and the latter's description, like the former's depiction, can do no more than catch a fleeting moment in a never-ending process. In that moment, however, is complessed the movement of the past that brought it about, and in the tension of that composition lies the farce that will propel it into the future. It is this enfolding of a generative past and a future potential in the present moment, and not the location of that moment in any abstract chronology, which makes it historical. Reasoning along these lines, Kroeber came to the conclusion that time, in the chronological sense, is inessential to history. Presented as a kind of 'descriptive cross-section' or as the characterisation of a moment, a historical account can just as well be synchronic as diachronic. (Ingold 2008: 74)
One could probably compare this treatment to Jakobson's idea of "permanent diacronic synchrony" and Lotman's Culture and Explosion.
Evans-Pritchard roundly condemned, as had Kroeber, the blinkered view of those such as Radcliffe-Brown for whom history was nothing more than 'a record of a succession of unique events' and social anthropology nothing less than 'a set of general propositions' (evans-PRitchard 1961: 2). In practice, Evans-Pritchard claimed, social anthropologists do not generalise from particulars any moret han do historians. Rather, 'they see the general in the particular' (ibid.: 3). Or to put it another way, the singular phenomenon opens up as you go deeper into it, rather than being eclipsed from above. (Ingold 2008: 75)
All this sounds like micro-macro discussion applied on historical events. There are other neat varieties of this. Creative use of language vs social communication in linguistics; the individual self vs the social structure or organization or formation or whatever in some forms of (socal) philosophy; the single text vs literature in, pfff, structuralism or something... The list could go on.
The other kind of generalisation, of which Leach approved, works by exploring a priori - or as he put it, by 'inspired guesswork' - the space of possibility opened up by the combination of a limited set of variables (Leach 1961: 5). A generalisation, then, wolud take the form not of a typological specification that would enable us to distinguish societies of one kind from those of another, but of a statement of the relationships between variables that may operate in societies of any kind. This is the approach, Leach claimed, not of the botanist or zoologist, but of the engineer. Engineers are not interested in the classification of machines, or int he delineation of taxa. They want to know how machines work. The task of social anthropology, likewise, is to understand and explain how societies work. Of course, societies are not machines, as Leach readily admitted. (Ingold 2008: 76)
What are these variables? The semiotician can, if he or she so wishes, view signs as variables, pick out a limited set through "inspired guesswork" and continue to search for different interactions of these signs/variables in different cultures. Is it something like that?
'My own view', Radcliffe-Brown asserted, 'is that the concrete reality with which the social anthropologist is concerned ... is not any sort of entity but a process, the process of social life' (1952: 4). The analogy, then, is not between society and organism as entity, but between social life and organic life understood as processes. It was precisely this idea of thesocial as a life-process, rather than the idea of society as an entity, that Radcliffe-Brown drew from the comparison. And it wsa for this reason, too, that he compared social life to the functioning of an organism and not to that of a machine, for the difference between them is that the first is a life-progess whereas the second is not. In life, form is continually emergent rather than specified from the outset, and nothing is ever quite the same from one moment to the next. (Ingold 2008: 77)
And once again the difference is between process and structure (much like in Brentano vs Wundt). Also' I'll note that it was indeed not Sokrates but Heraclitus who put forth the constantly changing river metaphor (although Plato does quote it in Cratylos).
In an extraordinarily prescient paper on 'The self and its behavioral environment', published in 1954, Hallowell concluded that no physical barrier can come between mind and world. 'Any inner-outer dichotomy', he maintained, 'with the human skin as boundary, is psychologically irrelevant' (Hallowell 1955: 88). Fifteen years later, Gregory Bateson made exactly the same point. Mind, Bateson insisted, is not confined within individual bodies as against a world 'out there', but is immanent in the entire system of organism-environment relations within which all human beings are necessarily enmeshed. 'The mental world', as he put it, 'is not limited by the skin' (Bateson 1973: 429). Rather, it reaches out into the environment along the multiple and ever-extending sensory pathways of the human organism's involvement in its surroundings. Or as Andy Clark has observed, still more recently, the mind has a way of leaking from the body, mingling shamelessly with the world around it (Clark 1997: 53). (Ingold 2008: 79-80)
Oh god, yes! I can't find Hallowell's paper, but his 1955. book Culture and Experience is on archive.org. Curiously, this was also the time when something called "ecological psychology" emerged, especially in Roger Barker's One Boy's Day (1952). // No, wait, the paper is actually chapter 4 of Hallowell's book.
One thing he [Hallowell] learned from them is particularly worthy of consideration here. It concerns dreaming. The world of one's dreams, Hallowell's mentors told him, is precisely the same as that of one's waking life. But in the dream you perceive it with different eyes or through different senses, while making different kinds of movements - perhaps those of another animal such as an eagle or a bear - and possibly even in a different medium such as in the air or the water rather than on land. When you wake, having experienced an alternative way of being in the same world in which you presently find yourself, you are wiser than you were before (Hallowell 1955: 178-81). (Ingold 2008: 84)
This was the time when dreams were a hot topic for anthropologists. Other tribes around the world also viewed the dream world as equally or even more real than the waking world. The suggestions about perceptions and movements are worth consideration when I again venture into this domain (my first attempt was artistic, in "Somatoception").
Students are told that anthropology is what we do with our colleagues, and with other people in other places, but not with them. Locked out of the power-house of anthropological knowledge construction, all they can do is peer through the windows that our texts and teachings offer them. It took the best part of a century, of course, for teh people once known as 'natives', anh latterly as 'informants', to be admitted to the big anthropology house as master-collaborators, that is as people we work with. It is now usual for their contributions to any anthropological study to be fulsomely acknowledged. Yet students remain excluded, and the inspiration and ideas that flow from our dialogue with them unrecognized. I believe this is a scandal, one of the malign consequences of the institutionalised division between research and teaching that has so blighted the practice of scholarship. For nideed, the epistemology that constructs the student as the mere recipient of anthropological knowledge produced elsewhere - rather than as a participant in its ongoing creative crafting - is the very same as that which constructs the native as an informant. And it is no more defensible. (Ingold 2008: 89-90)
Our Institute of semiotics sometimes brags about how students and professors were like colleagues in the Tartu-Moscow school. Today this is kind of rare. Some lecturers take it as a challenge when you engage with their teachings.


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