3: How Has Cultural Anthropology Progressed as a Field?

For many, this will prove to be a provocative chapter. Using contextual understanding, it questions whether cultural anthropology has made significant intellectual advances in the past seventy plus years. I need tread carefully here in doubting cultural anthropology’s progress. I am stirring up a hornet’s nest. It goes against the grain of current thinking in the discipline. I am suggesting that the assertion that cultural anthropology is intellectually advancing— through its many publications—is a myth in the sense described in chapter 1. It is an assertion many believe to be true but which, when examined closely, lacks sufficient confirming data. Each year thousands of articles and hundreds of books are published in the field. The flood of publications, moreover, shows little sign of abating. What I suggest in this chapter is that having more publications on more topics is not the same as having more knowledge.

In contrast to Chapter 2, which emphasizes the potential of cultural anthropology to address important social concerns, this chapter suggests that cultural anthropology, as it is now practiced in academic contexts, falls short of its intellectual hopes for itself.

I begin the chapter by describing two standards anthropologists often embrace for measuring intellectual advances in the field. The first considers the degree to which particular perspectives are refined through time. The second stresses the building of a relatively objective body of ethnographic material. I offer illustrations of both standards and note that they overlap with, but are not precisely defined by, the interpretivist and positivist traditions within anthropology.

I then systematically consider five trends prominent in cultural anthropology between the 1930s and 2000. I highlight key anthropologists in each trend and note that they rarely engaged with each other’s work to collectively address that trend’s key conceptual problems, nor did they strive to build a cumulative, objective body of knowledge. Instead, they tended to go off in their own independent directions. The same held true for these individuals’ colleagues working within the same trend. They cited these major researchers in their publications, but they rarely engaged these prominent figures’ work on a substantive level to refine their work. Nor did they generally revisit these figures’ field sites to build a cumulative, objective body of data regarding these sites.

The discussion of these five trends takes up most of the chapter. Because the points I will be making may prove uncomfortable—I am challenging a basic assertion of the field—it is only fair that readers be able to examine the data put forward to support my assertions. You are encouraged to read carefully through the next several sections and then refer to the online footnotes, statistics, and over 720 references that support the argument being made here (see www.publicanthropology.org/WaPA/r.pdf ).

I would add that the trends discussed represent a special time in cultural anthropology’s development. By the 1930s, the discipline had coalesced professionally and was embedded in university departments. It was striving to demonstrate its value to others within and beyond the university. For the decades discussed, many cultural anthropologists shared a set of common concerns and addressed a set of common problems. As a result, the standards cited below offer a clear way to assess intellectual progress within the field. Today, cultural anthropology is fragmented into sub-cohorts and sub-sub-cohorts going off in diverse directions. With less binding different cohorts (and sub-cohorts) together, it is uncertain whether a clear standard for judging the field’s development is now possible.

Let me briefly describe the trends. The first, Culture and Personality, ran from the 1930s into the 1950s. It explored the relationships between culture on the one hand, and personality on the other. The second, Cultural Ecology, was prominent in the 1960s. It focused on environmental and evolutionary explanations for cultural phenomena. The third, Interpreting Myths, Symbols, and Rituals, was prominent within cultural anthropology from the late 1960s into the 1970s. It explored how myths, symbols, and rituals provide insights into the dynamics of both specific cultural groups and, more generally, the workings of human society. The fourth, a turn toward historical analysis, I term the (Re)turn to History because it renewed an earlier anthropological concern with history. It was prominent from the 1970s into the 1990s. The fifth, Postmodernism, was prominent from the late 1980s through the 1990s. It emphasized the role the knower (the anthropologist) played in the construction of the known (the description of a cultural group).

Chapter 3 highlights four points:

• Cultural anthropologists have raised all sorts of interesting possibilities. But few have been systematically substantiated. We remain uncertain as to which possibilities are credible and which are not.

• For many, the path to status involves developing innovative perspectives that others cite, rather than building systematically on the work of colleagues.

• The constant criticizing of established formulations and the seeking of new formulations in a pursuit for status is feasible because of the way accountability and credibility are defined. Accountability is mostly framed in terms of publications. Tearing down old frameworks and erecting new ones provides plenty of publishing opportunities. The problem is that anthropological data tend to be accepted on trust. (Anthropologists rarely go back and restudy the same topic in the same locale.) This means that an author’s perspective is primarily “authenticated” by the author’s own assertions. The process encourages a creative, entrepreneurial freedom while downplaying the value of objective data to support one or another framework.

• The way this system plays out benefits those within the academic community—individual anthropologists, their departments, and their universities. The more an individual is recognized for an innovative formulation, the more status is conferred on that person and on that person’s department and university. But the way the status chase is framed impedes the field’s intellectual development and, critically, proves of limited benefit to the larger society.

These are uncomfortable points to make. But by acknowledging that the status quo only works for a few—rather than for the broader society that financially funds anthropological research—and exploring why this is, the chapter hopes to set the stage for changing it.