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+4 votes
Is your anarchism informed by anthropology? Does the past matter at all? Does your conception of anarchy rely on well researched studies of historical anti-authoritarian cultures?  Does anthropology limit our vision of the future (if the future matters to you)?

Sorry, this is jumbled, I'm just trying to throw some starter questions out there

The fact that humans have lived without all of the bullshit we live with today, for much, much longer than we have with it, is pretty powerful to me. It sort of urges me on, looking to build those old relationships again, but it also unnerves me, that I'm looking for some lost perfection (of course, not total perfection) only accessible through papers and articles. I suppose that's what happens, when something is lost. You have to find it..
by (2.5k points)
Is there some vein of utopianism that runs through some schools of anthropology/-gists?  That 'lost perfection', or at least the delusion of living 'in harmony with nature'?
I say 'some schools' because others seemed to revel in telling us how backward indigenous peoples were and that if our ancestors hadn't exterminated them, then they would've died out on their own.  (The specific arguments may be more subtle, but they don't amount to much more than that shite.)

What anthopology feeds (to my thought) is the idea that there _is_ something _else_.  The two things that nourish our irrational Hope, are sci-fi utopias/distopias, and anthropological narratives.  The sci-fi is pretty but dances amongst moon-beams and pixie dust, the anthro may be just as delusional but it is rooted in bones and ashes.

1 Answer

+3 votes
Lol. timely question...

i would say that anthropology is the most seductive of the social sciences, but also the worst of them. Seductive for the exact reasons that you mention -- we all desperately want proof that another way is possible, and examples of what those other ways are.

there are two problems i see with anthropology.
one is that because it is an actual field in this culture (ie people want it to be valid, want to make money from it, will argue for its truth), it's easy to get sucked in to thinking that the stories we hear through it (filtered through *so many* layers of interpretation, from cultural to material to linguistic, etc) are true.
the other is that it has been an active agent in domesticating the world (whether it intended to be or not); it has been the main social science involved with defining/explaining/reifying the Other. it has moved away from that and more into sociology and philosophy, but that doesn't negate (to me), that when it is anthropology, it does ill.

not sure if that's clear anywhere but in my head. feel free to ask questions if something is overly opaque.
by (53.1k points)
edited by
As an anthropology student, I would argue two things:

1.) Those "stories" or ethnographies about other cultures, while subject to human bias as all things are, are usually very scientific, and approached with as little bias as possible. They are also peer-reviewed. While there is no such thing as "absolute truth," through the human perspective, anthropologists go to great lengths to make their work as accurate and unbiased as possible.

2.) Anthropology HAS indeed been an agent in domesticating the world, as have economics, sociology, psychology, and political science. However, these fields have all worked to create the foundation of anarchist theory, so to throw them out for their histories would be to throw out any progress made through them as well.

The famous Russian anarchist, Kropotkin, could have been called, among other things, an early anthropologist for his study of evolutionary cooperation among humans and for his emphasis on a scientific approach (his criticism of Marx was that Marx's Communism, unlike his own theory of Anarchism, in his opinion, was not scientifically/anthropologically grounded.)

Overall, anthropology is the holistic (all-encompassing) study of humans and their behavior and culture. A fear of anthropology is a very damaging thing, because without anthropology, anarchist theory wouldn't have a foot to stand on.

Oh, and finally (pet peeve), anthropology has NOT "moved into" sociology and philosophy. Anthropology and Sociology have always had the same philosophical background, but anthropology uses a more scientific, more holistic approach than sociology does, as sociology primarily remains confined to questionnaires and western cultures.
Sigh.  And you were doing so well.
And then you reference the second-worst driver to conformity and orthodoxy in academia - as if it's a good thing!

I find it more than a little disturbing that you reference anthropology in the same breath as sociology and psychology - which have as their sole aim the suppression of the individual into 'socially acceptable' roles (that is to say, drive the square peg into round holes until it fits, or breaks), and as economics - which is just funny around here.

But then i have no formal training, so you could just pretend i don't know what i'm talking about.
lantz: you cite respected anarchists who have been interested in things as if it's a refutation, both here (kropotkin) and in the christianity thread.

the fact that you cite previous anarchists as if they are the end of the argument is exactly what i don't like about marxism and other "named" ideologies, and one of the better things about anarchists. we are not kropotkinists, or goldmanists, or dayists. we do not take their lives or actions or analyses as the end of the story.

i am glad you are here to provide a very different perspective (a wrong one, but that's good. :D ).
edit: the concept of unbiased researchers is so broken that i don't even know how to approach it, although there are probably science threads on this site that begin to.
anthropologists are not unbiased. they are biased in a particular way that you accept. they are biased in a way that allows them to operate and succeed (if they get funded, graded well, access to resources) in this society. that exact cultural bias is what makes not only their recording/analysis/interpretation of whatever they observe, but also how other people experience the product of anthropological efforts, so out of context as to be almost irrelevant.
as i have said elsewhere, and sort of say above, anthropology is absolutely a reminder that we could be living differently, but it is a prod to our imagination the way that science fiction is -- a reminder, a prod, but not in anyway "real" the way it's presumed to be, the way that many people insist that it is. end edit.

clodbuster: fwiw, i have had formal training, and your point about psych and soc is sound, if anything i think the point doesn't just apply to those two fields--they're just the most obvious ones.
Clodbuster, peer-reviewing is necessary. Otherwise no ideas would have any reviewable validity. Peer-reviewing is not done on the basis of opinion, they are done on a scientific evaluation of fact. Other factors such as funding and critiques are what drive conformity and orthodoxy in academia. Without peer-review, there IS no academia.

Also, your definition of sociology isn't accurate. It is the role of sociologists to examine how people function within society. Very few, if any, sociologists view society as an ideal to which people should be expected to conform. Sociologists and Anthropologists (to a large extent, the two fields study the same thing) gave anarchists the idea of symbolic meaning, so ironically, it's because of sociologists and anthropologists that you have the philosophical foundation to claim that sociology and anthropology as legitimate fields are social constructions.

However, I can't say the same about psychologists. Social psychologists, like sociologists and anthropologists, view a person's thinking patterns as a result of being a member of society, but they don't compare that thinking to an ideal. However, other psychologists do develop ideas about mental illness that are used to make people conform, and so you are right about that one.

Overall, without social scientists, there would be no anarchists. This phobia of science and intellectualism that many anarchists have makes no sense to me. Anarchism was built on science and intellectualism. This hoity-toity extremist post-modernism is unproductive. If anarchist theory, along with all other approaches to knowledge, isn't based in reality, in the natural world, then it is just a useless mind experiment for people who have managed to convince themselves that there is no world outside of their minds.

Oh, and as for economics..... really? You really don't think that economic theory is important for anarchism? I would think that through.

Dot, I'm not sure what you mean about my citing previous anarchists as if they are the end of the argument. Kropotkin contributed greatly to anarchist theory, and he did so by operating on an anthropological framework. That doesn't mean he is the " inventor" of anarchy, but it shows that anthropology and anarchy are not mutually exclusive, as does my example of the Christian anarchists in the other thread.

As for your comment about Marxists, no two Marxists share the same ideas, even operating under its subsets, like Leninism, Maoism, etc.. It's a nice thought that anarchists are free from that kind of division, but realistically, anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism are as much different fields of thought as Leninism and Maoism.

You take a very condescending attitude towards anthropology, as if you assume that a social science field which has seen all of the same epistemological arguments that anarchist theory has, would somehow fail to take bias into account. That's what Postmodern Anthropology, Middle Range Theory, and the Scientific Method are all about...

Also, I didn't say "unbiased researchers", I said researchers who go to great lengths to make sure that their work is as unbiased as possible, by using the scientific method and the ideas of falsifiability and replicability. By using that approach, anthropological research is as close to unbiased as it is possible to get, under any kind of political system (even if anthropologists were forced by the government to approach their research in a certain way, that research would not be scientific. Nazi Anthropologists proved that). It doesn't matter if I accept or don't accept the "bias" of anthropology, because my opinion doesn't matter, nor does anyone else's, all that matters is the data that can be collected and the testable statements that can be derived from the data. And for the data that can't be tested, that's where postmodern anthropology comes in, in that it works to reveal the most context as possible, and often works to let the people of the culture being studied speak as much as possible for themselves. To claim that the information gathered through these methods is "so out of context as to be almost irrelevant" is to do a huge disservice not only to your own understand of the people being studied, but to the people being studied themselves.

Even old ethnographic studies written by missionaries, some of the least scientific people of all time, when read with consideration for their bias, have yielded some very important information about native tribes of the past that has been very helpful to their descendants in the present.

Unfortunately, anthropology and anarchism DO have somewhat of a spotted relationship, not because of anthropological bias, but because of anarchist bias. For example, Kropotkin's idea of mutual evolution as natural justification for anarchism (as discussed in his book, Mutual Aid). That idea was rejected by anthropologists, because it wasn't grounded in fact and it relied on an unclear understanding of evolutionary theory (though he did call attention to the important ideas of cooperation and altruism). Anarchists however, disregarded the anthropological science, and accepted mutual evolution anyway, because it justified their own beliefs and anarchism doesn't have a system of rigorous epistemological testing of its ideas as anthropology does. Kropotkin, though he didn't use always use science well enough himself, stated that the biggest different between his theory of anarcho-communism, and Marxist theory, was that his theory was scientifically grounded, and therefore more valid than Marxist theory.

Finally, anthropology is the study of humans, and as such, it's far, far, far too complex to simply be considered a " reminder that we could be living differently." You can't just look at an anarchist tribe and assume that all anarchist communities could be based on that system, because that tribe's interaction with its environment, it's culture (culture is important, and can't be erased, despite what post-left anarchists say), its family structure, and every other aspect of itself is unique and adapted for the specific situation that tribe lives in. Cultures, like biological organisms, evolve in ways responsive to the environment. All this stuff isn't just a science fiction " prod" to the imagination, it's the real way the human world works. (I love science fiction though)
lantz:"Without peer-review, there IS no academia."

Perhaps that's not the horrific notion many people make it to be.
Oh come on.. Without academia, you and I would still be feudal peasants digging for potatoes with sticks.
Perhaps that's not the horrific idea many tax-funded academics make it to be. Besides, I don't have anything against potatoes or sticks, but I know most academics follow the golden carrot on the least labor intensive stick available.
Lantz:  i appreciate the effort you put into your comments.  i may not agree with them, but it is good for us all to re-examine our foundations occasionally.  So please understand that much of what is said is not really intended to convince you to accept a viewpoint far from your own (you are no more likely to accept my viewpoint of the world than i am to accept yours), but rather to indirectly explain the differences between those viewpoints.

So your pride in Academia and The Scientific Method, i might view as the deification of Science as Faith - dogmatic, blind, the hoarding of 'secret knowledge' by a cabal of 'experts', the spoon-feeding of us peasants since too much information wouldn't be good for us; etc.  That doesn't mean i reject the cycle of observation-recording-reflection, or that i reject practical experimentation, far from it; i reject that it should be reserved to some select few, rather it should be a form of our natural curiousity that everyone of us should indulge in at every opportunity.
I could give similar notes for other of your statements, but at some point we aren't arguing - we are just talking past each other.

As for 'tatties, i dug mine weeks ago, with my diggin' stick.  :D
(the english make a special potato fork with knobs on the tines to keep from sticking the tubers, but i find an old manure fork works as well if your soil is loose and you're careful.)  The onions come up this week, the carrots can stand a bit of frost yet.
oh ye of the privileged sandy soil, i salute you with upraised shovel from the clay-y, clay-y west.
clodbuster indeed!
I can definitely understand your criticism of the culture surrounding science. However, what I can't understand is the rejection of the basic epistemological foundations of science that academia is built on, i.e. the observation-recording-testing(added category)-reflection cycle that so much of our real knowledge is built on. However, you haven't rejected that cycle while many of the others have, so at least our conversation has some kind of shared foundation.

As for the easy part of your comment, the problems with the culture of science, I completely agree. Believe it or not, I'm quite sympathetic to the post-modern approach, I just don't think that approach has any practical use when taken to its extreme. However, I've noticed that a lot of the people on this website have a rather condescending view of science based on the assumption that science somehow hasn't been exposed to the same philosophies of the last 50 years that they have. Philosophers like Foucalt and Nietzsche have been very influential in science, especially in social sciences like anthropology. As a result, social scientists have gone to great lengths to make their findings more accessible to the public and to rid themselves of any bias linked with imperialism or colonialism (I know, I know, bias is hard to get rid of, but they are way, way more conscientious about it than they were in the 1800's).

 For example, post-processual archaeologists (archaeology is a subset of anthropology) have really stressed public archaeology, that is, the sharing of archaeological data with the public. Though that can be problematic (certain sects often try to use archaeological data to demonstrate their own cultural superiority), it has greatly strengthened the link between archaeologists and the public.

Post-modern cultural anthropologists have tried to do the same thing. For example, along with collecting scientific data on things such as the caloric value of foods eaten and family size, anthropologists today conduct extensive interviews and try as much as possible to let the people being studied speak for themselves about cultural issues. Some anthropologists have even co-authored studies with the help of native peoples. These anthropologists then try to share that information with the rest of the public to further the cause of tolerance for other peoples. I personally am a big fan of the recent movement (a small movement, but a movement nonetheless) to strengthen the link between anthropology and journalism, to bring more relevant, better informed, more scientifically grounded, less imperially influenced information to the public. My goal is to get an education in both journalism and anthropology so that I can do exactly that.

Oh, and we can't forget that anthropologists have been responsible for some of the most important cultural movements in recent history. Franz Boaz was a major figure in the destruction of the scientific racism of the 1800s, and Margaret Mead was an influential figure in the feminist movement. Anthropology as a whole has been a leading field in the opposition against inequality of all kinds for decades. It is very rare to find an anthropologist with a love for authority, at least in my experience.

Overall, my point is that anthropology is a very important and very useful field in understand humans and their societies, and it would be very damaging for anarchists to refuse to take the field seriously in the arrogant idea that it isn't enlightened enough to be relevant.

Edit: Anthropologists are also very aware of the internal and external constraints of science: funding, public support, college bias, etc. That was literally all we talked about for the first week of most of my anthropology classes. The goal is to recognize those constraints so that they can dealt with effectively.
yep, that's my problem with anthropology: it's not *enlightened* enough.

Clearly that is the only sentence of my post you bothered to actually read...
how is that clear, exactly?
your posts are full of things like "culture is important, and can't be erased, despite what post-left anarchists say" and other unsupported and specious accusations (as well wild assumptions about causation that just seem... dreamy).
my own inadequacies in the face of how to respond don't mean that i haven't read your writing (another unfounded accusation). it just means (in this case) that i'd rather find the funny.
the precious, precious funny.

i do look forward to your answer to what is wrong with the post left.
I like the question and this answer, but reading the rest of the dialogue made my head hurt. Perhaps my sense of humor could be expanded. :)
"Peer-reviewing is not done on the basis of opinion, they are done on a scientific evaluation of fact."

sounds like a dogmatic insistence that what you desire is in fact "the truth". i can't speak for anthropology per se, but i can say from (very close, but admittedly second hand) experience that in medical sciences, peer review is absolutely a political/ideological/biased activity, though i'm not saying that is ALL it is. your idealized vision of science(tm) is common, and most anarchists i know reject it as a reified master held above oneself (and everything else). the atheist church of science: your god is different from that of most churches, but your faith and worship are essentially the same.

none of this is to dismiss the seemingly natural (to me) tendency of curiosity/observation/experimentation/application to life, which (as clodbuster mentioned) is something we all do already. we all probably could do it much more, and i wish we would. that might begin to demonstrate the lack of necessity (let alone desirability) for the priesthood of your church.
Dot, the vast majority of your criticisms have completely ignored most of my writing, just to latch onto some superficial minor issue that you try to use to somehow refute all the rest of my writing by association.

Funkyanarchy, though you actually have something to say, you focused so much on that one sentence of mine that you ignored the rest of my post, in which I explained fairly thoroughly the way anthropology has dealt with those exact issues. I have never claimed that science can reveal absolute truth, but that, if absolute truth is viewed as the concrete workings of the natural world around us, science is the best way to uncover that truth to the most accurate degree. As I said on one of the other threads, the question is not whether any perspective has any truth, every perspective has truth. The question is how much truth each perspective has in relation to the natural world. To reject the existence of a concrete, measurable outside world is to ultimately reject the perspectives of others, as well as your own senses, which requires far more faith than the belief that the world exists and can be measured.

So far, clodbuster's responses have been my favorite.
lantz: " if absolute truth is viewed as the concrete workings of the natural world around us, science is the best way to uncover that truth to the most accurate degree."

Best way according to whom? Obviously, to you, according to the standards set by Western civilization's mechanistic view of the world, since, 'best way' ('logic,' science,' academia') seems exclusive of those lifeways which did not, nor do now, exhibit those qualities you hold so dear.

lantz: "The question is how much truth each perspective has in relation to the natural world. "

Perspective is nothing but natural, lantz. Yet, you desire to relate each perspective to something non-perspectival ('nature,' 'truth,' 'objectivity), or if it is perspectival than it's *agreed* upon beforehand what *should* constitute 'truth.'  But, you've told us truth is different/better than opinion, although such an agreement would be an opinion, eh? That's the problem here.

Again, define truth for us, because you are talking in circles. How are the axioms used to define truth, true?
Ok, you got me there. "Best" isn't a verifiable term. However, science is consistently the most accurate and reliable way of uncovering the truth in nature, because it tests all of its data and statements against nature.

Nature is truth. Perspective is natural, that is why there is truth to be found in every perspective. However, the only part of a perspective that can be evaluated for truth is that which can be measured in relation to the rest of nature. I would argue that the other aspects of perspective, such as religion and other beliefs, are not true, or false, or even opinion (though that is where they would normally belong), but rather part of the identity, the framework that focuses the perspective.

Oh, and I should add, before someone assumes it, I am NOT saying that science is the only means of acquiring true knowledge. Only that science is the primary means of acquiring testable and verifiable knowledge, which is truth (the difference between truth and true knowledge is that truth has been tested in relation to nature and shown to not be false).
[this is way way off-topic, but...]
Sand? Sand?  The only bloody sand in this country is in the gravel ridges the glaciers coughed up.  We've ten inches of blackish dirt and then a couple hundred feet of yellow clay - good for bricks but little else.  Our spring was so wet i had to dig trenches to try and save the trees in our (nascent) community orchard - one shovel of dirt, two shovels of clay, then eight shovels to dig my boots out of the bloody muck enough to take a step back and start over.
Sand.  Ha!
that is such a more anarchist maxim: when life gives you clay, make bricks.
excellent!  ;)
well, we have to have something to throw!  :P

(I really have to weave a sling for next spring.)