Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives

By Pnina Werbner | Go to book overview

3
The Cosmopolitan Encounter:
Social Anthropology and the
Kindness of Strangers1

Pnina Werbner


Anthropology: a Cosmopolitan Discipline?

On the face of it, anthropology is the cosmopolitan subject par excellence. As a discipline devoted to the study of the diversity of world cultures, it is humanist and comparative. On each side of the Atlantic, the anthropological moieties that emerged in the twentieth century — British Social Anthropology versus American Cultural Anthropology — appeared to be divided by their opposed stress on universalism versus cultural relativism, comparative social science versus a holistic science of 'man'. This division led to exclusive associations, with the British ASA rejecting the four-field encompassment of the American AAA.2 Nevertheless, on both sides of the Atlantic, modern social and cultural anthropologists since Malinowski and Boas argued mainly for non-evolutionary understandings of human societies across the globe, and hence for their comparability or equal status. They thus shared much in common, including, above all, respect for the integrity and viability of different ways of living. For both social and cultural anthropologists, the fundamental project was that of imagining societies beyond the West in all their social and cultural complexity. The critical difference in approach related to whether 'culture' or 'society', patterns of meaning and consciousness or of social institutions, was to be prioritised. There were also differences of regional focus, and these generated arcane debates and fierce arguments within each moiety about the limits of legitimate comparison: of the vision quest of American Indians, Indian caste, African segmentary systems, Melanesia gift exchange, and so forth. But in reality, anthropologists on both sides of the Atlantic started from an assumption of difference within the broader context of resemblance. They also started from a particular anthropological stance: anthropologists were strangers seeking to understand unfamiliar cultures which were presumed to be as rich and complex as their own. Evans-Pritchard's classic study of Azande witchcraft (1937) was foundational in establishing anthropology as a discipline that takes the stance of

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