Key Debates in Anthropology

Key Debates in Anthropology

Key Debates in Anthropology

Key Debates in Anthropology

Synopsis

Every year, leading social anthropologists meet to debate a motion at the heart of current theoretical developments in their subject and this book includes the first six of these debates, spanning the period from 1988 to 1993. Each debate has four principal speakers: one to propose the motion, another to oppose it, and two seconders.The first debate addresses the disciplinary character of social anthropology: can it be regarded as a science, and if so, is it able to establish general propositions about human culture and social life? The second examines the concept of society, and in the third debate the spotlight is turned on the role of culture in people's perception of their environments. The fourth debate focuses on the place of language in the formation of culture. The fifth takes up the question of how we view the past in relation to the present. Finally, in the sixth debate, the concern is with the cross-cultural applicability of the concept of aesthetics.

Excerpt

In any academic discipline, the intensity of debate concerning its theoretical and intellectual foundations is a good measure of its current vitality. Ten years ago, I had the feeling that if the pulse of my own discipline, of social anthropology, had been measured by this criterion, it would have been found to be virtually moribund. I had no idea, at the time, whether my feeling was widely shared, or whether it was a symptom of a purely personal frustration. But three things worried me in particular. the first was that the subject was becoming fragmented into narrow specialisms whose practitioners, while they might converse among themselves, seemed to have less and less to say to colleagues in other fields. Second, after a decade in which virtually no new appointments had been made to departments of anthropology in British universities, the discipline—at least on this side of the Atlantic—was being starved of new ideas. the so-called ‘younger generation’, myself included, seemed to be growing older all the while, without ever being replaced. Third, I was concerned about the widening gap between anthropology as it was practised and the way the discipline was being publicly presented and taught to students. Why should it be supposed that all the great debates of anthropology, the debates from which the discipline draws its substance and its identity, took place in the ever more distant past? Was nothing of equal significance going on in contemporary work? Why were anthropologists not at the forefront of public and academic debate on the great issues of the day?

It was with these concerns in mind that, in May 1987, I wrote to a number of colleagues, all of them established academic anthropologists in British university departments, to find out whether they shared my feeling of despondency and, if so, whether there might be something to be said for establishing a forum in the uk for the regular discussion of topical issues in anthropological theory. Their responses varied. Some took exception to my assessment of the state of the discipline. in reality,

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