Concepts and Assumptions in Contemporary Anthropology

Concepts and Assumptions in Contemporary Anthropology

Concepts and Assumptions in Contemporary Anthropology

Concepts and Assumptions in Contemporary Anthropology

Excerpt

Stephen A. Tyler Tulane University

Is anthropology merely an "interstitial science" characterized by a habit of ferreting out problems that somehow get lost in the interstices between other disciplines; is it simply a technology whose function is to "test" the findings of other disciplines in exotic "laboratories"; or does it have a uniquely defined subject matter of its own? Perhaps it represents only a point of view-- a peculiar mental attitude whose source is the anthropologist's experience of other people, other places, and other times.

To say that anthropology is this or that to the exclusion of something else violates its richness and variety. What to an outsider may seem an anarchic disregard for the legislative role of disciplinary boundaries is to an anthropologist the bread and wine of intellectual life. Possibly anthropologists pay a heavy toll for their freedom, but the price of a narrow and categorical specialization is even higher. For once we have decreed that only certain things are relevant, that the universe is segmented in just one way, then we have sacrificed the impulse to think about the non-relevant things, or to conceive of the universe in some other way. We become unwitting prisoners of our own categories, languishing for some creative spirit to change the structure of the jail.

The papers in this volume testify that this state of affairs has not yet come to pass. There is still an anthropology for every anthropologist. Where Banks identifies the concept of culture as the single most important unifying construct in anthropology, Edmonson rejects it in favor of a science of man that would be more biologically sophisticated and would deal with man in all his aspects. In a complementary fashion, Johnston documents the utility of a biological concept of man that draws its information from a wide range of behavioral and ecological sources. In contrast, Wolf abandons the idea of a science of man and argues that anthropological thought is a reflection of prevailing power relationships. Opposing this position, Brukman makes a convincing case for the attempt to discover internally consistent and publicly attainable procedures which will produce replicable statements held to be true by native speakers. Fischer maintains that anthropologists have neglected the Negro as a subject of research because the study of Negro society does not fulfill professional goals and because Negro society does not conform to generalized anthropological assumptions about primitive culture. Haag feels that archaeologists in assuming evolution, the comparative method, the concept of culture, and cultural determinism are commited to the search for scientific generalizations about human behavior. King perceptively argues that the chief result of anthropology has been the continuous expansion of the consciousness of man.

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