Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'An Anthropological Concept of the Concept': Reversibility among the Siberian Yukaghirs./Un «Concept Anthropologique Du Concept»: De la Reversibilite Chez Les Yukaghirs De Siberie

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'An Anthropological Concept of the Concept': Reversibility among the Siberian Yukaghirs./Un «Concept Anthropologique Du Concept»: De la Reversibilite Chez Les Yukaghirs De Siberie

Article excerpt

  [W]hy should concepts not be ... open to manipulation? Why should it
  not be a part of their use that the ambiguity of words, the logically
  illicit transformation of one concept into another (like a spirit
  appearing in diverse forms) is exploited to the full by the users of
  what seems to be 'one' concept?
  Gellner 2003: 39

Published in 1962, Ernest Gellner's famous 'Concepts and society' essay unpacked the many refractions and epistemological distances separating 'our' concepts from 'theirs' (the people we study) (Gellner 2003). In the heyday of what he called 'moderate functionalism' (Gellner 2003: 21), Gellner challenged the hermeneutic generosity of anthropologists, who, in their rush for making sense of all indigenous institutions and activities, quickly resorted to the idea of a social whole. This is the idea that if an institution seems incoherent or illogical it is only because we have not made full sense of the social context to which it belongs. Gellner thought this view wrong because it stabilized the anthropological notion of a 'concept': it disregarded those social practices that were not seen as immediately and directly contributing to social stability. This was a 'concept' with no room for ambiguity or discrepancy. Instead, Gellner argued, the challenge for anthropology is to come up with concepts that are not 'one' with society, or that are not necessary correlates of a social whole: concepts that can cross boundaries, that can move and change shapes between and across contexts. What would our concepts look like if they were to (say) move or transform like spirits? And what use would this concept-spirit, or concept-transformation, have for anthropological theory at large?

This article builds on Gellner's original critique of our tradition of conceptual thought and argues for a view of concepts that stresses not only their capacity for providing stable meanings but also their ability to out-place themselves too, to unsettle their own reificatory tendencies. We build our case for a new anthropological epistemology through a review of the work that concepts do in economic models. Our theory develops from an attempt at finding a conceptual framework with which to describe the socio-economic practices and institutions of the Yukaghirs, a small group of indigenous hunters living in northeastern Siberia.

Central to the way the Yukaghirs think of hunting is the notion that all physical entities have a second modality of being, or a 'hidden side', which they call ayibii, meaning 'shadow' in their native language. The ontology of the ayibii is complex. As the name 'shadow' suggests, the ayibii refers to the idea of a 'doppelganger' or 'twin' that appears simultaneously with the visually perceived object but in the shape of its wraith. The ayibii inhabits the borderline of the visible world. They are visible yet without material presence, objectual but not objectified. Although they resemble the things that cast them, ayibiis are at the same time different, existing in a tension between like and unlike, sameness and difference, unity and disintegration. Indeed, they capture the tension in all shadow images: things that are never just themselves, but always something else as well.

While not all the economic activities of the Yukaghirs are animated by an ayibii, they all contain or carry with them the moment of duplicity or shadow-force that the ayibii evokes. The Yukaghirs have a dual hunting economy (sable and elk), each side of which works as a shadow and creative force of the other. The economy thus contains its visible and invisible moments within, making it difficult (in fact, we claim, impossible) to specify with exactitude where the economy resides.

Taking stock from Gellner's intuition about the spirit-like movement of concepts, and building on the insights obtained from the ayibii's displacement in and out of the hunting world of the Yukaghirs, this article aims to explore what kind of concept the economy would be if grasped through its shadows. …

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