Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Is Thick Description Social Science?

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Is Thick Description Social Science?

Article excerpt

Is Thick Description Social Science? Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, Culture Troubles: Politics and the Interpretation of Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, February 2006, 362 pp.

Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz have written a magisterial and massively ambitious book that takes on the entire field of comparative politics. With remarkable clarity, many examples, and hundreds of references, the two writers have built their argument around a deceptively simple premise. Comparative politics scholars should take their bearings from a "semiotic" and "inductive" analysis of culture, one that privileges thick descriptions over abstract models, local knowledge over universal assumptions, and careful fieldwork over hasty and misleading comparative case study (chap. 3:222-23). Despite decades of attempts to model themselves on the natural sciences, with clearly defined variables, controlled comparisons, and testable hypotheses, political scientists have failed to find generalizable results that transcend the ethnocentric assumptions of their communities. Nor have they succeeded in understanding the truly distinctive and unfamiliar practices of other states. Most inexcusably, they have failed to attend to the lessons of political anthropology, especially as articulated in the pioneering work of Clifford Geertz and his studies of Balinese culture (1973). Comparative politics is in seriously bad shape, the two writers suggest, and only the anthropologists can save it.

Although I have serious reservations with Chabal and Daloz's diagnosis, I should say at the outset that this is a wonderfully written, provocative, detailed, and comprehensive analysis that repays close reading. Both the readers of this journal and students of political science will find much here of interest-including, inter alia, a fascinating attempt to situate the last fifty years of comparative politics scholarship within important debates in anthropology and the methodology of the social sciences.

From the title, it would be easy to infer that the authors want mainly to call our attention to the primacy of culture in understanding political life. But this turns out to be not quite the case. The two authors admit, for example, that culture studies have a long pedigree in political science, including pathbreaking work by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba (1963, 1980) and more recent forays by Samuel Huntington (1996, 2001). A main problem, however, is that political scientists are too quick to equate culture with values, and especially with those values that are thought to be conducive to liberal democracy (chap. 3). The problem, say Chabal and Daloz, is that such values are eminently contestable and hard to define; that the civil societies they are said to make possible are much more various than is usually acknowledged; and more often than not, that the entire framework is shot through with Westernizing assumptions that take our own polity as the teleological endpoint towards which all others are converging (13-15).

If we wish to do comparative politics right, we must first understand other polities in their own terms. That means, the authors argue, taking culture as a system of inherited meanings and symbols in which indigenous participants make sense of their social world (30-37). As Geertz memorably put it, in a quotation Chabal and Daloz often return to: "Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (Geertz 1973a:5).

The writers point to their own earlier work on Africa as an example of what they have in mind (1999). It is only by approaching foreign polities "semiotically" and "inductively," they suggest, that we can capture the real distinctiveness of foreign cultures. We must, in particular, allow the context (or "terrain") to inform our analysis, so that we approach indigenous practices with a minimum of preconceptions, and permit the questions we ask-and the answers we seek-to be revised and amended as we encounter new facts on the ground (chap. …

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