The Foundations of Social Anthropology

By S. F. Nadel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER X
Experimental Anthropology (continued)

1. THE CATEGORIES OF SOCIAL UNDERSTANDING

Let me refer once more to the empirical and contingent nature of the regularities or laws discoverable in social phenomena. Being without necessity, these regularities are also without immediate persuasiveness; they are not as such meaningful and self-explanatory, but still indicate a just-so state of affairs. They acquire meaning and explanatory weight only when they yield, that is, when we read into them, that additional datum which I have called their fitness or requiredness. I have enumerated three categories of this 'fitness'--logical consistency; mechanical causality; and purpose. And it now remains to be shown that only these, and no others, satisfy our desire to understand.

Let A and B be two co-varying action patterns; then, as they refer to the intentional behaviour of individuals, and thus to behaviour initiated by minds, their co-variation must remain a meaningless coincidence, exhibiting no intrinsic 'fitness', unless it can be understood to have a counterpart in the minds of individuals; more precisely, the mental events implicit in A and B must be understood to be connected in individual minds. This presupposes another, more elementary condition. If I find that in a given society the action patterns A and B appear in co-variation, the co-variation would again be meaningless unless the individuals acting in the sense of A as well as B are either the same individuals, or stand in such communication or physical contact that they can influence each other. Any genuine social co-variation (or 'correlation') satisfies these two conditions; in fact, it usually satisfies them so fully and self-evidently that we are apt to take all this for granted. Take the familiar correlation between rising standards of living and birth restriction. At the risk of stating the obvious I might point out that this correlation only makes sense, first, if the people who live in greater comfort are also the same who decide not to have too

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