Why we need an anthropology beyond good and evil


As some of you may have noticed, not only has my blog shifted from a specialist focus within the field of anthropology to a more generally anthropological one, but the new name of the blog wishes to challenge how we do anthropology.

Overall my aim now is to push towards a different way of doing anthropology. When I say a different way, I do not mean a ‘new’ way. Indeed, the roots of my attempt have a rather well established pedigree in the field. Yet long years of self-criticism and reflection within the discipline known in the US as ‘cultural anthropology’ have caused many to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

The established pedigree I am referring to originates with Malinowski and perceives anthropology as a scientific effort aimed to explain or to highlight facts about cultures and in particular, in my case, humans. Within this tradition, I can also mention another anthropologist whom has greatly influenced my work, Gregory Bateson, and another, whose theoretical discussion of anthropology and relativism I appreciate despite my strong criticisms of his study of Islam (Marranci 2008), Ernest Gellner. Surely in the case of Malinowski and most of the anthropology of those times, the issue of colonialism had an impact and should be considered. Yet in the attempt to get rid of the bath water (the moral mistake of colonialism), during the 1970s and in particular 1980s, anthropologists threw out the baby itself by adopting post-modernism and relativism as an approach to reality. Post-modernism, and with it what I call ideological relativism, is today so embedded in anthropology that new generations of anthropologists are not able to recognize such as fact. The reaction to the colonial history of anthropology has caused a crisis within the discipline, which is still not settled. Indeed, today more then ever, in our discipline we may wish to ask, as Gellner did (1992:47) why ‘kicking the dead dragon of colonialism some decades after his demise should earn you any medals.’

Yet this is what exactly happened in the 1970s, and even more in the 1980s, where some scholars, such as Asad (1973), Clifford & Marcus (1986), Fabian (1983) and most of all Said (1978), kept right on kicking. Yet, if some of the criticisms of those scholars were acceptable, other anthropologists pushed the consequences of this reflexivity to the extreme (see Geertz), so to transform anthropology into a discipline with unclear aims and ultimately irrelevant to most topical discussions and decisions taken in the world.

The capitalized ‘Other’, an expression only of culture and never of nature, would become an epistemology, and an impossible one as Gellner has pointed out, where the anthropologist tries to communicate,

the anguish of his field experience, in which he and his subjects tried to break out of their respective islands and reach out to each other. Of course, they must fail! Not to fail, to succeed, to come back with a clear, neat, crisp account of what the natives actually mean, would be a most dreadful disgrace and betrayal for our postmodernist’ (p 36).

The current situation of anthropology — despite some mild attempts to address such issues with the development of cognitive anthropology and more recently neuro-anthropology — is not much better than when Gellner was writing. I can say that Gellner’s hope that ‘sloppy research, appalling prose, much pretentious obscurity’ caused by post-modern anthropology would have become  ‘a highly ephemeral phenomenon, destined for oblivion when the next fad arrives’ (p.48), was misplaced. Indeed if anything has become nearly destined for oblivion, it is cultural and social anthropology themselves, increasingly ostracized as they are from the arenas that matter.

The funny side of the story is that despite abandoning positivism in favor of political advocacy, utopianism and do-goodism, anthropology has, at least since Margaret Mead, largely failed to be noticed as a political agent of change. Yet despite a failure (often quite an expensive one, if we think about the millions of research funding spent), cultural anthropologists insist that they must have ‘the necessary courage to acknowledge their own agendas and then act, represent and advocate politically, where invited to, regardless of the ethics of engaging in both ethnographic and political representation’ (Matt Whiffen).

Gellner, in his brilliant book Postmodernism, Relativism and Religion, identifies correctly how any challenge to today’s hegemonic post-modern relativistic discourse will be welcomed: the daring scholar will be told that ‘unless you speak as we do, you are a colonialist, if not worse’ (p.48). Indeed, the ‘worse’ did not take long to arrive, and more labels were soon added to the arsenal of anthropological polemics: ‘ethnocentric’, sexist’, ‘racist’. ‘Islamophobic’, ‘Orientalist’ and many more.

These labels more often than not aim at silencing and censoring opponents rather than discussing (even critically) what the labels demonize. It is time that we avoid such labels and instead engage (even strongly) with criticism that responds to data with data, ideas with ideas and weak methodologies with strong ones. The ‘gut reaction’ should be left out of serious anthropology, along with political ideology and creed. If anthropology can only mean sophisticated yet often obscure opinions and untenable positions on culture (a concept that today needs to be challenged), then a person may well be forgiven for questioning the very existence of this still very young discipline. Indeed others, such as the neurosciences, are more convincing with their methodologies to research what anthropology used to.

With an ‘anthropology beyond good and evil,’ I wish to invite others, particularly new generations of anthropologists, to abandon conscious or latent post-modernism, ideological ‘ethicism’ and moralism to work towards an anthropology where ‘…morality [is] beyond culture, and knowledge beyond both morality and culture’ (Gellner 1992: 54). I invite anthropologists to move towards a “post” post-colonialism, to challenge ideological relativism, to avoid the games of moral labeling and instead engage with any discourse starting from facts. I invite them to draw clear distinctions between occasions when they are and advocate and others when they are an anthropologist since these two categories have different functions and duties towards humanity. We must all rediscover and reconsider methodological individualism and the centrality of the individual as a human.

If anthropology still has a future, it is beyond good and evil, in that space where angels fear to tread.

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One thought on “Why we need an anthropology beyond good and evil

  1. Greetings from a follower of your blog. Though I’m studying in a different field, I have enjoyed your thoughtful reflections the last couple years, and I send best wishes on your endeavor to carve out a different direction in anthropology.

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