Thursday, January 15, 2009

Christians, World View, and Contemporary Anthropology - 3 - A Personal Essay

From Robert Priest, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Ph.D. program in Intercultural Studies, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

I agree with Ed Zehner and Brian Howell's comments about worldview analysis being rather marginal to anthropology.

What follows is a rather long and ad hoc disquisition on why I am not enthusiastic about worldview analyses. This is rather off the cuff, but I hope some at least find it provocative.

When I studied missiology in seminary, I was introduced to diagrams of culture as looking like an onion, with worldview at the center and other social realities (values, rituals, economics, technology, etc.) forming concentric rings outward. Or again diagrams of culture featured worldview as the foundation, with other cultural elements built on top. Or images of worldview as “depth” were contrasted with other cultural elements which were merely “surface.”

Sometimes arrows were drawn to highlight the direction of causal influence. But in every case worldview was always the first cause, the independent variable as it were, the foundation, the center, with other things affected and determined by worldview.

In short I had learned to think that the order observable in culture is primarily a cognitive and rational order, like a philosophy. I assumed that if I could learn to discover the “theory of everything” that lies at the core of any culture, that I would then understand cultural order (and also not need to pay too much attention to the details). I assumed that what I would be doing in graduate school was learning to map this rational order—and that this worldview would be the explanation of everything else related to social and cultural order.

But when I began studying social science at the University of Chicago, and then anthropology at UC Berkeley, it was rather disturbing to me to discover that none of my professors organized their work around the concept of “worldview.” Indeed, I was unable to find a single ethnography written by any mainstream anthropologist, organized around the construct of worldview. [Can anyone name such a work?]

The first class lecture I attended was by a cultural materialist, who drew a diagram exactly upside down to the way I “knew” culture operated—indicating that a subsistence base of hunter gathering is the independent variable affecting all sorts of value laden things such as the social requirement that one share what one hunts beyond the nuclear family. He argued that hunter-gatherers for material reasons will almost always develop such an ethic of sharing, unlike American seminary professors who seldom share their basic material acquisitions outside their nuclear family. He suggested that all sorts of possible food items (such as sacred cows in India or unclean pigs in desert ecologies) were banned as food for ecologically adaptive reasons, and that it was a mistake to think that the true first cause was a religious belief. These “religious ideas” were dependent variables, affected by the underlying independent variable or causal elements associated with the material base.

My second course was on “symbols and rituals” (the closest class title at Chicago to my worldviewish interests). My first class assignment was to read and summarize Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The logic of religious symbolism here was foreign to anything I learned in seminary. Here I learned that religious ideas (about gods or totems) were not rational thoughts, but symbolic representations of social order, representations not understood as such by the religious believer. Furthermore as the course proceeded, I learned that the social order is not a rational order, but a symbolic, structural and functional order. Social rituals help to construct such order, as do myths. They are to be analyzed not in terms of rational philosophy—but in terms of what they actually accomplish in constructing social order.

Since Harvey Conn had said that Levi-Strauss’s structuralism helped us understand “deep” culture, I next signed up for Valerio Valeri’s course on cognitive structuralism. Before long even in my dreams I was analyzing binary oppositions involving nature vs. culture, raw vs. cooked, oral vs. anal, etc. I learned that while Amazonian myths naturally make use of bits and pieces of everyday life (possums, jaguars, macaws, etc.) that they were often organized around such binary oppositions and various mediations. But at the end of the day such research and analysis did not really disclose coherent philosophy.

I took Jack Potter for Marxist anthropology, and learned that again a material base was the independent variable, and ideologies dependent and instrumental. Unlike the cultural materialists, the Marxist material base was not thought of as functional or adaptive for the entire system, but a base which structured unequal power relations. Ideologies were not really good-faith efforts at reasonable understanding, but were instrumental efforts to justify (or sometimes resist) hierarchies. Subordinate classes often internalized such ideas as a kind of false consciousness. Every element of discourse should be subjected to a hermeneutics of suspicion. To look at Hindu philosophies underpinning caste, and spend all one’s time trying to see how wonderfully philosophical and elegant they are, is to miss the point, I learned. What all these supposedly rational efforts are doing is rationalizing and justifying social inequality. That is what lies at the core. Analysis should involve linking discourse to social effect. The order of ideologies is not rational, but instrumental.

Next I took Gerald Berreman for symbolic interactionism, where I learned that people are not philosophers trying to establish rational order, but they are attempting to pursue all sorts of agendas (sexual, political, etc.)—but that they must do this by constantly constructing an identity, and presenting this identity to others, manipulating it to fit their lines of actions to that of others. People live life socially, on a stage. The order we observe is largely a dramaturgical order – produced not by would-be philosophers but by would-be actors.

Then I studied with Alan Dundes, who introduced me to folklore and various sorts of discourses as constructing an order reflective of psycho-dynamic realities. Rather than discourse and belief involving innocent efforts at rational order, rituals, discourses and beliefs about everything from witchcraft to football reflected guilt, sublimated sexual desire, etc. and needed to be recognized as rationalizations, projections, displacements, etc. The order in culture is a psychological order.

>From my advisor Brent Berlin I learned ethnosemantic analysis, which searched for a kind of rational order, but at a rather microscopic level (categories of colors, plants), nothing as encompassing or ambitious as worldview analysis. On this model, culture is more on the order of folk science, rather than folk philosophy.

I did work hard to find scholars working in more intellectualist veins (which I will not summarize here), and took great comfort in the work of Max Weber on the protestant ethic. Just a few weeks ago I was reading through my field statements for my comprehensive exams taken at Berkeley in 1987 or so, and was startled to discover how strongly I was trying, at that time, to justify rational and intellectualist approaches to culture.

But an interesting thing happened in my dissertation fieldwork, where I discovered and began to find exciting, a variety of forms of order—and not just rational/philosophical order. My analysis of everything from rituals of purification to witchcraft now features symbolic, psychological, dramaturgical, conflict and other dimensions as explanatory.

In retrospect, I now believe that the social and cultural order which we study is shaped by many dynamics other than rationality (functional, dramaturgical, instrumental, ideological, structural, etc.). Furthermore “beliefs” are constructed through narratives and practices which are minimally or only tangentially oriented towards achieving rational coherence, abstraction and consistency—and very much affected by instrumental, dramaturgical, functional, economic, political, ideological, adaptive dynamics. That is, such statements of belief are often dependent variables, caused by other non-philosophical independent variables or linked to other cultural elements less through a rational order than a functional or instrumental order. People spend their lives trying to subsist, to achieve honor, to “score” with women, to retaliate, to justify themselves, etc. Lust and passion, love and desire, hurt and shame, envy and pride, death and sorrow, fasting and purging, going on vision trips, eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage—are the stuff of everyday human life.

Furthermore while I retain an interest in the cognitive order, I now believe this order to be grounded in and shaped or structured by metaphor, story, vocabulary, symbol, myth rather than abstract rational thought. And this cognitive order is often less philosophically comprehensive and integrated than often thought, involving clusters of symbols and metaphors which are related to each other less through abstract rationality than through practical action, manipulated towards personal or social ends, and with apparent contradictions philosophically of minimal concern to social actors. Admittedly, in most cultures (especially in contexts where one’s culture is questioned) one can find a small sub-set of intellectually oriented people attempting in a post-hoc fashion to articulate abstract and rational defenses of one’s culture. With a worldview approach, one might naturally tend to gravitate towards these intellectuals as providing the “real” explanation of cultural order. In my view privileging such intellectuals’ explanations and justifications as correct, is an error.

It appears to me that many worldview approaches to culture are grounded in an overly rational model of personhood. Pilate was able to cognitively conclude, “I find no fault in him,” but nonetheless command “take him out and crucify him.” That is, in practical everyday life, people are not primarily motivated to try and be rationally consistent and orderly. They are motivated because they want food, sex, honor, power, etc. etc. and human cultural order reflects these dynamics.

I now believe that a wide variety of theoretical approaches can help me understand some of the order which I find among people. Rational elements are but one sort of order, not to be overly given pride of place in our explanatory systems.

When I see many missiologists using the construct of worldview, I see a tendency towards generalizations which are abstract, distant from lived human experience, and non-falsifiable. I see students longing to find a short-cut to human understanding, a short-cut to which their seminary (philosophical) training will give them privileged access, as well as ability to render judgment. A worldview is a “theory of everything” and if I can just grasp your theory of everything, then I know all I need to know (without really knowing you). But while the “worldview” construct is easy to use pedagogically to teach people that others may see things differently, it is unfortunately not easy to use as the theoretical underpinning for research. I find myself frustrated when students want to write a dissertation on the “worldview” of Chinese, or whatever, not merely because of its tendency to essentialize, but because I cannot find good models for how to do responsible research-based analysis of this sort that I can direct students to.

Finally, I have missiological concerns. The very construct of worldview as being a coherent “theory of everything” invites the question of whether this coherent theory is right or wrong, true or false. And if all of culture is thought by a missionary to be determined by “a worldview,” a worldview that from a Christian standpoint can be said to be wrong, then this naturally inclines the missionary to judge all cultural elements as wrong. That is, in my view the worldview model of culture is a prescription for ethnocentric judgment. My own view is that in any society one can become a Christian in ways that continues to be distinctively reflective of the culture while being fully biblical and Christian. Whole swaths of culture may be perfectly compatible with Christian faith. But it is only possible to understand this when one comes to recognize other elements of order than that of worldview.

I could say more about patterns of evangelism which assume a cognitive and unitary view of the person (vs. the divided self of Sigmund Freud or the apostle Paul), but have run out of steam. I suspect this is enough to chew on for now.

Sources on Contemporary Anthropology - 6

From Kevin Birth, Professor of Anthropology, Queens College, City University of New York:

In many ways, questions among the cultural anthropologists I interact with the most have shifted away from descriptions and discussions of particular cultures to the issue of the relationship between societies and the construction of identity/difference. I am particularly struck by this as I prepare by contemporary theory course for this semester. So questions of world view are increasingly tied to how the world view is constituted in response to another world view, and except for the psychological anthropologists who think in terms of the distribution of cultural knowledge, the culture concept is dissolving into issues of hegemony/counter-hegemony. The trendy topics in which to investigate the construction of difference in relationship to globalization seem to be sexuality, violence, and history.

I also feel like there is an increasing disconnect between the anthropology represented in introductory textbooks and the anthropology discussed by grad students. Entry into the field is, to my mind, becoming increasingly difficult for anyone who does not have an anthropologist to teach them.

That said, I shall throw a few titles out because they wrestle with compelling issues, and the significance of these issues might be enough to engage someone who is not an anthropologist enough to sustain them through the various theoretical discussions and postures. All these books deal with the construction of identity/difference in ways that address how people think about themselves and problems in the world.

Briggs, Charles. 2003. Stories in the Time of Cholera: Racial Profiling during a Medical Nightmare. University of California Press.

Foster, Robert. 2002. Materializing the Nation: Commodities, Consumption and Media in Papua New Guinea. Indiana University Press.

Frank, Gelya. 2000. Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America. University of California Press.

Hinton, Alexander. 2005. Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide. University of California Press.

I also recommend Max Forte's work (since it has been mentioned), but his work is harder to find and more expensive to purchase than the above titles (as I can attest, the University Press of Florida marketing and sales operation is not very robust).

I'm not including any examples of the literature on sexuality for three reasons. First, most evangelical Christians probably would have a visceral negative reaction to this work; second, I find that much of the work on sexuality unreflectively draws on Queer Theory and feminism in ways that lead to strange, mysogynistic implications about which the author's seem unaware; and third, much of this work raises serious concerns about human subjects' rights and the ethics of research.

[On this third point, on the basis of later discussion, I understand Prof. Birth to be referring to the tendency--not just in this particular subfield--for ethnographic researchers to sexualize their relationships with informants, and for some savvy informants to engage in reverse-exploitation of the social-informational gateways to their communities, to the detriment of all, including the researcher, the informant, the community studied, and the larger anthropological community and those who use the information we generate. -- EZ]

P.S. And of course one can always encourage people to read my books ;) —although they probably are poorly suited for this particular set of questions)

[Note: As of January 2009, the Cornell University libraries listed the following books by Prof. Birth: (1) Any time is Trinidad time : Social Meanings and Temporal Consciousness (University of Florida Press, 1999); and (2) Bacchanalian sentiments : Musical Experiences and Political Counterpoints in Trinidad (Duke University Press, 2008). The latter is also available as an on-line ebook though libraries that have bought the appropriate licenses. -- EZ]

Sources on Contemporary Anthropology - 5

From Brian Howell, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Wheaton (IL) College, and Chair, Network of Christian Anthropologists (NCA):

For those who didn't read all of Ed's earlier post, I would recommend you do. It's very good! I won't rehash his critique, but I do have my own in a 2006 article in Christian Scholar's Review. I agree with Ed that the Worldview concept, though not completely moribund in mainstream anthropology, is extremely marginal. If you can find even one paper at the 2008 American Anthropology Association Meetings with “worldview” in the title, I'll buy you lunch.

Unfortunately, this has become a go-to concept in missiology and people often assume it is standard fare in anthropology generally. I think Paul Hiebert worked the concept as well as anyone, but in the hands of most, it has become a far more problematic concept than it's worth. It's interesting that Steve points to Mike Rynkeiwich's article as a defense of worldview [actually, it turned out Mike was merely commenting on something observed in Anthropology News], because I would recommend two of Rynkeiwich's articles in Missiology as good places to go for a Christian anthropologist who does NOT use worldview, but rather works with the concept of culture itself in some very helpful ways. The two with which I am familiar that I believe would be very helpful for missionaries seeking a more nuanced discussion of culture are:

1) “The world in my parish: rethinking the standard missiological model.”
Rynkiewich, Michael A. Missiology 2002-07-0130:3

2) “Person in mission: social theory and sociality in Melanesia”
Rynkiewich, Michael A. Missiology 2003-04-0131:2, 155

Both of these articles are specifically concerned with the missionary application of social theory and present the issues in accessible and well-reasoned ways.

Not as well reasoned, but perhaps helpful is my own article (Brian M. Howell, “Globalization, Ethnicity and Cultural Authenticity: Implications for Theological Education,” Christian Scholars Review Vol. 36 (3), Spring 2006, 3-31), which contains a critique of the world view concept, particularly as it concerns phenomena of globalization.

Sources on Contemporary Anthropology - 4

From Robert Canfield, Professor and former Chair, Department of Anthropology, Washington University, St. Louis:

It seems to me the major turn in anthropology in the discussion about culture is the attempt to deconstruct the term and the attempt to specify how/ when specific cultural practices are created and reinforced. The result is that other categories than “culture” become useful. When the recent focus is on how “culture” gets constructed and reiterated and re-enforced in social life then it is helpful to think in terms of social history—that is, the ways ideas and conventions are created in specific cultural contexts and the ways they continue to be objectified and deployed for specific purposes in social practice.

At the risk of promoting a certain viewpoint and my own course I list here some articles that seem to me useful in examining the many contexts and mechanisms for the construction of cultural practices. Clifford Geertz ("Thick Description," Ideology as a Cultural System”; both essays appear in his The Interpretation of Cultures), Marshall Sahlins (Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, Islands of History, Apologies to Thucydides), Pierre Bourdieu (several passages from Outline of Theory of Practice, especially on the creativity and “virtuosity” necessary in cultural practice); Raymond Williams (selections from Marxism and Literature); Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities); William Sewell (Logics of History); F. G. Bailey (The Prevalence of Deceit); Fredrik Barth (selections from Balinese Worlds), and some of the postmodernists such as James Clifford (introduction to his Writing Culture).

For those who care to put up with the nuisance of working through the WashU library system you can retrieve most of these on line by going to the WashU library site, and thence to “eres” [put it in the search box], to my name [Canfield] and my course “Works and Ideas of Great Anthropologists” (, and enter the password “change”.

Sources on Contemporary Anthropology - 3

From an anthropologist in the United States:

Steven, I don't know those sources or anything about “worldview.” It's been common since the early 1990s to criticize “anti-essentialism” very strongly, for numerous reasons. I've heard Jonathan Friedman do it most flamboyantly. But the critique is not usually performed by anthropologists in their own right (in a technical sense), but rather by anthropologists on behalf of others who make essentialist claims. This seems most common among anthropologists who work with indigenous “Fourth World” peoples like native Australians and native Americans. The term I've seen most often is “strategic essentialism” or, in the case of Maximilian Forte, “anti-anti-essentialism”: So far as I know, Forte takes the term from Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1992):

Point 1 of Forte’s essay: Do not meet the essentialist claim that “My people have been living here for thousands of years” with the evidence that “your people” by their own admission and by the historical record came here in 1750. To do so would be anti-essentialist. But we shouldn't ignore facts, merely defer their application. Instead of ridiculing the speaker, try to figure out what he means when he makes that statement. Maybe we can learn how such essentialist statements serve in a strategy for gaining a more powerful voice.

Point 2: Two wrongs don't make a right, and strategic essentialism cannot be equated with essentialism.

Sources on Contemporary Anthropology - 2

From Steven Ybarrola, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Asbury Theological Seminary:

Thanks, Edwin, for the thorough reply. I think you've nicely laid out some of the main criticisms of the “worldview” concept in modern anthropology. Indeed, one way to dismiss the work of an anthropologist today is to label him or her an “essentialist.” However, I'm not sure the concept has been totally abandoned in the discipline, and in fact there has been some critiques of the criticisms of worldview and “culture” more generally. My colleague here at Asbury Seminary, Mike Rynkiewich, examined a recent issue of Anthropology News, the monthly newsletter of the American Anthropological Association, and found several references in the articles to worldview (I don't recall off hand which issue it was) [Steven later clarified that Mike related this observation orally]. Also, one of the last books to be published by the eminent Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert is entitled Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change, where Hiebert addresses various characteristics and types of worldviews (Bob Priest may have already mentioned this book in his post. For some reason I didn't receive it). An article I've found helpful on this subject is by the anthropologist William Douglass, “In Search of Juan de Onate: Confessions of a Cryptoessentialist,” Journal of Anthropological Research 56 (2): 137-163, 2000.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sources on Contemporary Anthropology - 1

The following is the first of several posts from members of Fishnet (the listserv associated with the Network of Christian Anthropologists) suggesting sources that can help readers become better oriented to contemporary anthropology.

[This was in response to a request in the entry below titled "Christians, World View, and Contemporary Anthropology - 2."]

From an anthropologist in the United States:

Octopus metaphor [mentioned in that post]: How about culture as rhizome? This is from Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which is neither readable nor short. Nevertheless, it's hugely influential among anthropologists who like to see culture as a weed (crabgrass) or a potato plant, where there's no root, trunk, or branch. Instead, there are stems, leaves, and little roots. Fertile nodes find good soil and sprout, and send out tendrils that do the same thing in the next plot. If the “parent” node dies, no big deal--the “rest” of the plant keeps growing. Everything's connected, the plant is more-or-less recognizable and consistent, but not in a central, determining way like an octopus.

A couple of really useful and clearly written books for everyone (not just hipster anthropologists [like me] who were in graduate school in 2000) are Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities ( and Arjun Appadurai's Modernity at Large, in particular his article “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”
( and its various “-scapes.”

I'm not saying these guys are right—there's plenty to criticize here! I just put them forward as ways to read your way into a “worldview” if you will—learning to see the world the way some very influential writers have, which might be useful.

Christians, World View, and Contemporary Anthropology - 2

Over the weekend, the following came to Dr. Zehner from an American doing anthropological consultancy work with a mission in Africa:

“Ed, do you have a couple/few good refs. for “the more recent, more nuanced approach [to doing and using anthropology and thinking about “culture”]'? I trust you think it's worth it [he was serious, as he clarified in a separate email], because I hate the idea of the world being encouraged to follow what's in fact a stupid American lead in anthropology or anything else [he was not necessarily referring to this particular development].”

Response from Edwin Zehner, the morning of Monday, January 12, 2009:

Hi. Thanks for asking. And I hope you won't mind my sharing your question and answer with the larger list, as I suspect many others are wondering the same thing, for the reasons outlined (and hinted at) by Bob Priest in his follow-up to my message last week.

Actually, I'm having trouble thinking of anything significant written by anthropologists in the last 30 years—other than by American evangelicals and those influenced by them—that uses the term “world view.” If not 30 years, then 20 years. And the move is not just “American.” It is global, with some Indian (South Asian) anthropologists leading the way, for example.

So the real question may be “What would be useful starting points to help evangelical Christians—including many Christian anthropologists—get reoriented to the discipline of anthropology the way it is practiced today?” Unfortunately, I'm having trouble thinking of something good and accessible that addresses this purpose for this specific audience. So though I'm hoping one of our listmates will have a specific suggestion, I will list a few ideas that I hope may help you and others get “reoriented” a bit (while inviting others to offer corrections and extensions).

I think one of the things that has made the concept of “world view” so enduringly attractive to evangelicals is because it resonates so well with Nicholas Wolterstorff''s concept of “control beliefs” as opposed to other forms of belief and knowledge. If none of you have heard of Wolterstorff (and I didn't until recently), he is reportedly one of the leading theorists behind the late 20th century version of the now-conventional evangelical models of “integration of faith and learning.” (For more on him specifically, see pp. 21-22 of Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, et al., Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation—thanks to Fishnetter Jenell Paris for pointing this book out to me some time ago). A cruder version of this notion is the idea (or perhaps hope) that our “faith” should ideally be reflected in all we think and do, and the assumption that others' “faith” or “ways of seeing the world” probably does the same. But, in fact, things are more complex than this, even in the most ideal of situations and in fact Wolterstorff points this out himself, according to Jacobsen and Jacobsen.

Short of having a specific “book” or “article” on the approach—unless Bob Priest, Brian Howell, Kevin Birth or others have specific suggestions (the several anthropology graduate students and recent Ph.D.s on this list would also be great to hear from)—I think the best approach would be to try to “retrain” ourselves in “how we think” about what we “see” on the field and how we analyze and synthesize it.

Here are a few starting suggestions, and I invite fellow Fishnetters to suggest some more:

(1) try to start looking at field data in terms of one or more of the criteria that Bob Priest listed in his response to my message late last week rather than in terms JUST of “world view”;

(2) simply analyze “subpatterns” of behavior (and interactive sets of beliefs and behaviors) without feeling obligated to relate these to “the whole culture”

(3) there is also no longer a felt need among anthropologists to describe “whole cultures” in fully integrated ways.

The third point deserves extra comment, because it has crept up so quietly. Of the many who have spoken of it, I first suggest Clifford Geertz's early 1980s metaphor of “culture as an octopus.” The octopus is definitely an integrated being in which the parts interact with each other, each influencing the other. But it lacks a central nervous system. There is no one set of parts—beliefs or behaviors or purposes—that dominantly influences all the others. Nor are they tightly integrated with each other the way old structural functionalism of the 1940s and 1950s (for example, Radcliffe-Brown and others of the era) seemed to suggest. The old, “tightly integrated,” model influenced people as well-known as Ruth Benedict, who truly used the “world view” concept, or something like it, in her Chrysanthemum and the Sword, and Patterns of Culture, and other works.

The idea of tight integration (but not “world view”—his underlying notions were already somewhat different) is found even in the works of the leading “structuralist” thinker Claude Levi-Strauss. However, some of the additional reasons why both “world view” and the notion of “tightly integrated” and “unitary” cultures have been abandoned is because of increasing anthropological attention to things like the following:

(4) increasing attention to social hierarchies within social groups—including those conventionally called “a culture”—along with awareness that people in each of these levels tend to have varied views of each other and of how they should act, what it means to act that way, what it means to be that kind of person, etc.;

(5) increasing attention to power differentials within groups and across cultures,

(6) increasing attention to gender differences, and expectations for gendered roles and identities and increasing attention to how one's “place” or “position” in a society can help shape those expectations and interpretations,

(7) increasing attention to the effects of differences in access to “global” culture or (what has always been the case) to goods, services, information, jobs, and other status-enhancing (or diminishing) things from outside the society or “culture,”

(8) awareness that individuals within a “society” or “culture” do not all think and act the same, in part simply because they are truly individuals, despite sharing some notions on how to act, and how to judge others, and

(9) awareness that one's own cultural “identities” are multiple and constantly being negotiated. To list just a few of my own identities—”American,” male, anthropologist, “northeasterner,” “educated,” “Christian,” “father”—each has their own implications that takes me in somewhat different directions. You can probably think of some others even as you reflect on your own “positions” and “identities” in the ways you go about life.

Those are just a few ideas to get the thinking started. Fellow Fishnetters may have some additional helpful suggestions. Thanks again for asking, as I think this is a very important question.

By the way, I should clarify that anthropologists have not abandoned the concept of “culture” at all. We have simply made it more complicated, much as the biologists of yester-year made the concept of “the cell” more complicated as they observed more things about it.

Christians, World View, and Contemporary Anthropology - 1

The following query appeared on the Fishnet listserv on Friday, January 9, 2009:


I am wondering if anyone knows of any Christian anthropologists in Mexico? I am working here in Oaxaca and I would like to partner with so me other organizations and people to hold a week long worldview seminar in 2010. I am looking for people that can speak a native Spanish, explain anthropological topics like worldview, and have a commitment to Christianity. Thanks for your help!

Response by Edwin Zehner, Visiting Fellow, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University:

I would strongly suggest talking directly with Robert Priest at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His missiology conferences regularly include presenters from Latin America whose primary language is Spanish, so he may have some useful suggestions for you.

I should probably also note that anthropologists here in the USA tend not to speak of “worldview” anymore, partly because the concept is too broad and easily lends itself to intellectual stereotyping and “essentializing,” as if everybody from the same “culture” thinks the same way, and as if that shared “worldview” generates all the behavior. As you know, the reality is somewhat more complicated. But if your audience is used to the concept of “worldview,” you should definitely use it to advertise the concept. But you might want to make sure the actual presenters are people who can represent the more recent, more nuanced approach.

Another person I might recommend is Brian Howell of Wheaton College, if he is free and if you have the financial means to get him down there. He would be very good at helping the participants through the complexities I've just mentioned, while also realizing where they are coming from. I think he also knows some Spanish. And of course Bob Priest is himself a native speaker of Spanish, and would also be good if available—in addition to knowing who else in Latin America might be good.

Follow-up response by Robert Priest, Head of the Ph.D. program in Intercultural Studies, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

Since Ed volunteered my name I'll go ahead and write a note. The simple answer is I do not know any anthropologists in Mexico who are Christian. A fair number of Christian anthropologists have done research in Mexico at some time or other. Laura Montgomery from Westmont College, Dean Arnold from Wheaton College, etc. etc. And SIL would have several anthropologists fluent in Spanish—Tom Woodward in Dallas (with SIL), David Coombs in Peru, etc. Tito Paredes of Peru has a PhD in anthropology (UCLA) as well as an MDiv (Fuller). If you emailed Laura Montgomery (Anthropology, Westmont College), she might have ideas about Christian anthropologists in Mexico—or perhaps Dean Arnold would (Anthropology, Wheaton College).

I do agree with Ed that most anthropologists, in analyzing culture, tend to stress other sorts of order (functional, instrumental, structural, symbolic, discursive, metaphoric, psychological, dramaturgical, adaptive, etc) rather than rational/philosophic order—and thus few contemporary secular anthropologists make worldview the center of their approach to culture. A number of missiological anthropologists, by contrast, have done so—including Kraft and Hiebert. They have used the concept more as pedagogical tool than as actual underpinning for ethnographic research, however. An analysis of all this would require a whole article, so I better stop here.