Wednesday, January 14, 2009

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.

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