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.

1 comment:

Romanin said...

I found this essay to be fascinating. My wife and I have spent years as missionaries in Asia, and getting our masters in missiology at Wheaton, we studied world-view a lot. I struggled however, with the idea that a culture's world view could be all wrong. I struggled also with how to break it up into smaller bits, but from my own perception, it needed to be broken up. I think that your essay describes much of what I struggled through, and I have to say that I must agree. Thanks for posting it, as it has given me much to chew on.