Courtesy of a Twitter exchange, I was reading Stanley R. Barrett, who in the introduction to his 1984 book, The Rebirth of Anthropological Theory, considers an essential problem: As of 1984, anthropological theory seemingly hadn’t gotten any better at explaining social phenomena, despite more than a century of trying.
Just as sociologists take refuge behind methodology in order to avoid dilemmas in their discipline, anthropologists slip off to the field, the enormous challenge of which soon drives away all other problems.
I didn't escape quickly enough, and the deeper I delved into the history of anthropological theory, the more inconsistencies I discovered. Scientific knowledge supposedly is cumulative, yet our theoretical orientations have oscillated between polar positions, advancing, repeating, and retracting, but rarely achieving progress. Our methodology rests on the assumption of an orderly universe; yet social life is essentially contradictory, although disguised by numerous mechanisms. A great deal of anthropological analysis has mistaken these mechanisms for underlying reality, which means that the discipline has itself contributed to a distorted view of behaviour. Since its beginnings, anthropology has expressed a dream, a hope for a universe without hate, rancour, or racism, in which the peoples of the world would live together in harmony. Yet it also has aspired toward science, even at the expense of the dream, and the result has sometimes been a discipline that has lost the capacity for moral judgment.
I don’t usually editorialize in my “quotes” posts, but every time I read through this quote, the last two sentences irritate me. The reference to racism and colonialism is transparent, but even so I object. “Aspiring toward science” did not cause anthropologists to “lose the capacity for moral judgment”.