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Anthropology: a practice of theory

Michael Herzfeld
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A mischievous definition - but a useful one - Anthropology, a discipline which has long
for social and cultural anthropology is ‘the exhibited an ironic sense of its own social and
study of common sense’. Yet common sense is, cultural context, is particularly well equipped
anthropologically speaking, seriously misnamed: to challenge the separation of modernity from
it is neither common to all cultures, nor is tradition and rationality from superstition - per-
any version of it particularly sensible from the haps, ironically, in part because it played an
perspective of anyone outside its particular cul- enormously influential role in the creation of
tural context. Whether viewed as ‘self-evidence’ this antinomy. The constant exposure of anthro-
(Douglas, 1975, pp. 276-318) or as ‘obvious- pologists in the field to the cultural specificity
ness’ (Miceli, 1982), common sense - the of their own backgrounds undoubtedly played
everyday understanding of an important part in generat-
how the world works - Michael Herzfeld is Professor of Anthro- ing a sense of - and dis-
turns out to be extraordi- pology at Harvard University, 33 Kirk- comfort with - the cultural
narily diverse, maddeningly land Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, vainglory of the centres of
inconsistent, and highly USA. email: herzfeld@wjh.harvard.edu world power. Indeed, a fam-
resistant to scepticism of The author of The Social Production of ous spoof by Horace Miner
Indifference (1992) and Cultural Inti-
any kind. It is embedded in macy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State
(1956), an article in which
both sensory experience and (1997), he has written extensively on he analysed the curious
practical politics - powerful anthropological and semiotic theory, the body rituals of the ‘Naci-
realities that constrain and ethnography of Southern Europe, local rema’ (a well-known tribal
shape access to knowledge. politics, nationalism, and the repro- group, spelled backwards),
duction of social knowledge. He is editor
How do we know that makes fun of scholars’ for-
of American Ethnologist. The Editor
human beings have really wishes to thank Professor Herzfeld for his mal way of theorizing
landed on the moon? invaluable assistance as editorial advisor everyday matters. Instead of
Much recent anthropo- for this issue of the ISSJ. merely poking fun at the
logical work has indeed ease with which scholars are
inspected the claims of modem technology, seduced by the vanity of expertise, however,
politics, and science. Notably, the entire field of Miner raised a serious question of epistemology:
medical anthropology (see especially Kleinman, why should the supposed rationality of Western
1995) has challenged the claims of a crass sci- lifestyles escape the sardonic eye of the anthro-
entism that, as Nicholas Thomas observes in a pologist? The question is serious because it is
somewhat different context in these pages, has fundamentally political, and the evidence for
failed to keep pace with developments in this confronts anthropologists in the field at
science itself. There has clearly been an enor- every turn. A new study (Ferreira, 1997) of
mous expansion of the discipline’s topical range Amazonian responses to Westem-imposed
since the Victorian preoccupation with ‘savage’ mathematical conventions, for example, shows
societies (see also Abtlks in this issue). that the denial of ‘natives’ ’ cognitive capacities

ISSJ 153/1997 Q UNESCO 1997. Puhlkhed by Blackwell Puhliqhers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 lJF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 0214R. USA.
302 Michael Hergeld

may be an integral part of their exploitation disturbingly persistent: knowing those about
and even extirpation by the local agents of inter- whom one writes as neighbours and friends
national commercial interests. makes lofty ideas about the hierarchy of cul-
A corollary of the radical separation of the tures both untenable and distasteful. Increas-
exotic from the modem, historically associated ingly anthropologists began to apply at home
with assumptions about the emergence in mod- what they had found helpful in supposedly sim-
em societies of a rationality capable of trans- ple societies. Mary Douglas, in arguing (1966)
cending cultural boundaries (see Tambiah, for a cultural and social definition of dirt against
1990), has been the assumption that so-called a purely biochemical one, profoundly chal-
premodern societies are characterized by a lack lenged the hygiene-centred preoccupations of
of specialization in conceptual domains. Thus, European and North American societies that
as AbClks notes (this issue), the political was Miner had so mercilessly satirized. AbClks (this
held to be inextricably embedded in kinship issue) perceives politics in modem Europe, at
and more generally in the social fabric of such least in part, as a resuscitation of local-level
societies. In the same way, art was not dis- values and relations, to the interpretation of
tinguished from craft or from ritual production; which the anthropologist’s grass-roots perspec-
economic life was sustained by social reci- tive affords especially immediate access.
procities and belief systems; and science could Yet Thomas wisely cautions us in these
not emerge as an autonomous field because pages not to expect too great a role for anthro-
human beings had not yet found efficient ways pology in the future: that ‘the foreign relativises
of disentangling the practical from the religious the familiar’ is less useful and startling today,
(or ‘superstitious’, as this domain was some- when the knowledge that anthropologists pro-
times called, in denigration of an assumed inca- duce is immediately open to criticism by those
pacity to separate cosmological belief from pure about whom it is produced - people who share
philosophy on the one hand and practical an increasingly large range of communications
knowledge on the other). Thus, anthropology’s technology with us. Nevertheless, as Thomas
main task was seen as the study of domains of himself suggests, this assessment might itself
the social - politics, economics, kinship, be cause for optimism about the potential for
religion, aesthetics, and so on - in those anthropology to contribute usefully to current
societies the members of which had not learned social and political criticism. Hand-wringing
to make such abstract distinctions. Long after about the crisis of representation should not
the demise of evolutionism as the dominant obscure the fact that some of the more con-
theory of society and culture, this evolutionist sidered critiques themselves generated important
assumption sustained the categories of mod- new insights and departures. Even the disil-
ernity and tradition as the basis for teaching lusionment with fieldwork that began to appear
anthropology, and hence also the illusion that in the 1960s - and especially with its claims
‘modern’ or ‘advanced’ societies had somehow to theoretically objective rigour - had the effect
managed to rise above the inability to concep- of strengthening this rejection of the radical
tualize the abstract and so to rationalize the separation between the observer and the
social through the specialization of tasks. observed and so created more, not fewer,
Yet such assumptions could not be sus- empirically grounded forms of knowledge.
tained for long. They quickly clashed with the It is especially telling that, as Garcia Can-
direct experience of field research, as Thomas clini emphasizes in his article in this issue, the
observes: long immersion among the popu- rapid growth of urban social forms has dealt a
lations towards whom such condescension was decisive blow to that separation between
directed undermined the sense of absolute observer and observed (and to the exclusive
superiority and empirically discredited basic focus of some of the more traditional or ‘exotic-
presuppositions. Indeed, as Stocking (1995, pp. izing’ forms of anthropology on ‘salvage’
123, 292) has observed, the turn to fieldwork - work). As he points out, anthropologists are
even before Malinowski - was crucial in themselves subject to most of the forces that
undermining evolutionist perspectives even affect the urban populations they study. By the
though their organizing framework was to prove same token, however, the distinction between

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Anthropology: a practice of theory 303

the urban and the rural, which (in the binary social context, the recent, rapid intensification
form in which it is often articulated) is to some of this focus on ‘the West’ has also helped to
extent simply an artefact of the history of dissolve much of the residue of anthropology’s
anthropology itself, is also now increasingly dif- own embarrassingly racist origins. Fortunately
ficult to sustain. Such insights underscore the the absence of so-called Western societies from
importance of being fully aware of the disci- the roster of generally acknowledged ethno-
pline’s historical entailments. This more fluid graphic sites, a situation that made anthropology
relationship with our subject-matter emerges as the negative of the colonialist snapshot of the
a result of increasingly reflexive approaches. As world, is now being trenchantly redressed.
a basic orientation in anthropology, it is both In Rabinow’s book, moreover, we see one
analytically more useful and historically more of the most perverse strengths of anthropology:
responsible than rejecting the whole enterprise that its capacity for even quite destructive self-
as fatally and irremediably flawed either by examination has provided a pedagogical tool of
observer ‘contamination’ (a symbolic construct considerable value. Furthermore, anthropology’s
found with surprising frequency in writings now sceptical view of rationalism offers a heal-
claimed as scientific) or by its indisputably thy corrective to the more universalistic assump-
hegemonic past (which it shares with the entire tions common in other social science disci-
range of academic disciplines). Both the prag- plines, while its persistent localism provides a
matic and the rejectionist responses can cer- strong vaccine against universalizing the parti-
tainly be found in the ethnographic literature, cularistic values of cultures that happen to be
sometimes curiously conjoined in a single work. politically dominant. Whenever the end of
In such contradictory moments, in fact, we can anthropology has been proclaimed from within
sometimes see the first stirrings of a more flex- there has been a renewal of both external inter-
ible approach to the categorical confusions that, est and internal theoretical energy. This, I sug-
as Garcia Canclini observes, proliferate in the gest, is because anthropology provides a unique
complexity of urban life. critical and empirical space in which to examine
Take, for example, two roughly contempor- the universalistic claims of common sense -
aneous studies of Moroccan society, both of including the common sense of Western
which carry introspection to lengths that many social theory.
have found to be excessive. Against the grim While I largely agree with Thomas’ cau-
rejectionism of Kevin Dwyer’s Moroccan tions about the risk of inflated ideas about what
Dialogues (1982), a work in which a single the discipline can do for the world at large, I
ethnographer-informant relationship is made to would also argue that - at least in the class-
do the work of destabilizing a whole discipline, room, hardly an unimportant place - there is
Paul Rabinow’s distinctly nihilistic Rejections great value in the destabilization of received
on Fieldwork in Morocco (1977) makes a very ideas both through the inspection of cultural
different case: its contribution to current anthro- alternatives and through the exposure of the
pological thought comes less through the weaknesses that seem to be inherent in all our
author’s disgust with traditional method (or attempts to analyse various cultural worlds
rather with the lack of it) than through his including our own. We need such a counter-
perceptive recognition that the jaded ex-col- weight to the increasingly bureaucratic homo-
onialist French hBtelier was at least as good genization of knowledge and of common sense.
a subject for ethnographic investigation as the That is the guiding theme of these opening
romantic Berber denizens of the kasbah and the remarks to the present issue of the Znternational
suq. Such moves help to make the ‘unmarked’ Social Science Journal.
carriers of modernity both visible and interest- I would argue, furthermore, that the charac-
ing and to dismantle their rhetoric of cultural teristic stance of this discipline has always been
neutrality. Even as some European critics, for its proclivity for taking marginal communities
example, assail anthropologists for daring to and using that marginality to ask questions
study them on the same terms as exotic savages, about the centres of power. Indeed, some of
thereby exposing a cultural hierarchy that is the most exciting ethnographic studies are those
indeed worth studying in its own cultural and which challenge the homogenizing rhetoric of

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304 Michael Herzfeld

nation-states. Recent work on Indonesia - a (sometimes also known as social Darwinism or


country of riotous variety - makes the point survivalism). It also makes it easier to emphas-
with especially dramatic force, both topically ize a related point: that, far from being arranged
and conceptually (George, 1996; Steedly, 1993; in a tidy sequence beginning at some mythical
Tsing, 1993). But even in the world of Euro- point of origin, the ‘stages’ of anthropological
pean power, there are marginal spaces that com- thought often overlap, confound the usual pre-
plicate the representation of nationhood, culture, dictions of their order of appearance, and
and society in ways that challenge long- reappear as embarrassing anachronisms amidst
cherished assumptions within the discipline (see supposedly progressive theoretical develop-
Argyrou, 1996, on Cyprus; Herzfeld, 1987, on ments. Thus, for example, the seemingly very
Greece). ‘modem’ and postcolonial insight that key ana-
Field research, often in a tension-laden col- lytic categories such as kinship and marriage
laboration with respectably grand theory, has may not be as universally applicable as we had
always been the cornerstone of anthropology. It once imagined is anticipated in the writings of
generates an intimacy of focus - changing ways turn-of-the-century explorers who had wrestled
of framing ethnographic fieldwork make the practically with the inadequacies of these categ-
more spatial image of a bounded community ories in the field, notably in Australia (see
somewhat out-dated - that permits the recog- Stocking, 1995, p. 26). Conversely, however,
nition of indeterminacy in social relations. This some key ideas associated with the evolutionism
is an empirical concern that too easily escapes of Victorian Britain and the functionalist modes
the broader view but that nonetheless has enor- of explanation systematized by Malinowski in
mous consequences for the larger picture (in the 1920s often reappear in the structuralism of
the prediction of electoral patterns, for example, the 1960s and even in its successors, including
where isolated communities with very specific the reflexive historiography of the 1990s. Let
proclivities may hold the casting vote in a tight me elaborate on this by briefly commenting on
race). The nature of ethnographic research, the characteristic instance of LCvi-Strauss’
Thomas argues, may now be changing, in structuralism.
response to new ways of organizing social and Among his many contributions to anthro-
cultural life. Yet this does not invalidate the pological theory, Claude LCvi-Strauss advanced
anthropological preference for microscopic the view that myth was ‘a machine for the
analysis. Curiously enough, in fact, the huge suppression of time’ and that it had the effect
increase in scale of global interaction has inten- of concealing the contradictions raised by the
sified rather than attenuated the need for such very existence of social life (see discussion and
an intimate perspective, as he notes, and as further references in Leach, 1970, pp. 57-58,
we shall see with particular clarity in Dickey’s 112-19). Thus, for example, society prohibits
discussion of modern media. incest; but how to explain reproduction except
through a primal act of incest? (By extension,
we might say that the birth of a new nation -
an entity that characteristically lays claim to
History and the myth of pure origins - must presuppose an act of cul-
theoretical origins tural or even genetic miscegenation. And indeed
LCvi-Strauss’ views on myths of origin are
Most summaries of anthropology start with an especially apposite for the analysis of national-
account of its history, or at least place that istic histories.) How different is this from Mali-
history before any discussion of such contem- nowski’s (1948) celebrated definition of myth
porary themes as that of reflexivity. My thought as a ‘charter’ for society? Or again, if incest
in partially reversing that convention here is to taboos reflect the importance of maintaining
highlight, as an example of what I am describ- clear categorical distinctions between insiders
ing, the tendency to see the growth of the disci- and outsiders and so enable each society to
pline as one of unilinear progress - in other reproduce itself by marrying out (exogamy),
words, as an example of one of the discipline’s how far does this escape the teleological impli-
earliest master narratives, that of evolutionism cation - typical of most forms of func-

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Anthropology: a practice of theory 305

tionalism - that such is the goal of rules pro- ture (see Classen, this issue), or the surprisingly
hibiting incest? parallel self-indulgence of writing about culture
The sobering evidence of such intellectual from the safety of pure introspection. The latter
recidivism has an important corollary. Once we is indeed a return to Victorian ‘armchair anthro-
see theories as expressions of a social and polit- pology’ in the name of a ‘postmodern’ equival-
ical orientation and as heuristic devices for ent such as cultural studies as described here
exploring social reality, rather than as the instru- by Thomas.
ments of pure intellect, the theories become The dearth of older studies of the sensory
visible in hitherto unsuspected places. We begin is especially surprising when one considers that
to realize, in other words, that informants are evolutionists propounded at an early date the
themselves engaged in theoretical practices - view that human beings became progressively
not, for the most part, in the sense of a pro- less dependent on physical sensation as the life
fessional engagement, but through the perform- of the active mind took over. Yet these self-
ance of directly comparable intellectual oper- satisfied Victorians were, for example, deeply
ations. LCvi-Strauss’ celebrated distinction interested in ritual - one of the discipline’s
between ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ societies thus turns hardiest perennials. As Handelman (this issue)
out to be one of scale rather than of kind. remarks, ritual may engage all the senses to an
It is one thing to recognize informants as extent not usually realized in (modern forms
producers of abstract social knowledge, but, as of) spectacle. Yet there has not until recently
Thomas remarks, quite another to use it as the been much anthropological curiosity about the
basis of our own theoretical understanding. role of senses other than the visual and the
Nevertheless, the increasing porosity of the con- auditory in ritual practices, and only rather mod-
temporary world means that we shall be ever est attempts have been made to analyse these
more dependent on our informants’ intellectual aspects as anything more than appendages to
tolerance and will therefore, willy-nilly, find the main business of ritual action.
ourselves doing just that. For, to an increasing Raising questions about such matters
degree, they ‘read what we write’ (Brettell, ed., reveals the limits of purely verbal channels of
1993; see also Thomas, this issue). Moreover, enquiry, and consequently poses a productive
they write, too, and some of them write anthro- challenge to all the social sciences, especially
pology. This makes their ratiocination more per- those in which there is some recognition of
ceptible, although it also perhaps means that the social actors’ own theoretical capacities.
domination of ‘modem’ writing systems might Handelman raises the issue of theory that is
occlude other modes of reasoning. implicit in ritual, yet he argues that we then
That is a development that would limit construct a different theoretical framework that
rather than expand our intellectual possibilities. allows us to disembed the indigenous theory
The extension of ‘sense’ from ‘common sense’ from its manifestations as ritual. Well and
to ‘the sensorium’ and the concomitant rejection good - but this demands a dramatic increase in
of an a priori commitment to the Cartesian our ability both to record and to analyse those
separation of mind from body is vital to non-verbal semiotics through which the actors’
expanding our capacity to appreciate the practi- conceptual assumptions and insights are
cal theorizing of social actors (Jackson, 1989). expressed, manipulated, and, to use Handel-
(As with some of the complex kinship systems man’s terminology, transformed. For it is at
studied by early anthropologists, whether we least conceivable that in transforming the con-
realize it or not it is our own intellectual inca- dition of a group or an individual, the perform-
pacity that is at issue.) Insights into those areas ance of a ritual may also transform the way in
of the sensorium that resist reduction to verbal which its underlying assumptions are perceived
description are challenges to our capacity to or conceptualized - something of the sort is
suspend disbelief but, for that very reason, they presupposed in the idea that rituals, often asso-
demand a less solipsistic response than either ciated with the reproduction of systems of
the kind of objectivism that only accepts as power, may also serve as vehicles of change.
significant the limited compass of understanding Here it seems especially vital to avoid the
already circumscribed by the values of one cul- common error of assuming that all meaning can

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306 Michael Herdeld

Bouzkachi match in the Mazar plain, near the Chinese-Pakistan border, during the fortieth anniversary celebrations
of the province of Taxkorgan. Bouzkachi is a violent sport related to polo, traditional among the people of
Afganistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and Xin Jiang. Normally it is played on horseback, but on this occasion it is
on yaks. RezdSygma

be rendered accurately in linguistic form. Much appears to conflate linguistic meaning with cas-
of what passes for translation would more accu- ual observations that something ‘matters’ (or ‘is
rately be called exegesis. Paradoxically this meaningful’, as we might say). But if such
awareness of the limits of language entails a views do reflect local usage, perhaps they can
considerable command of the language of the also do something to loosen the hold that the
culture in which one is working. It is crucial to language-centred model of meaning has over
be able to identify irony, to recognize allusion our intellectualist imagination.
(sometimes to politically significant shifts in The idea of illiterate village theorists is not
language use), and to go beyond simplistic especially astounding when one considers that
assumptions that a language that appears these people must contend with enormous social
grounded in social experience is ‘less’ capable complexities. Their situation, enmeshed in
of carrying abstract meaning than one’s own sometimes mutually discordant allegiances to
(see Labov, 1972). entities larger than the local community,
So, too, is a willingness to recognize that requires adroit decoding skills as a matter of
informants’ ideas about meaning may not corre- sheer political survival. As a result, informants
spond to the verbocentric assumptions usually may display an exegetical virtuosity and a con-
held by Western intellectuals. In my own work ceptual eclecticism that would, in a professional
in a rural Cretan community, for example, I anthropologist, appear as signs of inconsistency,
have found that the inhabitants’ ability to but that in the local context simply display the
decode the semiotics of their own discourse as pragmatic deployment of theory at its most
well as that of the encompassing bureaucratic varied. One can find the equivalent of func-
nation-state is fuelled by an acute sense of polit- tionalists, evolutionists, and even structuralists
ical marginality. Similar observations are raised among one’s informants: types of explanation
here by Roberts in his discussion of other subal- respond to the needs of the situation. This
tern populations. Local usage in some societies becomes an even more complex issue when

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Anthropology: a practice of theory 307

dealing with populations whose reading has and the equally self-referential nihilism towards
been, perhaps unbeknownst to them, suffused which some - but not all - forms of postmod-
with the vocabulary of past anthropologies - ernism threaten to propel the discipline.
and that includes an increasing share of the Among the latter, the assessments of eth-
world’s populations. Local explanations of ‘cus- nography in Writing Culture (Clifford and Mar-
tom’ are frequently legitimated with a heavy cus, eds, 1986) have been especially and appro-
dose of ‘scientific’ evolutionism, for example - priately criticized by feminists (Mascia-Lees,
and, since theory often draws on currently popu- Sharpe, and Cohen, 1987-88; Behar and Gor-
lar notions, it is empirically unsound in such don, eds, 1995). Especially in the light of such
cases to treat popular discourse and anthropo- criticisms from those who might have been
logical theory as two wholly separate domains. expected to be sympathetic, it would be easy to
Only a historical account of the relationship dismiss the postmodern trend as simply another
between them makes it possible to disentangle exploitative discourse. But that would be to
them for analytic purposes. repeat, yet again, the offence that is most com-
This is why I would welcome a disciplin- monly laid at its door. In fact, however, these
ary history that paid far greater attention than instances of what Robotham here calls ‘moder-
was hitherto acceptable to the role our inform- ate’ postmodemism have served as provocations
ants play in the development of our ideas. For to expand the space of ethnographic investi-
there is some evidence for this role. In the gation, thereby, I would argue, rendering it
1960s, for example, a major dispute pitted the more rather than less empirical - a judgment
structuralists (as ‘alliance theorists’) against with which extremists of both the positivist and
structural-functionalists (as ‘descent theorists’) the postmodern persuasions would probably be
in the explanation of kinship. It turns out that - equally unhappy.
with a few, albeit notable, exceptions - most But can a discipline so often forced to
of the former had worked in South America examine itself in this way contribute anything
and South-East Asia, while the majority of the to human understanding, or are its internal
latter had conducted their research in Africa squabbles simply too distracting or paralysing?
and the Middle East. Could this not be the result Certainly some of them seem dangerously silly.
of the impact of local traditions of exegesis on But the available evidence suggests that in fact
the thinking of anthropologists? Ethnographic the result has been an increase in ethnographic
reports are replete with intimations of local work, held to a higher standard of both scien-
theorizing; an early, and famous, example is tific (in the most general sense) and moral
that of Evans-Pritchard’s experience with Nuer accountability. If that is so, there are at least
who drew diagrams in the sand in order to two major gains to be discussed: first, in the
explain the lineaments of their ideal-typical lin- realization of the intellectual riches that schol-
eage structure to him (1940, p. 202). To treat ars’ increased humility might make generally
these exercises as ethnographic vignettes rather available, and, secondly, and by extension, in
than as theoretical contributions seems ungener- the pedagogical task of fighting racism and
ous by the standards of today’s more reflex- other pernicious essentialisms in a world that
ive ethos. seems increasingly inclined to return to it.
Anthropology, framed in these terms, is
perhaps unusual among the social sciences in
the degree to which its practitioners acknowl-
edge the collapse of the once axiomatic separ- Empirical reflexivity
ation of theorizing scholar and ethnographic
‘subject’. Does this mean that their models are There is also a dimension of reflexivity that
fatally flawed? On the contrary, I suggest, their actually amplifies the empirical thrust of the
claims to intellectual rigour are strengthened by discipline. To understand what (in the terms of
such acknowledgements of intellectual debt - current debates) might seem to be a totally
acknowledgements that simultaneously undercut paradoxical formulation, we must make a clear
the arbitrariness of the scientistic (as opposed distinction between two quite different varieties
to scientific) insistence on perfect replicability of reflexivity: the personal and the sociocultural.

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308 Michael Hergeld

Discussions of reflexivity have ranged from on the other, that such comparisons might
accusations of bad faith (it is a self-indulgent become an end in themselves, validated by the
luxury at the expense of the various threatened moralism that currently marks the self-congratu-
populations we study) to passionate advocacy latory rhetoric of some of those nation-states
(only through radical self-examination can that have been especially prominent in the
anthropology shed the taint of its colonial past). development of anthropology.
Pragmatic considerations, however, might Yet the benefits are especially substantive
suggest that this is a misdirected debate and at this moment in history. Anthropology is
lead us to ask instead what kind of reflexivity clearly abandoning the (empirically untenable)
is on offer. This is where the distinction vision of clearly bounded cultural isolates -
between the personal and the sociocultural the laboratory of Uvi-Strauss’ (1955) optimistic
becomes especially germane. Reflexive exer- imagination. Robotham’s optimism in his essay
cises that seem merely to be a public form of in these pages is of a different order. It moves
psychoanalysis seem to offer far less insight beyond both positivism and what he calls the
than those which permit us to see our own ‘defensive anguish’ of postmodernism. Instead,
cultural practices, anthropology prominently it both embraces the rich variety of social
included, in a comparative context. experience that now becomes accessible and
Thus, for example, the critique of func- rejects (or at least contextualizes) the Western-
tionalism in social anthropology does help us constructed order of things implied even by
to recognize the logic adopted by the framers of such well-intentioned coinages as ‘post-
rituals, constitutions, and bureaucratic systems. colonialism’.
Indeed, the more ‘modern’ and contemporary Until now the cultural relativism of anthro-
such systems are, the more clearly we can ident- pology has always been relative to one con-
ify the social agents - the committees of Durk- structed collective self, that of the ‘West’ (see
heimian gremlins, as it were - who made con- Carrier, 1992). To exploit the new opportunities,
scious decisions to set them up. They are real Robotham suggests, we must relativize all
people, acting in real social spaces at specific sociocultural formations to an equal degree, pri-
historical moments and participating in pro- vileging none. It is worth adding that it is pre-
cesses rather than being suspended in timeless cisely at this moment that the critical anthro-
structures. As such, they are ethnographically - pology of so-called Western societies, already
that is, empirically - accessible (see Moore, emboldened by the postmodern turn, has truly
1987). burgeoned.
Moreover, viewing their actions in these In this context anthropologists face the
terms does not entail imputing psychological challenge of moving from the study of local
motives to them. It is simply a matter of realiz- phenomena for the purposes of generating grand
ing that their actions give form and substance theory to the analysis of encompassing entities
to cultural artefacts in which others - often such as the nation-state - to anthropology as
their followers - are able to find the sense of social and political criticism - and, as Thomas
structured order that encourages conformity and urges, to a new and more flexible focus on
sets the standard against which rebellion regional identities as well - not in the idiom
acquires its identity. There is much to be gained of the old culture area formulations, but in rec-
analytically by discerning the similarities ognition of political realities that include the
between anthropological and state func- use of regional identity as a means for effec-
tionalism, or between anthropological theories tive mobilization.
of ethnicity and myths of origin (including The vital task is to sustain the microscopic
nationalist historiographies) (Drummond, 1981), focus of field research at the same or even
or anthropological concepts of culture and greater intensity, but to do so in ways that
society and state-sponsored reifications of ident- illuminate the overlapping, partially concentric
ity (Handler, 1985). But the dangers are, on the larger entities in which it is embedded. This is
one hand, that such introspection can lead to possible because anthropological fieldwork itself
the self-defeating despair of the positivist at the entails experiences that coincide in instructive
continuity between observer and observed; and, ways with processes that are important to

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Anthropology: a practice of theory 309

informants (Jenkins, 1994, pp. 445-51). More- that resembles translation in the way it appropri-
over, the social intimacy of the field situation - ates a text for a new context.
the source of anthropologists’ earliest and most Given that anthropology, nationalism, and
fundamental reflexivity - permits a critical colonialism have complex intertwined pasts,
investigation of the cultural intimacy of the these comparisons are less outrageous historio-
state and other supra-local entities (Herzfeld graphically than they might appear to be from
1997). When a fieldworker discovers that the perspective of maintaining myths of scien-
ordinary people admit to knowing about minor- tific detachment and transcendence. Indeed,
ities and cultural traits the very existence of Robotham’s essay briefly documents the way in
which is officially denied; when the anthro- which the Western grip on world history has
pologist uncovers the reproduction of colonial relegated other ‘traditions’ to secondary status,
practices at the local level under postcolonial a phenomenon also matched in internal col-
regimes; when the official rhetoric of social onialisms such as those indexed by British dis-
and political harmony fails to blind the ethno- courses about ‘localism’ (Nadel-Klein, 1991).
grapher to the persistence of practices deemed The history of anthropology is a side-show -
to be ‘uncivilized’ (in a rhetoric that owes although a very revealing one - in that larger
much to Victorian anthropology!) - at just such spectacle.
moments, anthropological field research can bal- To take another example of the productive
ance the more sweeping generalizations of more use of this kind of comparison, teleology may
macroscopic disciplines such as political science be inadmissible as an analytic presupposition,
(AbClks, this issue), economics (Gudeman, but it may also exist as an object of obser-
1992), and cultural studies (see Dickey and vation - as in the ‘state functionalism’ described
Thomas, this issue). by Malarney (1996) for certain totalitarian
It is here, especially, that the reflexive cri- regimes, or as in the intentional social shaping
tique of anthropology is conducive to a new at which much state spectacle is directed
kind of analysis of the role of the state. To (Handelman, this issue). But Handelman’s rad-
achieve that goal, however, reflexivity must be ical distinction between spectacle and ritual per-
viewed, not as an end in itself, but as a means haps occludes the role of teleology in state
to the refinement of our analytic sensitivity. practices by obscuring the extent to which spec-
This makes a comparandum of anthropology tacle and ritual, as defined by him, both entail
itself, not because it is necessarily of special the reproduction of classificatory systems
interest to non-anthropologists, but because the according to remarkably similar principles of
social and political history it shares with many symbolic pollution and purity. On this point,
of the encompassing institutional structures - AbClbs, for example, finds the continuities
nation-states, colonial empires, religious between so-called modern societies and those
bureaucracies - can be made markedly more once exclusively studied by anthropologists to
accessible through that discomfiting procedure. be more productive of new insight than are the
The criticism of anthropological theories as presumed discontinuities. This tension between
excessively based on the treatment of exotic similarity and difference is, in any event, a
others as living in another kind of time (see defining feature of the way in which anthropo-
Fabian, 1983), for example, leads us to the logical thought raises critical questions about
analytic dissection of similar practices in state the constitution of society and culture, and it
policies on minorities and on the preservation can be orientated chronologically as well as
of ‘tradition’ in populations marginalized by geographically - thereby still further undermin-
their very association with its museological ing the old, simplistic equations linking the
glories (e.g. Danforth, 1984). In a similar vein, exotic, the archaic, and the rural.
Asad’s (1993) critique of the common metaphor Seeing teleology as conceived and put into
of anthropological analysis as translation, what- operation by intending social beings takes it out
ever its own merits, also suggests a way of of the domain of common sense and instead
looking at the ways in which state bureaucracies reframes it as a form of social agency - in
reframe local traditions as national ceremonial - other words, as itself constituting the very
a pragmatic and largely non-linguistic process phenomenon it denies, and, as such, something

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3 10 Michael Herdeld

with which it is theoretically possible to argue. among anthropological topics, defined in terms
(The crudest example of this is the political of institutional significance (kinship, politics,
rhetoric that denies that it is political. Its bluff religion, economics and so on). Kinship, for
can certainly be called! But there is often a example, today enjoys a more organic entail-
price for doing so.) More particularly, what in ment in other areas of research. Whether as a
modern theory would be rejected as crass essen- dimension of the relationship between gender
tialism appears in social practice as the outer and state power (e.g. Borneman, 1992; Yanagi-
form of a successful bid for power. sako and Delaney, eds, 1995) or as the guiding
Awareness of agency in this sense re- metaphor of nationalism, in losing its former
inscribes history in the analysis of the social - autonomy it has gained a pervasive sociocultural
one of the most direct effects of the general significance far in excess of what its erstwhile
growth of interest in agency, as Roberts notes prominence allowed it.
in his essay. Its effects are rarely as total as its Ethnicity, too, has achieved a new ubi-
authors desire. As Malarney wisely points out, quity. The concept itself has come in for a
there are limits to the functional efficiency good deal of deconstruction, but it dies hard.
demanded by the most controlling of regimes: Although anthropologists have contributed
the denial of agency does not mean that it has massively to its analysis, moreover, they have
been truly eclipsed in practice, any more than - been especially alive to its political adoption by
conversely - the existence of a powerful state incipient nationalisms (e.g. Jackson, 1995). It
automatically means that everyday contra- therefore constitutes an especially clear illus-
ventions of its authority necessarily constitute tration of the difficulty of analytically separating
acts of deliberate resistance - although they the anthropological enterprise from its object of
may indeed be just that (see Scott, 1985; cf. study - a difficulty that (as I am arguing here),
Reed-Danahay, 1993). It is because such ques- far from invalidating the discipline, corresponds
tions cannot be generically answered, and especially closely to the empirical realities.
because they are often accessible only through Indeed, it is not only the case, as Thomas notes
non-verbal (or at least non-referential) codes - in this issue, that anthropologists increasingly
AbCBs’ brief mention of the role of gesture in find themselves repeating knowledge that local
political action is especially suggestive here - actors already possess, in a form that the locals
that they demand painstaking, grass-roots field may not find particularly revealing of new
research. Even then they leave large areas of insights. That knowledge may also - to the
doubt, especially given our slow development extent that anthropological production is still
of techniques for reading the less referential taken seriously - serve to legitimize emergent
modes of meaning (on which see Farnell, 1995); identities and practices.
but at least recognizing their significance is a This situation is something of a test case
step in the right direction - away from the for the strengths and weaknesses of a post-
surprisingly anti-empirical view that what can- modern perspective. On the one hand, aware-
not be measured should simply be left out of ness of being in the picture offers a salutary
the picture. This view is usually associated with corrective to the usual image of ‘cultures’ as
a ‘top-down’ perspective that avoids the messi- hermetically and unambiguously bounded enti-
ness of social reality and that dismisses ethno- ties - whether as physically isolated tribal com-
graphic data as mere anecdotes. Such positions, munities or as industrial states severely defined
always at odds with field experience, have very (and often literally fenced in) by national bor-
few adherents in social and cultural anthro- ders. But it also suggests that any attempt to
pology today. deny the reality of such borders for the actors
themselves is indefensible, and may, as J. Jack-
son (1995) in particular has noted, undercut
Anthropology and the politics their attempts at self-determination in the face
of identity of state brutality. It also forces scholars to con-
front the inevitable problem that today’s liber-
The emphasis on agency has led to a partial ation of one population may bring in its train
dissolution of the once clear-cut divisions the extermination or enslavement of others. At

0 UNESCO 1997.
Anthropology: a practice of theory 31 1

Preparing for a cockfight, Indonesia. Frangoise HuguierRapho

best, anthropologists can sound warnings about national character studies that relied on the
the reality of such slippage. media as their principal source of data and that,
In conformity with this vision of the inter- I would add, themselves shared a long history
connectedness of things, the discussion of eth- with nationalistic folklore studies (see Cocchiara,
nicity and nationalism percolates through 1952; Car0 Baroja, 1970). Anthropology was
numerous other focal themes. Any attempt to once powerfully implicated in the nation-build-
treat it summarily in a single paper could only ing and related enterprises of which its present-
obscure its contemporary importance. The topics day practitioners are now implicated in the
in which it appears in its most obvious and ‘constructivist’ critique - to the distress of many
unmediated forms include politics (AbClks, this host communities, as Argyrou (1996), Jackson
issue), ritual (Handelman, this issue), the media (1995), Thomas, and others have observed. The
(Dickey, this issue), and genders and sexualities constructivist position not only questions
(Borneman, next issue). present-day unities, but does so through the
In Handelman’s work, for example, we see disaggregation of a nominally unified past. In
the connections between ritual, bureaucracy, particular, it entails questioning the idea of a
nationalism, and the production of spectacle in single point of departure that we meet in both
religious and nationalist contexts - two domains myths of origin and nationalistic histories, and
that themselves exhibit revealing similarities, this may pose deeply serious threats to new
notably in the relationship between nationalism entities that have not yet adequately covered
and myth-making. Here it may be useful to note their heterogeneous traces (perhaps including
Dickey’s brief but illuminating mention of the anthropology itself?): time, as Roberts (this

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312 Michael Herzfeld

issue) notes in commenting on the deployment Borneman, 1992); and scientific rationalities and
of claims to antiquity by various political and religious practice. Is Miner’s Nacirema spoof
cultural entities, is a source of validation. merely an elegant joke, or does it prompt seri-
Ethnicity and nationalism are thus ubiqui- ous reflection on the extent to which we can
tous themes in anthropology: they circumscribe make claims equating modernity with some uni-
both its intellectual agenda and its potential for versal notion of rationality? What does it mean
meaningful political engagement. They demand to treat the political elites of modem indus-
of all anthropologists a willingness to consider trialized societies in terms of kinship and other
in good faith the potential consequences of what face-to-face idioms of identity, as AbCEs rec-
they write and publish, placing the moral burden ommends? And why has kinship returned so
of responsibility - a burden that cannot be decisively to centre stage, in studies ranging
assuaged by pat ethical prescriptions - squarely from nationalism to reproductive technologies
on the anthropologists’ shoulders. They are, in and ideologies (Strathern, 1989; Ginsburg,
many senses, the very ground on which anthro- 1989)? If such studies are grounded on a meta-
pology as a discipline must make its case - phorical use of the ‘archaic’ term in each pair,
whether as the object of its study, the basis for so are the modernities that they analyse. The
historical reflection and re-assessment, or the kinship metaphors used in nation-state construc-
political context for action. tion will be especially familiar to most readers
In this project I have therefore, consistently of this article.
with the theme of anthropology as a systematic The second question concerns the plurality
critique of notions of common sense, opted at of possible ‘modernities’. For if modernity is
the organizational level to emphasize instead not a universalizing trend, as Dickey’s and
such less ‘obvious’ domains as the senses, mod- Robotham’s analyses especially suggest, and if
ernities, and media; but there is no cause for its riotous variety allows plenty of play to
concern, for the ‘obvious’ themes demonstrate human agency, we may ask whether there have
their hardiness by reappearing in new guises in fact ever been societies as conformist as
within the framework adopted here. Such those portrayed by the evolutionist and func-
rearrangements are not merely cosmetic, nor tionalist imaginations. The evidence suggests
merely accidental: they are intentionally not only that such uniformity and boundedness
designed to encourage theoretical reassessment are gross oversimplifications, but also that the
as well. persistence of social and cultural diversity in
One important area on which this entire the so-called global village of the late twentieth
project focuses quite deliberately is that of mod- century portends an important role for an
ernity - or, rather, a plethora of modernities, anthropology newly sensitized to agency and
as Robotham (this issue) notes. We shall return practice. It will be a valuable corrective to
to it in specific form in the next issue social analyses latterly co-opted by the dis-
(Hubinger). Here I simply want to signal two courses of state and supra-state power.
themes that run through the entire project. First, The theoretical turn to concepts of agency
there is the question of whether modernity is and practice (see Ortner, 1984) signalled an
radically different, as (for example) Handelman important moment in the discipline’s self-realiz-
maintains - or whether, viewed as a plurality ation. At the very time when some observers -
in accordance with Robotham’s formulation gleefully or sadly according to their own per-
(with its attendant rejection of older and now spectives - were predicting that the crisis of
clearly simplistic antinomies pitting subaltern ethnographic representation and the partially
against colonial perspectives), one can view ‘it’ self-inflicted critique of anthropology would
as a distinctive entity at all. This is methodolog- destroy its credibility, three important develop-
ically important because on it depends how far ments led in the opposite direction.
we treat in the same framework such pairs as First, many scholars interpreted the criti-
state bureaucracy and the symbolic classification cisms as a challenge to deepen and broaden the
of tribal rituals; moiety systems of kinship and purview of ethnography rather than to abandon
competing legal regimes of family law and ship; the result was a significant rise in the pub-
political ideology (as in pre-1989 Berlin: see lication of theoretically engaged ethnography.

~ ~~

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Secondly, many of those who agreed with the From common sense to
criticisms nevertheless felt that they could be multiple senses: practising
built back into the discipline’s theoretical frame- theory in expanded spaces
work, thereby permitting greater sensitivity to
issues that, in the final analysis, still had to do Anthropologists have good reason to be
with the depth and richness of ethnographic especially sensitive to the implications of vis-
description. (That is also the key theme in my ualism. Here one might see in Handelman’s
present discussion.) Thirdly, the rise of a text argument that the modem, bureaucratic state
metaphor for ethnography was found to have employs spectacles - visual performances - in
severe limits (see, e.g., Asad, 1993), yet it may place of ritual, an illustration of the dramatic
be that some awareness of these was what for- rise of the visual in the modem economy of
ced discussion back to the social actors them- power. Spectacles, in this (admittedly far from
selves - a development that counteracted the exhaustive) sense of the term, are a means by
disembodied and over-generalized visions of which power, especially bureaucratic power,
society and culture generated by both the tex- perpetuates itself. The uncertainty that Handel-
tualist and the positivistic extremes. man sees as an essential component of ritual
Textualism was also associated with a is erased by the all-seeing eye, dramatically
debilitating overdependence on language-based summarized in Foucault’s ( 1 975) metaphor of
models of meaning. Yet language itself pro- the Benthamite panopticon, of spectacle that
vided an escape route: the realization, still too reduces the citizen to the role of passive wit-
partial, that ordinary language insights - the ness. Citizens may believe that they are watch-
shift from reference to use - can be applied as ing the show; but Big Brother is - or may be -
much to all other semiotic domains as they can watching them. This is not (as in the evolution-
to language. Roberts’ point about the degree ists’ view) the story of the rise of disembodied
to which the actual performance of Sinhalese logic, but that of the historically contingent
narratives about the Portuguese encodes the emergence of one embodied capacity - sight -
aspects of derision and resistance underscores that permitted an exceptionally comprehensive
both the importance of the new emphasis on technology of control and thus also a fully self-
visual media and on multisensory analysis in reproducing teleology of power. There is also
these essays, and the importance of avoiding a a danger that analyses that appear to treat
referential view of meaning that reduces every- bureaucracy and spectacle as spaces in which
thing to pure text - the practice of anthropology agency can get no purchase may inadvertently
included. (Classen’s essay addresses the textual do the state’s own work of homogenizing
bias from another, but related, perspective.) society. But it remains useful to remind our-
It is nonetheless important not to throw the selves that spectacular performances may indeed
baby out with the bathwater: the textual turn in provide authoritarian regimes with the means to
anthropology, especially as pioneered by Geertz enact an especially pernicious form of vis-
(1973), did much to focus anthropologists’ ualism - as long as we also remember to look
attention on meaning as opposed to an behind the scenes and to catch the knowing
objectified form, even though it did so in ways winks and cynical frowns of the spectators.
that were to prove almost as deterministic as Classen points out that the primacy of the
what they had displaced. Crick’s early (1976) visual in social control is a relatively recent
critique of literalism, a now neglected but fun- (eighteenth-century) and localized (Western
damentally important text, can serve as a useful European) phenomenon, although in some
and well argued introduction to these concerns. regions (such in those South European and
And such a critique of literalism entails recog- Middle Eastern cultures in which the ‘evil eye’
nizing, as Roberts reminds us, that an act maps patterns of individual jealousy) ocular
(verbal or otherwise) can be profoundly histori- symbolism has long been associated with
cal yet in no sense reducible to the enumeration malign surveillance. Anthropology, itself impli-
of events that we might therefore expect. cated in the colonial project, has not escaped
that ‘visualist’ bias (Fabian, 1983). Indeed, it
enhances the marginalization of whatever is

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3 14 Michael Herzfeld

classified as ‘traditional’. Classen’s example of not be the insight it yields into the secret spaces
the Navajo sand paintings shows this visualism of national cultures, important and interesting
at work in the museum, where tactility is sup- though this is. The major shift, one that also
pressed, use ignored, and permanence imposed. distinguishes anthropological approaches to the
Art historians, too, heirs to a discipline even visual and other media from those of more
more thoroughly steeped in this Eurocentric tra- textually based disciplines, has been the intensi-
dition of visualism, have lately come to appreci- fied focus on practice and agency. The media
ate how much it has distorted their understand- are anthropologically important today, as
ing of aesthetics as a culturally specific system becomes clear in Dickey’s article, for two prin-
of meaning (Nelson, 1989). But these under- cipal reasons, both connected with practice and
standings have been slow in coming. agency: first, because the media often portray
Because visual idioms of representation the actions of differentiated subjects rather than
have become quite literally the common sense of members of a supposedly homogeneous ‘cul-
of the modem, industrial world, they have also ture’; and secondly, because the same concern
become relatively invisible - a revealing meta- with agency leads to ethnographic research on
phor in itself. Resemblance is usually construed how social actors relate what they encounter in
as a resemblance of visible form. Anthropol- the media to their own lives and social settings,
ogists have not proved immune to this normaliz- thereby generating ever more unexpected fields
ation of the visual (see Fabian, 1983). It is for new forms of agency. It has become clear
noteworthy that even though - or, indeed, that the scale on which mass media operate has
because - visualism has so fully displaced other in no sense resulted in a homogenization of
sensory preoccupations in the representational agency; on the contrary, it has provided a means
practices of anthropology, however, the disci- of magnifying differences at many levels.
pline has only recently produced a correspond- Here the new ethnographic work on the
ingly intense analytical concern with visual media, notably including Dickey’s and Manke-
media, although the situation is now beginning kar’s (1993), particularly comes into its own.
to change (Dickey, this issue). This new scholarship, as Dickey notes, engages
The lateness of this development is not as the roles of viewers as well as producers, and
strange as it may at first appear to be. Not only joins a larger and growing literature on material
is there the curious paradox of the invisibi- culture, including, but not exclusively devoted
lity of the visual, but the media seemed too to, consumption and material culture (e.g.
‘modern’ to fit a discipline supposedly con- Miller, 1987). In another dimension it should
cerned with archaic societies. Viewing was also be compared with the extensive work on
something done by active observers rather than self-production and its relationship to the pro-
by passive ethnographic subjects. Moreover, duction of artisanal objects (e.g. Kondo, 1990).
there was the problem of how to deal with the It is clear that mass production has not necessar-
manifest implications of the visual for recreation ily meant homogeneity of either interpretation
and thought, which meant attributing both to or form, any more than the persistence of a
exotic peoples. It also raised difficult questions strong sense of cultural identity necessarily
about how a discipline disinclined to probe entails the suppression of individual forms of
psychological inner states except as objects of agency - Western stereotypes of conformist
representation (see Needham, 1972; Rosen, ed., Others notwithstanding.
1995) could address such phenomena. Yet Examining the ways in which viewers
addressing such issues is crucial to understand- relate to the portrayal of roles also suggests
ing the social role of visual media, as Dickey new methods for eliciting the underlying
emphasizes. It is also a sensitive issue because assumptions that people make about those roles.
it breaches the defences of a sensitive area of In assuming a homogeneous popular culture, we
intimacy for the cultures we study, our own would be falling into a conceptual trap.
included. Although it was once thought that only ‘archaic’
But the major shift, one that is centrally societies were truly homogeneous and homeo-
important for understanding the relevance of static, this teleological view of society, culture,
anthropology to the contemporary world, may and aesthetics is an invention of the modern

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Anthropology: a practice of theory 315

industrial imagination about exotic ‘others’ - It is the enormous range and power of the
and, as Handelman indicates in his article in media that turns them into something of a test
this issue, has significantly been most fully actu- case for the analysis of modem social forma-
alized in the aesthetic programmes of such mod- tions. The conventional view has long been that
ern totalitarian ideologies as Nazism. they are forces for homogeneity and the loss
The myth of the homogenous Other is of cultural autonomy. Indeed, they amplify the
deeply entrenched, and it has exercised a dur- symbolic force of political action, serving ever
able influence on anthropological theory even larger and more encompassing forms of auth-
in such modernist arenas as the study of visual ority.
media. It has also, in recent years, generated But by that token, as AbCBs makes clear,
strong reactions. Even leaving aside the sheer they also magnify the power of rhetoric and
vastness of the Indian film industry and its com- symbolism to the point where it can hardly still
plex impact on other Third World regions be considered as a mere epiphenomenon. The
(noted by Dickey), the South Asian focus in performance of a ritual act on television can be
this work is thus probably no accident: in this an important piece of ‘political action’. It is a
region, one which ethnographers are struggling demonstration of what the ordinary language
especially hard to disengage from long prevalent philosophers had already argued in the domain
social science constructions of rigid hierarchy of everyday interaction: the power of words to
and ritualistic conformism, the convergence of effect change, intended or not. For this reason,
media studies and an anthropological interest in the power of the media has especially shown
agency significantly directs attention to newly up the artificiality of the old distinction between
empowered local voices (and to the ways in the material and the symbolic. But by insisting
which some of them may be disenfranchised on the huge variety of audience responses to the
as well). media and on the now dramatically magnified
This new individuation works against the representation of agency as much as of norma-
older idiom in which the Other has always been tivity, anthropologists have been able to go still
represented as homogeneous. That homogeniz- further: they have traced the complex processes,
ing process does not always concern only the sometimes culminating in surprisingly radical
colonialist view of geographically distant popu- effects at the national and even international
lations, as Dickey’s timely attention to working- levels, whereby extremely localized reactions
class and other forms of ‘fandom’ reminds us, may come to affect the life of nations.
but, as a form of representation, it seems univer- In this regard, it is especially useful to
sally to serve as both the instrument and the contrast Handelman’s radical separation of ritual
expression of power. from spectacle with AbCles’ view of a mod-
That coincidence of instrumentality and ernity in which the relationship between the
meaning is an additional feature of the current local and the national or supra-national is in
intellectual landscape in anthropology. Sterile constant flux, and in which older ‘referents’
debates long pitted idealist against symbolic combine with modem ‘processes’ to yield a
approaches. In these confrontations, the Car- modem specificity that is nevertheless analys-
tesian sense of a radical separation of the mental able with the instruments developed in an older
from the material was rigidly maintained at least anthropology for the study of face-to-face
until the rise of a critical Marxist structuralism societies exclusively. AbClks notes the resem-
(see, notably, Godelier, 1984, for a major blance between nationalism and religious com-
critique). Yet already at that point, in the influ- munity. I would add that the Durkheimian
ence of the heritage of ordinary language philo- model of religion as society worshipping itself
sophy on both sides of the Atlantic (e.g. Ard- (Durkheim, 1925 [1915]) is far more apposite
ener, 1989; Bauman, 1977; Needham, 1972), to the case of nationalism, as Gellner also
recognition of semiotic effects as material recognized (1983, p. 56), than it ever was to
causes - the impact of rhetoric on political the Australian religions that Durkheim regarded
action, for example - posed a productive chal- as elemental illustrations of his thesis. With
lenge to what was, after all, the expression nationalism, we actually know, in many cases,
of a particular conceptual frame within one, who the Durkheimian gremlins were. Indeed,
admittedly dominant, cultural tradition. some of them - like Ziya Gokalp, framer of

0 UNESCO 1997.
3 16 Michael Herdeld

the secularist constitution of modem Turkey - it abundantly clear that the vast increase in
were his ardent admirers. The French colonial available topics, scale of perception, and sheer
effort in Morocco similarly directly translated complexity of subject-matter do not seem to be
Durkheim’s teleological reconstruction into a compelling the discipline to an early retirement.
prescription for the government of exotic others On the contrary, it is precisely at such a
(Rabinow, 1989). Here again we see the power moment that the more intensive focus of anthro-
of a reflexivity that is historically and ethno- pology becomes especially valuable. The ampli-
graphically grounded. fication of symbolic actions on a global scale
Theory as practice: that insight and the gives such actions a resonance that perhaps we
intimacy of the observational scale at which it can sense only through the intimacy - now
is activated largely distinguish anthropology defined in a host of new ways - of ethno-
from its closest neighbours on the map of the graphic research.
social sciences. The essays gathered here make

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