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We are what we are studying

- July 20, 2013

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes:

When native Australians or New Guineans say that their totemic animals and plants are their kinsmen – that these species are persons like themselves, and that in offering them to others they are giving away part of their own substance – we have to take them seriously, which is to say empirically, if we want to understand the large consequences of these facts for how they organise their lives. The graveyard of ethnographic studies is strewn with the remains of reports which, thanks to anthropologists’ own presuppositions as to what constitutes empirical fact, were content to ignore or debunk the Amazonian peoples who said that the animals they hunted were their brothers-in-law, the Africans who described the way they systematically killed their kings when they became weak, or the Fijian chiefs who claimed they were gods.

My first thought was . . . wait a minute! Whazzat with “presuppositions as to what constitutes empirical fact”? That animal is or is not your brother-in-law, right? They’re either doing inter-species marriage in Amazonia or not, no?

But Sahlins does have something reasonable to say, and it’s relevant to my own research in political science. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first here’s Sahlins, continuing:

We have to follow the reasoning of those Australian Aboriginals for whom eating their own totem animals or plants would be something like incest or self-cannibalising, even as they ritually nourish and protect these species for other people’s use. We thus discover a society the opposite in principle of the bellicose state of nature that Hobbes posited as the primordial condition – an idea which is still too much with us. Of course the native Australians have known injurious disputes, most of them interpersonal. Yet instead of a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’, each opposing others in his own self-interest, here is a society fundamentally organised on the premise of everyone giving himself to everyone.

In the earlier Germanic version of the natural science controversy, this human science alternative was called ‘understanding’, the implication being that the subject matter at issue was meaningfully or symbolically constructed, so that what was methodologically required was the penetration of its particular logic. The human scientist is not in a relation of a thinking person to a mute object of interest; rather, anthropologists and their like are of the same intellectual nature as the peoples they study: they are our alters and interlocutors. . . .

He then goes on to make some statements, with which I disagree, on the topic of natural science. But let’s forget about that and just go with the quote above. What struck me is the relevance of this “anthropological” mode of thinking to political science, where we must have understanding and sympathy for a wide spectrum of political opinions ranging from opposition to interracial marriage (supported by 46% of respondents in a recent poll of Mississippi Republican voters) to support for the nationalization of the means of production (still a popular position in many European countries, or so I’ve heard). As a political scientist studying public opinion, I have certain tools and academic experiences. But I am fundamentally the same kind of object as the people I am studying. It’s an obvious point but still worth remembering. This is the sort of thing that Dan Kahan writes about.