Beyond description

For the first two years of grad school, I TA’d in the Anthropology department for a professor that taught Japanese culture. While I had always been interested in Japan — my original plan in grad school was to study Japanese economic history — I was literally a day’s reading ahead of my students.

Anyway, the readings would drive me nuts. Each book opens with a preface or introduction talking about how important it is to study such and such minority group; that to truly understand Japan, we need to be able to empathize with the Monks on Mt. Haguro or whatever. It took me three or four books to realize that the authors wouldn’t actually support this claim in any way. Instead the book would be 200-300 pages of pure description with an off the cuff comment about the dominant culture or American cultural hegemony thrown in.

Bothered by this, I went to the professor and asked her about normative Anthropology. I introduced the topic by asking something like, “On what basis do Anthropologist compare one culture or sub-culture against another? How do they know that minority cultures are in some way better than dominate cultures?”

I don’t remember her exact reply, but it was something like, “there is no normative Anthropology, there’s only description.” This seemed implausible given the tone of the readings for the course, but I let it pass. Every discipline has its delusions (*ahem* rationality *ahem*); who am I to burst Anthropology’s bubble.

Well, gnxp, who often criticizes Anthropology, out of love I’m sure, says there is no positive Anthropology either. Actually, I would say, there are theories in Anthropology, they’re just not written down. They swim around in Anthropologists heads, refracting observations into descriptions.

UPDATE: Just remembered this critique of Japanese Anthropology I wrote up a couple years ago.