Whenever social scientists start rethinking basic issues, they usually begin by interrogating their key analytical categories and assumptions. They may, for example, take terms like “identity” or “sustainability” or “power” apart, pointing the way to new research programs by finding the problematic assumptions or generalizations concealed in such words and their usage. The idea behind this process is that social science moves forward using provisional truth. We ask what our terms mean, reformulate them to suit changed circumstances and increased knowledge, and then go ahead with new research that uses the revised terms (or new ones we have appropriated, like “ontology”) as the vocabulary to frame our research questions.
In this model, a productive way to move the discipline forwards is to find out where the current concepts are failing to capture important developments, and find a new set of “key words” that can make current assumptions into problems and current problems into assumptions. For a number of reasons, it may be time to move away from this kind of normal social science, and to take on a more radical reappraisal of how the world is increasingly tied together, how it is changing, and what the future might hold for species.
But there are real limits to how much we can shake up our discipline because a focus on terms and concepts rarely questions the taxonomic structures that underlie the vocabulary. We question the content of key terms and processes, but not the underlying conceptual models that relate those terms to each other. In other words, we open boxes, look inside, and even unpack and repack them, throw some away and make new ones, without ever looking at the rooms where we keep those boxes, and their relationships with one another. I think that the changes and challenges that we see in the contemporary world are in the room, not the boxes. What we are experiencing is a change in the fundamental ordering of our analytical universe. This time we do not need to investigate the uses and meanings of our key terms; we need to find new ways to order them to make them work in a world that no longer fits the old taxonomy. (I am drawing on George Lakoff’s work on metaphor and classification in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, and Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s Sorting Things Out.)
Let me give a concrete example. The analytical world of social science is dominated (most clearly in demography) by a “nested boxes” or a “part-whole hierarchy” of units. Individual people belong to households. Households belong to and are nested within communities. Communities are contained in regions or ethnic groups, which are encompassed by nation states. Our major debates often revolve around how important or encompassing a level like ethnic group or household might be.
It is interesting to think about where this part-whole taxonomy came from. Ultimately, this model of the social world is close to official administrative order of the 19th century nation-state, and to its need for boundaries and citizens. The state was imagined through a process of turning these categories into realities through official policies, censuses, cartography, justice and administration, and these categories were in turn foundational to the disciplines that dominate the state’s schools and universities.
For the last few decades, ever since the concept of globalization became part of the academic vocabulary, people in many disciplines have tried to study entities, processes and activities that have no place in the part-whole hierarchy. A good example would be the emergence of “transnationalism.” Commodity chains move back and forth between levels. Daily farm household decisions are influenced by satellite TV and welfare policies on other continents. Individuals forge affiliations with multiple households, communities and nations. While the categories themselves, (nations, corporations, blocs) are ever more firmly entrenched as social realities—they are less and less well articulated as simple parts and wholes. The problem is finding new ways to understand how units are connected to each other, rather than to challenge the units themselves. “Globalization” is just one of a new set of connections that describe movements of people, resources and information along new routes, and that forge social connections between individuals and institutions that, according to the old nested-box model, belong in entirely different boxes and have no connection to one another. Anthropology is singular not because of its methods or its subdisciplines, but because we are capable of understanding connections, not units.
The people who will best be able to creatively think about new connections are those whose work has undercut the existing categories, who have forged new links between levels of analysis. That is, people who have found ways to avoid the conventional micro-macro metaphors (working from the household “up” to the world system, or ”down” to the “ground”), whose work has questioned conventional spatial and economic hierarchy, who can think beyond the state. But if you look at the organization of knowledge, it is still dominated by national statistics, regional studies, and the reinvention of the “local” whatever that is. Drop into any study of global issues like greenhouse gas emissions or economic inequality, and you will find totals and averages for each nation-state, and nothing about the mobile cosmopolitans who own more than half of the world. Moving toward a social science of connections means that we can no longer isolate ourselves from other disciplines or claim our own exclusive territory or discourse. Understanding a new world requires more than interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary thinking—it may require us to abandon our discipline as presently defined, just as we reject the static world of nations and cultures.
Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.
Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2017. “Is Anthropology Ready for the 21st Century?” Anthropology News website, September 19, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.621