Postmodernist anthropology

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Postmodern theory (PM) in anthropology originated in the 1960s along with the literary postmodern movement in general. Anthropologists working in this vein of inquiry seek to dissect, interpret and write cultural critiques. Largely discredited due to its polemic stance, the movement has waned substantially in the 21st Century.

One issue discussed by PM anthropologists is about subjectivity; because ethnographies are influenced by the disposition of the author, should their opinions be considered scientific? Clifford Geertz, considered a founding member of postmodernist anthropology,[citation needed] advocates that, “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third ones to boot”[1] In the 21st century, some anthropologists use a form of standpoint theory; a person's perspective in writing and cultural interpretation of others is guided by their own background and experiences.

Other major tenets of postmodernist anthropology are:

  • an emphasis on including the opinions of the people being studied,
  • a sense of relativism for the practices of other cultures[2]
  • rejection of science[3]
  • the rejection of grand, universal schemes or theories which explain other cultures (Barrett 1996).

A critique by non-anthropologists has been to question whether anthropologists may speak/write on behalf of cultural others. Margery Wolf states that, “it would be as great a loss to have first-world anthropologists confine their research to the first world as it is (currently) to have third-world anthropologists confine theirs to the third world”.[4] In the 21st century, the question has been resolved by pointing out that all cultural descriptions are of cultural others. All ethnographic writing is done by a person from one standpoint writing about others living in a different standpoint. Thus, the notion of anthropologists as 'culture brokers' (see Richard Kurin) has been adopted to explain why anthropologists from any given country write about cultural others.

Indian New Deal[edit]

Indian reformer John Collier in 1920-22 studied the Taos Pueblo In New Mexico, with an architecture and culture stretching back centuries. It made a lasting impression on Collier. He now saw the Indian world as morally superior to American society, which he considered to be "physically, religiously, socially, and aesthetically shattered, dismembered, directionless."[5] Collier came under attack for his romantic views about the moral superiority of traditional society as opposed to modernity.[6] Collier became the main architect of the Indian New Deal 1933-45. He employed the perspectives we now call postmodern to reverse the long-standing national policy of compulsory assimilation of Native Americans. He enlisted numerous anthropologists in the 1930s and 1940s to support his position. Philp says after his experience at the Taos Pueblo, Collier "made a lifelong commitment to preserve tribal community life because it offered a cultural alternative to modernity....His romantic stereotyping of Indians often did not fit the reality of contemporary tribal life."[7]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretations of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc. (pp.15)
  2. ^ Katy Garder and David Lewis (1996). Anthropology, Development and the Post-Modernist Challenge. London, UK: Pluto Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 0745307469. 
  3. ^ Spiro, Melford E. (October 1996). "Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science: A Modernist Critique" (PDF). Comparative Studies in Society and History 38 (4): 759–780. doi:10.1017/s0010417500020521. Retrieved 29 March 2013. 
  4. ^ Wolf, M. (1992). A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism & Ethnographic Responsibility. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (pp. 1-14)
  5. ^ John Collier, "Does the Government Welcome the Indian Arts?" The American Magazine of Art. Anniversary Supplement vol. 27, no. 9, Part 2 (1934): 10-13
  6. ^ Stephen J. Kunitz, "The social philosophy of John Collier." Ethnohistory (1971): 213-229. in JSTOR
  7. ^ Kenneth R. Philp. "Collier, John" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: May 05 2015