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Theory in anthropology since the sixties sherry ortner

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  • 1.Theory in Anthropology since the SixtiesAuthor(s): Sherry B. OrtnerSource: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 126-166Published by: Cambridge University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/178524Accessed: 15/04/2010 21:25Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=cup.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toComparative Studies in Society and History.http://www.jstor.org

2. Theory in Anthropologysince the SixtiesSHERRYB. ORTNERUniversityof MichiganEvery year, aroundthe time of the meetings of the AmericanAnthropologicalAssociation, the New YorkTimes asks a Big Name anthropologist contrib- toute an op-ed piece on the state of the field. These pieces tend to take a rathergloomy view. A few years ago, for example, Marvin Harrissuggested thatanthropologywas being taken over by mystics, religious fanatics, and Cal-ifornia cultists; that the meetings were dominatedby panels on shamanism,witchcraft,and "abnormalphenomena";and that "scientific papersbased onempirical studies" had been willfully excluded from the program (Harris1978). More recently, in a more sober tone, Eric Wolf suggestedthatthe fieldof anthropologyis coming apart. The sub-fields (and sub-sub-fields)are in-creasingly pursuingtheir specialized interests, losing contact with each otherand with the whole. There is no longer a shared discourse, a shared set oftermsto which all practitionersaddressthemselves, a sharedlanguagewe all,however idiosyncratically, speak (Wolf 1980). The state of affairsdoes seem much as Wolf describesit. The field appearsto be a thing of shredsand patches, of individualsand small coteries pursuingdisjunctiveinvestigations and talking mainly to themselves. We do not evenhear stirringargumentsany more. Although anthropologywas never actuallyunified in the sense of adoptinga single sharedparadigm,there was at least aperiod when there were a few large categories of theoreticalaffiliation, a setof identifiablecamps or schools, and a few simple epithets one could hurl atThis essay contains much of my own intellectual history. There will be no more appropriatecontext in which to thank my teachers, Frederica de Laguna, Clifford Geertz, and DavidSchneiderfor having turnedme, for betteror for worse, into an anthropologist. addition,I wishInto thankthe following friends and colleagues for helpful contributions the developmentof this toessay: Nancy Chodorow, Salvatore Cucchiari, James Fernandez,Raymond Grew, Keith Hart,RaymondKelly, David Kertzer, RobertPaul, Paul Rabinow, Joyce Riegelhaupt,Anton Weiler,and HarrietWhitehead. Parts of this work were presentedat the Departmentof Anthropology,Princeton University; the Departmentof Social Anthropology, University of Stockholm; theSocial Science History Seminar(founded and coordinatedby Charlesand Louise Tilly), Univer-sity of Michigan;the HumanitiesSeminar, StanfordUniversity;and the Seminaron Theory andMethods in ComparativeStudies (coordinatedby Neil Smelser) at the Universityof California,Berkeley. I received valuable comments and reactions in all of these contexts.0010-4175/84/1709-0100 $2.50 ? 1984 Society for ComparativeStudy of Society and History 126 3. THEORY IN ANTHROPOLOGY SINCETHESIXTIES127ones opponents. Now there appears to be an apathy of spirit even at thislevel. We no longer call each other names. We are no longer sure of how thesides are to be drawnup, and of where we would place ourselves if we couldidentify the sides. Yet as anthropologistswe can recognize in all of this the classic symptomsof liminality-confusion of categories, expressions of chaos and antistruc-ture. And we know that such disordermay be the breedinggroundfor a newand perhapsbetterorder. Indeed, if one scrutinizesthe presentmore closely,one may even discern within it the shape of the new orderto come. That is"what I propose to do in this article. I will argue that a new key symbol oftheoretical orientation is emerging, which may be labeled "practice" (or "action" or "praxis"). This is neither a theory nor a method in itself, butrather, as I said, a symbol, in the name of which a variety of theories andmethods are being developed. In order to understand significance of thisthetrend, however,we must go back at least twenty years and see where westartedfrom, and how we got to where we are now. Before launching this enterprise, however, it is importantto specify itsnature. This essay will be primarily concerned with the relations betweenvarious theoretical schools or approaches,both within periods of time, andacross time. No single approachwill be exhaustivelyoutlinedor discussed initself; rather,variousthemes or dimensionsof each will be highlightedinsofaras they relateto the largertrendsof thoughtwith which I am concerned.Everyanthropologistwill probablyfind his or her favorite school oversimplified,ifnot outrightdistorted, insofar as I have choosen to emphasizefeaturesthatdonot correspondto what are normallytaken, among the practitioners,to be itsmost importanttheoretical features. Thus readers seeking more exhaustivediscussions of particular approaches,and/or discussionspursuedfrom a pointof view more interior to the approaches, will have to seek elsewhere. Theconcern here, again, is with elucidating relations.THE SIXTIES:SYMBOL,NATURE, STRUCTUREAlthough there is always some arbitrariness choosing a startingpoint for inany historicaldiscussion, I have decided to begin in the early 1960s. For onething, that is when I started in the field, and since I generally assume theimportanceof seeing any system, at least in part, from the actors point ofview, I might as well unite theory and practicefrom the outset. It is thus fullyacknowledgedthatthis discussion proceedsnot from some hypotheticalexter-nal point, but from the perspective of this particularactor moving throughanthropologybetween 1960 and the present.But actors always wish to claim universalityfor theirparticularexperiencesand interpretations.I would further suggest then that, in some relativelyobjective sense, there was in fact a majorset of revolutionsin anthropologicaltheory, beginning in the early sixties. Indeed it appearsthat such revisionist 4. 128SHERRYB. ORTNERupheaval was characteristicof many other fields in that era. In literarycrit-icism, for example,by the 1960sa volatilemixture linguistics, ofpsychoanalysis semiotics,struc- andturalism,Marxist andtheory receptionaesthetics begun replace oldermoralhadto thehumanism. literaryThetext tendedto move towards statusof phenomenon: thea andsocio-psycho-culturo-linguisticideological event,arisingfromtheoffered compe-tenciesof language, available thetaxonomies narrative of order,the permutations of optionsof structuralgenre,the sociological the formation, ideological constraints ofthe infra-structure.. . . [There was a] broad and contentious revisionist perception1981:137).(Bradbury In anthropologyat the close of the fifties, the theoreticalbricoleurs kitconsisted of threemajor, and somewhatexhausted,paradigms-British struc-tural-functionalism(descended from A. R. Radcliffe-Brownand BronislawMalinowski), Americanculturaland psychocultural anthropology (descendedfrom MargaretMead, Ruth Benedict, et al.), and Americanevolutionist an-thropology (centered around Leslie White and Julian Steward, and havingstrong affiliations with archaeology). Yet it was also during the fifties thatcertain actors and cohorts central to our story were trainedin each of theseareas. They emerged at the beginning of the sixties with aggressive ideasabouthow to strengthenthe paradigmsof their mentorsand ancestors,as wellas with, apparently,much more combativestancesvis-a-vis the otherschools.It was this combination of new ideas and intellectual aggressiveness thatlaunched the three movements with which this account begins: symbolicanthropology,culturalecology, and structuralism.SymbolicAnthropology"Symbolic anthropology" as a label was never used by any of its mainproponentsin the formativeperiod-say, 1963-66. Ratherit was a shorthandtag (probablyinventedby the opposition), an umbrellafor a numberof ratherdiverse trends. Two of its major variantsappearto have been independentlyinvented, one by Clifford Geertz and his colleagues at the University ofChicago, and the other by Victor Turner at Cornell. The importantdif-ferences between the Geertzians and the Turneriansare probably not fullyappreciated by those outside the symbolic anthropology scene. WhereasGeertz was primarilyinfluencedby Max Weber (via TalcottParsons),Turnerwas primarilyinfluenced by Emile Durkheim.Further,Geertz clearly repre-sents a transformationupon the earlier American anthropologyconcernedmainly with the operationsof "culture," while Turnerrepresentsa transfor-For the discussion of the sixties and the seventies, I will for the most partinvoke only themost representativefigures and works. In an articl

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