Perhaps the greatest shift in any academic field in the past 30 or 40 years has been in anthropology. Call it an epistemological paradigm shift away from science.
Three main influences led to this shift: One was the morphing of symbolic anthropology into interpretive anthropology under the influence of Clifford Geertz, who distanced himself from science and likened anthropology to literary criticism. The second was a Marxist and feminist commitment to political activism and advocacy. The third was the postmodern rejection of objectivity. The three influences merge, in that the removal of scientific knowledge as a goal opens the way for political activism and advocacy.
How Did Anthropology Change?
- The goal of objectivity and the use of the insight of the cultural outsider were replaced by an exclusive belief in subjectivity and the bias of “positionality” of race, nationality, gender, religion, sexual preference, age, etc.
- Knowledge of the author’s background through positional reflexivity would allow the reader to detect the author’s biases.
- The responsibility of the researcher and the authority of the author were set aside in favor of local subjects’ voices and stories, so as to resolve what was called “the crisis of representation.”
- The author’s anonymity and impersonality were substituted with autobiographical accounts of field research and the author’s experiences.
- The search for scientific truth was deemed to be invalid because there was thought to be “many truths” of many actors, all stories equally valid.
- The mandate of anthropology to study society and culture, and to find explanations of various forms has been negated in favor of the study of individuals and the reporting of their “stories.”
- Scientific anthropology sought to discover social and cultural patterns, but this effort has been rejected because patterns and descriptive generalizations are deemed to be “essentialism” and “reification,” distorting “objectivist” and “positivistic”
- The construction of theories and models to explain social and cultural similarities and differences has been abandoned because “master narratives” are deemed no longer acceptable.
- The Enlightenment scientific epistemology as a means to discover reality is set aside and replaced by epistemological relativism that reflects “many realities.”
- The scientific approach requiring systematic collection of standardized information through careful methodological techniques, now thought to be “positivistic,” has been jettisoned in favor of personal experiences and impressions of the researcher.
- The seeking of objective scientific truth, and the establishment of authoritative knowledge, now deemed a futile effort for an impossible result, has been replaced by advocacy for the oppressed “subaltern,” by the activist anthropologist advancing the cause of favored categories of people.
Anthropology generally, if not every single anthropologist, has thus abandoned the quest for objective, scientific knowledge in favor of political advocacy and activism. This is seen clearly in feminist anthropology, which given that most cultural anthropologists are now females, is dominant in anthropological research and teaching in which women around the world are shown to be both victims and strong.
It is also seen in the neo-Leninist postcolonial theory, which posits that all structures and problems around the world, e.g., castes in India and tribes in Africa, have been caused by Western colonialism. This marvelously anti-historical theory allows blanket condemnation of the West and of capitalism, which appears to be the first priority of contemporary anthropologists. At the same time, celebrating cultural relativism, anthropologists refrain from condemning oppression and atrocities committed by non-Western powers, such as the oppression of women and ethnic cleansing of “infidels” in the Muslim world, and the imperialism of China in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Chinese Turkestan, and Tibet.
Anthropologists, including six of my Departmental colleagues and our Graduate Students Association, do exempt Jews from their cultural relativity, parading their antisemitism in their implacable condemnation of the Jewish national home of Israel, and in their apologetics for Palestinian terrorism. The half-million citizens recently murdered in Syria, however, fall under anthropological relativism and are never mentioned.
The rejection of scientific anthropology in favor of political advocacy and activism reflects an abandonment of academic responsibility replaced by moralizing and virtue signaling. Unfortunately, this devolution is not unique to anthropology but is representative of the state of the “social sciences,” humanities, education, and social work, and to a great degree of university administrations. Higher education has given up the attempt to understand the world and become little more than radical feminist and anti-Western political indoctrination.
Image: Early man – Natural History Museum