Values, Empiricism and the Construction of Anthropological Knowledge

Mark Woodward

Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Arizona State University

Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University


Prof. Dr. Mark Woodward 

The organizers of this conference have asked us all to reflect on the role that values play in scientific research. There are at least two ways to address this issue. How one choses to respond, depends, of course, on how one interprets the question. It can be understood as a question about epistemology. If the question is about epistemology, it calls for an abstract response that would wind its way through the intellectual maze of debates concerning the distinction between scientific and interpretative approaches in the human sciences. If the question is about the conduct of research, it leads in another, equally complicated, and far more personal direction. Put somewhat differently my question about the question is: “Do you mean social science research in general, or the way I go about doing it???” To respond to the first question is take an intellectual position. To answer the second is also to take an intellectual position, but requires more reflection on what motivates, not just research procedures, but more general and far more personal question of why I do the things I do, and what drives me to ask the sorts of questions that I do. I study religion, politics and all too often, conflict. That complicates matters further because it is difficult for me to imagine not having person commitments or biases, depending on how one puts it, about these questions.


These are both post-modernist questions that anthropology began to grapple with when I was a graduate student more years ago than I now care to count or remember. The first has been debated for decades. The second question is one that most anthropologists, even those committed to post-modernists interpretive positions or paradigms choose not to address, even though, and perhaps because, people ask about our personal motivations for doing what we do quite often. They are, I think, closely related and I will attempt to answer both.


Epistemological Considerations: Post-modernism, Values and the Construction of Anthropological Knowledge

Post-modernism is a trans-disciplinary discourse that is anything but a coherent analytic perspective. The term is used in reference to divergent critiques of logical positivism, which many self-designated post-modernists mistakenly assume to be the epistemological foundation of science in general and the social sciences in particular. Many post-modernists are concerned with exposing, and criticizing the power relationships on which Enlightenment rationalism and social formations predicated on it are based while others move in the direction of extreme cultural relativism that, in principle at least, renders social criticism meaningless, if not impossible. Post-modernism is a diverse set of critical and discursive strategies and practices that seeks to elucidate power relations that motivate and sustain hegemonic discourse systems and social formations that draw on them to justify the array social and economic inequalities characteristic of contemporary western, and almost all other social systems. It seeks to destabilize existing social orders by pointing to the generally unstated assumptions on which they are based. Ironically, the objects and substance of critiques are often shaped by the social locations of the critics. It is for this reason that critical intellectuals ranging from feminists to ethno-nationalists can be considered post-modernists. Post-modernism is an intellectual and often social and political movement defined primarily by what it stands in opposition to modernism more than by a positive agenda.


The term “postmodernism” was coined by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in 1979 and is now used to refer to works by scholars including Derrida and Foucault whose major works appeared somewhat earlier. The intellectual roots of post-modernism can be traced, at least, to Kant who, in Critique of Pure Reason insisted on the impossibility of knowing the inherent nature of things, and that knowledge proceeds from representation as much as from observation. Epistemological post-modernism also owes much to Nietzsche and especially to his oft quoted maxim that: “there are no facts, only interpretations” (Gemes 1992).


There is a tension, if not contradiction, between varieties of post-modernism that deconstruct hegemonic discourse systems and others that are especially apparent in post-colonial and feminist theory that are motivated by a desire to replace them with more equitable and just alternatives. While most post-modernists distance themselves from the conventions of Western thought, they are generally unable to offer alternatives to it, leaving them no option other than to attempt to overcome modernity by exposing its assumptions, without hope of offering alternatives to it. I find myself in agreement with post-modernism and post-modernist scholars who use concern with the social and political construction of knowledge systems as a means of deconstructing hegemonic discourse systems. I am in complete disagreement with extreme relativisms and their proponents who assert that scientific explanation and moral-ethical judgments are impossible.


As is almost always the case in the human sciences, the border between science and politics is unclear. Foucault’s (1995) studies of madness, discipline and punishment and Said’s (1978) writings on Orientalism and the culture of colonialism can for example, be read simply as deconstruction. An alternative reading, which I find far more appealing, is to read them simultaneously as scientific enquiry and political manifestos. I will return to this point in a later section of this paper.


Anthropological post-modernisms are particularly concerned with questions concerning the possibility of representing the “cultural other” in objective ways. In the 1980s when post-modernism began to have an impact on theory and practice in cultural anthropology, there were some (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Rabinow and Sullivan 1987) who concluded that the post-modernist critique of empiricism according to which knowledge is socially and culturally constructed implies that anything approaching “objectivity” in the conduct of research was not possible. This type of post-modernist anthropology aims at the deconstruction of the principle of explanation in the human sciences by asserting that theoretical structures are so culturally and politically determined that any representation of the “other” is ultimately arbitrary. It follows from this that attempts at theory building is hopelessly naïve at best, and exercises in discursive domination at worst. It also moves in the direction of an extreme form of cultural relativism according to which it is also not possible to make moral or ethical judgments about cultural “others.”


As Spiro (1996) observes:


The post modernist critique of science consists of two interrelated arguments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based, however, on the central postmodern notion of subjectivity. First, because of the subjectivity of the human object, anthropology, according to the epistemological argument, cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivity of the human subject precludes the possibility of science discovering objective truth. Second, since its much-vaunted objectivity is an illusion, science, according to the ideological argument, serves the interests of dominant social group (males, whites, Westerners), thereby subverting those of oppressed groups (females, ethnics, third-world peoples).


Some post-modernist anthropologists have taken both the epistemological and political critiques to extremes, arguing that even the biological and physical sciences are simply other forms of story telling that serve the interests of dominant social groups. Applied to the social sciences, including cultural anthropology, this view requires us to accept the proposition that all accounts of a particular culture or event are equally valid. They are simply alternative tellings or different stories. This leads to a lack of concern with precision and disregard for truths that the story-teller may find unpleasant. One of the most extreme cases is McCarthy Brown (2001) who simply made up stories that supported her own interpretation of Voodoo, and included them in what some now refer to as a “classic” ethnography.


I find McCarthy Brown’s approach to “writing culture” reprehensible and the position that her Voodoo stories constitute an ethnographic classic to be utterly irresponsible. This approach to cultural anthropology does exactly what post-modernism claims to oppose. It privileges the analyst/story-teller to the extent of disregarding realities it finds inconvenient. The claims of radical relativism are non-falsifiable. It is, however, possible to point to the logically absurd and morally irresponsible conclusions it leads to. For those inclined to entertain such arguments, it is also possible to present an alternative epistemology that captures the post-modernist critique of extreme empiricism, that does not entail logical and moral contradictions and dilemmas or the absurd conclusion that the germ theory of disease is simply another way of telling a story about health and illness, it’s an example which combines logical absurdity and moral irresponsibility. The view that it is impossible or unjustifiable to criticize organizations that promote collective violence as a means of obtaining political advantage is equally reprehensible.


Critiques of Post-modernist Anthropology

Parts of this agenda, especially those that would clarify the assumptions on which anthropology is based are welcome correctives. They are not, however, as novel as many presume. Boas made very similar points in his writings in the 1920s. There are, however, serious analytic and moral problems with the extreme forms of relativism that some post-modernist anthropologists profess. Fortunately, there are alternatives that preserve the strengths of the method while avoiding the epistemological and ethical problems its more extreme variants entail.


Spiro (1996: 765) and Gellner (1992: 29) employ the time-honored method of reduction ad absurdum in counter critiques of the extreme relativism of some post-modernist anthropologies. While voicing support for the importance of for considering of subjectivity in the anthropological research and analysis Spiro is strongly critical of moves in the direction of extreme theoretical relativism writing that:


…..there exist valid criteria (both objective and intersubjective) for judging the relative merit of statements, theories, explanations, interpretations, and other kinds of accounts. According to this postulate, it is not the case that Creationism, for example, is as true as Darwinism, that the geo-centric view is as correct as the heliocentric, that shamanistic explanations of dissociative states are as veridical as those of clinical psychiatry.


Gellner make a similarly sarcastic point when he writes that adopting this position:


means in effect the abandonment of any serious attempt to give a reasonable precise, documented, and testable account of anything. . . [it is unclear] why, given that universities already employ people to explain why knowledge is impossible (in philosophy departments), anthropology should reduplicate this task, in somewhat amateurish fashion.


I am, like Spiro and Gellner a realist, and base my own work on two basic philosophical propositions. The first is that there are what Durkheim (1895) called “social facts.” Durkeim’s collaborator Mauss offered a broad definition of the concept:


These phenomena are at once legal, economic, religious, aesthetic, morphological and so on. They are legal in that they concern individual and collective rights, organized and diffuse morality; they may be entirely obligatory, or subject simply to praise or disapproval. They are at once political and domestic, being of interest both to classes and to clans and families. They are religious; they concern true religion, animism, magic and diffuse religious mentality. They are economic, for the notions of value, utility, interest, luxury, wealth, acquisition, accumulation, consumption and liberal and sumptuous expenditure are all present…


I would, however, add to the definition, the statement that cultural and social variation; debates and controversies can be social facts. This is not a particularly novel position. Leach introduced it to anthropological discourse in his genuinely classic Political Systems of Highland Burma in 1954, which was based on fieldwork conducted in the late 1930s. False consciousness, and the use of hegemonic discursive and symbolic structures to mask and/or legitimize structures of domination are also social facts. Foucault’s variety of post-modernism is especially useful for understanding the role that power relations play in the constitution of social facts of this sort.


The second is the proposition that, following Popper (1959) and Kuhn (1996), that explanation is the goal of scientific endeavors, including those in the social sciences, and that there are criteria for the evaluation of alternative theories and that while theories can not proven they can be falsified. An alternative to the extreme relativist position that theory is an impossibility is the position that feminist, post-colonialist and other post-modernist critiques of social theory can be understood as elements of a dialectical process leading to the development of new generations of theory. The critique of established paradigms emerges from what Karl Popper (1959) terms falsification and the emergence of new theories with enhanced explanatory power from what Thomas Kuhn (1957, 1962) termed scientific revolutions. It is a truism that theories are based on assumptions that cannot be proven, but that they can be shown to make incorrect predictions and claims that can be shown to be inaccurate. The falsification of established paradigms can, and I am convinced should, lead to the development of new paradigms and theories. Popper classic example about falsification is that it requires the observation of only a single black swan to “falsify” the theory that “All swans are white” but that no matter how many white swans one observes, it is not possible to prove it.


It is also necessary to come to grips with the fact that all theories are incomplete, if for no other reason, they are incapable of explaining their own assumptions. Just as there are no “theories of everything,” there are multiple theories that provide logically coherent observations for a single set of empirical observations,


In a recent discussion of fundamental issues in theoretical physics and astronomy, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010) present an elegant summary of this approach to theoretically driven investigation they term “model dependent realism.” By this they mean that there are many possible models of the physical universe and that because models or theories include assumptions about what they seek to explain that no single model can be said to be more ‘real’ than the other. This does not mean, as some post-modernists would proclaim, that there are no criteria for choosing among candidate models. Their discussion of the evaluation of theories builds directly on Popper and Kuhn. They state that a good model is 1.) elegant; 2.) contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements; 3.) agrees with or explains existing observations and 4.) makes detailed predictions that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.


These considerations apply as much to anthropology and the other human sciences as they do to theoretical physics. This understanding of the nature of theory allows space for feminist and postcolonial and other post-modernist critiques of anthropology and what we refer that do not entail the abandonment of the view that this process is a scientific enterprise.


The fact that there are no theories of everything also has implications for the relationship between empirical observation and theory in the conduct of ethnographic research a point about which Victor Turner (1975) was more candid that most anthropologists. He observes that ethnographers enter the research process with certain theories and assumptions in mind but that as the research process continues we often come to realized that some parts of some of them are useful and others less so. This is especially true in two cases: The first is when research is conducted in a discovery rather than hypothesis-testing mode. The second is when the research topics are as complex as the processual logics and social dramas that were his primary concerns. It is likely that his observation holds less well for the analysis of more tightly bounded features of culture, such as color categories or kinship terminologies.


A related point is that because they are self generating and adaptive, human systems can be at least as complex, if not more so, than natural systems. Self-generating and self-regulating systems are probabilistic. This brings us back to the relationship between anthropology, the other human science and theoretical physics. Hawking argues that because of the probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles there are a large number of possible histories and futures of the universe and that strong claims about causality are problematic at best. The same observations apply to the analysis of social systems.


There have been many attempts to develop theories of every thing human. Many of them actually do explain a great deal and are very elegant, but fail miserably when viewed from the perspectives of the final three of Hawking’s criteria for the evaluation of theories and models. Cultural evolutionary theories, the varieties of Marxism, Structural-functionalism and Freudian psychology meet the same fate. They, and others, explain parts of human realities reasonably well, but make false predictions concerning others. They are also particularly prone to teleological fallacies because they are too often based on assumptions about what the human condition should be, instead of observation of what it actually is.


My own view is that the enormous body of theory that has been developed in the human sciences over the last century and a half should be viewed as a tool kit, from which researchers can choose, based on what is useful for explaining the types of social phenomena they are concerned with. When I was concerned with the structural logic of Javanese cosmologies and especially of the one on which the Yogyakarta Sultanate is based, I found Levi-Strauss’s (1968) structuralism and Chomsky’s (1957) linguistic theories to be enormously useful. The types post-structuralist analysis developed by Bourdieu (1972) and Foucault and Chomsky’s later politically oriented writings are far more useful for understanding the dynamics of post-New Order, religious and political thought and praxis.


Personal and Ideological Motivations

I came to be an anthropologist during my undergraduate days at the University of Illinois in the 1970s. I was interested in understanding people, and how they think about each other and the universe so anthropology seemed like the thing to do. I was also interested in Southeast Asia, partly because of family connections with the region. My paternal grandfather was a career military officer stationed in the Philippines in the 1930s. My grandmother subsequently became a dealer in “oriental antiquities.” The thought of doing anthropology in any other part of the world never occurred to me.


I was gradually drawn towards the study of pre-modern Southeast Asian state systems, all of which are based on religious assumptions in some way. I came to Indonesia, Java and Yogya because Yogyakarta has one of the few remaining traditional state systems in the region. At the time I was engaged in research that I thought was entirely academic. I turned to the study of Islam simply because it seemed to me that the existing paradigms which denied its importance in Javanese religion and culture were wrong and in need of academic falsification.


As and undergraduate I was also a student activist and participant in the social movement seeking and end to the war in Southeast Asia, and foster social justice in the United States and the world. Family history also had a great deal to do with the way in which I came to have this orientation. My maternal grandfather was an Anglican clergyman in southern Louisiana during the civil rights struggles of the 1960. He and my grandmother put themselves at enormous risk by actively supporting the civil rights movement. I grew up thinking that it was normal for some people to use religion to justify oppression and for others to use the same religion (Protestant Christianity) to oppose it.


I am still fascinated with, and intellectually engaged with the study of the religious and political dynamics of the Yogyakarta Sultanate. I have become intellectually engaged with topics related to the activist orientation I had when I first became an anthropologist. The opening of intellectual and political space that accompanied the fall of Soeharto’s New Order in 1998 made it possible to pursue lines of research that would have been impossible before. It also made it possible to align myself with people confronting oppression and seeking justice in what has become my adopted home. In the last decade I have chosen to investigate topics related in one way or another to this struggle, including the study of groups and movements that saw the opening of Indonesian society as an opportunity for establishing new forms of religious hegemony. I I hope that academic research can play at least a small part in progressive social change and combatting those who would use political freedoms to destroy them. Sun Tzu, the sixth century BCE author of The Art of War, observed that: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Sun Tzu was very wise.



References Cited

  • Bourdieu, P., Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1972.
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  • Gellner, E., Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. London: Routledge, 1992.
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  • Khun, T., The Copernican Revolution, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 (1962).
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  • Levi Strauss, C., The Savage Mind (Nature of Human Society), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
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  • Mauss, M., The Gift; Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Cohen & West, 1966 (1923).
  • Popper, K., The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge, 2002 (1959).
  • Rabinow, P. and Sullivan, W. Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987.
  • Said, E., Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
  • Spiro, M., “Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science: A Modernist Critique,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 38(4): 759-780, 1996.
  • Turner, V. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975



This paper was presented in the “1st Conference on Knowledge and Values: Methodological Exploration of the Encounters of Science, religion, and Local Culture”, December 16th, 2011, in Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.


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