General Theory

My thoughts on the readings so far

I hope you’ll pardon me if this is a little bit of a ramble. I do feel like there are connecting threads!

As I mentioned in class, one of the things that I found striking in the discussion of theory so far was the way that, in one important respect, positivism and post-modern thought converge when taken to logical extremes. They both suggest that it is impossible to know anything. To be fair, our inescapabable ignorance would stem from very different causes: either we can never make complete enough rigorous observation to make a valid conclusion, or we must accept that our observation is simply incapable of the necessary rigour. But either way, the end result would appear to be the same.

It reminded me of some discussions I’ve had about politics. Something about a theory that, rather than a linear spectrum, political beliefs are actually circular, and that extreme forms of both ‘right’ and ‘left’ politics circle back to meet each other. I wasn’t sure if there was a term for this theory, but some Googling led me to the Wikipedia article on “Horseshoe Theory.” Horseshoe Theory, I learned, proposes not a circle, but a non-linear, though still bipolar, continuum whose warped ends begin to aproach each other, if not to actually meet.

This horseshoe interpretation is, of course, subject to some criticism which I didn’t dig into. But the concept makes me think that the critical approach, as described by Moberg, is best suited for both politics and anthropological theory. (This is a slightly difficult admission for me as someone who is an avowed leftist, and who feels like the viable parties in my country are less left and right than they right and middle. But I digress.)

Perhaps in much the same way that I’m left politically, I also lean toward post-modernism over positivism in coming to an understanding of why things are the way we are and how we know what we know. Yet my inclination toward post-modernism is, for the most part, limited to the humanities. Again, as Moberg points out, it’s important to recognize that some bases for knowledge have greater validity than others. (It helps, sometimes, that one of my partners has a physics degree and was a working science journalist before going back to school; she keeps me a little grounded in reality!)

In matters of theory, and I suspect this may be true for politics or other fields where multiple viewpoints contend as well, I’ve felt for some time that what’s important to consider is not “Which theory works better,” but rather “What does each different theory tell us?” I believe that there is a reality out there to know, but as we move increasingly far from the hard sciences, it becomes more difficult to get at that reality. Each different theoretical approach has its own contribution to make; its own set of conjecture and relationships to serve as a framework for observable phenomona.

This reminds me too of a piece I read in my LGBT Studies class last year by Karen Haraway about the concept of situated knowledge. ( She argues that a major failure of science is its attempt to generate knowledge of a universal nature. In reality, our knowledge is situated in the context that it arises from. We cannot make universal statements because we do not know the universe; only our small part of it. The way to approach something resembling universal knowledge is to combine many differently situated knowledges into something resembling (though perhaps never quite attaining) a whole.

In that way, I feel that each different theoretical perspective is its own bit of situated knowledge. I stand with Moberg in thinking that some may have more validity than others, but I also think they may all have at least a little utility to them, even if only to stand as examples of how things are not. The best way, then, to work toward an understanding of the reality underlying our observations is to look through as many different lenses as possible and compare and contrast the insights gained thereby.


7 thoughts on “My thoughts on the readings so far

  1. Moberg has dominated my interest in this subject matter as well. He starts you right off with discussions about scientific perspective and from there, walks you through the history of anthropology and influential social scientists whose varying perspectives made the world realise it’s applicability to modern life. No one of them could be 100% correct in their assertions because none of them could ever have been truly objective. The goal of anthropology seems to be to bring to light previously unimagined perspectives to help form a clearer picture of the unknown.

      • Chris Allen says:

        (I wish these comments were threaded. Since they’re not, I should note that I’m specifically responding to AnthroTheoryLearning’s comment about how we get around there being no true objectivity and hence no truth.)

        To address that, we have to collaborate on a shared definition of truth.

        I’m inclined toward pragmatism, at least in the context of deciding what constitutes useful scientific knowledge. (We could have a discussion about what ‘scientific’ means too, but there comes a point where you’re hopeless bogged down in semantics.) Rather than capital-t Truth, we can look at theoretically-based analysis of social phenomena as producing knowledge. We can accept that our understanding will never fully encompass the Truth, but that it will provide useful knowledge.

        I’m thinking of useful in this sense as meaning knowledge that is applicable to real social frameworks (cultures) in ways that lets us understand how they are working in a comparative way, and even engage with those cultures to effect positive change. Kind of like the concept of reproducibility in the harder sciences? If we produce knowledge that lets us make predictive claims about a culture that are verified through application and observation, then we have produced useful knowledge, however close (or far) that knowledge is from Truth.

  2. Amanda Sailors says:

    I really like your point that when taken all the way, both positivism and post-modernism take us both to the same place of not being able to know anything. That is a really interesting way of thinking about it and I have been exploring along those lines for a few days now.
    As for the reading, I like Sears and Cairns a little more than Moberg. Now that I am farther in to Moberg, I am really enjoying the book, but I still feel like the writing is a little clunky sometimes.

    • But does ‘clunkiness’ of writing matter? After all, Sears & Cairns have free reign to cover whatever they want however they want; Moberg has to accurately represent schools of thought and their social context. That’s a different writing problem, I think.

  3. Comments will be threaded if you reply to the comment rather than the post. At least, that’s how it looks from my page.
    A key thing is to categorize your posts (or I will do it as I can) so that people can search for common topics.

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