Actors in historical epochs

I’ve argued often for the idea that social science and historical explanations need to be “actor-centered” — we need to ground our hypotheses about social and historical causation in theories of the pathways through which actors embody those causal processes. Actors in relation to each other constitute the “substrate” of social causation. Actors make up the microfoundations of social causes and processes. Actors constitute the causal necessity of social mechanisms.

In its abstract formulation this is little more than an expression of ontological individualism (link). But in application it represents a highly substantive research challenge. In order to provide concrete accounts of social processes in various cultural and historical settings, we need to have fairly specific theories of the actor in those settings (link): what motivates actors, what knowledge do they have of their environment, what cognitive and practical frameworks do they bring to their experiences of the world, what do they want, how do they reason, how do they relate to other actors, what norms and values are embedded in their action principles?

Rational choice theory and its cousins (desire-belief-opportunity theory, for example) provide what is intended to be a universal framework for understanding action. But as has been argued frequently here, these schemes are reductive and inadequate as a general basis for understanding action (link). It has also been argued here that the recent efforts to formulate a “new pragmatist” theory of the actor represent useful steps forward (link).

A very specific concern arises when we think carefully about the variety of actors found in diverse historical and cultural settings. It is obvious that actors in specific cultures have different belief systems and different cognitive frameworks; it is equally apparent that there are important and culture-specific differences across actors when it comes to normative and value commitments. So what is needed in order to investigate social causation in significantly different cultural and historical settings? Suppose we want to conduct research on social contention along the lines of work by Charles Tilly, with respect to communities with widely different cultural assumptions and frameworks. How should we attempt to understand basic elements of contention such as resistance, mobilization, and passivity if we accept the premise that French artisans in Paris in 1760, Vietnamese villagers in 1950, and Iranian professionals in 2018 have very substantial differences in their action principles and cognitive-practical frameworks?

There seem to be several different approaches we might take. One is to minimize the impact of cultural differences when it comes to material deprivation and oppression. Whatever else human actors want, they want material wellbeing and security. And when political or social conditions place great pressure on those goods, human actors will experience “grievance” and will have motives leading them to mobilize together in support of collective efforts to ameliorate the causes of those grievances.

Another possibility is to conclude that collective action and group behavior are substantially underdetermined by material factors, and that we should expect as much diversity in collective behavior as we observe in individual motivation and mental frameworks. So the study of contention is still about conflicts among individuals and groups; but the conflicts that motivate individuals to collective action may be ideological, religious, culinary, symbolic, moral — or material. Moreover, differences in the ways that actors frame their understandings of their situation may lead to very different patterns of the dynamics of contention — the outbreak and pace of mobilization, the resolution of conflict, the possibility of compromise.

Putting the point in terms of models and simulations, we might think of the actors as a set of cognitive and practical processing algorithms and who decide what to do based on their beliefs and these decision algorithms. It seems unavoidable that tweaking the parameters of the algorithms and beliefs will lead to very different patterns of behavior within the simulation. Putting the point the other way around, the successful mobilization of Vietnamese peasants in resistance to the French and the US depended on a particular setting of the cognitive-practical variables in these individual actors. Change those settings and, perhaps, you change the dynamics of the process and you change history.

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Clifford Geertz is one of the people who has taken a fairly radical view on the topic of the constituents of the actor. In “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali” in The Interpretation Of Cultures he argues that Balinese culture conceives of the individual person in radically unfamiliar ways:

One of these pervasive orientational necessities is surely the charac terization of individual human beings. Peoples everywhere have devel oped symbolic structures in terms of which persons are perceived not baldly as such, as mere unadorned members of the human race, but as representatives of certain distinct categories of persons, specific sorts of individuals. In any given case, there are inevitably a plurality of such structures. Some, for example kinship terminologies, are ego entered: that is, they denote the status of an individual in terms of his relation ship to a specific social actor. Others are centered on one or another subsystem or aspect of society and are invariant with respect to the perspectives of individual actors: noble ranks, age-group statuses, occu pational categories. Some-personal names and sobriquets-are infor mal and particularizing; others-bureaucratic titles and caste desig nations-are formal and standardizing. The everyday world in which the members of any community move, their taken-for-granted field of social action, is populated not by anonymous, faceless men with out qualities, but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate per sons positively characterized and appropriately labeled. And the symbol systems which denote these classes are not given in the nature of things –they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individu ally applied. (363-364)

In Bali, there are six sorts of labels which one person can apply to an other in order to identify him as a unique individual and which I want to consider against this general conceptual background: ( I ) personal names; (2) birth order names; (3) kinship terms; (4) teknonyms; (5) sta tus titles (usually called “caste names” in the literature on Bali); and (6) public titles, by which I mean quasi-occupational titles borne by chiefs, rulers, priests, and gods. These various labels are not, in most cases, employed simultaneously, but alternatively, depending upon the situa tion and sometimes the individual. They are not, also, all the sorts of such labels ever used; but they are the only ones which are generally recognized and regularly applied. And as each sort consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but of a distinct and bounded terminologi cal system, I shall refer to them as “symbolic orders of person-defini tion” and consider them first serially, only later as a more or less coher ent cluster. (368)

Also outstanding in this field is Robert Darnton’s effort to reconstruct the forms of agency underlying the “great cat massacre” in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History; link.

Anthropology as a discipline

Several posts have focused recently on the meandering pathways through which the social science disciplines have developed in the past century or so — within and across nations (link, link).  Anthropology is a particularly interesting example because of its proximity to power and empire. And Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and Arturo Escobar’s recent World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations in Systems of Power (Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series) (2006) is a good place to start.

Ribeiro and Escobar are primarily interested in the question of “internationalizing” anthropology. The volume came out of an important conference on the topic sponsored by the the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2003. The question of internationalization is relevant to anthropology in two separate ways: in terms of content (local or exotic), and in terms of organizational structure (a few core centers in the metropole, versus a large and diffuse research community across the globe). Ribeiro and Escobar are interested in incorporating the anthropological research traditions that have developed in the developing world into a more comprehensive and adequate world anthropology for the future. They are certainly right that there is much to be learned by looking in detail at some of the ways that social observers in Africa, Asia, or Latin America have sought to describe and theorize distinctive communities. And their premise of the non-linearity of the development of anthropology is exactly right as well. There is no “best” ethnography, methodology, or anthropological theory within which to organize observation and explanation of the social world.

Several chapters in the volume are particularly interesting; and none more so than Eduardo Archetti’s detailed and nuanced telling of the story of anthropology and ethnography in France since roughly 1900. The inclusion of France in this volume’s discussion of core and periphery in scientific anthropology is of course initially surprising; but it makes sense in context. Part of the story of France falls squarely in the core of the discipline; but another part falls in the periphery of the science. Archetti links his discussion to several important recent histories of anthropology that are interesting in their own right: Thomas Eriksen and Finn Nielsen (A History of Anthropology), Alan Barnard (History and Theory in Anthropology), and Robert Layton (An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology).

What Archetti finds is that there is a standard way of telling the story of French anthropology. It begins with Durkheim and Mauss and culminates in Levi-Strauss and Godelier; it is long on theory, and it interweaves periodically with the interests of the French colonial state.  The standard account emphasizes the important role played by French thinkers in constructing theoretical frameworks for comprehending cultures. And the standard history links French anthropology to the international concerns represented by France’s colonial possessions. Archetti quotes Lévy-Bruhl’s arguments to this effect on the occasion of the establishment of the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Paris in 1925 (117):

The first and most central of the natural resources is the indigenous population, because the other resources are dependent on it, above all in tropical regions. Does not there exist a capital interest in studying it, in a methodical way, in order to get an exact and deep knowledge of its languages, religions, and social organization, which it is not prudent to destroy irresponsibly? (Lévy-Bruhl 1925: 1)

But Archetti argues that this story of French anthropology is too simple by half. What it leaves out is crucial: the development of several traditions of regional and ethnic studies within France that were slighted with the label “folkloric.” And it turns out that a number of figures within that group of traditions should be given much more attention in the history of anthropology than they have received to date. The presumption is that anthropology is concerned with the external and the exotic; and that the study of indigenous French traditions and communities is pedestrian and uninteresting. It is ethnology rather than ethnography. But this assumption is false.

Archetti singles out several figures for particular attention. Arnold van Gennep is one figure largely overlooked in the standard narrative, particularly when it comes to recognizing and extending his studies of French rural communities (114). Other figures who are marginalized are Louis Dumont, Michel Leiris, and Marcele Griaule. The latter two figures come in for more extensive treatment because of their “de-centered” treatment of anthropology (119). Griaule and Leiris were students of Mauss but did not define their efforts in terms of the formulation or elaboration of theoretical ideas. Leiris presented his African ethnographic work, L’Afrique fantôme in a literary form influenced by surrealism; it jarred against the ideal of dispassionate description. And Griaule’s ethnography also had a deep thread of the subjective and the anti-general. Archetti quotes James Clifford’s assessment of Griaule with approval: “One hears, as it were, two full chords of a Dogon symphony: a mythic explanation of the cosmos and a native theory of language and expressivity” (119). This implies that there is as much of Griaule as the Dogon in the treatment. But, Archetti suggests, both these French ethnographers captured themes of interpretation and styles of presentation that were to become important in later ethnography. “L’Afrique fantome is a powerful book precisely because it is centered on the explicit recognition of the subjectivity of the ethnographer” (121).

Dumont is important in Archetti’s account, not for his studies of South Asia, but for his detailed studies of some specific French settings.

La Tarasque is a complex and unorthodox monograph consisting of ethnographic findings based on observations of the ritual of the feast of the dragon in the village of Tarascon, a detailed oral history of its legends, the results of exhaustive historical archival work, and a detailed iconographic presentation. (124)

Here is Archetti’s explanation of Dumont’s significance:

My main aim with this brief examination of La Tarasque is to contextualize the question of centers and peripheries with a focus on the anthropology of France and its internationalization. It is clear that the rich tradition of studies of France by ethnologists, ethnographers, and folklorists initiated before World War II remained “local” and was not integrated into the creation of an international discipline in which the “more exotic and extreme non-European others” were privileged. (124)

Several points of interest come out of Archetti’s discussion and the volume more generally. First has to do with the history of attempts to define the subject matter of anthropology through the focus on “exotic” non-western cultures. In hindsight, this is a distinction that makes no sense at all. The cultures, norms, religions, practices, and local preoccupations of an Alsatian village or a Detroit neighborhood are no more transparent than their counterparts in the Andaman Islands or the high Andes. And detailed observation and ethnographic investigation will reveal much of great interest in any of these locations. What is “exotic” is obviously a question of the familiar and one’s initial perspective. So it is not in the least bit surprising that anthropology in the west has turned its attention to topics like “household practices in Soviet cities” or “nuclear weapons designers as a norm-driven community.” Dissolving the notion of the exotic is a natural step.

Second, the notion that anthropology needs a few grand theories around which to organize its work is likewise bogus. The grand theories — structural-functionalism, Freudianism, Marxism, rational choice theory — simply can’t be used as a formula in terms of which to understand a society or a culture as a whole. This isn’t to say that theories are irrelevant to the investigation of communities; but they must be brought to bear in partial ways, not as general comprehensive schemes of interpretation.

Third, I suppose we might be just as skeptical about the availability of universal “ethnographic” methods. Once again, this isn’t meant to doubt the need for intellectual rigor in observation and interpretation — only to doubt that there is or should be a single best way of studying a human social groups. Objectivity qnd intellectual rigor cannot be defined simply as “adherence to the XYZ method of ethnographic observation.” Ethnographic investigation can afford to be eclectic and multi-methodological; in fact, it can’t afford anything else.

And finally, I think that Archetti’s retelling of the story of French anthropology probably sheds light on the multiple nature of the development of scientific traditions everywhere. Many false starts, many promising avenues that were simply abandoned, and a real plurality of insightful approaches that don’t cumulate to a simple, linear story.

(There is an interesting connection between this narrative of anthropology in France and the early relation of the Annales school to local histories of regions in France; link.)

How many Geertz’s?

Clifford Geertz’s contributions are wide-ranging, in a couple of ways. He wrote about North Africa as well as Indonesia; and he touched on Islam as well as water systems. So there was both geographical as well as topical diversity in his research life.  But here is another dimension of range: Geertz demonstrated a surprisingly wide variation of methodology and theoretical framework in his many studies of Indonesia. I am particularly struck by the conceptual distance between two important studies of Bali and Java. Both these studies are relevant to long processes of economic and social development. But the perspectives taken are quite divergent.  (Geertz provides an appealing account of his early career in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics.)
The first is Geertz’s 1963 book, Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia, and the second is his 1981 book, Negara: The Theatre State In Nineteenth-Century Bali. The first is a close and detailed reading of agricultural practices in Java.  Geertz examines the progression and the social and ecological settings of two major agricultural regimes — swidden and sawah (slash and burn and rice paddy).  It is a material ethnography, spending a great deal of effort on the nature of labor practices and the ecological setting of agriculture. It is historical, looking to identify the ways in which the Dutch colonial regime and rising population produced a distinctive social-cultural response in agricultural society.  And it provides an enduring thought paradigm for understanding traditional agriculture, the idea of involution. This is basically the idea of a fine division of task to assure a place for every working adult within the farm economy.

With the steady growth of population came also the elaboration and extension of mechanisms through which agricultural product was spread, if not altogether evenly, at least relatively so, throughout the huge human horde which was obliged to subsist on it. Under the pressure of increasing numbers and limited resources Javanese village society did not bifurcate, as did that of so many other “underdeveloped” nations, into a group of large landlords and a group of oppressed near-serfs. Rather it maintained a comparatively high degree of social and economic homogeneity by dividing the economic pie into a steadily increasing number of minute pieces. (Geertz 1963:97)

The productive system of the post-traditional village developed, therefore, into a dense web of finely spun work rights and work responsibilities spread, like the reticulate veins of the hand, throughout the whole body of the village lands. (Geertz 1963:99)

This is a strikingly materialist treatment of rural Javanese society, with essentially no symbolic interpretation.  Here is how Geertz describes the book in 1991 (link):
The book was originally intended as a prolegomena to a general analysis of Indonesian society. But after I published it, such a project seemed premature, so I more or less set it aside and addressed myself to a series of other issues in Indonesian sociology.  As a result, its very close relation to my work overall has tended to go unnoticed, and the book has become something of an orphan with a special history of its own.
The second book is very different. Negara is a thoroughly symbolic interpretation of Balinese politics and local life, and organizes its gaze through interpretation of the semiotics and history of the “theatre state.” Here is one passage in which Geertz describes his view:
The expressive nature of the Balinese state was apparent through the whole of its known history, for it was always pointed not toward tyranny, whose systematic concentration of power it was incompetent to effect, and not even very methodically toward government, which it pursued indifferently and hesitantly, but rather toward spectacle, toward ceremony, toward the public dramatization of the ruling obsessions of Balinese culture: social inequality and status pride. (2)
This study is a great example of symbolic or interpretive anthropology; countless aspects of Balinese social life, behavior, and architecture are interpreted in terms of the ideas associated with the theatre state. But the book also gives a lot of attention to some of the social-material aspects of social life in Bali. Particularly interesting is Geertz’s treatment of the control of irrigation water through a set of channels and gates. And this part is an exquisite example of micro-analysis of social coordination. Where the two narratives come together is in the role of symbolic hierarchy in organizing both systems.
One thing that I find interesting about the pair of books, beyond the detailed content, is the remarkable distance in thought frames that they represent. They almost give the impression of being the product of different authors. So what explains this distance?
One piece of the answer is simply time. Agricultural Involution was researched and written in the 1960s, drawing on fieldwork from the 1950s, when Geertz was a young anthropologist. Negara was written in the 1980s, following the extensive development of Geertz’s pathbreaking ethnographic ideas of the 1970s.  So a part of the difference between the two books is simply the result of the growth and development of Geertz’s ideas.  But I think the two books support something else as well: that really great social scientists are not captive to their own intellectual presuppositions.  It is possible for a Geertz or a Sahlins to treat a topic in a way that represents a fresh approach, an innovative set of ideas.
Another book of Geertz’s that I find very interesting is Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968). This work is different from each of these examples — and again provides a strikingly original contribution to the task of thinking culture.  Here again there is also a critical contribution that is useful in many areas of the social sciences: Islam is not a single, unified “thing” across the many Islamic societies and communities in which it exists.  It is valuable to probe in specific detail some of the distinguishing characteristics of Islam in North Africa and in Indonesia; and the finding of heterogeneity is one that applies to a much wider swath of behavior, consciousness, and culture than simply religion.
Here is a superb archive of almost all of Geertz’s corpus (link). (Thanks to Isaac for the link!)
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