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Chapter 2. Claims and Critiques of Anthropological

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Chapter 2:
Claims and Critiques of
Anthropological Knowledge
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• Postmodern critics cite instances where anthropologists studying the same
community reached divergent conclusions: Tepotzlan, Mexico (Redfield vs.
Lewis), Samoa (Mead vs. Freeman). Posthumous publication of
Malinowski’s field diary revealed his intense dislike of Trobrianders,
despite the “objective” tone adopted in his publications. Such cases call
into question anthropological claims of scientific objectivity.
• Clifford Geertz: traditional ethnographies were constructed to convey both
the anthropologist’s competence as a reporter (sprinkling the text with
native terms, even when the anthropologist had little knowledge of the
language) and objectivity (use of the 3rd rather than 1st person pronoun).
• Postmodernists claim that scientific approaches privilege the
anthropologist’s knowledge over that of local people, discounting their
reasons for behavior. Related to Michel Foucault’s argument that
bureaucracies and corporations adopt scientific discourse to “silence” and
delegitmate their opponents.
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• Science-oriented anthropologists raise major concerns about the
postmodern “celebration” of “many voices” (i.e. claims to knowledge).
Among these are epistemological relativism: rival claims to knowledge
cannot be evaluated as true or false because they involve differing
assumptions about the world. While many equally valid readings are
possible in the realm of literary criticism, scientific anthropologists claim
that epistemological relativism poses grave problems when applied to the
analysis of culture. We are documenting peoples’ lives in often oppressive
and unjust circumstances, and what we say about such circumstances
cannot simply be a matter of aesthetic judgment.
• Scientific anthropologists assert that if our ethnographic description is but
one among many, why should anyone pay attention to our documentation
of oppression and suffering? Moreover, should our “celebration” of many
voices not compel us to recognize noxious claims, such as the genetic
inferiority of minorities and women, the claim that the Holocaust was a
hoax, and so on?
© 2014 Mark Moberg
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