Sunday, January 16, 2011

Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity, and Anthropology and Science

In her new book, Bourgeois Dignity, iconoclast economist Deirdre McCloskey makes an eloquent case for capitalism’s virtues.  It is at once erudite and fun truly fun to read—perhaps a first for the dismal science.  At times she may press forward with a Leibnizian optimisism, an enthusiasm that can brush aside serious critiques and shortcomings.  But she rightly reminds us of the enormous wealth created, and the drop in absolute poverty worldwide—the hockey stick of income levels of the last centuries.  And, for an anthropologist, she makes the important observation that the capitalist revolution was driven not only by technology and new modes of capital accumulation but more importantly by ideas and ideals, particular cultural traditions and values, and a rhetoric that valued bourgeois dignity. 

In the book, she uses the word “science” in its older, wider sense of “systematic inquiry,” which, as she notes:

Is what it means in every language except the English of the past 150 years: thus in Dutch wetenschap, as in kunstwetenschap [“art science,” an English impossibility], in German Wissenschaft as in die Geisteswissenschaften [the humanities, literally a very spooky sounding “spirit sciences’], or in French science as in les sciences humaines [serious and systematic inquiries concerning the human condition, such as studies of literature or philosophy or anthropology, literally “the human sciences,” another impossible contradiction in modern English], or plain “science” in English before 1850 or so.  Thus Alexander Pope in 1711: “While from the bounded level of our mind / Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind: / But more advanced, behold with strange surprise: / New distant scenes of endless science arise!”  He did not mean physics and chemistry.  John Stuart Mill used the science word in its older sense in all his works.  Confining the word to “physical and biological science,” sense 5b in the Oxford English Dictionary—which was an accident of English academic politics in the mid-nineteenth century—has tempted recent speakers of English to labor at the pointless task of demarcating one kind of serious and systematic inquiry from another.  McCloskey 2010: 38-39
McCloskey is writing of economic science and the ways that economists have fetishized a particular kind of hard science.  What she says, however, also applies to recent controversies among anthropologists about the scientific aspect of their discipline.

At last year’s annual meeting, the AAA voted to take out the word “science” from a long-range plan (although it remains in the statement of purpose, as long as we are splitting hairs).  

The New York Times reported: “The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.” (Nicholas Wade in the NYT 12/9/2010; Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift: )

This is a broad stroke description, and many of us anthropologists would resist such easy categorization, but it is revealing.  Anthropologists are often well positioned to advocate for native peoples or decry human rights abuses—it is the nature of where we tend to work and with whom we tend to study.  

But ethnography and cultural anthropology is not about reifying a priori political positions but rather the dialectical construction of knowledge through engagement with the field.  It is as much inductive as deductive. 

What we cultural anthropologists do is certainly serious and systematic inquiry—science in this common sense of the word.  And what could be more appropriate for the discipline than to embrace this folk terminology.          

1 comment:

  1. Professor McCloskey can be seen discussing her latest book here: