[URBANTH-L]Necessary Abstractions

dfeldman at brockport.edu dfeldman at brockport.edu
Tue May 3 01:25:30 EDT 2005

Hi Matthew and URBANTH listserv readers,

Regarding your critique of applied anthropology as being fact-based, and your praise of postmodernism as engaging in intellectual discourse:  I would argue that theory, abstractions, and metaphors without facts (an excellent definition of postmodernism) is a rather useless exercise, only interesting other postmodernists in and out of anthropology.  Applied anthropology, on the other hand, both uses facts to develop theory, and uses theory to unify facts.  The anti-science bias of postmodernism is so unfocused that it could support both New Age religious philosophy, as well as the right-wing NeoCon ideology of the Bush Administration (which doesn't rely on evidence-based reality either).  And that's why postmodernism in anthropology is not just frivolous;  it is downright dangerous.


Douglas A. Feldman, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
SUNY Brockport
350 New Campus Drive
Brockport, NY 14420 USA
dfeldman at brockport.edu

----- Original Message -----
From: M Wolf-Meyer <wolf0358 at umn.edu>
Date: Saturday, April 30, 2005 5:50 pm
Subject: [URBANTH-L]Necessary Abstractions

> Urban Anthropologists:
> I, for one, think it utterly necessary that anthropologists think 
> more 
> theoretically about what they attempt to capture ethnographically, 
> hence the 
> need for more abstractions, not fewer.
> My impression is that in the past 30 years anthropology has become 
> increasingly insular (in part due to the discipline's own self-
> critique), 
> and there is nothing more "navel-gazing" in my mind than producing 
> library 
> dissertations and books that no one will read (especially scholars 
> outside 
> of anthropology).  And I think that very pragmatic, non-
> theoretical, 
> "applied" anthropology is more prone to this critique than 
> anything remotely 
> "postmodern."  "Applied" anthropology often smacks of anti-
> intellectualism, 
> engaging in the production of "facts" rather than engagements, and 
> only 
> helping to produce in applied anthropologists feelings of 
> intellectual 
> alienation (both from the people they attempt to help and from the 
> discipline).  Compare the average contents in Cultural 
> Anthropology to the 
> average contents of Medical Anthropology Quarterly (a very 
> pragmatic 
> journal): The latter suffers from material that engages in no 
> debates, and 
> comforts itself through a myopic empiricism that assumes the lone 
> anthropologist publishing in a scholarly journal can make a 
> difference in 
> the world.  The former, however, even when authors are focused 
> geographically or topically, at least attempt to engage in the 
> sort of 
> abstractions that allow a conversation to occur (within the 
> discipine and 
> interdisciplinarily).
> If anthropologists want to make a difference in the world, the 
> first thing 
> they need to do is enter into debates with the people they attempt 
> to 
> understand and effect.  Facts rarely produce engagements; 
> abstractions, 
> metaphors and theories often do.
> Best wishes,
> Matthew Wolf-Meyer
> Department of Anthropology
> University of Minnesota 
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