The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others

The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others

by George Steinmetz

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The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences provides a remarkable comparative assessment of the variations of positivism and alternative epistemologies in the contemporary human sciences. Often declared obsolete, positivism is alive and well in a number of the fields; in others, its influence is significantly diminished. The essays in this collection…  See more details below


The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences provides a remarkable comparative assessment of the variations of positivism and alternative epistemologies in the contemporary human sciences. Often declared obsolete, positivism is alive and well in a number of the fields; in others, its influence is significantly diminished. The essays in this collection investigate its mutations in form and degree across the social science disciplines. Looking at methodological assumptions field by field, individual essays address anthropology, area studies, economics, history, the philosophy of science, political science and political theory, and sociology. Essayists trace disciplinary developments through the long twentieth century, focusing on the decades since World War II.

Contributors explore and contrast some of the major alternatives to positivist epistemologies, including Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, narrative theory, and actor-network theory. Almost all the essays are written by well-known practitioners of the fields discussed. Some essayists approach positivism and anti-positivism via close readings of texts influential in their respective disciplines. Some engage in ethnographies of the present-day human sciences; others are more historical in method. All of them critique contemporary social scientific practice. Together, they trace a trajectory of thought and method running from the past through the present and pointing toward possible futures.

Contributors. Andrew Abbott, Daniel Breslau, Michael Burawoy, Andrew Collier , Michael Dutton, Geoff Eley, Anthony Elliott, Stephen Engelmann, Sandra Harding, Emily Hauptmann, Webb Keane, Tony Lawson, Sophia Mihic, Philip Mirowski, Timothy Mitchell, William H. Sewell Jr., Margaret R. Somers, George Steinmetz, Elizabeth Wingrove

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“By contrasting the diverse trajectories and strategies of positivist method within each discipline, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences develops a comparative perspective which has been lacking in virtually all prior treatments of positivism in social science. The contrasts in the form and prestige that positivist method assumed in each discipline are striking.”—Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council

“George Steinmetz and his colleagues present provocative perspectives on the politics of knowledge in the human sciences. Magisterial overviews jostle with unsettling manifestos in this comprehensive and challenging collection. The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences is a necessary prolegomenon to any future epistemological debate.” —John Lie, Class of 1959 Professor and Dean of International and Area Studies, University of California, Berkeley

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Politics, History, and Culture
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Positivism and Its Epistemological Others

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3518-4

Chapter One


Estrangement, Intimacy, and the Objects of Anthropology


One of the mandates of this volume is to bring to light what George Steinmetz (this volume) has called the epistemological unconscious of the contemporary social sciences. In most cases, this has meant exposing the scientistic or objectivistic assumptions that underwrite the various paradigms that have dominated the respective disciplines. Given this context, it becomes apparent that cultural anthropology has a peculiar position among the other social sciences. Although the discipline presents us with a complex range of methods and a huge diversity of norms for what count as well-formed questions, significant evidence, and satisfactory answers, certain patterns are evident. The one I want to draw out in this chapter is that positivism, however understood (see Steinmetz's introduction to this volume), has not dominated the main currents of cultural anthropology in recent generations. To be sure, anthropology is a vast, unwieldy business and includes important work that is nearly indistinguishablefrom that of, say, certain kinds of statistical demographers, empirically oriented economists, or comparative political scientists. The traditional four-field department that includes biological or physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and the social or cultural subfields persists, if in somewhat beleaguered form. Moreover, members of the various subfields often find close allies in neighboring disciplines in which classic scientific models are normative. Linguistic anthropologists, for instance, may work closely with cognitive scientists or developmental psychologists, archaeologists with demographers or geneticists, social anthropologists with economists or sociologists, and so forth. The combinations are fluid, the conjunctions sometimes surprising, and, compared to some fields, the lack of tightly regulated or hegemonic disciplinarity rather striking. This fluidity makes both generalization and prediction about the future course of anthropology even more difficult than it might be for other academic fields. Nonetheless, the thrust of this essay is to argue that if we confine ourselves to cultural anthropology, which numerically has always been by far the largest subfield, a discernible pattern is to be found. I argue that cultural anthropology has long manifested a deeply embedded tendency to be resistant to positivism, however loosely defined. And I want to suggest some aspects of the subdiscipline's epistemological unconscious that might explain this.

Again, I must stress that even the subfield of cultural anthropology is not uniformly anything, much less "antipositivist" or, as critics sometimes put it, "antiscience." Rather, I want to account for the relative dominance of alternative understandings of the kind of knowledge anthropologists might seek and the kinds of objects of knowledge this presumes. To exemplify the problem, consider the enormous impact of the work of Clifford Geertz. From the 1970s at least up through the 1990s, he was by far the most frequently cited anthropologist (see Sewell 1999). Until his recent retirement from the founding professorship in social science at the Institute for Advanced Studies, his intellectual influence was matched by institutional centrality and the structural clout that goes with it. For more than a generation, other cultural anthropologists have had to somehow position themselves with respect to his work. He has been held responsible for cultural anthropology's purported lack of "predictability, replicability, verifiability, and law-generating capacity" (Shankman 1984, quoted in Sewell 1999, 35). My starting point is this: in most of the social sciences, such an accusation would, I take it, represent the voice of the established mainstream. In cultural anthropology, by way of contrast, it is the cry of those who see themselves having to resist a dominant style of thought.

It may even turn out, on close examination, that a majority of cultural anthropologists are, in fact, quietly practicing some manner of normal science. But it is significant that positivist models (broadly speaking) have not been established as normative for the field. In the light of the normative claims of such models of science for related disciplines, it is this that remains to be explained.

This essay is not about Geertz, about whose work it is hard to imagine there remains anything interesting still unsaid. It could be argued that the concept of culture he championed and the interpretive style he took that concept to require are no longer central to current work in the subdiscipline. At least, they meet strong competition from political economy and a variety of post- or anticulturalist starting points. Rather, I invoke him here to characterize the distinctive place of cultural anthropology among the social sciences. My claim is that Geertz's influence on the field is less a source of its present character than it is a symptom of an epistemological unconscious that is shared across a range of sometimes antagonistic approaches to anthropology. That is, to understand the peculiarity of cultural anthropology, we should look at what it is about the field that has made it so receptive to the influence of thinkers such as Geertz.

The state of play is, I propose, expressed by a remark by Jean and John Comaroff, whom no one would ever mistake for "Geertzians." Two influential anthropologists with solid roots in long-term fieldwork, the sobriety of British social anthropology, and the tough-minded realism of the Marxist tradition, they write that ethnography "refuses to put its trust in techniques that give more scientific methods their illusory objectivity: their commitment to standardized, a priori units of analysis, for example, or their reliance on a depersonalizing gaze that separates subject from object" (1992, 8). These words, offered almost in passing, express a fairly widespread perception among cultural anthropologists that certain important arguments are settled. In this view, it is no longer in much dispute that cultural anthropology is not merely at an "immature" stage, en route to something more akin to natural science. Most significant, perhaps, is the assumption that the separation of subject from object can be understood only in negative terms: that to say that a field of knowledge "depersonalizes" is ipso facto to discredit it. Yet, in their own ethnographic and historical work, the Comaroffs, like most of their colleagues, take their empirical materials very seriously and do not wholly reject the separation of subject from object. What is at issue, rather, is what kinds of objects and subjects, and what categories of analysis and comparison, are epistemologically appropriate and ethically legitimate for the study of social actions and self-understandings. It involves closely linked questions about purposes and values: How does what we take to be the object of doing anthropology determine what are, or should be, the objects of its knowledge?

The ultimate aim of this essay is to propose that we rethink the problem of "objectification" in the study of culture and society. A productive understanding of objectification should go beyond the commonplace critiques of scientism or ideological reification. It would take seriously the materiality of signifying practices and the ubiquity and necessity of conceptual objectification as a component of human action and interaction. But first I want to step back for a look at the way this point has come to be obscured for us. I begin by revisiting some old arguments about the nature of culture, meaning, and social science that have become a relatively taken-for-granted background shared by opponents in more recent debates about power, identities, and the observer. If, as I suggest, ethnographic knowledge has always been marked by a tension between epistemologies of estrangement and of intimacy, the latter has increasingly claimed the epistemological and moral high ground in much cultural anthropology, especially in the United States. The result is a number of familiar dilemmas about incommensurability, comparison, translation, and the possibilities for understanding. This essay focuses on the themes of antideterminism, meaning, agency, and particularism as they have marked U.S. cultural anthropology in contrast to much of the rest of social science. I want to suggest that there is more underlying unity across at least some of the battle lines than is commonly recognized. But this unity is obscured not least because its roots in certain intuitions about freedom and agency are so deep, long-standing, and yet little examined. Although the current emphasis on intimacy and engagement and the suspicion of objectification are associated with postcolonial critique, practice theory, deconstruction, power/knowledge, and identity politics, I argue that its roots are deeper. To the extent that certain well-trod paths in anthropology converge with other antifoundationalist disciplines in an intellectual world informed more by, say, Nietzsche than by Comte, by the later Wittgenstein than Chomsky, they do so from a distinctive angle.

In the first part of this essay, I sketch out some of the ways the Boasian, Weberian, and Durkheimian understandings of the objects and categories of sociocultural knowledge were transformed by the interpretive and symbolic turns in cultural anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s. I then look at two critiques of the culture concept, by Lila Abu-Lughod and by James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta, that exemplified the situation a generation or so later. Although both critiques are animated by problems of power, knowledge, and agency, they work toward opposite ends of the spectrum of intimacy and estrangement. Yet they share certain assumptions about meaning and determinism not only with each other, but with those whom they attack. These assumptions are shaped by an underlying, often unspoken ethic that stresses the value of human self-determination and opposes it both to reductionism and to mere contingency.

Thus, for example, the participants in one of the most notorious debates in anthropology in the previous generation, between Marshall Sahlins (1985, 1995) and Gananath Obeyesekere (1992) over the proper explanation of Captain Cook's death in Hawaii, remained within at least some of the parameters of interpretive rather than positivistic social science. The facts of what actually happened, after all, were in little dispute. Sahlins's and Obeyesekere's respective ethical claims-proper respect for indigenous agency, for instance-were inseparable from their epistemological assumptions. What was in question was an interpretation, as each asserted himself to hold the greater insight into how Hawaiians understood the British explorers.

This essay does not pretend to be a history, nor does it claim to be inclusive. Rather, it is an interested reading, which tries to draw out certain themes that run through the effort to place people's self-interpretations at the center of study and the privileging of intimacy over estrangement as a source of legitimate understanding. By retracing the logic of some of the earlier arguments about objectivism and "the particular," I hope to clarify their contribution to the present moment. If the central part of this essay focuses on the so-called symbolic and interpretive turns in the United States, it is because their enormous impact, in light of the dominance of scientism, positivism, and functionalisms elsewhere in the social sciences, is what most needs to be understood. It does, however, begin with the intuition that many of the contemporary debates can take place, their terms of relevance making sense to the participants, only to the extent that they are predicated on certain shared assumptions and even ethical motives evident in those earlier generations.

Anthropology and the Particulars

The antipositivism that I claim characterizes much of cultural anthropology at the beginning of the twenty-first century is, perhaps, stronger than it has ever been before. Yet the general resistance to positivistic models in some form or other has long been evident, if not always regnant. If positivism, for instance, aspires to create a unified field of sciences, anthropologists have long complained about their discipline's fragmentation (e.g., H. Moore 1999; Ortner 1984; Wolf 1980). Indeed, Franz Boas, the founder of U.S. academic anthropology, saw the field's dissolution as imminent sixty years ago (Stocking 1992b, 346; 1992a, 148). In which case, the discipline by now has been "dissolving" as long as it has been "united"-and, some might point out, with greater financial resources, more publications, and ever increasing numbers of participants. If positivism begins with the establishment of careful procedures of study, consider Marshall Sahlins's remarkably offhand discussion of his fieldwork methods of the 1950s, when he still identified himself as a scientific cultural ecologist: "As to anthropological field techniques, there is nothing new to say. I used the standard ones, having in each village a few outstanding, most-used informants. I interviewed, cross-checked, kept a daily journal, observed and took part in ceremonies and social gatherings, used the genealogical method, and did mostly as trained" (1962, 3). That's virtually all he has to say.

Crucial to the idea of positivism is the goal of nomothetic explanation, especially as expressed in abstract statements about general relations of cause and effect. For proponents of nomothetic models of explanation, much of cultural anthropology is vitiated by excessive particularity, excessive concreteness, and favoring interpretation or description over causality. Almost forty years ago, Marvin Harris, who advocated a positivistic science of cultural evolution, complained that "there emerged a view of culture that exaggerated all the quixotic, irrational, and inscrutable ingredients in human life. Delighting in diversity of pattern, anthropologists sought out divergent and incomparable events.... By emphasizing inscrutable values, vain prestige, irrational motives, they discredited the economic interpretation of history. Anthropology came increasingly to concern itself with idiographic phenomena, that is, with the study of the unique and the nonrepetitive aspects of history" (1968, 1).

Although the complaint concerns the U.S. scene of an earlier generation, a similar objection has been expressed by scholars of very different perspectives and generations, from contemporary France (Sperber 1996) to England of the 1950s, when the structuralist Edmund Leach (1959/1961, 1) remarked, "Most of my colleagues are giving up the attempt to make comparative generalizations; instead they have begun to write impeccably detailed historical ethnographies of particular peoples." If anthropology can look too particularistic from several quite distinct points of view, it also seems to persist in whatever it is doing that provokes these complaints.

Some, of course, simply take this condition to be a symptom of confusion, incoherence, or worse. But I think we need to take it seriously as an approach to knowledge. There is something about what anthropology has been doing that, for all the shifts of paradigm and the fires of internal critique, continues to produce both the particularistic symptom and the theorizing complaint. If this is a dialectic, it is recurrently threatened with collapse when either side, what might be called the epistemologies of estrangement and of intimacy, is favored at the expense of the other. Although the U.S. academy has most elaborated the side of intimacy, the basic problems are of more general relevance.


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Meet the Author

George Steinmetz is Professor of Sociology and German Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany and The Devil’s Handwriting: Ethnographic Discourse and “Native Policy” in the German Overseas Empire (Southwest Africa, Samoa, and Quingdao/China) (forthcoming) and the editor of State/Culture: State-Formation after the Cultural Turn.

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