The old Chinese curse—“may you live in interesting times”—may not be such a curse after all, at least if we are willing to accept the peculiar and ultimately specific challenges of our own times. I have lived through interesting times before. I came of age intellectually during the tumultuous 1960s when student revolts within the academy, both in North America and in Europe, led the charge to change the tenor of society itself, as well as within my own disciplines of anthropology and linguistics. Noam Chomsky called on the one hand for an amalgam of radical politics in which political choices were limned as starkly binary and on the other for an upending of linguistic theory to render it explanatory rather than merely descriptive. It turned out to be more complicated than that, but it was heady stuff at the time, and I continue to think my generation made a difference despite undeniable backlashes and regressions.
More to the point however, I believe we are again on the cusp of something new. A rethinking of the nature of what we do is underway which will transform both our practices and our theories. On the activist side, we have Idle No More and Occupy Wall Street (and other sites of hegemonic authority). I want to focus initially on the academic side of the coin, i.e., what is going on within our universities and the nature of the work all of us do within them.
Ideally the university is the premiere place where society allows its young and those of their elders who serve in the role of teachers to hang out together, to explore the limits of present knowledge and the excesses of its potentialities. But all too often the ideal is not realized and there is no doubt that we can never fully control the conditions of our own labor. Despite a rhetoric of collegial governance for both students and faculty, both internal and external structures of authority constrain what we do and how we do it. We academics have too often acted on the defensive, and I would like to suggest some places where we might gain both confidence and solidarity in responding to the frustrations and loopholes that define our contemporary version of living in interesting times.
The society that surrounds our universities is inclined to assume that the philosophical investigations of the ivory tower are not to be taken entirely seriously and that most students will outgrow their infatuation with unconventional ideas and grow up to be very much like their parents. Even, or perhaps especially, for the young in their radical phase, the walls of the university are presumed to contain radical ideas, keeping them safely separate from the hustle, bustle, and social injustice of the larger world. A disproportionate number of university students (and faculty for that matter) are children of privilege (although university study is widely touted as the path of social mobility, and so serves for many). Psychologists’ longitudinal studies of changing attitudes have confirmed the proverbial wisdom that one should be a radical in youth, a conservative in middle age, and perhaps a radical again in old age. I suspect that the renewed radicalism of elders is dismissed as more temperate largely because it is deemed irrelevant to realpolitik (although I hope, of course, that this is to underestimate the university and the effectiveness of generational transmission of knowledge within it). In any case, the duly credentialed graduate of our academic institutions is expected as a ‘real’ adult to turn to the business of the world, a business that is not constituted around the ideals of the university.
For those of us who believed and continue to believe the hype about the power of ideas, however, such matters appear in a very different guise. I am willing to entertain the reasonableness of the view that in the eyes of many mainstream folks, I have never grown up. That’s OK. I have no regrets about my continuing commitments to the real-world consequences of the life of the mind or my failure to care much about consumer society measures of individual worth. I thought this was characteristic of my generation until I recently attended an undergraduate class reunion. I was horrified to find that people who once seemed to me allies in the intellectual and political projects of the early 1960s, sandwiched between the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests when the world appeared to be simple and the choices to be black and white, had in fact grown up to become their parents. They were prepared to consider their own ‘success’ as well earned and merit-based and to judge, even punish, those they considered less fortunate than themselves.
My own political commitments have certainly evolved, but I am quite sure that I did not go through a stage of buying into or aspiring to a role at the center of power. Perhaps that’s because I never left the university or ceased to insist from within on its relevance to and in the world. Theory matters—and we need to create a safe space within which to pursue it. In contrast, those members of society outside the gates of the university who must scramble to survive have little hope of thriving under the hegemonic impositions of their time and place and rarely have the luxury of thinking about things and inciting others to challenge the status quo. However we may wish it otherwise, the leaders and theorists of the proletariat most often have come from elsewhere and brought a message that is an idea, an invitation to new forms of consciousness. Those initially captured and powerless in the uncompromising and judgmental tendrils of no-fly zones, then, may come to see themselves as empowered to throw Molotov cocktails into the maw of the Leviathan.
The Molotov cocktail is not necessarily a literal incitement to violence, although it may under some conditions be precisely that. Ideas and actions intersect in multiple ways under different circumstances of history, local context and cultural or ethnic tradition. An alternative metaphor of throwing a monkey wrench into a machine might be even more apropos. Everything stops while or until we figure out the consequences of the rupture. I will turn in due course to issues of contemporary local Canadian and larger global Society, but I want to emphasize that my starting assumptions are not tied to any particular moment or location. I contend that ”interesting times” are to be found in all sorts of strange nooks and crannies where the intellectual may encounter them and choose to engage or not.
It’s hard to upend the conventional wisdom of one’s own Society. To transcend what anthropologist Franz Boas called the “trammels and fetters of tradition” requires both reflexivity and courage. It is the challenge of interesting times. Boas had his moments of well-justified pessimism, but he remained a public intellectual who believed it was possible to change the world with ideas. Many other anthropologists have found their own versions of the Molotov cocktail in the methods of “participant-observation” (the stereoscopic vision that arises from toggling between seeing alternatively from within and from without), “defamiliarization” (making the exotic intelligible and one’s own background exotic because cross-cultural contrast reveals how very odd and arbitrary ‘our Society’ actually is), and “cultural relativism” (deferral of judgment at least until unfamiliar patterns are understood as they make sense to those who live by them).
Among the social sciences it seems to me that Anthropology is unique in a couple of ways. It is always already interdisciplinary. One can think about anything anthropologically. So we appropriate the subject matters and often even the methods of disciplines as disparate as comparative literature, economics, politics, psychology, media studies, science studies, science itself, the exploding rhizomes of standpoint-based disciplines of which Women’s Studies and Indigenous Studies are the ones I know best, and others represented by participants in this conference. The academy is organized into silos that we call disciplines, but we must all beware of taking their boundaries too seriously and falling into the myriad bureaucratic pitfalls facing the interdisciplinary thinker. Great discoveries come at the moments of cross-talk that transcend borders. The productive cohabitation of theoretical and experimental physicists at the Santa Fe Institute may serve to illustrate the potential synergies of seeing from more than one point of view and trying to make the differing positions commensurable.
Social scientists often acquire their interdisciplinarities from ventures into the world. As a fieldworking anthropologist specializing in cross-cultural mis-communication, I have had the dubious pleasure of trying to explain to Indigenous knowledge keepers that Western’s proudly branded interdisciplinary program in Ecosystem Health has discovered that human health is inextricably related to the environment. My Indigenous colleagues already know that. What they want to know is what we can offer to their communities as supplement and enrichment of what they already knew. Ideally there is a synergy between the reductionist methods of synchronic scientific experiment and the longitudinal perspective of traditional experiential knowledge passed on orally from one generation to the next. The two methodologies juxtapose different kinds of expertise, converging in some matters but with each retaining unique dimensions of its experience.
The Indigenous version of what we academics call interdisciplinarity is to draw upon whatever is needed to respond to a problem holistically, without distorting its complexity or specificity. So, human health cannot be separated from that of animals and plants that share its environment; individual health cannot be understood outside the context of its community, integrated by relations of kinship (“all my relations”); environmental health includes human persons; and so on.
I am deeply concerned about the contemporary state of our universities. My critique is not intended, however, to be specific to Western. Neoliberal capitalism has in some very nasty ways redefined the value of an education in instrumental terms—get good marks so you will get a high-paying job—with little concern for the expressive values traditionally associated with the university in Western civilization. Rather, the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are widely touted by many of their practitioners as the only important ones. I do not deny that these disciplines are important, but I would appreciate the same courtesy in return. I am nonplussed when some colleagues state publically that their institutions do not need departments of literature, history, or philosophy, never mind “committing sociology” in the words of our recently departed national leader. From such a standpoint, I may be quite naïve in presupposing a discourse of civility within which such failure to respect the ‘other’ would be impossible—or at least recognized as destructive to both sides. Nonetheless, such critics continue to argue that increasingly miniscule university budgets could be more effectively deployed to do more science, more ‘real’ research. They seem to find unintelligible the idea that a ‘research-intensive university’ has an obligation to a range of disciplines and methods of inquiry or it is in danger of becoming merely an institute of applied technology. Increasingly, our academic leaders are professional administrators who are not, or at least have not been for a long time, academics. I cited an extreme example above, but a presumably more benign version is rampant in the structures that govern our universities. Lip service to the quality of research and teaching in the humanities and social sciences does not translate into equal attention or respect alongside the more lucrative STEM disciplines. The relative priorities of Canada’s Tri-Council funding system privilege CIHR (health research) and NSERC (science and engineering) over SSHRC, the social sciences and humanities end of the world wherein most participants in this conference dwell.
I want to suggest that some of this marginalization is our own fault. We in the social sciences and humanities have conceded territory that we should have claimed all along but must now reclaim. We have accepted an external judgment that science consists of the scientific method as understood by natural scientists and that what we do is something else. There are legitimate differences between the complementary methods of deduction and induction, but rigor is possible in either as long as the methods are appropriate to the problem in question. One of the immediate challenges, therefore, is to redefine the terms of scientific rigor: for example, ‘validity’, ‘reliability’, ‘sample’, ‘falsifiability’, never mind the tropes of metaphoric extension and intension that allow us to examine the construction of meanings in simultaneously literal and figurative modes, and generalizability (ranging from the case study to the well-chosen anecdote). Is there a difference in talking about ‘communities’ rather than ‘populations’? About ‘consultants’ or ‘collaborators’ rather than ‘informants’?
I have proposed a graduate seminar in the fall of 2016 under the title “Qualitative Method Must Be Defended—with apologies to Foucault.” I believe that we live in particularly interesting times because the paradigms we have inherited no longer work, even for the STEM disciplines that think they have everything pinned down in tidy boxes with bows on top. Positivist science purports to produce objective truth, as in some regards and with reference to some problems it certainly does. The increasing recognition of anomalies in this paradigm, however, is most likely to be explored from our side of the world by social studies of science rather than from within science itself. The limitations of science are a guilty secret; many practicing scientists do acknowledge the limitations of their explanatory paradigms but nonetheless cling to the reassuring illusion of omniscient objectivity, the god’s eye view.
What if there are or could be alternative sciences? What if “science” is not a monad that automatically marginalizes anything outside its own purview? What if science need not evaluate alternatives solely in terms of its own categories and values? Where are the alternatives to mainstream science to come from? Some plausible alternatives arise from the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences; others from cross-cultural comparisons that problematize the inevitability of our own ways of seeing and doing; and still others from such speculative domains as science fiction, poetry, art, or spirituality. In each case, I contend that evaluation of rigor and relevance can be understood within parameters recognizable as “scientific.” One mode of establishing rigor is the seeking of consensus through the overlapping of multiple points of view contributing to a larger picture of overlapping and converging interpretations.
The professional science we recognize today grew out of a tradition of experiment and witnessing of replicability, a standard of peer evaluation (i.e., consensus) that has clear contemporary descendants. To witness the process of doing science already places value on scientific results as the result of systematic observation under controlled conditions (to the extent that this is possible, obviously more so in a laboratory than in society at large). In neither case do we cease to care whether we can come to agree.
Bruno Latour’s Science in Action, an ethnographic study of a high energy physics laboratory, contrasts the Janus faces of science. There is the science of producing results that are presented in textbooks, codified in stone as non-negotiable truths within a narrative of triumphant progress. Then there is the actual messy, inconclusive, ongoing business of doing science. I find the latter much more interesting, although many practicing scientists, especially those who work within what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” are appalled by what they perceive as the public airing of their dirty linen. ‘The Public’, they believe, will not trust Science unless it can be taken as Truth written in stone. This was the position of my good friend and grad school landlady, a drosophila geneticist working in a more senior scientist’s lab, when I was reading James Watson’s description of his participation in the labyrinthine, sometimes almost fortuitous process of discovery of The Double Helix. I loved it, and Betty thought it should never have been published. Ironically, I met Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg at Betty’s dinner table and came to know him fairly well in the last years of his life (much later, as he pursued potentials for interstellar communication—SETI—in his ostensible retirement). Barry wrote his own science studies book about the Hepatitis vaccine that first promised a cure for cancer and won him the Nobel Prize. I conclude that both the modesty and lack of threat from the vagaries and contingencies of doing messy science well, which entails accepting its limitations, characterize many of the best minds in science. And of course, as Latour says in We Have Never Been Modern, much of the claim of positivist science to be building a brave new world has always been whistling in the dark and denying that the darkness sustains earlier ways of thinking and knowing that we might want to recover. Do we need the ‘pre-modern’ as well as the ‘postmodern’?
If science isn’t a monolithic truth, then perhaps it isn’t so different from the qualitative side of the world as the binary split of science and what Noam Chomsky used to call “butterfly collecting” would have it. The progress of knowledge is not cumulative and I don’t think we should be surprised that the paradigms within which we pursue it have developed in roughly parallel terms at any point in time, as we have certainly known at least since Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, although his genealogies are of institutional rather than disciplinary marching in lock-step. But then Foucault also understood ‘discipline’ as both the urge to render knowledge and power consistent within its specific regimes of time and place, and the disciplines or specializations that define the contemporary academy.
I propose to focus on the succession of three paradigms in the professionalization of science, understood to include the social sciences and humanities—burying one as deeply as possible, updating another to draw on its ongoing utility, and touting the third as ingress to forthcoming interesting times.
The professionalization of Western science coincided with the dominance of evolution. The theory of evolution emerged in biology—a science but not a physical science, dependent more on adventures in the world than on controlled experimentation—when Charles Darwin postulated a mechanism of natural selection to underwrite a research program of experimental design and inference. Comparative Indo-European Linguistics was among the first disciplines to adopt a typology of language development employing similar organic assumptions. Early anthropologists moved from biological to social evolution, i.e., the hierarchical organization of human cultures (savagery, barbarism, civilization—culminating in Victorian man [sic]). The biological evolution at the root of the paradigm became increasingly metaphorical and indirect, eventually producing a scientific racism that buttressed the worst excesses of colonialism.
Outmoded paradigms in the social sciences rarely disappear; in the vocabulary of evolution, archaisms or survivals persist and entangle themselves with successive modes of knowing. A cursory examination of the table of contents of any introductory anthropology textbook illustrates the evolutionary baggage still carried along: we move from primates to hunters and gatherers to pastoralists, farmers, urbanites, industrialists and global capitalists—with the complexity of the state apparatus defining civilization at each point in the unilinear sequence.
Evolution and the scientific racism that developed out of it gave way to a new paradigm of relativism, again building on insights from the so-called hard sciences, this time of Albert Einstein’s specific and general theories of relativity and the time-space continuum they defined. Relativities in human affairs soon competed with evolutionary hierarchies for explanatory power, especially in North American cultural anthropology (with the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as exemplar). Cultural relativism has come under attack recently on the ground that it leads to nihilism and offers no means of justification for moral judgment. This is not what the Boasians meant by cultural relativism. Rather, they called for tolerance and a two-stage process in which cultural diversity should be understood in its own terms before judging it in light of one’s own standards and values. Their strong and morally based anti-Nazi critique during and before World War II demonstrates the patent absurdity of this misreading.
The premises of cultural relativism underlie much of our richest cross-cultural ethnography. What some have called “relational ontology” and others “collaborative anthropology” moves from the isolation of incommensurable and autonomous cultural worlds to the possibility that the world itself offers a metric whereby dialogue across variant perceptions of its nature emerge through dialogue—what Dennis Tedlock and Bruce Mannheim have called “the dialogic emergence of culture.” The more traditional view, with tinges of evolutionary hangover, dismisses different systems of understanding what the world is like as merely epistemological, allowing the observer to maintain their neutrality as though it alone were ontological. Hegemonic relations of power do not produce collaborations or build upon convergences, overlaps and insights emerging from social relationships bridging differences. By engaging in collaborative research, I do not, for example, see myself as doing “research with human subjects”—the category of hegemonic ethics adjudication, external to the relationships and communities studied. Rather, I collaborate with colleagues, in pretty much the same way in Indigenous communities, university classrooms, and among professional colleagues. The hardest fieldwork I have done, in many ways, is with colleagues in the medical school who do not share or even comprehend these relativist values. It is hard for them to understand when they are perceived as not being respectful of community partners. The dialogic stance is consistent with the interactional etiquette of the communities where I work, but arises equally from my anthropological commitment to cultural relativism. We need to keep this part of our theoretical tool kit.
More recently, emerging paradigms of chaos and complexity have provided mind-boggling and often counterintuitive approaches to moving beyond positivist empirical science. ‘Chaos’ is not absence of pattern but a different kind of pattern. At the edge of chaos, linear patterns roll over into unpredictable ones in which “strange attractors” draw orbits around themselves that can never be modeled with predictive closure. The butterfly in Tokyo will influence the weather in Topeka (Kansas), not by linear cause and effect but by complex nonlinear covariation. Uncertainty and undecideability are inherent, as when non-linear “fractal” patterns are reproduced at different scales. We seem to need pretty complex computers to get at any of this level of patterning (but there have always been intuitive intuitions).
Chaos and complexity theory is already influencing certainties of social science and humanities research. Human agency or free will does not seem to be causal in the non-linear patterns identified through complex mathematical demonstration and computer graphics. Latour’s Actor Network Theory is one way of getting at how objects normally considered inanimate are actants interacting with human subjects and their environments. We have moved from ‘the death of the author’ to the ‘posthuman’ in a remarkably brief period of time. The Deleuzean contrast of rhizomatic and arborescent dimensions of explanation suggest that we need ways of thinking about phenomena that are superficially diverse but intermeshed and constantly changing. All of us have our own favorite examples of how theory is leading us to consider new kinds of connections.
We are challenged to get our heads around some strange ideas these days and they are rapidly changing our ideas of what we know and how we know. I am currently intrigued by the possibilities of “epigenetics,” at the border of the cultural and the biological, to elucidate how socially marginalized communities can reclaim the validity of their own experience. For example, Indigenous peoples across the Americas have reported residential school trauma and contend that it persisted across generations. Scientists have countered that experience is not hereditary, so it must be all in their heads. Based on studies of not-so-marginalized (and therefore more reputable to some) World War II Dutch famine victims, teenagers during that time have transmitted biological markers of trauma, producing depression and anxiety, for at least two generations of their offspring. Two things follow: it is much harder to deny reported experience when it is reflected in genes and we can no longer blame the victim. At least that’s what I make out of it. And I am optimistic that some scientists and some social workers, teachers, and judicial personnel will rethink traditional stereotypes. But this too is more complicated than it seems. At a recent symposium, a social scientist was attacked by questions from a cell biologist arguing that it was hopelessly premature to apply the operation of epigenetic mechanisms to anything more human-like than a frog or a rat. This is an ongoing debate worth watching. Its paradigmatic consequences engage the nature and complexity of human plasticity and the arbitrariness of the mind-body dichotomy so long established in Western theory and practice. More will be coming.
How does it feel to be caught up in the midst of a scientific revolution? Or even more so, in a societal revolution? This brings us back to the interesting times of my title. Much as reflexivity may lead some of us to identify turning points, at least in our own fields of specialization, there is a countervailing banality to the everyday labor of moving into new intellectual domains. One day at a time, the revolution may not seem so revolutionary. Sometimes it takes a while for ideas to settle and for their potential applications to be explored. We may look back and identify only in retrospect interesting times and the moments when our experience intersected with them. Or, we may seek out the places in the flux where winds of change are blowing. I wish you the latter.
University of Western Ontario
Blumberg, Baruch S. Hepatitis B: The Hunt for a Killer Virus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Foucault, Michael. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1973.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: Phoenix, 1970.
Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.
—. We Have Never Been Modern. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
Tedlock, Dennis and Bruce Mannheim, eds. The Dialogic Emergence of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Watson, James. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Structure of DNA. New York: New American Library, 1996.