23 July, 2007

Qulaifying Exams

Take an amazing amount of time to write.

26 June, 2007

Where has all the macro gone?

Although I had not, necessarily, intended to delve quite so quickly into musings of an academic sort, after Robert's endorsement, I feel the need to at least begin to justify his characterization of me. So, then, for all the anthropologists (and anthropologically-informed folk) out there, where has all the macro gone?

To be fair, I realize that there are still a large number of theories being used, in various capacities, that operate at what is called 'the macro level', but they do not (generally speaking) perform the same function as macro theories - or perhaps more properly, grand narrative theories - have in the past. What is touted as 'macro' theory today is simply that level of theory which operates beyond the level of the individual case or situation. It has become so vague a term that, like holy or conservative or liberal or rock, it almost seems meaningless. What I am really concerned with is the fact that theory at the level of 'grand narrative', theory that ties all other theories together, that knits each component strand into a cohesive whole, seems to have fallen by the wayside, a victim to the maturation and professionalization of the discipline.

Long gone are the days when, like 2nd century bishops, theorists like Steward and White would lead their constituents across the theoretical landscape, forcing conversion on unaligned individuals and lesser camps, and wreaking havoc on the territory of their enemies. And while I do not seek a return to such an openly hostile environment - though it might, in some respects, be more honest than the far-murkier lines of distinction that now exist - I do think that macro-theory, in the sense of the 'grand narratives' that were far more prevalent in previous decades, serves a valuable, and perhaps even necessary, purpose.

The metaphor I would extend is this: constructing theory is, in many respects, conceptually parallel to building bridges. There are certain prerequisite skills necessary to the construction of bridges; training in materials science, physics, geometry. Simple bridges can be built with far less, but those bridges will be of a concomitantly reduced utility. Similarly, there are prerequisite skills in constructing theory; analysis, synthesis, the ability to conceptualize and create - and I use this term very guardedly, but am unable to find a better one - structures for thought and explanation. There are also specific mechanical tasks that must be understood and performed properly in order to build both bridges and theories; bridges must have support mechanisms, must be anchored in some fashion, must unite disparate pieces of material into a coherent whole using some sort of binding technique. Theoretical constructs, similarly, need to be drawn from some body of data, need to be connected to many such pieces, need to include enough breadth of applicability and consistency to both hold up to rigorous scrutiny and to provide practical extension to other situations, concepts, times and places. Modern instantiations of theory do all of this, and do it well; perhaps even better than it was done in the past, when we engaged more readily and more openly with 'macro' or 'grand narrative' theories.

What seems to be lacking, without some sort of grand theory, is a sense of where to build our bridges, and what sorts of bridges should be built. Certainly there are advantages to both suspension bridges and the old wooden covered bridges - many of which now are picturesque shells covering perfectly ordinary bridges of concrete and steel - I associate with being 'almost home' while traveling to and from New England. But without some sort of overarching plan for a type of bridge to be built, and a sense of where one should build said bridge, I feel like many of the students of anthropology I meet, at the very least, are very good at understanding the properties of steel and concrete, can design and build very fine rivet joints, but end up putting bridges across open fields, or get lost in the intricacies of their riveting to the exclusion of actually building a bridge to somewhere. Many certainly don't understand, or perhaps even care, why we might be building bridges.

I understand that the prospect of constructing such grand narratives, particularly in the face of the popular set against them, is daunting. But I'm not convinced that anthropology will survive as something other than a repository for the odd and mysterious, and perhaps as a training grounds for NGO marketing specialists who do not name themselves such, and accept greatly reduced salaries, if we don't engender some greater sense of continuity and direction in the students of anthropology. Particularly at the graduate level, and even among professionals, one such method of organization, and organization toward fruitful intellectual development, was 'grand narrative' theories. I don't know that it is the best method, but I suspect that such theories might go a long way toward mitigating many of the problems I see in the way many graduate students, at least, approach theory in anthropology.

20 June, 2007

A Return to Faith

I just finished watching Bobby. It's a documentary that details the personal details of the lives of several people who were at the Ambassador Hotel when Bobby Kennedy was shot there in 1968, and tries to give a glimpse into the spirit if the times through their stories. While the cynic in me understands that this is a carefully crafted representation of the events that day, that cynicism fails to overpower the sense that there is some truth to the notion that there is a profound difference between the politics of the time, and the politics of today.

Specifically, it strikes me that while the 1960's were plagued by the assassination of political figures, each such assassination was met with an outpouring of shock, grief and loss on a national scale. The men who were assassinated - especially Dr. King and the two Kennedys - were held in high regard. The defining moment of an entire generation of US citizens was the shared bond of knowing exactly where you were when you found out that John F. Kennedy had been shot. And while the cynic in me again pipes up, wondering if part of the difference between the way the political figures of the day were viewed, and our perceptions of people in similar positions today, is that we simply know more about the lives of politicians, have become more aware of the realities of political decision-making... Even my often-excessive cynicism cannot overcome the sense that there is a significant difference in character between the politicians of 40 years ago and those of today, that they were... if not 'good', precisely, at least less... dirty?

I came to several realizations during, and after, watching the film. The first was that if any of the major political figures today were assassinated, I don't think I, or most of the public, would react in a way at all similar to the scenes depicted in the film, or in other recordings I've encountered of the aftermaths of political assassinations in the 1960's. I might be surprised, or shocked, but I don't think I, or large portions of the population, would react with grief. We would not be able to say, "A good person has been killed, and our country is the lesser for it". I realized that in my lifetime, I have never known of a major political figure, much less an elected official at the national level, whom I would regard as a 'good' person. And this bothers me.

Now, I'm not self-absorbed enough to think that I have 'the answer', or that I understand 'what this country needs'... And certainly, anything that I came up with as what 'this country needs' would probably be exactly what some significant percentage of other folks in this country would think was exactly what this country did not need... But then I think back, to the stories I've been told, to the research I've done into that tangled morass known as 'history'... and I wonder. Were things really that much different 40 years ago? Has the political landscape changed to such an extent that 'good' people can no longer succeed in politics? Or were the politicians never 'good' at all?

Regardless of whether or not the politicians of yesteryear were truly 'good', it seems to me that, while it might not be 'what this country needs', what I want to see, in my lifetime, is a politician that I can believe is a good person, whether they're as shiny as their PR folks claim or not. I want a return to faith, not in a system, because systems can be subverted, but a return to faith in other people, that they are good, and can be good, even if, or perhaps particularly if, they are politicians.