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.

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