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Victoria Kline
February 9 2005
Seminar in Ethnology
Dr. Pérez

Anthropological Theory Today: Week 3

Chapter 1: Anthropological Theory at the Turn of the Century by Henrietta L. Moore

The introductory chapter to the volume, Moore writes very positively about anthropology and its future. It reminds me of the discussion we had last week and the week before with the question of: Why should we do anthropology if anthropologists are unable to get a real picture of what they are observing because of the personal bias inherent in all of us (even with training we have an agenda)? She begins at the beginning and asks, “What is anthropological theory?” and “what is anthropological about anthropological theory?” (1)

Then proceeds to write about the nature of theory and how it is defined in different ways at different levels of engagement. Anthropology is defined as a “mode of inquiry” (2) that involves the study of cultures and of differences in power structures among them, and that feeds from the history that spawned it. She points out that in recent years anthropology that was once an academic subject has expanded its boundaries into non-academic work into the applied areas of governmental and non-governmental development agencies.

Anthropological theory is eclectic in that much is derived from other academic subjects such as philosophy, economy, and social science. Moore goes into the impact that post-modernism has had on the work of anthropologists. Post-modernism is a collection of theories that include the deconstructionist approach, post-structuralism and post-modernism (5) which act together to critique old methods of anthropological representation of cultures. She notes that the changes that took place during the post-modern period brought about debate within the discipline that has been important to the development of new anthropological theory (5).

Each of the chapters of the book are introduced it turn with a short summary.   

Chapter 2: From Private Virtue to Public Vice by James G. Carrier and Daniel Miller

Anthropology takes a second place to academic economic studies even if the anthropologist studies the economy. Difference in focus may be one reason: economists study in large-scale institutions and states, whereas anthropology focuses on the small-scale economies of households, or individuals within small groups. But, the authors tell us that the anthropologist has a certain perspective that allows him to compare microeconomics of the individual or household, to macroeconomics of the state or institution (24).

Mandeville and the theory or observation that individual over-consumption (greed or hedonism) resulted in benefit for the public as that which was spent on consumption ended up circulating into the larger economy (24-25). 

Carrier and Miller then discuss three models that show the correlation between macro and micro from the viewpoint of academic economics. “Private vice to public virtue” is the first consideration, and they go way back in time to the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Mandeville, Malthus, and Hobbes (and many others!) to make their argument. This really is quite well written if I do say so myself. If I want to deconstruct the argument, as Bernardo always talks about, here they are bringing in some pretty well known, famous names, trusted authorities, to back up their claims about how economies work.

The private vice and how they benefit the public was an idea put forth by Mandeville, a guy living in the 18th century. The public does not benefit by individuals who are thrifty but by those who indulge in excesses. That demand for goods leads to more circulation of currency that in turn benefits the public. Individual excesses were considered vice. And that is how it is explained that personal vices benefit the community or the public or contribute to the poor in academic economic theory (31). Thomas Malthus had another angle on private vices, stating in his early nineteenth century essay that private sexual excesses lead to overpopulation and thus to less resources to divide up between the masses thus mean conditions and famine result. But, say the authors, the Mandeville model eventually was shown to be true, that private vice leads to public benefit (31-32).

In the next section the authors discuss the private vice and how it leads to the public vice of capital domination and theories of Marxism and Wallerstein (global economic systems) are reviewed (33-34). According to the global economics systems theory, the private vices assuaged in core areas through importation of goods from marginalized peripheral areas results in public vice for the other area. The 1980s was a decade that saw the end of structuralism and Marxism as theoretical models in anthropology (35). 

Finally, the authors show how the private virtue of thrift in shopping habits, the demand for cheap imported goods, leads to the decay of the other public, the public where those goods come from. The power country demands goods from the weaker periphery countries that desire to be like the power country (or not), the goods must also be cheap and affordable for power country. That way power country’s citizens can feel virtuous by being thrifty (yet over consuming) while weaker country suffers the drain on the time and energy put into the production of those goods. The demands of poverty create an endless cycle don’t they? People suffering impoverished conditions will do almost anything to alleviate that suffering even though only momentarily, or at the expense of their health. It is a system of slavery even though it is called employment.  

Chapter 3: Clash of Civilizations or Asian Liberalism? An Anthropology of the State and Citizenship by Aihwa Ong

This is my favorite of the essays or chapters for this week. Aihwa Ong begins by pointing out the prevailing understandings of the differences between western cultures, which are said to be individually concerned, and eastern cultures, which are viewed as communitarian. The differences are too stereotyped, says Ong, as there are some eastern cultures that fall between the two types because of liberalist thinking in eastern countries that have begun to compete successfully in the global economy. Ong expands on the cases of Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong the so-called “Asian tiger” states, all of which began as British colonies. Through the evolution of anthropological theory as framework for study,

anthropologists no longer think of culture as a self-reproducing system but rather as contingent and disparate sets of values that are organized, manipulated, and deployed in a power context. Culture systems of subordinated groups are viewed as in tension with and in contestation to elite control and state power (50).

How the three countries mentioned above have become successful and autonomous in the competitive capitalistic global economy has to do with the power and influence of their governments over the behavior and loyalty of its citizens. This is something that we westerners cannot fathom, unless it is happening here too, that we are being influenced by governmental manipulation in a way that is so covert yet seemingly beneficial that we westerners are deluded into the thinking that we have the best form of commerce and government. But enough about us, we are talking about “them” over there, the “others.”

Ong presents the argument that while Asians under the governments of Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong are eastern and other, they have combined political and economic philosophies that induce individuals to comply with the current program. There is no individual will, all submit to authority (whether state or professional) and as Ong puts it, “the Asian tiger state defines for the citizenry what is the public good” (52). This is exactly opposite of the western ideal of individual freedom to choose (an ideal that may be just an illusion in my opinion).

Chapter 4: The Economics of Violence and the Violence of Economies by Catherine Lutz and Donald Nonini

War and changes in political economy have been current to the development of the discipline of anthropology. Lutz and Nonini say that anthropologists have focused on the political and the economic but avoided discussion about war. The two are interrelated, so the purpose of this chapter is to show the connection through a discussion of “the relationship between violence and political economies” (73). They give six points that connect violence and economics, relating the rise of the global economy and its impact on “surplus” populations, those peripheral and thus marginalized populations that have had violence directed towards them through this process of change to capitalist economies world wide. New technologies have led to the development of more powerful weapons.

Capitalist production has differentiated access to goods, core gets the goods, periphery bears the health destruction of wear and tear of production for the core that amounts to physical abuse as it is related to work (76). A rise in petty crime in the late 1900s, carried out by individuals or groups that fall into categories of disadvantaged group identity originating out of capitalist economics (76-77), the root cause being the clash or relationship between European and non-European, west and east, north and south, the core and the periphery, the colonizers and the colonized, those receiving the extracted profits and those whose profits are being extracted, those in charge of the labor and those that do the labor.

The authors try to show the relationship of economics to violence (and war). At issue is the rise of capitalism and global economies. This form of economics extracts goods and labor from one sector and deposits goods and services in another. This is an unequal exchange even if those in the laboring, producing sector are offered goods at a price. The marginalized countries are looked down upon as though their poverty was self-inflicted, and become the recipients of aid from the power countries in many cases. The deals that the powers can make in distribution of aid, end up in many cases being not so good for the less powerful countries. The extraction of work is tantamount to the extraction of health in a lot of cases. Now the worker has agreed to do a miserable job many times in order to fill subsistence needs at home. The self-sustaining farming that was once the way of life for many groups in the undeveloped nations, is now less and less of an option. As populations rise, land becomes the fixed commodity that gets whittled away, ending with the need to leave a home base to go out in search of subsistence dollars elsewhere.

One problem I can see is that the wage labor that is available to these now transient laborers pays miniscule rates, not enough to support those left behind. Then the raw materials of those same countries get stripped away, to feed the core. The core becomes burgeoning, while the periphery, sucked dry. This unequal division is repeated down to the micro-economy of the home. Inequality leads to longing, desire, disenchantment, blame, and then to violence.

Chapter 5: Toward an Ethics of the Open Subject: Writing Culture in Good Conscience by Debbora Battaglia

What is the open subject? This was a rather difficult read, and I had to rely on the introductory chapter by Moore, the title, and the conclusion in this chapter to get a sense of what Battaglia was saying. In my online searches for discussion of this chapter (which I did not find) I found other references to Battaglia and her writings that others have determined as not too clear (in clarity ratings), so it isn’t just me. She did come up with a sub-title for another of her essays: “You Are Never Alone With A Clone,” so there is a sense of humor there. As I read through the bibliography I see the names of authors such as Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu that I think of as philosophical writers and that those referencing them write in a less accessible style. Less accessible than say Ong, who presents a clear picture of what he wants to say.

So what is the open subject? Battaglia seems to be saying that from the position of ethnographer, in order to write someone else’s history, one must be aware of personal bias no matter how objective the observer, translator, writer thinks he is. The underlying hegemony, the desire for the subject to remain blurred or obscured in the scheme of things (in order to survive), the western ethnographer’s tendency to place a value on the subject under study (the subject that is available or “locatable” gives it value), she just says that all these circumstances combine to reveal that the discourse of ethnography is one of power relations whether one is aware of it or not. She goes through the history of ethnography and ethnographic practices in some detail. Her conclusion is that the ethnographer must know oneself truthfully first and foremost, then in engaging with these far off people and places where ethnography tends to take place, to acknowledge that we are in the position of power to write other’s culture, that to do so without being open to new engagement with subject and structure in the constant flow of non-static culture would be unethical.

Discussion question: In thinking about the 2nd chapter where economies are discussed in terms of virtue and vice, this private excessive consumption cannot be available to everyone. It must be limited to a few privileged ones. Or do all humans indulge in excesses? I think we teach our kids here in the US to overindulge. This is part of the problem I see in unequal distribution of goods. Does it count if the excess goods are stolen? The circulation of stolen goods could benefit some people.

Discussion question: “As the orders of production and commercial circulation become increasingly abstracted from social relationships, people turn more to objects in consumption as a way to create a sense of themselves through relationships with specific people and specific things” (36). Discuss.

“Society is seen to be constructed through consumption in the teeth of what would reduce people to autonomous, amoral and purely self-interested individuals” (37). Discuss that!

Discussion question: Does our capitalist economy produce a system of slavery? Are we as individuals responsible for the miserable working conditions in countries exploited by capitalism? Or is it just a bonus for us? Are we slaves of a system too?

Discussion question: As pertains to the fourth chapter on Asian Liberalism, do you think freedom is an illusion? Can we be free simply by thinking that we are free? Our everyday acts are subject to judgment by others and therefore confined. How can this be freedom? Maybe we are just freer than those “others.”


Moore, Henrietta L.
1999 Anthropological Theory Today. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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last updated on June 13, 2011