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The Challenge of Epistemology

The Challenge of Epistemology: Anthropological Perspectives

Christina Toren
João de Pina-Cabral
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 228
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  • Book Info
    The Challenge of Epistemology
    Book Description:

    Epistemology poses particular problems for anthropologists whose task it is to understand manifold ways of being human. Through their work, anthropologists often encounter people whose ideas concerning the nature and foundations of knowledge are at odds with their own. Going right to the heart of anthropological theory and method, this volume discusses issues that have vexed practicing anthropologists for a long time. The authors are by no means in agreement with one another as to where the answers might lie. Some are primarily concerned with the clarity and theoretical utility of analytical categories across disciplines; others are more inclined to push ethnographic analysis to its limits in an effort to demonstrate what kind of sense it can make. All are aware of the much-wanted differences that good ethnography can make in explaining the human sciences and philosophy. The contributors show a continued commitment to ethnography as a profoundly radical intellectual endeavor that goes to the very roots of inquiry into what it is to be human, and, to anthropology as a comparative project that should be central to any attempt to understand who we are.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-516-1
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction: The Challenge of Epistemology
    (pp. 1-18)
    Christina Toren and João de Pina-Cabral

    In proposing a discussion of ‘an epistemology for anthropology’, the editors intended a provocation, a challenge. Knowing all too well what comes of ‘definitive solutions’ to scientific problems, we did not seek to reach a consensus. Rather, given the contemporary focus in cultural studies and anthropology on ethnographic studies of scientific practice, attempts in cognitive science to build biologically and anthropologically valid models of mind, and new ethnographic endeavors to attain phenomenological validity, we wanted to explore the limits of current debate by bringing together views that clashed and subdisciplinary perspectives that diverged.

    Challenged to consider what might be the...

  4. Chapter 1 Answering Daimã’s Question: The Ontogeny of an Anthropological Epistemology in Eighteenth-Century Scotland
    (pp. 19-39)
    Peter Gow

    In this chapter, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to explore the ontogenetic trajectories of two interlinked concepts from eighteenth-century Scotland. One of the concepts isduthchas, a notion of hereditary right of access to specific parcels of land, and the other is the ‘four stages of society’, an evolutionary theory of human history and societal differences that is arguably one of the foundational concepts of anthropology as a science. Secondly, and just as importantly, I want to delineate the ontogenetic pathway whereby I came to see these two concepts as intimately related. What holds these two...

  5. Chapter 2 Phenomenological Psychoanalysis: The Epistemology of Ethnographic Field Research
    (pp. 40-59)
    Jadran Mimica

    For the purpose of this presentation, I will define myself as an ethnographer whose quest is for an accurate interpretation of the Yagwoia life-world (Papua New Guinea) in terms of these people’s own cosmo-ontological categories and concrete practices. From the very beginnings of my ethnographic project (my first long-term fieldwork having started in 1977), I accepted the common view that anthropological understanding is bedeviled by the practitioners’ own cultural biases and uncritical use of a range of concepts specific to Occidental cultural, especially academic, frameworks of knowledge—from the scientific to the commonsensical. These are constituted as a personal egoic...

  6. Chapter 3 Plural Modernity: Changing Modern Institutional Forms—Disciplines and Nation-States
    (pp. 60-79)
    Filipe Carreira da Silva and Mónica Brito Vieira

    Like our predecessors, we are faced today with a central challenge. This challenge or problematic can be experienced on at least two different levels. At an epistemological level, we join our voices to those claiming that we are living in a post-disciplinary age. Science today is increasingly organized and performed through inter- and sometimes transdisciplinary projects and networks (Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons 2001). At a political level, a similar trend away from the modern institutional political form par excellence, the territorial nation-state, has been subject to detailed analysis for at least a generation. The challenge confronting us today is that...

  7. Chapter 4 Ontography and Alterity: Defining Anthropological Truth
    (pp. 80-93)
    Martin Holbraad

    The call for ‘an epistemology for anthropology’ seems justified—laudable, even—at a time when the discipline may appear somewhat to have lost its way under the pressure of successive self-critical reorientations and due to its success in terms of sheer growth. As Pina-Cabral argues in his contribution to this book, one of the effects of anthropology’s numerous critical turns in recent decades (e.g., the feminist and Marxist critiques in the 1970s, the reflexivism of the ‘writing culture’ in the 1980s, and the discovery of ‘globalization’ and even ‘professional ethics’ since then) is that the discipline has tended to retreat...

  8. Chapter 5 Exchanging Skin: Making a Science of the Relation between Bolivip and Barth
    (pp. 94-107)
    Tony Crook

    An ethnographic description is also a description of the anthropology producing it. The correlate notion that descriptions of other cultures emerge from experiments with our own may sound like a license to abandon the ambition of anthropology as a theory of knowledge—the suggestion even appears deliberately to confuse the means with the ends of anthropological inquiry. But whatarethe consequences of holding that a theory of knowledge is also a theory about itself? After all, the conventionalOxford English Dictionarydefinition of epistemology as the “theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge” also posits both...

  9. Chapter 6 An Afro-Brazilian Theory of the Creative Process: An Essay in Anthropological Symmetrization
    (pp. 108-129)
    Marcio Goldman

    As a mixture of mistaken knowledge or ideology, illusory reality, and ethnographic peculiarity, fetishism is always situated at the confluence of three fields: epistemology, ontology, and anthropology. The word itself consists, as is well known, in an elaboration of the term ‘fetish’, coined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Portuguese and Dutch sailors and merchants who traveled the west coast of Africa. It was a term used to designate material objects that ‘the Africans’ made and then, having strangely imbued them with supposedly mystical or religious properties, went on to worship. The first theoretical use of the term was...

  10. Chapter 7 Intersubjectivity as Epistemology
    (pp. 130-146)
    Christina Toren

    Sefa is 30 years old, an intelligent man who lived for over 10 years outside the village of Sawaieke, working in the capital Suva and in Sigatoka and other parts of Fiji.¹ He reasons like this not because he is incapable of understanding syllogisms²—his response to me makes it evident that he can—or because he is unsophisticated, but because the obligations of kinship (veiwekani) and the consequences of ignoring them make it self-evident that anything bad that happens to a person is the likely result of some earlier kinship failure on their part. This idea of retribution is...

  11. Chapter 8 Can Anthropology Make Valid Generalizations? Feelings of Belonging in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest
    (pp. 147-162)
    Susana de Matos Viegas

    One of the defining features of anthropological knowledge is its capacity to challenge and renew through the experience of living among people with whom anthropologists form ongoing relationships. The transformation of these relationships into ethnographic descriptions with general validity is thus a fundamental starting point for anthropology’s epistemological procedures and is the main subject of this chapter. Among the many definitions of the word ‘general’ (from the Latin wordgeneralis), a particularly useful meaning for the approach proposed here is that “general” is what is “true in most instances but not without exceptions”; it can thus be seen as the...

  12. Chapter 9 The All-or-Nothing Syndrome and the Human Condition
    (pp. 163-176)
    João de Pina-Cabral

    For the past 50 years, most socio-cultural anthropologists have avoided addressing frontally the issue of our common humanity, which was central to the launching of the discipline. More recently, the very notion that the concept ‘human condition’ might be a useful heuristic device has come to be questioned by many of us. On the whole, even those who did not go as far as that failed to turn their explicit attention to the issue.

    Over the decades, the accumulation of ethnographies taught anthropologists about the profound diversity of culturally specific definitions of humanity. More recently, a feeling of gloom concerning...

  13. Chapter 10 Evidence in Socio-cultural Anthropology: Limits and Options for Epistemological Orientations
    (pp. 177-190)
    Andre Gingrich

    Any assessment of the epistemological basis for socio-cultural anthropology and ethnography requires a consideration of the nature of evidence in these fields (Engelke 2008). What assumptions prevail with regard to evidence, and what can we say about corresponding practices? In the first section of this chapter, I approach these questions by summarizing briefly the differences of relevant legacies in some neighboring disciplines. As we will see, I believe that socio-cultural anthropology’s dialogical, fieldwork-based orientation places it in a unique position to overcome a subjectivist-objectivist dichotomy that prevails in some of these related fields. In the chapter’s second section, I examine...

  14. Chapter 11 Strange Tales from the Road: A Lesson Learned in an Epistemology for Anthropology
    (pp. 191-206)
    Yoshinobu Ota

    Modernity sometimes manifests itself in a rather surprising form in ‘faraway’ places, for example, in post–Peace Accords Guatemala, where the country’s economy has been deeply transformed through the processes of restructuring and neo-liberalism, and its political procedures have been, for the first time in history, opened up to indigenous participation. At the present time, uncertainty looms large in Guatemala. I hope for a direction of reform, while fearing, at the same time, signs of recurrence of repression. I have been hearing stories and reading in newspapers about a series of, to my mind, incredible events. These stories do not...

  15. Chapter 12 Epistemology and Ethics: Perspectives from Africa
    (pp. 207-218)
    Henrietta L. Moore

    Africa is often portrayed as a place that demonstrates the limits of globalization, a place so excluded from the benefits of markets, information flows, and consumption patterns that the image of it as the continent where most people have “never made a telephone call in their lives” seems perfectly fitting (Ferguson 2002: 143; 2006). Part of the problem here is the way that the Internet and information transfer have become a dominant metaphor shaping our conceptions of globalization (Castells 1996; Cooper 2005: 96). Not only is the information society the engine that is driving change and increasing integration, but it...

  16. Index
    (pp. 219-222)