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Cross-cultural conversations at cross-purposes

Part of my argument in the recent neoliberalism debate was that,

evidence of discontent about any aspect, be it ever so narrow, of what have been identified as neoliberal transformations is taken, without further justification, as a rejection of all of the phenomena that have been so identified

My point was that just because lots of people in different countries are critics of, say, structural adjustment programmes, we cannot leap to the conclusion that they share the same conception of the state and civil society and all agree on the proper balance of power and resources between the two; their motivations and assumptions might be quite different in each case.

This is a formal problem of cross-cultural description or comparison: the conversation at cross-purposes. We recognize something familiar in other people’s statements, and rush to fill in the rest from our own common-sense ideas, which may be quite different. My favourite example of this is one that operates in both directions — a reciprocal conversation at cross-purposes. (more…)

GDAT 2012: Debating “neoliberalism”

GDAT 2012 panel and chair, 1 December
Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester, 1 December 2012. (L-R) James Laidlaw, Soumhya Venkatesan, Keir Martin, Jonathan Mair, Thomas Hylland Eriksen

On Saturday I had the pleasure of taking part in GDAT, an annual debate on anthropological theory hosted by Manchester University. GDAT, the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, was started in the late 80s by Tim Ingold, and has been organized and chaired more recently by Soumhya Venkatesan. This was the third GDAT I have attended and I think it’s a brilliant institution. People come from all over the country, and the discussion is always highly engaged and critical in the best sense.

This year’s motion was: The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century. James Laidlaw was proposing, I seconded, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Keir Martin opposed.


Evolution and Religion Part III


Russian Mother Heroine
Russian Mother Heroine

This post is the third in a series in conversation with Martin Michael Blume, prompted by his original post on See my first post, Michael’s reply, and my second post

Dear Michael,

Thanks again for taking the time to engage with me earlier. Sorry that this is a bit of a long reply…

In your comment you note:

the fundamental questions remains: Why are only “religious” communities able to augment this in-group cooperation not, say, political parties or sport clubs?

This is certainly an interesting question, and one that is not affected by the objections in my previous post, but I do have some reservations on this count too.


Evolution and Religion Part II

William Robertson Smith
William Robertson Smith (source: Wikipedia)

This is a reply to Martin Michael Blume’s comment to my previous post, which was itself was a comment on his blog on

Martin Michael — Thanks for the links (reproduced below) and for engaging with my comment!

I’ve read those two papers now –they are thought provoking and contain some great lines (“evolutionary theorists brought up far more scientific arguments — but committed believers in supernatural agents brought up far more children”–love it!), but I don’t think they really answer my initial objection.

On page 118 of the Reproductive Benefits paper, you write (I’ve added emphasis and labels in square brackets):

” [1] Religiosity, understood as *believing* in supernatural guidance and surveillance of all parties involved, evolved (and evolves) as a biological and highly successful solution. [2] Humans who are *members* of religious communities show statistically higher motivations towards marriage, children and family values, more cooperative orientation and finally higher reproductive success than their secular contemporaries”

What I am questioning is the relation between religiosity as defined in [1] and the membership of religious communities referred to in [2]. You draw conclusions about ‘religiosity’ (i.e., belief, on your definition — I’ll use this word with that force from now on) on the basis of data about religious affiliation, taking the latter to be indicative of the former. It is clear from the social scientific literature on religion that the link between these things is uncertain to say the least.


Evolution and Religion

The explanatory power of evolutionary theory is clear. However, these days, people seem to rush to evolutionary explanations for all sorts of real and perceived human behaviours. The danger of doing this is that in going straight to the question of the origins of what we’re trying to understand, we fail to put in the effort to adequately study the nature of the phenomenon, or even to establish satisfactorily that the phenomenon is real. As a result, it’s all too easy for commonsensical assumptions and misapprehensions to get incorporated into the story. And when it comes to human behaviour, things are often more complicated and more variable than common sense would lead us to expect.

It’s probably about affiliation and endogamy, Michael!

This is a particularly common problem, in my view, in evolutionary studies of religion, and I’ve just read a blog post that’s a case in point. In It’s about Fertility, stupid! The Evolutionary Adaptivity of Religion‘, Michael Blume claims that:

Religiosity (defined as behavior towards superempircal agents) is today clearly adaptive: Members of competitive religious communities are building stronger families with more offspring worldwide as their secular neighbours of the same education and income levels. This is observable in empirical studies, censusses worldwide, as well as in case studies (i.e. Amish, Hutterites, Mormons, Orthodox Jews). In contrast, non-religious populations and those religious communities who do not build and support families inevitably succumb to cultural evolution (i.e. late Greek and Roman Polytheism, Gnostic groups, the Shakers) and are replaced by demographically successful religious competitors.


Ignorance and Power, Critical Studies in Education 50(3)

Here’a another exercise in the anthropology of ignorance, this time focused on ignorance in education — a special issue of Critical Studies in Education from 2009.

The introduction, by Neriko Musha Doerr explains:

While resonating with Bourdieu’s theoretical formulation that it is relations of dominance that create the legitimacy of knowledge, this project pushes a step further and argues that the relations of dominance can create legitimacy even in ignorance.

Mini Special Issue: Ignorance and power: acknowledgment of not knowing and relations of dominance [paywall]

Critical Studies in Education 50(3) (2009)

Ignorance Mobilization – Joanne Gaudet

I’ve just come across the work of Joanne Gaudet, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa who has been working on issues of ignorance and the productivity of ignorance from a sociological — and especially sociology of science — point of view. She has a website with a number of interesting looking working papers at

She defines ‘ignorance mobilisation’ as follows:

Ignorance Mobilization
“The use of the borders and the limits of knowing, including the intentional and the unintentional consideration or bracketing out of what is not known, towards the achievement of goals (i.e., social, cultural, political, professional, and economic)”
(Gaudet, 2012, Gaudet et al., 2012)

Ignorance mobilization complements ‘knowledge mobilization’ in the social scientific investigation of research and innovation.

Paul Stoller: Social Engineering and the Politics of Ignorance

Paul Stoller has a post on the Huffington Post on education, ignorance and politics. Some of what he has to say relates to policies that aim to constrain the acquisition of knowledge. Here’s one example I find particularly astounding, not because it is an unusual position to take historically speaking, but because it comes from a political party in an adversarial system. You would think that participants in such a system would at least have to give lip service to the idea of clarity and independent thinking, but perhaps it’s only children they don’t want thinking about thinking.


We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

via Paul Stoller: Social Engineering and the Politics of Ignorance.

Cultures of Ignorance: CFP, 17th World Congress of the IUAES, Manchester 2013

17th World Congress of the IUAES

Jenny Diggins (Sussex) and I have just issued the following call for papers for a panel on the anthropology of ignorance, to be held at the IUAES Congress in Manchester next summer. Feel free to get in touch if you’re considering submitting a proposal but want to discuss it first. 


Call for Papers at the IUAES Congress, at the University of Manchester, 5th-10th August 2013

Panel Title :  Cultures of Ignorance

Deadline for abstracts : 13th July 2012


Highly Recommended: Laszlo Montgomery’s The China History Podcast


mao stalin

The China History Podcast comes all the way from sunny Claremont, California, courtesy of Laszlo Montgomery, and is highly recommended. I’ve been listening to it on and off since last summer and have learnt a lot from it.

It’s a great introduction to some key episodes and themes in Chinese history, and the host has a nice, calm, leisurely style of delivery that makes a good contrast for turbulent history he is usually recounting. And at 3-4 episodes a month, of 30+ minutes each, this guy is amazingly productive.