I’ve been thinking some more about the issues that are raised by the debacle over Jared Diamond’s 21 April 2008 New Yorker piece and the recent announcement of a lawsuit against him. There are many things to think about here. Probably foremost amongst these are the ethical concerns relating to preserving research subjects’ privacy and informed consent. There are secondary concerns regarding scholarship, standards of research, and obligations to adequately describe research methodology.
I am troubled by a point raised by Alex Golub in the Savage Minds blog. Golub writes, “There is also a more serious problem with [Diamond's New Yorker] article which is also the most obvious thing about it: it contrasts ‘tribal societies’ with ‘modern state societies’. ” This is something that bothers me too though I think that my response may be somewhat different than that of many contemporary cultural anthropologists. In general, I have sensibilities very much akin to Diamond’s. I see tremendous value in comparative studies, and I think that there is something that we can call, for lack of a better term, a robust and fairly general Human Nature. Human beings are biological entities with material needs and (many) material motivations and we ignore these at our explanatory (and possibly literal) peril.
The Myth-of-Isolation criticism, which also arises in the Diamond debacle, is not new in Anthropology. I am reminded of the Kalahari Debate of Lee, Wilmsen and others. Globalization as a phenomenon of anthropological inquiry has certainly increased in currency of late and I think that this scholarship tends to make many of my colleagues skeptical of any research on, say, foraging decisions by hunting and gathering people. The answer to this criticism is that foraging people in a globalized world, like all people, still make decisions about what to eat, what not to eat, how to eat, etc. Their choices may be constrained by a hegemonic state or by extra-state organizations, but choices are still being made. Understanding how such choices are made in a globalized world strikes me as being at least as important as it was 50 or 100 years ago. This goes for hunter-gatherers as well as urban elites, agrarian peasants or just about anyone else.
Rather than taking labels such as “tribal” or “state” as sufficient descriptions of the differences between groups, I think that the science requires us to describe (and hopefully quantify) the dimensions of their difference. I have been thinking a lot about social networks lately. One dimension on which two societies might differ is the composition of ego networks. How many people does a given person know? What fraction of those are kin? What is the gender composition of the ego network? How socially similar are the member’s of ego’s network to him/herself? How many would provide emotional/economic/agonistic support to you in a crisis? Does an individual’s ego network include socially important figures like government functionaries, doctors, lawyers or the equivalent? How much does ego’s network overlap with his/her spouse’s? Brother’s? Neighbor’s? Member of the next village/town? Gathering such data is clearly a major undertaking, but that’s what science is about, no?
The fraught question of how to do ethical, meaningful anthropology in a globalized world that struggles with the legacy of colonial depredations has, in my view, driven too many anthropologists from science. Protecting human subjects and doing unto others what we would have done to us are important guiding principles for anthropological research, indeed, any research in the human sciences. Describing — and, ultimately, understanding — how societies differ and what the implications of these differences are for human behavior should, in my opinion, be another principle. Facile labels relating to social or economic complexity, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc. do not help us understand the diversity of human behavior.