We are what we are studying

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes:

When native Australians or New Guineans say that their totemic animals and plants are their kinsmen – that these species are persons like themselves, and that in offering them to others they are giving away part of their own substance – we have to take them seriously, which is to say empirically, if we want to understand the large consequences of these facts for how they organise their lives. The graveyard of ethnographic studies is strewn with the remains of reports which, thanks to anthropologists’ own presuppositions as to what constitutes empirical fact, were content to ignore or debunk the Amazonian peoples who said that the animals they hunted were their brothers-in-law, the Africans who described the way they systematically killed their kings when they became weak, or the Fijian chiefs who claimed they were gods.

My first thought was . . . wait a minute! Whazzat with “presuppositions as to what constitutes empirical fact”? That animal is or is not your brother-in-law, right? They’re either doing inter-species marriage in Amazonia or not, no?

But Sahlins does have something reasonable to say, and it’s relevant to my own research in political science. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first here’s Sahlins, continuing:

We have to follow the reasoning of those Australian Aboriginals for whom eating their own totem animals or plants would be something like incest or self-cannibalising, even as they ritually nourish and protect these species for other people’s use. We thus discover a society the opposite in principle of the bellicose state of nature that Hobbes posited as the primordial condition – an idea which is still too much with us. Of course the native Australians have known injurious disputes, most of them interpersonal. Yet instead of a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’, each opposing others in his own self-interest, here is a society fundamentally organised on the premise of everyone giving himself to everyone.

In the earlier Germanic version of the natural science controversy, this human science alternative was called ‘understanding’, the implication being that the subject matter at issue was meaningfully or symbolically constructed, so that what was methodologically required was the penetration of its particular logic. The human scientist is not in a relation of a thinking person to a mute object of interest; rather, anthropologists and their like are of the same intellectual nature as the peoples they study: they are our alters and interlocutors. . . .

He then goes on to make some statements, with which I disagree, on the topic of natural science. But let’s forget about that and just go with the quote above. What struck me is the relevance of this “anthropological” mode of thinking to political science, where we must have understanding and sympathy for a wide spectrum of political opinions ranging from opposition to interracial marriage (supported by 46% of respondents in a recent poll of Mississippi Republican voters) to support for the nationalization of the means of production (still a popular position in many European countries, or so I’ve heard). As a political scientist studying public opinion, I have certain tools and academic experiences. But I am fundamentally the same kind of object as the people I am studying. It’s an obvious point but still worth remembering. This is the sort of thing that Dan Kahan writes about.

4 Responses to We are what we are studying

  1. Szczepan S July 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    When i hear: “Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’, each opposing others in his own self-interest”, I immediately think of rational choice theory in political science. And the opposing school of understanding would be psychological theory, where groups are “the mover”.

    Of course we live in different kind of society now, where both rationality and self-interest are accepted. That rational choice theory wouldn’t be good anthropology doesn’t mean it’s not good political science. But it’s important to remember there’s nothing fundamental, natural, or self evident in the axiom of rational, self-interested actors.

  2. Chuck Cameron July 20, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    Hi Andrew–
    The distinguished British anthropologist Adam Kuper reviews Sahlins’ book What Kinship Is — And Is Not, in the July 12 2013 issue of The Times Literary Supplement. He puts Sahlins’s work in context as an exemplar of cultural determinism, “the current orthodoxy in American anthropology.” Kuper suggests the book’s use of evidence is extremely selective, partial, and tendentious. Without minimizing the importance of beliefs, concepts, and social pressures he argues for some impact of actual biology and “brute necessity” on notions of kinship. I personally have no dog is this fight but write only to suggest taking your Sahlins with a grain of salt.

    • Andrew Gelman July 20, 2013 at 9:29 pm #


      The Sahlins article seemed wacky to me but I thought I could still pull out of it some thoughts that are relevant to my research practice, without endorsing all his positions.

  3. JRLRC July 21, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    “We are what we are studying”. Yes, and no. For example, political scientists and politicians are humans and citizens, etc., but political scientists are not politicians and politicians are not political scientists, etc. Sociologists are at the same time individuals that study society and social beings (besides humans and citizens…) that can study parts of society they are not members of. ETC.