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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Frazer strikes back, but Malinowski wins on a knockout

Browsing the LSE's website to see what their political experts had to say about the election I had the misfortune to come across this blurb for the forthcoming Malinowski Memorial Lecture. It reminded me of why I chose to leave that place -  too much completely hypocritical tolerance of this sort of thing. I was continually dismayed by the number of smart people who in private were prepared to say what they thought but in public kept their mouths shut and their noses clean. Before you start berating and flaming me I confess that all I know about the talk is what is written in the abstract so I haven't given the guy a fair shake, but let's face it, the signs aren't good. I quote:

"...is it a mistake to take our interest in an ethnographic phenomenon in the direction of an empirical investigation, when what is really needed with respect to its clarity is an imaginative contemplation of it? It is my overall argument that this is indeed the case and that the Malinowskian recourse to empirical evidence as the ultimate criterion for anthropological knowledge is misguided."

"...I take two classical topics - the ‘soul’ and ‘ritual blood sacrifice’. I will show how both are essentially metaphysical issues, not empirical ones. Understanding them, therefore, is not a question of advancement in the actual material practice of fieldwork, but of the power of the scholar's speculative imagination."

Souls are non empirical, in fact non existent, entities. The only way that anyone can say anything about them is via a process that involves imagination. Ditto for Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. That doesn't make them material for the social scientist, it makes them material for novelists, poets, theologians and all the others whose business it is to attempt to express the inexpressible. Whether they succeed or not is a matter of individual opinion not science. Tony Harrison says something to me, he may do nothing for you and I certainly won't be advocating that he is given a chair in sociology. Ritual blood sacrifice is, at least for those involved in it I would imagine, an all too empirical experience. Of course you can try to tell me, perhaps on the basis of your imagination, what the soul or ritual blood sacrifice means to Siberia's indigenous people. I may or may not  comprehend or "get a feeling" for it. It probably depends on how good your and my imagination is. I think, that through reading L. P. Hartley's The Go Between, I have an inkling of what it was like to be a child staying as a guest in an Edwardian upper-class country house during a long hot Summer and vicariously finding out about sex for the first time. Do I really understand what it was like? Almost certainly not. And even if I did I couldn't prove it to you. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. That is the point of the novel. Social science has limits and it does nobody any good to try and pretend that it is the social scientist's business to stray outside the limits they are competent to speak about. If I have time I'm happy to read poems about mystical experiences or watch a film like Tarkovsky's Mirror which is undeniably 'spiritual' but when I'm doing that I'm not doing social science. Let the metaphysicians do the metaphysics and the social scientists the social science. As Frank Ramsey said in his succinct version of Wittgenstein. 'What we can't say, we can't say, and we can't whistle it either.'

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