From Anthropology to Social Theory: Rethinking the Social Sciences, by Arpad Szakolczai and Bjørn Thomassen

Simon Underdown on a call for the discipline to reclaim its maverick heritage to rejuvenate itself and tackle dynamic real-world problems

February 28, 2019
Source: Getty

At first glance, the title of this book sounds rather like a conference that the convenors didn’t want to organise but, since they had the funding, came up with a name on the back of an envelope. But where would we be if we judged books by their covers? Putting aside questions of academic taste in book titles, we’re left with something really rather engaging, insightful and extremely thought-provoking. It’s perhaps worth offering a trigger warning here for the many anthropologists who won’t enjoy this book or perhaps even read it (although they should!).

The introduction lays out the purpose of the book and adds context and nuance to that clunky title. The authors argue that they are not seeking to introduce a tabula rasa or ignore previous thinking but rather to foster open and constructive dialogue between researchers working in the social sciences. On page 2 is as neat a dissection of the existential crisis facing anthropology as anyone could wish for (and it is this that will, I suspect, upset so many anthropologists). It goes on to puncture the dearly held anthropological view that only those trained in the mystical esoteric groves of anthropological academe can use the ethnographic method or even think about conducting proper fieldwork.

As an exemplar, if the editor will forgive such sycophancy, I would suggest reading Matthew Reisz’s feature on ethnography in these pages (“If truth be told”, 28 August 2018), which describes a wide range of ethnographic applications; despite mentioning the names of a number of researchers, not one is an anthropologist. With their call for the removal of subject-based ownership of techniques, Arpad Szakolczai and Bjørn Thomassen offer a convincing and increasingly urgent argument that the social sciences are in need of radical rejuvenation. This is not in order to “retain relevance” (or some similarly anodyne phrase) but to allow social scientists to do what they should do best and help address dynamic real-world issues.

The first (and much larger) part of the book is devoted to the rehabilitation of the anthropologists who were termed “maverick” and whose ideas were either ignored or systematically excluded from the academic mainstream. The chapter on Gregory Bateson, who in a varied research career did fieldwork with Margaret Mead but also studied the behavioural patterns of dolphins, is especially arresting and eloquently illustrates the value of ignoring subject boundaries in order to answer interesting questions. The book’s second part aims to take the ideas of maverick anthropologists such as Bateson – or what the authors somewhat flamboyantly call the “maverick toolkit” – and re-evaluate the history of sociological thought, and modernity.

In many ways, this book can be approached and used according to individual interests. Part one and its maverick anthropologists will no doubt have much wider appeal. Part two will be of much more relevance to those fully immersed in the debates that surround the development of social theory and its anthropological and sociological applications. Its “maverick toolkit” (if we must) is something that, like the central argument of the book, can be used for much needed academic DIY across traditional subject divisions.

Simon Underdown is reader in biological anthropology at Oxford Brookes University.

From Anthropology to Social Theory: Rethinking the Social Sciences
By Arpad Szakolczai and Bjørn Thomassen
Cambridge University Press
296pp, £69.99 and £19.99
ISBN 9781108423809 and 38384
Published 17 January 2019

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Reader's comments (1)

It isn't clear to me why Philippe Bourgois, Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, doesn't count as an anthropologist in this account of Matthew Reisz’s piece.