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The Rise and Impact of Postmodern Anthropology

Updated on June 28, 2011

The genesis of anthropology, which spanned the breadth of two incredibly impacting world epochs, including that of colonialism and the Enlightenment, focused its initial epistemology upon the idea of scientific and unbiased analysis of the structure and function of societies. Within this realm of innovative practice, no longer reliant solely on explications provided through church authority or biblical canon, intellectuals including Bronislaw Malinowski, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, and Marvin Harris presented substantive theories in attempts to rationalize the composition of the world and its inhabitants (Salzman 2001:7). While contrasting approaches such as humanism, as applied by Franz Boas and E.E. Evan Pritchard, did exist contemporaneously with the methodological epistemology of science, it was not until the 1980s that a concrete critique evolved as an alternative lens through which to study human life way: postmodern anthropology. The postmodern epistemology, exemplified by the subfields of symbolic and feminist anthropology, posits the importance of moral responsibility, the worth of positional relativity as well as the subsequent subjectivity it produces, and forcefully challenged the stoic ideal of the unbiased view (Salzman 2001:10).

The widely accepted practice of invoking a scientifically neutral perspective fell under heavy criticism by Clifford Geertz, who digressed from the global formulations of previous anthropologists and maintained that facets of culture, such as religion, should be interpretively viewed and characterized by the meaning it carries, rather than solely the behavior it may evoke in a society (Salzman 2001:72). Geertz, as Ruth Benedict, purported that culture was therefore a “thing in itself, through which people understand and deal with the world”, and not a single homogenized entity (Salzman 2001:73).

Feminist scholars mirrored the epistemological relativism of symbolic anthropology, seeking as well to address the significance of positionality and anthropological characterizations, albeit with precise aims to revise a male-oriented area of study (Erickson 2008:482). The same advantages posited by Geertz of a researcher’s subjectivity, which should be recognized for the interpretations it has to offer, was echoed by feminist intellectuals such as Jean Briggs, who stressed the importance of not only recording the lives of her subjects, but the methods in which she managed to interact and understand the people she observed (Salzman 2001:118).

Beyond these contributed elements, feminist anthropology ventured past the boundaries of academia and transformed accumulated research into a basis upon which to build advocacy. Fieldwork would no longer simply furnish the sparse pages of an un-written ethnography, but provide catalysts to enhance the struggle for better social and cultural morality (Salzman 2001:117). These combined principles between symbolic and feminist theories evolved to comprise the basic tenants of postmodernism, an effective fusion of relativist epistemology and advocacy (Salzman 2001:121).

Considering the former tenant, a main premise of this postmodern position is the fervent renunciation of science, a restrictive analytical tool circumscribed to an empowered dominant group, such as the intellectual white male, whose prominent status would consequentially subvert the positions of other individuals, such as ethnic minorities. The emphasis that symbolic and feminist anthropology placed upon the morality of human subjectivity, therefore, denied use of the scientific method in possibly defining an objective truth (Spiro 1996: 759). The sterile and detached practices of the scientifically oriented anthropologist were hereby discredited, leaving the postmodern practitioner -who enters the field aware of his presuppositions- to become a subjective participant within a society of independent agents, who themselves are the sole authorities to speak of their existence (Salzman 2001:122).

The findings of postmodern fieldwork are then oftentimes translated into advocacy, wherein the anthropologists, as morally invested participants of their studies, commit themselves to the plights of the underrepresented masses. Whether through mediation, lobbying, or testifying, the advocates transcend the academic environment to physically and effectually address the inequalities that serve as the focus of their writings, and may include such goals as preserving a cultural identity in the face of oppression, protecting indigenous land rights against globalization, or simply empowering a singular agent (Gardner 1996:46).

The moralistic air that permeates so much of postmodern epistemology almost immediately elicited criticism from the more logically based intellectuals, such as Marvin Harris, who steadfastly argued for the systematic and judicial practice of anthropology. It was believed, by those of the latter persuasion, that the suggestible nature of subjectivity and the extent of self-involvement distorted not only the main focus of the field, the study of “the other”, but also any cultural practices, which were relegated by postmodernist as one exploitative scenario after another. In addition, the unwavering dedication to relativism, which perhaps grounded this innovative theoretical stance, suffered ridicule by its contemporaries as well (Salzman 2001:135-136).

Albeit meeting avid resistance from within the field itself, postmodern anthropology continues its contributions to the discipline as a whole. The delicate synthesis achieved through the recognition of the significance of cognitive construction, subjectivity, and moral principle, has allowed for a reconsideration of the relationship between a researcher and his subject. Beyond consequently producing a far more empathetic work, the relationships nurtured in the field also urges the intellectual to escape the confines of his academic walls and pursue far more impacting interests, such as advocacy, which serves to dually sate the ethical wants of the postmodernist while giving precedence to the plights of often unseen and exploited “others” of the world (Lewellen 2002:41).

Works Cited

Erickson, Paul A.

2010 Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory: University of Toronto Press.

Gardner, Katy

1996 Anthropology: Development and the Post-Modern Challenge: Pluto Press.

Salzman, Philip Carl

2001 Understanding Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theory: Waveland Press.

Lewis, David

1996 Anthropology: Development and the Post-Modern Challenge: Pluto Press.

Lewellen, Ted C.

2002 The Anthropology of Globalization: Cultural Anthropology enters the 21st century: Greenwood Publishing Company.

Spiro, Melford E.

1996 Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 38, No.4: Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science: A Modern Critique.

Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All rights reserved.


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    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Thanks Wesman! I'm about as off-beat as one can get, so the uniqueness of my posts will hopefully be a constant!

      With appreciation,


    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Deep and unique subject! Keep on with the unique content! Voted UP!


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