In a recent discussion about the central focus of anthropology, what distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines, an argument was made that we do have a central theoretical focus. In fact, the argument goes, that theory is based on the fact that we are holistic and yet culturally relative. We are, in this formulation, the combination and contradiction of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures - Science vs Humanities. This approach, which goes back at least to Boas, is proposed to be the anthropological method.
I agree that we have a central methodology. It is a methodology
that in many ways also reflects our underlying philosophy of science and
the nature of things -- that is, the objective (etic) observation of
the world and the subjective (emic) nature of the observing instrument
-- the anthropologist. We incorporate a "quantum" perspective which
recognizes the fact that the observer IS part of the system being
observed and thereby influences the observation -- i.e. creates a degree
But a methodology is not a theory or explanation. It is only a process
which without direction and purpose is like the mouse running on the
wheel in its cage. Good exercise going nowhere. Theory is by its very
nature "inductive" speculations based on deductive analysis of the
observations made of nature. Induction is the "If, then" statement where
the "if" statement is based on a known set of data, and the "then"
statement is a generalization of that data into an unknown future event
or situation. Deduction is tautological. It too is a set of "If, then"
statements. However, these statement are known facts and relationships
from which a new or previously unknown fact is "deduced" If A = C, and
B = C, then A = B.
As "natural history" anthropology is a deductive science. But as an
predictive science and an applied science, anthropology.is an inductive
science. That is, in the former case we report what we see and then
analysis it to see more detail in the facts we already have. In the
latter case, we detect patterns from past observations and hypothesize
or predict future outcomes based on the correlations found between
variables from past observations, e.g. what the population of X will be
in ten years based on the population rate for the past 30 years..
Inductive models or theories point out problems for study and to
validate observed patterns or to disprove the pattern. Anthropology
today, especially ethnography, does not seem to have an inductive focus
-- a set of principles or correlations that drive the research or
analysis. Instead we seem to be happy pursuing our own idiosyncratic
emic agendas -- "description and deductions" based on a sample of one at
one moment in time and space.
My personal bias in this regard is the broad generalized question of the
human condition and what we can infer about it based on a 150 or more
years of anthropological research. Some might say anthropology is the
study of "culture" (e.g. Leslie White, Tylor, Kroeber) which is
phenomenon oriented, while others might say anthropology is the study
of mankind ( or pc "humankind") which is species (biologically)
In this regard, the concept "meme" or "trait" or any other term that one
chooses that distinguishes the physical "gene" concept from the
ideational "superorganic" concept presents us with an interesting and
promising why to inductively test propositions that relate directly
structure and dynamics of "culture" on one hand, and on the other to the
"tipping" point between Hominid to Homo (Human like animal to the self
aware Human animal).
Finally, those who question the validity of Memetics argue that it "is not a theory by any
reasonable definition thereof. More a model, and a rather questionable
one to anyone who has studied semiotic"
First, anthropology is not semiotics, although semiotics has much to contribute to anthropology. Second, "meme" is a theoretical concept,
the same way the Higgs Particle is/was a theoretical concept, it is not a
fact. As a theoretical concept it calls for an inductive approach.
The "meme" provides a basis for directing
research by focusing on creating hypotheses to prove or disprove its existence. And if "meme" is not the
right concept, the question still exists, how did man or culture become
what it is and what it means to be human? Unless, of course, you accept the
orthodoxy of the breath of life and the apple in the Garden of Eden.But then we have ceded a scientific approach to the study of culture and humanity to a religious orthodoxy.