Defining society: the anthropologist’s dilemma

Keith Hart think’s he’s uncovered anthropolgy’s biggest challenge, and the issue that’s hampering its progress as a science: defining the word ‘society’ in a way that makes sense for the times we live in.

I believe that humanity is caught precariously in transition between two notions of where society is located, the nation-state and the world. The dominance of the former in the 20th century fed the ethnographic revolution in anthropology which, rather than following the needs of colonial empire as is commonly assumed, was in fact an attempt to make the national model of society universal by finding its principles everywhere, even in so-called primitive societies. These principles included cultural homogeneity, a bounded location and an ahistorical presumption of eternity. The centrality of the state to such a concept of nation was negated by the study of stateless societies in these terms.

Clearly world society is not yet a fact in the same sense as its principal predecessor. But the need to make a world society fit for all humanity to live in is urgent for many reasons that I don’t need to spell out. Retention of ethnography (which first emerged in Central Europe to serve a nation-building project) as our main professional model has made most of us apologists for a fragmented and static vision of the human predicament, reinforcing a rejection of world history that amounts to nothing less than, “Stop the world, I want to get off”. We no longer study exotic rural places in isolation from history, but, in abandoning that exclusive preoccupation, we have failed to bring the object, theory and method of anthropology up to date.

Note the similarities to concerns about the nation-state as dominant identifier coming from all sorts of other disciplines (as frequently documented on this ‘ere blog, among other places). Nationality is increasingly coming to be seen as the hollow sham it has always been. Think about it: the problem with identifying with a nation is that you’re identifying with nothing more than a word and a piece of multicoloured cloth. The ideological continuity that nationality implies is a complete fiction: if I’m “proud to be English”, am I proud of the same things Churchill would have held dear? Is it the citizens of England I identify with, or its values and laws, or even the physical ground itself, that territory which is no longer the map? None of these things are constants; they are different now to how they were a year ago, a decade ago, a century ago. No one chose where to be born… so why this fanaticism for a fluke of geography and childhood survival statistics? You don’t see people born on a Wednesday singing anthems about the wonderfulness and well-earned superiority of Wednesdays, do you?

“England” (or “America”, or “China”, or or or… ) is a hollow word, and the vacuum at its heart is easily filled by people with agendas that have nothing to do with bringing people together. You don’t bring people together by labelling them, by gathering them beneath a banner; that’s the definition of segregation. Nationality is at best meaningless, and at worst extremely dangerous. Nationality is apartheid.  It’s an idea that makes no logical sense in a networked world, where geography increasingly constrains only your individual access to physical resources. Until we get past the idea of ‘society’ being something to which we may belong, but to which some (most!) other humans do not, solutions to all our most pressing problems as a species will continue to elude us.

My two cents, there. 🙂