Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Is Anthropology Empirical?

No. 164: Saturday, April 3, 1999

I was recently asked to review The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999), the latest book by Derek Freeman, the New Zealand ethnologist who made his reputation with an earlier (1983) book that punctured the myth of Margaret Mead's trouble-free Samoan adolescence, setting off the "Mead-Freeman controversy." Reading the literature that surrounds the controversy, particularly Mead's classic Coming of Age in Samoa itself, leads me to reflect on the degree to which anthropology is or is not an empirical science.

What we learn from studying less advanced cultures is clearly not independent of the fundamental anthropology that we bring to bear on them. Freeman is surely right to point out that as a disciple of Franz Boas, Mead sought confirmation of Boas's cultural relativism by finding in Samoan adolescents an exception to the "rule," advanced by biological determinists such as G. Stanley Hall (author of a major 1904 study), that adolescence was necessarily a period of turmoil. In Karl Popper's terms, the existence of even a single exception would "falsify" this rule (just as the existence of one black swan would falsify the hypothesis "swans are white") and thereby lend corroboration to the view that humans are raw material molded by culture.

Obviously the nature/nurture controversy is a matter of degree; no one can deny the constraints imposed by biology. Thus the question arises as to exactly on what terrain the battle was contested. What points can be scored against biological determinism by the study of a particular culture? Even if we suppose that Mead invented her picture of Samoa out of whole cloth, it remains useful to examine what claims she makes for it. What Mead sought in Samoa as proof of the Boasian doctrine of cultural determinism was neither the infinite variety of custom nor an exception to a biological "rule" in any rigorous sense, but the one thing that no culture can supply: a world of conflict-free desire.

What has made Coming of Age in Samoa the most widely-read ethnological study ever written is that Mead offers the lay reader the guarantee of academic science that there exists a land where adolescent sexuality, more specifically, adolescent female sexuality, is without conflict. Not coincidentally, this paradise of sexually available female adolescents is the dominant setting for pornography. These nubile girls on whom every culture, Samoan or other, depends for its self-reproduction and thus for its survival are the privileged objects of sexual desire, defended as such against unauthorized males by both external and internal restraints. Among the latter, we find the valorization of virginity instilled in Samoa by both Christian pastors and native tradition. But the most tenacious obstacle to free sexuality even in the absence of societal controls is the woman's own "narcissistic" resistance to the man's desire generated by her awareness of her desirability. Mead's extraordinary success reflects the fact that she makes Samoa the objective correlative of an erotic dream: young female sexuality endlessly offering itself to male desire without ever becoming caught up in the infernal dialectic of all desire, not even to speak of the danger of conception. This is the "innocence" that four generations of readers have found in Mead's account of Samoan adolescence.

In this erotic version of the société commencée of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, desires come into existence only to be immediately satisfied, reborn, and satisfied again in an unending blissful cycle. Despite the author's express recognition of the advantage of advanced civilization's "recognition of many possible ways of life" over the "one way of life" of Samoa (247-48), Coming of Age in Samoa has been a major source of reinforcement for the Rousseauian myth of the natural harmony of desire, along with its uglier corollary, the blank check offered to resentment against "unnatural" modernity in general and market society in particular. Although professional ethnologists have taken Mead's work less seriously than the general public, its enormous popular success has nonetheless influenced academic anthropology in the direction not merely of cultural relativism but of the active mistrust of Western civilization that continues to pervade the softer social sciences.

Thus Mead's contribution to the "nature/nurture" controversy was her "discovery" of conflict-free desire. And this, empirical data aside, is also the central focus of my objection to her work: desire is conflictive by its very nature. But although readers of these Chronicles are unlikely to find this objection particularly controversial, it contravenes the core rules of ethnological research. My claim that there is no conflict-free society is not based on an exhaustive study of human cultures; it is not based on any study at all. If the human itself is defined by the deferral of mimetic conflict through representation then clearly no human society can ever simply abolish such conflict.

"But then," the reply might be, "wouldn't your hypothesis be disproved by a society where there is truly no conflict, just as the white swan theory would be disproved by the existence of a black swan? If GA isn't falsifiable, then it's just an ideology, not a rational, scientific theory."

My answer is that, of course, GA would be "falsified" if there existed a society without conflict, just as evolution would be falsified if God were observed creating a new species, or the laws of chemistry would be falsified if one mixed hydrogen and oxygen and obtained gold. The point is that scientists don't waste their time (i.e., don't get grants for) setting up experiments to observe hydrogen and oxygen turning into gold, even if from a Popperian standpoint the fact that the mixture has always produced water until now is no proof that this will be the case on the next occasion. (Popper's example is the possibility of the sun not rising tomorrow.) Chemical knowledge allows us to reject such an experiment as a waste of time. That anthropological knowledge has apparently not advanced far enough to qualify the search for conflict-free societies in the same manner is not something that GA should be blamed for.

Although in anthropology, as in every domain of empirical study, there is need for a fundamental theory to precede data collection, the general view is that we have an overabundance of speculative theories about the human in relation to our empirical data. First religious and then secular thought (metaphysics) have reflected exhaustively over the centuries on "the proper study of mankind," not to speak of the theorizing of several generations of social scientists. For well over a century, speculative thinkers like Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger have been declaring their speculations something other than metaphysics or even than philosophy; scientists are understandably wary of new ways of thinking that make similarly untestable claims. But as a consequence of this suspicion of speculation, anthropology has lost the vocation of human unity that alone justifies its name. On the one hand, we study material cultures behavioristically, from without; on the other, we describe symbolic cultures from within. If physical anthropology permits itself to make general statements about biological humanity, cultural anthropology forbears to understand its subject-matter in terms of overall human qualities, let alone to see "higher" cultures as the fulfillment of the aims of "lower" cultures. The task of explaining human historicity--without which we cannot explain human history--is abandoned to crude forms of Darwinian speculation indifferent to the essential difference between biological evolution and cultural "evolution," between genes and "memes."

GA attempts to provide a minimal theory that will permit empirical anthropology to avoid absurd projects like the search for a conflict-free society. As I have often had occasion to emphasize in these Chronicles, the elaboration of such a theory is not unscientific simply because it does not focus on testing its falsifiability.

Let us take as an example the foundation of GA: Girard's model of mimetic desire. No one can deny that the mimetic (and potentially conflictive) nature of desire is corroborated by a vast amount of data in which the mediator of the desire is overt or can be revealed unambiguously. But neither a "triangular" mediator nor mimetic conflict is an overt component of every desire. In such a case, the mimetic theory of desire becomes vulnerable to the same critique that Popper leveled against psychoanalysis. Once desire is defined in terms of an "unconscious"--whether the Freudian unconscious or what might be called the "Girardian unconsciousness" of the mediator, it becomes undetectable by what are normally considered empirical methods. (It is nevertheless surprising that no one seems to have ever taken the trouble to test Freud's assertions using normal scientific procedures. It is at least conceivable to construct tests of the components of the "Oedipus complex," for example by comparing children brought up in different types of family structures. I speak here from ignorance, but I assume that had such tests been performed, their results would have become common knowledge.)

Overt imitation of a mediator of the sort that would be testable through observation or interrogation corresponds to Girard's category of external mediation, whereas the typically modern form of internal mediation falls under the category of the unverifiable "unconscious." This allows for a useful distinction between Girard's original model and that of GA. Girard's original idea is that the internal mediator is an identifiable individual of the sort he discovers in novels like Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband. But from a minimalist standpoint, the mediation of desire does not require the presence of a specific mediator; the fundamental structure of mediation is that of mimesis in the Aristotelian sense: the objects of our desire are mediated through their representations. The point is not to suggest formalistically that a certain form of representation generates desire, but rather that the essential human category of representation permits desire to be generated prior to the formation of any specific human "triangle." In this sense, representation is the constituent factor of the market; advertising only thematizes this relationship.

Thus the invisible element of our model of desire that makes the behaviorist reject it as unfalsifiable is nothing so elaborate as the Freudian unconscious; it is simply the human capacity for representation--in its minimal form, for language. (It is to Lacan's credit to have redefined the Freudian mediations of desire in terms of language, although without seeing that this definition undermines the Freudian ontogenesis of desire.) Theories of the human that take representation into account not simply as a "behavior" but as a fundamental constituent of desire cannot be falsified in the normal sense of the term. To say, when A desires B, that A's desire is mediated by a representation of B is not testable in any simple manner. There is no way to remove all representation of B in order to test the hypothesis, since precisely representation is not limited to some formal procedure of designation but can be accomplished by any sign that the desiring subject encounters on his scene of representation.

We may understand Mead's utopia of unproblematic desire as a vision of human society within which the genesis and continued function of language and culture as means for deferring mimetic conflict are wholly forgotten. This utopian deproblematization of language is the very condition that makes anthropological description falsifiable and, therefore, "scientific." This is corroborated by the fact that Freeman's more nuanced description of Samoa, although surely more realistic than Mead's, does not make the connection between the elements of conflict it refers to and the human use of representation any more than hers. It is because of this that Freeman can "empirically" discover conflict in Samoan society as a biological rather than a cultural necessity.

The conclusion would seem to be that "scientific" anthropology as it is presently constituted must choose between cultural utopianism and biological realism, that a critical understanding of mimetic desire necessarily evades it. Only when anthropological controversies no longer rage over the existence or nonexistence of societies without conflict will GA's reinterpretations of the empirical data, however persuasive, be accepted as scientifically relevant.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
Last updated 4/1/99