Anthropology and social theory: renewing dialogue via the classics

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Abstract

Agnes Horvath, Bjørn Thomassen, & Dr Harald Wydra, editors of the Journal,International Political Anthropology “Anthropology and social theory: renewing dialogue via the classics”
This paper argues that anthropology may represent a perspective from where social theory can renew itself. The presentation therefore inserts itself within the history of a long conversation between anthropology and social theory. This discussion goes back at least to the Durkhemian school which saw the study of modern and "archaic" cultures as part and parcel of the same project. However, the disciplines of sociology and anthropology soon branched off in different directions in practically all universities in the world. Theview that would establish itself, especially in postwar social theory, was that the modern world represented its own unique constellation and therefore had to be studied on its own terms, with little reference to pre-modern or non-modern societies, as studied by classicalanthropology. In recent decades, the ethnographic method and the study of power from the "margins" became widely popular in the social and political sciences. Social theory has also come into at least superficial contact with anthropology via the "cultural turn". Yet this elevated status of anthropology and its method has involved almost no engagement with the theoretical luggage found within the discipline of anthropology.Our premise is that the modern world may indeed not be so unique in all its features, and that it therefore cannot simply be studied on its own terms. This means, well within a Weberian perspective, that the particularity of the modern project can only be rendered visible by stepping temporally and spatially outside modernity. This of course means that social theory needs history; that there can indeed be no theory without history. Post-war mainstream social and political theory had worked from a central premise: that the modern world couldand should be studied on its own terms. This had produced what Elias (1987) identified as the 'retreat of sociologists into the present'. The return of historical sociology implies a questioning of this temporal boundary line. However - and this has been much lessconsidered - the same view of modernity as a self-contained and radically different world, with its own logics and with its particular social arrangements, was also what had led to the quite radical separation of sociology and anthropology in the post-war period. While it isbecoming increasingly recognized - indeed, mainstream - that social theory needs history, back to the axial age and beyond, the possible role of anthropology in theorizing modernity seems far less obvious. That role goes much beyond simply representing a view from "below", a politically correct appreciation of cultural diversity, or a taste for the exotic and marginal. It involves, we argue, attention towards key theoretical concepts developed within "classical" anthropology that uniquely facilitate a proper understanding of the modern world and its underlying dynamics. Three such concepts will be singled out for attention: liminality, trickster logics and gift-giving. The paper will also relate to the significant statement made by the organizers of this conference concerning questions of methods and how they relate to values and meaning: "Questions of method, or searches for the 'Way', just as the use of the powers of reason, cannot be reduced to a search for means to satisfy given ends, but must incorporate a discussion of the very ends of social and human life, including the question of meaning. Methods of theorizing are thus ways of attending to the world so as to bringinto view, contemplate and articulate Standards of beauty, truth and the good life; radiant Ideals that illuminate and make possible an understanding and interpretation of our present practices and institutions, thereby enabling our education and self-transformationin light of such a Measure." Such a formulation calls for a discussion of Ancient Greece and the relevance of antiquity for the study of modernity. We argue that, beyond the schismatic religious divisions that marred the early modern period, and beyond the legacies of the Enlightenment project, entangled in mechanical rationalisation on the one hand, and the mere stimulation of the senses on the other, guided by an exclusively materialistic and utilitarian vision of the human being and its social environment, it is possible to take inspiration from Antiquity in order to spark a renewal badly needed in the increasingly crisis-proneworld. This renewal must take place at the level of philosophical anthropology and involves a return to the Classical world. The notion of 'crisis' and the claim that we live in the midst of a'civilizational crisis' implies that a comparative perspective on the modern world must try to give an answer to fundamental questions of meaning, value and direction.We here would like to draw attention to a key concept in ancient Greece, and actually much focused upon by anthropologists, but neglected in social theory: that of grace or graciousness. Sophocles could state that "Poetically Man Dwells"; that man is matter only in so far as he has affinity with the very essence of matter itself. Or put differently, poetical grace is that which "brings forward and forth". The concept of grace relates to other cardinal values inAncient Greek philosophy, namely harmony and beauty. These are not merely aesthetic perspectives: they provide a 'measure' or a starting point for theorizing social existence.
OriginalsprogEngelsk
Publikationsdato16 jun. 2011
StatusUdgivet - 16 jun. 2011

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