Anthropology: Beyond Social Theory

Tobias Rees has published (TRees, As if ) a response to Dominic Boyer in which he contests Boyer’s 2010 (Boyer social theory)diagnosis of the crisis of theoretical modes of knowledge, the referent “society” and Boyer’s prescription for a remedy through rejuvenated social theory.

The “crisis” of anthropological theory in Rees’ account of Boyer’s diagnosis, comes from the ranks of those anthropologists who in one form or another are dealing with scientific, political, economic, legal, media and ethical expertise, to name a few contemporary domains in which significant knowledge is being produced. The claim from Boyer is that if anthropologists such as Doug Holmes and George Marcus are right (Marcus and Homes 2006), that experts are actually doing the work of anthropologists insofar as they are observing ‘how they do what they do’ and therefore rendering their practices contingent and producing knowledge from this rendering, then what is the role, purpose and status of the knowledge produced by anthropologists? Of course, then comes the debate: is this what anthropologists do? What is the work of anthropology? Much turns on the question whether the work of anthropology is in fact to render that which is understood as stable, contingent. In one form or another, this is what has been understood as the diagnostic modality of Foucault’s history of the present. This is a point of entry for Rees to debate Boyer on the question of why “theory” may no longer be a worthwhile form in which to emplace, present and give the significance of anthropological knowledge. Rees makes a compelling case for why anthropological attention to the “difference today makes”  would be limited by “society” and “theory” as the form of explanatory knowledge for the problem of the shifting referents ‘anthropos’ and ‘logos’ along with their changing concepts . Rees is however clear that Boyer gives up a ‘reductionist’ conception of theory as singular explanatory schema and yet wishes to retain a plurality of such schemas each recognizing the limits of the other: “another theory heard from.” What is the difference between this view of theory and what has been called a tool chest of logoi [Rabinow 2003]? Rees’ answer is that theory is still more or less a causal schema. The problem is that the thing to be explained is ‘the human’ and that ‘social’- as an adjective - is the distinguishing mark of such an object to be explained. Since ‘the social’ and ‘Society’ are historically contingent objects and analytic terms [Rabinow 1989], [Strathern 1988] – and indeed since they are not the same, differentiating ‘the social’, “Society” and the manner in which Boyer uses the term “social” becomes a task for Rees. Rather than summarize any more, let me end with a question; Rees proposes the anthropology of the actual as one response to the poverty of theory. How can one situate such knowledge of the actual within the contemporary, in the sense used here in ARC? I.e. How to situate observations of the actual within the problematic relation of the “resent past and near future”, problematic precisely because the significance of knowledge produced about the actual cannot be judged by theory, by reference to ‘society’ or an understanding of the human as ‘social’ (which even if true, seems not to tell us very much if we already know that it is true.’