GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 27, 2006


Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:01 am

John O. McGinnis’ “Age of the Empirical” in the new (June/July 06 issue of Policy Review raises some important questions for Generative Anthropology.  McGinnis argues that the increase in information available to social science researchers along with the greater efficacy of computing technology are getting us to the point where consensus on good policy will no longer be impeded by partisan interests:

our future politics is more likely to forge consensus than that of the past, because we are on the cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism that will help bring a greater measure of agreement on the consequences of public policy. The richer stream of information generated by empirical discoveries will provide an anchor for good public policy against partisan storms and special-interest disturbances, making it harder for the political process to be manipulated by narrow interests.

Arguments over, say, crime prevention policy, poverty reduction, and education will no longer be “philosophical” disputes:  we will actually be able to measure the effects of specific policies in ways that will ultimately be impossible to dispute on merely “principled” grounds.  McGinnis recognizes that there must be limits to this new empiricism–for example, there is no quantitative measure that can enable us to adjudicate between those who think a fetus is a human baby and those who think it is a clump of tissue.  (Although one could imagine empirical studies determining the best way to reduce the number of abortions having significant effects on pro-life advocates.)  McGinnis doesn’t expand the list of conflicts resistant to such an approach–he leaves foreign policy and war making, for example, completely out of the discussion.  It’s not to hard to see how such approaches could be useful in these areas as well, once we find the best way of quantifying the effects we aim at:  for example, changes in the rate of attacks in a particular area in Baghdad.  Still, it seems clear that in some areas the new empricism will be of more local use, testing out different ways of implementing a particular policy rather than deciding upon the policy itself.  And the very attempt to quantify the presumably unquantifiable, even as a thought-experiment, will often yield provocative, counter-intuitive results.

What is even more interesting about the essay is that McGinnis explicitly sees this new method as a model for conflict reduction–in terms of GA, it would be a new mode of deferral, in which we would withhold appropriation of the policy mechanism while we allow a methodological approach beyond reproach and manipulation to work itself out.  One could, for example, support the experimental implementation of a policy one finds abhorent on the ground that we can be confident that its destructiveness will be proven once and for all.  As McGinnis explicitly affirms, the new empiricism would not, then, banish values from the public sphere:  we would simply be obliged to put our values to the test, accepting a common measure between opposing values.

It would be easy to devise caricatures of this process:  should, for example, we be ready to “try out” the extermination of a particular group of people since we will now be able to verify whether they were really a “virus” after all?  But such irony would miss the point because, perhaps most interesting of all, McGinnis’ call for a new empiricism is ultimately a policy proposal in its own right, or at least a criterion for acceptable policy proposals:  since the new empiricism requires lots of information to be effective, those modes of organizing society that generate the most information are to be privileged:  hence, the new empiricism favors transparency, the replacement of “committed” academic research with distinterested inquiry in the academy, decentralization and a high degree of liberty, leaving people to work things out on the ground and thereby generate lots of data.  The new empiricism, in other words, is most compatible with a Hayekian “spontaneous order,” in which everybody knows a lot more but also a lot less:  we have increasing access to all kinds of information but we are all even less equipped to claim to know anywhere near enough to usurp the freedom of others. 

The new empiricism, then, is highly congenial to GA; but we are still in a position to raise some important questions that probably won’t come from elsewhere.  For originary thinking, form comes before “matter,” i.e., before the divisible and quantifiable. The world must be constituted before the diverse things in it can be sorted out.  We might, indeed, locate the origins of social science in the sparagmos, the destruction and devouring of the central object once the originary sign has been emitted and acknowledged by the group.  The object must be divided equally, and some intuition of what “my share” entails, along with the orientation toward any form of power or custom capable of enforcing the symmetry of shares, must be intrinsic to any community.  

The demystifying dimension of even the most conservative social science should not surprise us, then–what could be more demystifying than the sparagmos itself, in which God turns out to be food?  Think of the kind of mischievous questions which keep atheism in business:  if God created the world, what, exactly, are the cockroaches for?  If everything that happened is God’s will, why did he have such a profound desire for cripples?  Etc.  In other words, once we start to “detail” (quantify, categorize) God’s “characteristics,” we very quickly move toward farce (what material are angels’ wings made of?).  These questions are not serious for GA in their literal form, but are of great interest as an originary account of a certain kind of crucial, if cynical and limited freedom of thought.

Following the sparagmos on the originary scene is the iteration of the scene in the ritual.  Social science is necessarily suspicious of ritual, or, in our de-ritualized age, habit and normalization.  Social science wants to stay within the sparagmos, where we can argue about equal shares and how to determine them:  the social sciences are at their best and their worst in proposing paths toward modernization precisely because modernization leads to societies which produce the kind of rationalized distribution and hence measurable quantities social scientists are comfortable with.  Habits and normalization always have at least a tinge of the irrational–people adhere to customs even when they “obviously” lead to unjust distributions (and even while the same people tenaciously, and often equally irrationally from the point of their own share, insist that the existing mode of distribution be enforced to the letter), and it is extremely difficult to to do more than ridicule people in this regard.  “Development” is always from customs and rituals to rationalized distribution; habits are always favored to the extent that they are signs of such a mode of distribution.  (Nor do I simply oppose these assessments)

But social science is most of all suspicious of the transcendent sign itself, which is inexplicable in terms of any social scientific model of the social, a model that will inevitably be drawn from the sparagmos, where the participants on the scene are themselves “modeling” their relation to each other primarily in relation to the divisible object, ignoring while presupposing the formal sign which makes division possible in the first place.  What is the centripetal force that holds society together? Faith can explain the emergence and maintenance of the more desirable habits, which in turn lead to more rational distribution, but once faith has thus served as a Ruse of Reason it might as well step off the stage.  Once we know what faith is good for, why should (indeed how could) we continue to believe?  That the renewal of the transcendent sign will always be incommensurable with the existent and, in the short run, counter to all the “material interests” it must defer, remains beyond the ken of the social sciences.

It would follow, then, that McGinnis’ argument would hold true for those areas of social life where we find the greatest consensus regarding desirable social ends:  higher standards of living, less poverty, students with higher reading and math scores, safer streets, etc.  And this certainly covers a lot.  His argument is most dubious when applied to those areas where our transcendent guarantees and the constitution of the community itself are at stake–most obviously, perhaps, in matters of war and peace and life and death, but also in areas of national symbolism and individual freedom. 

We could take a step toward McGinnis’ position and simultaneously try to render his position more minimal by searching for ways in which the “new empricism” might extend its sway over new areas of life, which is to say bring new areas of life under the emergent acceptance of spontaneous order.  Can we ever really be sure in advance that any particular question is inherently resistant to quantification and measurement in some way that would be truthful and elicit general consent?  Why not work under the assumption that it’s always worth trying?  At the very least we will understand the dimensions of the conflict in question better by identifying precisely where and why it is thus resistant.  And this in turn will serve to indicate where habits are entrenched because the prevailing form of the transcendent has not yet finished its work, and where such entrenchment vaguely points to emergent forms.  In this way, the “new empiricism” will be not only an increasingly comprehensive and helpful method but a new sign of our desire for an enhanced consensus–enhanced both in its breadth and its depth, as we provide the social sciences with the elements of a new vocabulary. 


Scenic Politics


  1. I’m of a mixed mind. The Hayekian aspect pointed out by Scenic is good, and the idea of there being distributed data gathering, analysis, fact checking, challenging, etc.–I like that. I like the substance, I guess, but not the packaging. “The New Empiricism” seems to opportunistically take what may be some positive developments and sell it as a triumph of empiricism, when actually it seems instead a provisional triumph of ingenuity, creativity, decentralization, distributed networking etc. (Glenn Reynolds has a book out these lines, _An Army of Davids_, but I haven’t gotten hold of it yet.) In other words, he’s making it out to be a techno-science triumph, a triumph for “number crunchers” and “lab rats” as opposed to the “ivory tower tenured radicals” and so forth. I suppose I’ve got my issues with academe, but I’m not sure I want to get behind this particular banner as the answer.

    Additionally, ever since Gleick’s _Chaos: Making a New Science_ there have been all kinds of books about a new this and a new that–almost a cottage industry. (An awful book on “memes” by one of the Microsoft guys was following this line: _Virus of the Mind: Inside the New Science of Memes_). I fell for the chaos thing, the complexity thing, the artificial life thing, and by now I’m kind of skeptical, I guess–and that despite the fact that I truly am respectful of empirical work and what “facts on the ground” people do.

    I’m sure I’m cynical, but I see what he’s saying as a power move, an attempt to seize the flag of some rather positive social, technical and media developments and claim it for “empiricists” in order to get coveted spots or prestige in academe. And I also see it as hype, which is usually a sign that something claimed as a new trend is already starting to to fizzle out, or end up being something rather else.

    By the way, whatever happened to Rational Choice Theory (which I think this writer is coyly distancing himself from)?

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — June 28, 2006 @ 7:11 am

  2. Well, perhaps it’s a power move; and perhaps my claim that we can “appropriate” this power move to advance GA is another power move; the question is, does your own power move enable others that might not directly enhance your own? In other words, can you locate or insert a mode of deferral into the other’s power move as well as your own? That’s what I hope I was doing by positing the limits of the new empiricism in terms of GA and the possible modification of originary analysis in response to the new empiricism.

    Comment by adam — June 29, 2006 @ 6:00 am

  3. Yes . . . Perhaps my power moves are so far from the sources of any real power that I can indulge what perhaps might be resentment from the periphery too freely. I have to watch that (and it was actually bothering me after my posting).

    I have no objection to your relating of the piece to GA; my (over)reaction was to the piece only. As for GA, I am struggling to understand it (working fitfully on _Faith and Science_). I can only offer this, perhaps: When we sell something as “the new ~” it may be a sign that we are making some appropriative/substitution/replacement move rather than a contributory move. (I remember from a movie Matt Dillon saying, “My mother told me never to trust anyone who says ‘Trust me,’ and never to eat at a place called ‘Mother’s.’ ” My corrollary: “Don’t get excited about anything called ‘The new something or other.’) As I understand GA, it is at its best when it is not claiming or seeking to replace, substitute or appropriate anything, but to seep in and provide a basis for what might be the best in (fill in the blank). I THINK that is compatible with what you were saying.

    This question: “In other words, can you locate or insert a mode of deferral into the other’s power move as well as your own?” I don’t really understand the question–sorry–and so cannot answer it.

    Off the subject, I would like to ask questions about GA. As a registrant, can I initiate posts? I don’t want to hijack discussions in the reply columns but there are things I would really like to ask.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — June 29, 2006 @ 6:45 am

  4. I think it is compatible too. My question was more of a rhetorical one–when we make some kind of appropriative move, built in, or implicit in that move, should always be “and here’s what a counter-move might look lie…” An ethics of checks and balances, you might say. One reason I highlighted the “new empiricism” is because it must leave itself open to some kind of empirical verification or falsification–or, at least, we can insist that it must, subject it to that criterion ourselves. If we present our claims as hypotheses, we should be displaying awareness of its limits and thereby encouraging others to do the same–this is the only thing that keeps the center open in spaces of inquiry.

    My understanding is that only members of the Anthropoetics editorial board can post. Am I wrong?

    Comment by adam — June 29, 2006 @ 8:24 am

  5. I see what you’re saying now, and it makes sense.

    Generally, empirical work itself is great, and generally the more, and the more disninterested and transparent, the better. I cannot disagree on THAT. My limited point was, perhaps: the environment created by blogs and media and other things is not empiricism, but a good (as you point out Hayekian) environment in which empiricism (among other things) might flourish and do some good. I find blogs, for instance, to be a powerful source of news aggregation, commentary, cross checking and analysis. But blogs are not “empiricism,” and I thought the writer was overselling himself on that point (like politicians claiming to have invented the Internet or some such thing).

    About posting, that’s prefectly reasonable if posting is limited to the editorial board. (In fact, much preferable, or the blog would probably spin out of control.) My next question is, how would I ask questions about GA without hijacking the threads in the reply columns?

    Could I (or anyone esle) post questions down here that the board members might (or not, as its a matter of choice) start a new post on?

    For instance, I want to know the place of sacrifice/scapegoating in GA thought. I realize that they are considered inadequate in the originary sense, and also open to some objection as an ongoing explanation of cultural phenomena. So, my question is not, “Where is sacrifice/scapegoating wrong?” (I think I begin to grasp the GA take on that) but rathger “Where (and when, and how) is it right?” As an example, when Dr. Gans wrote a Chronicle about Survivor, he noted the sacrificial conclusion to each episode. This suggests that GA does have a place for sacrifice/scapegoating as an explanatory concept. How far and in what ways does that place extend?

    I’d like to be able to ask that sort of question somewhere without interfering with other contributor’s conversations.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — June 29, 2006 @ 8:53 am

  6. I’d like to hear others’ answers to the questions you are raising about how to faciliate the kind of discussion you are interested in on the blog.

    An easier question to answer is the one regarding scapegoating and sacrifice–Gans has just written two Chronicles addressing that, specifically in relation to Girard: 329 and 332.

    What I found worth discussing in McGinnis’ essay is his attempt to see an interdependency between the new empiricism and the conditions or environment for empiricism–which doesn’t imply a disagreement with what you say here. That leads (although McGinnis doesn’t say this), potentially, to a more self-reflexive kind of inquiry, where we are more conscious of our participation in the object of our study–which seems to me an opening for GA.

    Comment by adam — June 29, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

  7. Thank you. I am a regular Chronicle reader and I had those two Chronicles at least partly in mind in asking the question. But I will put it on hold until the discourse protocol gets clarified, and also in the meantime will go back and reread those Chronicles.

    It’s interesting where you’re taking the McGinnis implications, but also getting into GA at a depth where I can’t participate very usefully! I’ll stand back at this point and just listen in on this thread!

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — June 30, 2006 @ 2:03 am

  8. […] GABlog » Blog Archive » Quantity – McGinnis’ Age of the Empirical in the new (June/July 06 http://www. html) issue of Policy Review raises some important questions for Generative Anthropology. our future politics is more likely to forge consensus than that of the past, because we are on the cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism that will help bring a greater measure of agreement on the consequences of public policy. […]

    Pingback by Memes + Meme - Art of Memetics Reference Blog — April 17, 2009 @ 11:00 am

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