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3.9.01

You probably won't want to read this. I'm just griping about an anthropological theory issue.

I'm reading Bruce Knauft's Genealogies for the Present, a history of recent anthropological thought, for my seminar. Knauft is arguing for what he calls a "critical humanist" perspective for understanding cultures. He wants to balance cultural relativism, which in its extreme form can lead to uncritical acceptance of whatever otehrs are doing, with cultural critique, which in its extreme form leads to judgmental ethnocentrism. So far, so good. But he describes cultural critique as being specifically the exposing of inequality and domination. Setting aside the obvious leftist political implications of using that terminology, I think singling out inequality as the way in which cultures can be critiqued is too narrow and too biased. It assumes that inequality is the fundamental problem worth criticizing (which conveniently fits into the longstanding postmodernist-leftist tradition of decrying Western colonial hegemonic domination). And it presupposes the answer to the age-old philosophical debate over the relative merits of equality versus freedom.

I would instead propose what I call (though I'm sure I'll discover this theory being argued elsewhere under a different name) utilitarian anthropology. Under this theory critique would not be limited to those problems that manifest themselves in inequality, freeing us from the assumption that inequality is necessarily fundamental in any moral or structural sense. Instead, culture would be held up to the mirror of utility (the most net happiness/benefit/satisfaction, or the least net unhappiness/burden/dissatisfaction for the most people for the longest time), and critique would be applied in those instances where cultural forms generate unhappiness or restrict happiness.

Utilitarian anthropolology would also remain true to the spirit in which cultural relativism and ethnography were conceived -- of letting the people being studied speak for themselves. Examinations of inequality are prone to outside judgments of what is and isn't equal, particularly given the Marxist conception of culture as a force mystifying domination and preventing the people in the situation from seeing what's "really" going on. But happiness, benefit, and satisfaction are subjective judgments that can only be made by the people involved. By listening to the people being studied, a utilitarian critique will critique culture by the standards of the people in it, much as cultural relativism endeavours to praise culture by the standards of those in it.

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