Individual agency as a postmodern project in Anthropology

December 9, 2004
History of Anthropological Ideas
Second essay, on the idea of agency in anthropological thought
Yongho Kim

This essay addresses the notion agency as a contended concept in the development of anthropological thought, from Durkheim and Kroeber to Rosaldo and D’Andrade.
I use the term agency broadly understood as the ability of a subject to act as such, that is, to exercise its own will in carrying out an action. This subject’s agency is termed individual agency when it concerns the capacity of the individual to move within the cultural web, and group agency when it concerns the autonomy of social groups or categories in larger social contexts. In my reading I present individual and group agency as two competing interests in unstable and tense relationship. Through this stretch of categorization, I intend to offer a motivational reading of the postmodern project in anthropology.

These tensions are already laid out in the works of Durkheim, who argues against a Spencerian notion of a superorganic grown out of the sum of individual decisions. Durkheim argues that “A thought which we find in every individual consciousness, a movement repeated by all individual manifestations … is not .. a social fact” and instead proposes thinking about social facts as “the collective aspects of the beliefs, tendencies, and practices of a group” which may in specific instances be “refracted in the individual” (Durkheim:88). But when Durkheim talks about social facts exercising coercive power over individuals, I cannot but think of social facts as having a force of its own, separate from individual interests. He leaves open ended the question of individual agency and social group cohesiveness in a suggestive paragraph – that social facts is “every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint”, that is, with a conceived division of individual and society, but at the same time “every way of acting which is general throughout a given society”, that is, a given act that is spread throughout individual instances within society. His bridging of this difference with “while at the same time existing in its [social facts] own right independent of its individual manifestations” (Durkheim:91) is weak.

It is to be pointed out that this emphatically defended theoretical position arose from the need to refute the then popular spencerian and tylorian notions of unilineal evolutionism that reductionisticaly attributed social organization to the coming together of individuals (Hatch:168) This is important insofar as a similar position was later taken by Boas in his attacks to evolutionism, but now from a cultural relativistic approach (i.e. critiquing evolutionism’s universalism instead of its reductionism) that was fleshed out in his historical particularism (Boas:132; McGee and Warms:130) Regarding the individual, Boas considered the tension between the individual agency being restricted by society, and the role of the individual influencing culture and society problematic, but he again dodged the question (Boas:136) because leaning towards affirming individual agency would problematize the notion of historical particularism, while negating all agency to individuals would make the conceptualizing of cultural diffusionism complicated.

This tension split Boas’s disciples, as McGee and Warms points out. (McGee and Warms, 2004a:137) On the side of pushing forth the idea of an all-permeating culture was A.L. Kroeber while on the other extreme were located Ruth Benedict and Paul Radin.

Kroeber argued that “it [civilization, or culture] springs from the organic but is independent fro it” and that while when broken down to its fundamental elements the collective can be resolvable to individuals, “history deals with material which is essentially non-individual and integrally social”, in other words, the individual mind was not a subject of study for anthropology. (Kroeber:141; McGee and Warms, 2004a:141 ; Diamond:51)

Radin stands in opposition to Kroeber in his methodology (Radin:148) because he uses texts that can be traced back to a single individual and uses them in conjunction to recreate the Winnebago system of ethics.

Benedict argues that cultures present patterns which are manifest within them or across difference cultures, offering a weaker critique of Kroeber in that she is allowing for room for minor groups within a dominant cultural group.

Although “culture” in Boas’ historical particularism is a strong concept and was intended to preserve Native American peoples from positivist approaches by colonial administrators (McGee and Warms, 2004a), it is later in history also wedged as a nationalist weapon against minority groups within a general population. (Jok:42-65)

Malinowski takes on another extreme position by arguing that culture only comes about as a sum of individual decisions fulfilling his seven basic biological and derived laws. (Malinowski, 1988: 277-78)

In doing away with unilinear evolutionary claims regarding the worth of “primitive societies”, Boas allowed a theoretical position that would develop into the later neoevolutionism.

Among the neoevolutionists, those heavily influenced by the notion of hegemony struggled with (or discounted) individual agency in their theorizing. Bourgois, a neomarxist anthropologist, emphasized disempowerment among the Nuoyoricans in such a stark manner that people were portrayed as mannequins within the politico-economic system described. (Bourgois, 2004; also see McGee and Warms, 2004a:334)

In many ways the postmodern project can be seen as an effort to restore individual agency in the narrative of cultures that may override versions from minority groups. Rosaldo, for example, argues that traditional funerary description across cultures did not effectively address the issue of enragement, which existed in a pure form of sorts and detached from other rationalist explanations developed by colleagues. (Rosaldo:586).

D’Andrade criticizes the bulk of postmodernist writing as erecting a moral standard that anthropology didn’t mean to address. (D’Andrade:608)

Comaroff and Comaroff criticize the strong postmodernist perspective and incorporate the points of view of postmodernism, such as Rosaldo’s, into the process of writing ethnographies. The Comaroffs argue that historical research need to supplement ethnographic fieldwork in order to properly situate the ethnographic work and the individual instances of social facts as part of global processes. (Comaroff and Comaroff: 42)

In this essay I showed the ideas of group and individual agency as a contested ground that the big currents of anthropological theory tried to embrace. Such contentions can be observed to occur between Boas and Malinowski, Bourgois and Bordeiu, and Rosaldo and the Comaroffs.


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