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Anthropological Theories



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KEY LEARNING POINT-1: 3-5 sentences

KEY LEARNING POINT-2: 3-5 sentences


KEY LEARNING POINT-1: 3-5 sentences

KEY LEARNING POINT-2: 3-5 sentences


KEY LEARNING POINT-1: 3-5 sentences

KEY LEARNING POINT-2: 3-5 sentences



KEY LEARNING POINT-1: 3-5 sentences

KEY LEARNING POINT-2; 3-5 sentences

LECTURE-2 OR VIDEO-1: TITLE: 3-5 sentences

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PART-1: READINGS……………………….. 40 pts

Reading-1: Key point-1 …..…………. 10pts

Key point-2 …. …………… 10pts

Reading-2: Key point-1 …. …………. 10pts

Key point-2 …. …………. 10pts


Lecture-1: Key point-1 …..……… …. 10pts

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TOTAL ………………………………………. 100 pts


Theories in anthropology and
‘anthropological theory’

Roy E llen University of Kent at Canterbury

What makes a theory ‘anthropological’ beyond it being a theory that anthropologists use? Assuming
a framework that understands anthropology in its broadest sense, this article invites us to remind
ourselves what theories are actually supposed to do. Distinguishing theories in terms of the scale of
presumption in their claims, it argues for a pyramid of nested levels of explanation. As we move from
the base to the tip of the pyramid, so our explanations and interpretation of data must become
increasingly simple to accommodate the forms of measurement that each level demands. Given this
model, how can evolutionary theories based on individual behaviour geared to immediate survival
and reproduction be reconciled with theories that best explain the uncertainties of ‘emergent
systems’, or that consider how individual actions are in turn constrained by the systems of which
they are part? It is concluded that anthropology has always acquired its vitality by being critically
‘conjunctural’, and must be ultimately and necessarily a strategic cross-disciplinary theoretical

The meanings we associate with the word ‘theory’ are wonderfully various. Creationists
say of evolution that it is ‘only a theory’, meaning that it is not entirely believable.
Undergraduates often complain that there is ‘too much theory’, meaning that they find
it difficult and would much prefer ethnography. A colleague, attending a bricklaying
evening class in the 980s, found it amusing that the instructor should, after half an
hour of trowelling cement, call his class to the chalkboard for what he called ‘theory’.
This involved pointing to diagrams distinguishing ‘English bond’ from ‘Flemish bond’.
It was theory – in the sense of ‘the naming of parts’ – rather than physical practice.
Amongst my doctoral student contemporaries in late 960s London were those who felt
inadequate because they ‘did not have a theory’, and others who paraded their theories
around like totems: you were a Marxist or a structuralist, or you might have your cake
and eat it too and be a structural Marxist. I was always uncomfortable with such
posturing, and with the idea that there was somehow a mix-and-match market-place of
ideas in which you might acquire the right aesthetic and ideological combination.
Theories, it would seem, serve many purposes, and certainly do more than help us
make sense of truculent data: they define us as scientists, scholars, researchers, and
individuals, and in terms of the perceived quality of our work. In my view, theory

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should not be something that constrains and terrorizes, but rather something that
serves and liberates us.

It is not my intention to reproduce here another history of theories in anthropology,
or to rank theories in any particular order, or to claim supremacy of one over any other.
There is no shortage of textbooks, introductions to theory, histories, and collections of
annotated readings; nor do I have in mind books on theory that argue and advance a
particular theoretical project above all others. Rather, I want to discuss theorizing, to ask
what we mean by ‘anthropological theory’ in relation to the theories anthropologists
use. I shall try to achieve this objective within a discourse that understands anthropol-
ogy broadly, in both its biological and social science senses. But let us first briefly
examine perceptions of theory between 965 and 2007, a period sufficiently long to
permit the identification of some significant fault lines.

Folk representations of theory
Lucy Mair ( 969), in a review of Marvin Harris’s The rise of anthropological theory
( 969), peremptorily castigated his approach by questioning the integrity of the anthro-
pological theory that had arisen. Harris’s ‘immense’ book, you will recall, is indeed a
magnum opus of all anthropological theories that have existed since the Enlightenment,
from the perspective of cultural materialism, each theory being measured as a success
or failure against the ideal omega point of what Jonathan Friedman ( 974: 444) was
later to describe as Harris’s ‘vulgar materialist’ goal. In a curious way this simplistic and
selective approach allows Harris to offer us a ‘unilinear’ account of the evolution of
theory, and although there are differences of emphasis and order, the standard histories
of anthropological theory between, let us say, 850 and 970 are generally presented in
this way. On the whole, one lesson we have learned from the new histories of the subject
initiated by Stocking ( 968) is that retrospective attempts by ‘presentist’ anthropologists
to periodize intellectual history as so many successive and mutually exclusive para-
digms (evolutionism, followed by diffusionism, followed by functionalism, etc.) are
fairly unconvincing when subjected to close inspection.

If we look at theorizing since the 960s we get a rather different picture, which no
doubt would have much depressed Harris. The post- 960s at first led to a theory boom
in the social sciences and the humanities, a diversification of theorizing, and the feeling
that theorizing was perhaps the highest form of intellectual activity known to human-
ity. The Theoretical Archaeology group was founded in 977, a response to the alleged
atheoreticality of the subject in the mid- 960s, and in an attempt to resemble and
emulate socio-cultural anthropology, which its founders cited approvingly. But this
turn, as Bruce Trigger has observed, tended to reproduce the fragmentation and sec-
tarianism of socio-cultural theories, with theorists ‘trapped in separate, non-
communicating discourses’ (2006 [ 996]: 484; cf. Hodder 999: 2), and in retrospect
seems to have been more about polemical attention-seeking and the deliberate cult of
heretical dogma than about the serious testing of ideas. In both anthropology and
archaeology there was a veritable smorgasbord of theory, much of it undigested,
leading Shelly Ortner ( 984: 26), echoing Lowie ( 920: 33), to characterize it as ‘a thing
of shreds and patches’. It was heady stuff, and despite everything, this anarchy of ideas
with its conflicting ideological certitudes seemed to reflect a genuine frustration with
the poverty of thought in their respective subjects.

The most obvious and epistemologically far-reaching development in this crisis of
contradictory theorizing, discrediting and undermining the ‘stable’ paradigms, and

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leading to a ‘loss of vision’ was, some would say, the failure of the ‘social science project’
itself, of the positivist laws-and-causes ‘social physics’ kind. This was achieved partly
through postmodern critique, particularly simplistic science versus anti-science claims
in which science became a ‘metanarrative’ to be treated with incredulity and theory
with scepticism (Reyna 200 : 0 and fn. ). Many have been persuaded to avoid theory
altogether, or at least to disguise it in an ‘ethnography as theory’ or ‘praxis’ approach.
But it was also a virtually inevitable outcome of the internal contradictions of a search
for a grand ‘natural science of society’. It is much easier to see with hindsight how
postmodernism and the crisis of representation resulted in a reformulation of anthro-
pological practices, the repudiation of grand theory, a redefinition of the notion of
theory, and the ‘retreat into’ ethnography, and even a retreat from the project of
anthropology altogether; but as Henrietta Moore observes, this contest ‘between those
who claimed ethnography to be fiction and those who claimed it to be science’ ( 999:
6) caricatured the careful and grounded way in which many anthropologists were
trying to theorize at the time.

There are a number of observations we can make about these developments, which
we might group into two apparently contradictory trends: one (anti-theory, and anti-
science) moving away from positivist and science-based ideas of theory altogether, and
a second (pro-theory, but not necessarily pro-‘science’ in the narrow sense) that
laments its neglect. In terms of the first, the retreat into ethnography, although at its
worst self-referential, obscure, and irrelevant, has at least moved the theorizing to a
different level of understanding and interpretation, and forced us to think seriously
about qualitative research practices and writing. Grand theory, with one major excep-
tion – Darwinism in its various manifestations – is unfashionable, while since Ortner’s
( 984) influential overview, theories have themselves become more composite, partial,
and eclectic, one might almost say ‘vaguer’. There is every reason to celebrate diversi-
fication, but what some people characterize as ‘theoretical change’, especially over the
last forty years, has in fact been more like shifting ‘concept metaphors’ with huge grey
areas of overlap and ambiguity between different paradigms. For Moore, the purpose of
a concept metaphor is to ‘maintain ambiguity and a productive tension between uni-
versal claims and specific historical contexts’ (2004: 7 ), for example ‘global’, ‘gender’,
‘self ’, ‘body’, or (in science) ‘mind’, ‘meme’, ‘nature’. These are more tentative ‘pre-
theoretical commitments’, a kind of conceptual shorthand, stimulating thought; they
‘act as a descriptive gloss or posit causal forces that remain unexamined [and] are
essentially suffering … from under-theorization’ (2004: 80). One could well argue that
what counts as theory in the humanities and social sciences has been of precisely this
kind. Think, for example, of what we mean by ‘the theory of art’.

The second trend, apparent from roughly the late 980s, has run counter to this. The
retreat into ethnography, empiricism, and particularism suggested that both anthropol-
ogy and archaeology were‘theory-lite’and lacking in appropriate rigour. It was this mood
that led to the founding of the‘Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory’ in 987 (see
Ingold 996), and a spate of books on theory around the same time. It also saw the
appearance in 200 of a new journal, Anthropological Theory.While the kind of theorizing
went far beyond conventional natural science models, and has often been hostile to it, in
some respects the growth of science-based approaches can be seen as part of this reaction.

Thus, the trends here described for the last forty years paradoxically encouraged
both the subversion and proliferation of theory. The problems of explicitly endorsing
particular universal theories, plus post-postmodernist scepticism, also encouraged the

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retreat into ethnography (rather, please note, than empiricism). Indeed, there is prob-
ably ‘no longer a single anthropology’, while the character of ‘the theoretical’ is itself in
question. Theory has become rather ‘a diverse set of critical strategies which incorpo-
rates within itself a critique of its own locations, positions and interests’ (Moore 999:
9, 8). Depending on your taste, this is either a brave new world of theoretical promis-
cuity, the rejection of theory altogether, or something of an impasse.

What does theory do?
Given these contradictory trends, a cornucopia of partly digested new ideas, and the
rise of anti-theory, I think we need to remind ourselves what theories are actually
supposed to do.1 Firstly, they provide us with a framework through which we can
explain and interpret data, and they should do so parsimoniously. So, we might define
theory as ‘a supposition or body of suppositions designed to explain phenomena or
data’ (Ellen 984: 9), but it is also generally agreed that ‘theories’ are high in abstraction
and scope when compared with other kinds of generalization that are low in abstrac-
tion and scope, derived from observation and from which they are induced (Moore
999: 9 fn. ). Some theories will simply be concept metaphors, and we should have no
problem with that. Most ‘theories’ in socio-cultural anthropology do not easily generate
testable hypotheses or qualitative correlations, partly because past attempts to correlate
have shown us how tricky this can be. So, if we correlate ‘matriliny’ with female status,
we subsequently discover that matriliny is not a ‘thing’ and its borders are vague. It is
this that warns us away from the dangers of simplistic quantification and measurement,
and the more statistical manifestations of the wider comparativist enterprise, such as
the Ethnographic atlas (e.g. Murdock 967).

Secondly, whatever form they take, different theories enable us to see the same data in
an alternative way,and are intrinsically equal representations until tested against the data.
They can be perfectly intuitive, but often they are at their most helpful when they are
counter-intuitive, giving us an unexpected perspective on some familiar data, as in
versions of the well-known upside-down map, or as in Samuel Butler’s aphorism that a
chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. Whether we select one theory or another
– quantum mechanics or wave theory, exchange theory or reciprocal altruism – will
determine the representation and interpretation of those facts, but – in conformity with
thedoctrineof contradictorycertitudes–bothpositionsmightbesimultaneouslycorrect.
Consider, for example, the well-known visual trick involving ambiguous figure-ground
effects (Hilgard et al. 979: Fig. 4), in which, depending on the interpretation of the
relationship between the same visual stimuli, a vase becomes two human faces staring at
one another, or think of the disturbing graphic art of Maurits Escher. These are just more
comically engaging versions of the Necker cube idea. Or, consider Paul Cohen’s simul-
taneous proof and disproof of the Riemann hypothesis (Davis & Hersh 983), or
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. In the virtual world of contemporary mathematics,
on the method we use, something Edmund Leach ( 968: 78-9) had begun to explore in his
provocative Reith lectures in 967,and whichreturnedtohaunthim in theyearspreceding
his death (Tambiah 2002). So, theories are not mutually exclusive, nor absolute; only
better, worse, or just different representations and explanations of our data.

Thirdly, theories imply methodology but are not quite the same thing. So one
problem we face immediately at this level of abstraction is how we should separate the
two, when unfortunately the terms ‘theory’ and ‘methodology’ are regularly used to

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mean different things to different people (Holzner 964: 425-6). In one sense, method-
ology is the systematic study of the principles guiding (in this context) anthropological
investigation and the ways in which theory finds its application. Thus, we speak of
Marxist methodology, ethnomethodology, or even Darwinian methodology. It is both
a branch of philosophy that analyses the principles and procedures of inquiry in a
particular discipline, and also the system of methods used in a particular discipline
(Moore 2004: 75). Unfortunately, through a process of conceptual slippage, methodol-
ogy has also become synonymous for many with specific ‘methods’ or ‘techniques’; and
in the context of anthropology methodology is sometimes reduced to participant-
observation. I tried to distinguish the different senses of methodology in my 984
introduction to the first volume in the ASA Research Methods series, defining methods
as a ‘general mode of yielding data’, such as interviewing or taking a life-history (Ellen
984: 9), but even then I was fighting a losing battle, partly because ‘methodology’ had
become a required heading in research council grant application forms. I was therefore
immensely gratified recently to come across a robust defence of the distinction between
method and methodology, and therefore by implication between methodology and
theory, in Pete Vayda’s characteristically vigorous epilogue to his own festschrift, appro-
priately entitled Against the grain (2007). Methodology and method are, therefore,
conceptually distinct, but implicationally mutual and pragmatically overlapping.

So, theory is an explanatory framework, a body of systematic suppositions derived
from observation, some more susceptible to hypothesis-testing than others, generally
one of several alternatives that can be used to gauge its explanatory utility, and implies
a methodology but not a method. Moreover, the view on which this approach is
founded – and which is fundamental to the view argued here – is also that theory
cannot be reduced to a set of a priori assertions: it is something which has to be
carefully selected in relation to the problem at hand, and just because its short-term
novelty might have worn off is no reason to discard it completely. Good theory builds
on the past, rather than mechanistically or rhetorically subverting it.

What is an anthropological theory?
But if we can agree on what constitutes ‘theory’, we still need to ask: what is it that makes
any theory anthropological? In one sense – both Foucauldian and teleological – it must
be one that has been suggested or utilized by those we call anthropologists, and which
has become part of the discourse of the subject as its disciplines and practices have
emerged historically. True, at the end of the day we interact as anthropologists because
of the problems we wish to explain, not because anthropology has some pre-existing
claim to exist. Anthropological theories are clearly not unique to anthropology, and
none of the characteristics often listed – culture, human origins, societal comparison,
the ‘other’ – are the exclusive domain of anthropology. However, by the same token,
anthropology has exported as well as imported ideas, as the proliferation of ‘ethnog-
raphy’ throughout the social sciences indicates. The process of adoption and incorpo-
ration has never been new. I profoundly disagree with the assertion that
‘anthropological theory’ cannot exist ‘because anthropology is both everything and
nothing’ (Moore 999: 4), and want to insist that anthropology does have specific
objects of inquiry that, while maybe not exclusive, combine in ways and with intellec-
tual consequences that are different from other subjects.

But before we explore the characteristics that make anthropological theory necessary
and distinctive, we must say something about what it is not. Historically, the idea of

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‘theory’, in social anthropology at least, and at least as conceived in the British tradition,
has been a conundrum, since it has either sought to make a virtue of being a kind of
comparative sociology (which makes it derivative of general social theory), or it defines
its theory with respect to particular kinds of society or levels of organization (‘notori-
ously ‘primitive’ society, but also ‘small-scale’, non-Western, etc.: Kuper 988). In the
context of the wider sweep of intellectual history, this is a twentieth-century aberration,
since anthropology clearly does not address a single geographical or ethnographic
space, while we are all ‘others’ of some and many descriptions. Another possibility is
that it defines itself in terms of its principal approach to obtaining empirical data:
participant-observation or ‘ethnography’. I have already indicated my frustration at the
way in which methodology has been downgraded to method, but here we find the
opposite: a method upgraded to a theoretical approach, and at worst its reduction to
the mere nuanced writing of ethnography. This has had the effect of subverting the
possibility of generalization and comparison, and, as I suggested earlier, has been
widely identified as a questionable deviation into an atheoretical stance, and even into
caricature (Giddens 996). Fortunately, others have risen to the challenge this develop-
ment has posed. For example, the relevant historical literature has been carefully
reviewed by James Urry (2006), while Tim Ingold (2008) has robustly held the middle
ground of a unified anthropology, separating it from its portrayal as merely the study
of the distant ‘other’, and from those who seek to replace it with a version of cultural
studies (Kapferer 2007). Moreover, the idea of comparing social and cultural forms is
intrinsically problematic (Holy 987) since what we compare are generally second-
order abstractions, often arising from contested ethnocentric and simplistic divisions
of human socio-cultural diversity. Although we all slip into using the terms ‘culture’
and ‘society’ as if they were concrete units of analysis, a slippage shared by those as
different in their theoretical predispositions as Kapferer and the cultural phylogenists,
I hope we generally do so only as a rhetorical device, or as a kind of shorthand.

By contrast, there is a contemporary trend in British anthropology that has moved
on from ‘the project of social anthropology’ to (re-)embrace a more integrated, holistic,
and interdisciplinary conception of what anthropology is about, of which – until
recently – Ingold (e.g. 992) has been perhaps the most vociferous prophet and exem-
plar (see also Carrithers 992; Layton 997). This is now a pronounced shift, no longer
a minority view, as reflected in the change of British Academy Section S3 from ‘Social
Anthropology’ to ‘Anthropology’. For some, this trend towards a more encompassing
anthropology stops short of an engagement with biology and is really a reconfiguring
of ideas within the humanities and social sciences, perhaps to embrace psycho-analysis
(as in the case of Henrietta Moore) or materiality (as in the case of Danny Miller); for
others it is a change of name only, and the existing concerns of social anthropologists
continue much as before. But it is difficult to see how something called anthropological
theory, which presumably seeks to answer the large and central questions about human
distinctiveness and diversity, can be properly anthropological without some engage-
ment with (rather than submission to) the biological. For Ingold it is, indeed, a mus-
cular engagement; for others it is more an acceptance to varying degrees of different
versions of the Darwinian orthodoxy. A theory that claims to be anthropological must
also work at a level that engages with and explains commonalities not only between
humans, but also between humans and other phylogenetically related organisms, and
which accounts for what is distinctive about humans in comparison to other species. I
think it likely that as we move between levels of decreasing phylogenetic inclusiveness,

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so the appropriate theory changes, more or less in relation to the degree to which
learning and cultural transmission permit greater extents of ‘niche construction’
through social and technical complexity, and thereby the emergence of socio-cultural
systems sufficiently complex to support emergent properties independent of individual
biological transmission.

The tension, whether between ‘interpretative anthropology’ and anthropological
science, or between biological science and social science, constitutes one important
(perhaps the most important) integral feature of any body of theory that claims to be
anthropological in its widest and most fundamental sense. Another is that it addresses
‘culture’ in some form. As some anthropologists have already buried this concept, on
the grounds that its identity is forever elusive and that it is just another way of talking
about society, so general and vague as to explain nothing, this criterion might seem to
be a major problem (Kuper 999). But although I reject as unhelpful the trend to use
‘culture’ to refer to anything that humans do (e.g. ‘business culture’, ‘culture of low
expectations’, etc.), I would defend its conceptual distinctiveness and necessity for any
understanding of human behaviour and its consequences. While it is true that culture
is infinitely protean, proliferating, and diversifying, it is the stuff that makes us human,
and why and how it should be so dominant in humans is still the most important
question of anthropology. From a biological and evolutionary perspective, cultural
learning and symbolic culture are evidently not present in all animal behaviours, and
need therefore to be defined conceptually, explained, and even measured, just like any
other phenomenon. As Sahlins has observed, the concept of culture – or something
remarkably like it – will always re-invent itself: ‘There is no way “culture” can disappear
as the principal object of anthropology – or for that matter as a fundamental concern
of all the human sciences’ (2000: 58).

One major theoretical focus that satisfies conditions of distinctively anthropological
theory is the new cognitive anthropology, or cultural cognition. To understand how this
potential can translate under particular ecological conditions requires us to look to
theories that address the interface between biology and culture, brain structure and
evolutionary explanations (e.g. Reyna 2002; Samuel 990), and to explore an embodied
notion of cognition and the difficult area where the Cartesian distinction between
material and psychological begins no longer to hold (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 993).
But to explain how and why information enculturated in the brain should change
further on in time and have an impact on the reproductive capacity of individual
human populations requires theoretical resources of a different kind, those that
combine the most plausible and robust elements of evolutionary ecology, cognitive
psychology, and cultural selection.

So, an anthropological theory, as opposed to, say, a sociological or psychological
theory, is one that takes culture seriously. Works of anthropology generally promote the
view that the understanding of contemporary and complex socio-cultural forms can
only be obtained by examining all historical variations in human behavioural systems,
past and present. Anthropology, therefore, looks at socio-cultural breadth, and seeks to
explain difference and diversity. By contrast, works of sociology generally examine the
complex societies of the present in order to produce inferences about the rest. And
although the character of culture is intrinsically intriguing, it is its transmission that is
structurally pivotal to our understanding of the human condition, and which thereby
becomes not only a central problem of anthropology, but also central to the task of
interconnecting different kinds of theory. As a process it concerns the mechanisms by

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which knowledge and practices acquired in previous life-cycles are learned, re-learned,
negotiated, re-negotiated, modified, and reinterpreted to allow individuals to function
socially and ecologically in shifting contexts and successive generations. Our major
concern as anthropologists is to explain how objects, practices, ideas, patterns of
interaction, and relationships continue to be transmitted sufficiently accurately to
allow for the reproductive continuity, not of each unit of ‘culture’ or ‘society’, but of
each locally or virtually delineated population. The question is ultimately a Darwinian
one, but it requires different kinds of intermediate-level theorizing to answer it.

Kinds and constellations of theory
Having at least opened up the question as to what it is that makes a theory anthropo-
logical, we can now begin to group theories in terms of the scale of presumption in their
claims. I think it helps to distinguish three levels here, in terms of spatio-temporal scope
and degree of abstraction. Firstly, there are those that claim to offer universal all-
encompassing explanations of human behaviour. We conventionally call these ‘grand’
(or framework) theories, as they are concerned with final causes and emerge with some
kind of assumption of exclusivity. They include structuralism, Marxism, and so on.

Secondly, at a lower level are those claims to explain co-variation in the properties of
different kinds of social, cultural, or biocultural system, what we might call specific or
middle-range theories. These are more concerned with immediate or proximate causes.
This level of theorizing has always been that with which British social anthropologists
have been most comfortable. The term ‘middle-range theory’ was first introduced by
Merton ( 968), though we might avoid confusion by pointing out that for Binford
( 98 ), in the context of prehistory, ‘middle-range theory’ is that which attempts to
explain by identifying ‘diagnostic signatures’ of living systems that can be used to
interpret the archaeological record. Not entirely the same thing. However, one of the
dangers of theories at this level – whether in archaeology or socio-cultural anthropol-
ogy – is that they tend to become typological: that is, they assume a taxonomy of
different socio-cultural types where those types necessarily exhibit an unrealistic degree
of discontinuity at their boundaries. Typologies of different kinds of unilineal descent
are a good illustration of this kind of thinking. Leach ( 96 ), critical of this tendency
towards ‘butterfly collecting’, tried to move the debate on with his topological models,
but anthropologists are still struggling to develop a way of thinking about theory that
distinguishes general frameworks, in which all other theories are embedded or to which
they can relate, from specific theories proposed to explain particular relatively localized
or thematic phenomena.

Thirdly, at the lowest level are theories that claim to shed light on particular cultural
situations. Here the very specificity, density, interrelational complexity, and localness of
the data usually exclude the application of tests using statistical methods, but enhance
the value of qualitative approaches and Geertzian ‘thick description’. Whether or not
such qualitative approaches satisfy the conditions of science is here besides the point,
though it is difficult to deny that they can contribute hugely to understanding, in both
pure and applied terms. But theories at this level are not confined to multi-stranded
interpretative accounts, and we might also include more positivistic causal analysis, as
in Vayda’s event ecology, the attempt to specify systematically the chain of local factors
responsible for a particular occurrence of something.

These three levels, of course, overlap. For example, theories at levels and 2 might
claim to shed light on behaviour at level 3, while data generated using theory usually

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associated with level 3 can provide useful clues in developing theory at levels and 2.
Indeed some, as in Vayda’s notion of progressive contextualism, provide systematic
guidance as to how we might move from level 3 to more general claims. But there is
another way in which we might cut up the theoretical cake, and that is in terms of
whether the theories are reductionist, whether they deliberatively address issues of
systematicity and complexity, or whether they are concerned with long-term diachrony
rather than short-term synchrony. Such cross-cutting categories are neither mutually
exclusive nor exhaustive.

Simple correlative theories
Reductionist theories are usually expressed in the form of correlative hypotheses
involving a few variables, but these may be expressed at radically different levels of
generality; in other words they cut across our first three distinctions. They are reduc-
tionist in the sense that they literally seek to reduce the number of variables in order to
find the smallest number that can explain a particular set of data. At one end of the
scale are correlations of the kind: growth in the neocortex is linked to an increase in the
complexity of social life (measured using one carefully selected variable). At the other
end are attempts of the kind presented by Vayda to provide specific causes for specific
events: for example, how we might systematically account for the causal relationship
between those factors leading to a particular outbreak of fire at the oil palm plantation/
rainforest interface in north Sumatra.

Theories of emergent systems
The second constellation or cluster comprises theories of complexity and causal
probability, which seek to explain how systems of three or more variables generate
‘emergent’ properties, and which display properties (including processes and cycles of
socio-cultural reproduction) that are more than just the sum of their individual parts.
Systems theory and its anthropological imitations obtained a bad name in the 960s
and 970s because they seemed so detached from individuals and resembled in some
instances the kind of vague holism or social physics that Geertz and Vayda equally
disapproved of. But attempts to develop theories to explain complex systems in the
physical and biological world have provided both legitimacy and stimulus to applying
more refined approaches to socio-cultural and socio-ecological systems, including
developments in network theory, mathematical treatments of chaos (Mosko & Damon
2005), catastrophe theory (Renfrew 978), and work on complex adaptive systems
(Eriksen 2005: chap. 3). There are, too, strategies to move from theories of complexity
to simple correlative theories: for example, path analyses that evaluate the likelihood of
different causal relations in a system of four or more variables (e.g. Goody 973).

Theories of socio-cultural change and transmission
Finally there are those theories that stem from the conviction that explanations of cultural
transmission must hold a special place in the articulation of theory. Anthropology is a
historical science,butthetheoriesappropriatetounderstandinghowculture isembedded
in the mind, or how it is innovated or transmitted from one individual to another, are not
necessarily the same as those that help us understand the dynamics of what happens once
patterns are established and how they might change through space-time, external to the
body. Long-term transmission of knowledge, as Boyd and Richerson ( 985) have pointed
out, is generally better adapted to collective needs than to individual calculations.

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Individual calculations, by contrast, may be best with respect to short-term changes. For
example, while seed selection in a particular year might reflect individual farmer
calculations, over time repeated patterns of use tend to favour optimal solutions – such
as diversity of varieties across a range of features.

Studies of diffusion were for a long time deeply unfashionable in anthropology
outside of archaeology, but there is now a new kind of culture-historical diffusionism,
which draws on natural history models of contingency of the kind favoured by Stephen
Jay Gould and Jared Diamond, and which have built into them models of cultural
selection, co-evolution, cultural phylogenetics, biocultural diversity and ‘the epidemi-
ology of ideas’ (Sperber 996). Such models try to explain what happens when aggre-
gated transmitted cultural knowledge and practice and the potential for enculturation
meet ecological constraints (such as different biodiversity profiles, or constraining
land-masses). At the same time, such a theory must take into account the close rela-
tional (as opposed to ecological or genetic) proximity of most people in the world at
any one time – since it is this that is the minimum condition for transmission to take
place at all (Watts 999).

Evolution as framework theory
We can salvage bits from all grand theories, and in this sense they all have an attenuated
and fragmented after-life. For example, binary contrast – such a central feature of
structuralism – re-emerges as a standard feature of Eleanor Rosch’s cognitive economy
( 977), while conversational analysis has survived ultra-exclusive ethnomethodology,
and convenient aspects of psycho-analysis have been extracted from a more integrated
and generally discredited Freudian theory. However, the only theory that has been
sufficiently robust to resist all challenges as an overarching framework is some or other
version of Darwinism relying on selection for reproductive fitness. This is not because
a Darwinian explanation is always the best to explain the data, only that as we increase
the scope of our explanatory claims, so all other explanations can be nested within an
evolutionary framework. Or put differently, all theory must be ultimately understood
within the framework of explanations for human origins. If we accept this, then we
cannot avoid looking at theories of human culture and sociality except in the broad
context of other primate behaviours, including (and especially) those relating to repro-
ductive strategies, in their widest sense, even if we are members of the Association of
Social Anthropologists. Anthropology has been ill served by those who offer a knee-jerk
response to the value of Darwinian approaches, or who ignore them altogether.
Without conceding all of the arguments of cultural phylogenetics, evolutionary psy-
chology, memetics, or evolutionary ecology, it is difficult not to conclude that contem-
porary expressions of cultural form and content are modifications of innovations that
have occurred at different times over the last 00,000 years and which have diffused and
been selectively retained and elaborated. Indeed, what is additionally remarkable about
humans is the way in which they have the capacity to lose and repeatedly re-invent
socio-cultural forms, and invent in parallel similar cultural entities and social arrange-
ments without there necessarily being evidence of continuity in these traits. Repeated
re-invention of similar types of socio-cultural complexity has led some to suggest the
existence of what we might describe as ‘a pre-adapted core of potential’. With this
potential, time, and the right conditions, all can be re-invented given our basic bio-
logical make-up within a few generations (Tiger & Fox 97 : 4). From a human
evolutionary point of view, whatever this potential might be, it had evolved by the time

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modern humans had spread out of Africa, or alternatively by the time any subsequent
pan-human genome had been homogenized sufficiently through assortive mating to
permit a common cultural potential.

So, what should we make of the Darwinian tendency in the context of socio-cultural
anthropology? In my working lifetime, this began with the human ethology of the 960s
(typified by the early work of Robin Fox), followed by the sociobiology of the 970s
(associated in particular with E.O. Wilson), and, more recently, evolutionary ecology.
Although the early post-war human ethology consensus was innocent of the new
theories of behavioural genetics, it was these latter that were to give such interpretations
their generalizing rigour and were, together with later developments, to connect the
various historical incarnations of Darwinian social science that emerged during the
second half of the twentieth century. One of the problems with these theories was
always that despite the implication of ‘genetic determinism’, there was a gap in our
understanding of the linkage between genes and complex human (particularly cul-
tural) behaviours, a classic ‘black box’ to which social anthropologists could always
point accusatively. With the promulgation by Richard Dawkins of the meme idea and
the application of Darwinian theory to cultural variation and selection without the
need of proposing linkage between gene and meme, these ideas acquired a new twist,
which we find reflected in the evolutionary psychology, memetics, and cultural phylo-
genetics of the last decade or so. It is in this context, too, that we can see the emergence
of the new cognitive anthropology.

Understandably, social anthropologists tend to see the inroads of the biological
paradigm prettymuch as aone-way street,withDarwinianapproachesseekingtobecome
an all-embracing and exclusive worldview, what E.O. Wilson ( 999) has called ‘consil-
ience’. But it is certainly not entirely one-way intellectual traffic. For during the very same
period to which I have been referring, the seemingly irreversible trend to molecular and
genetic reductionism has been countered by a new, anti-essentialist emphasis (regarding
the complexity of human socio-ecological systems) on the deconstruction of concepts of
to Giddens’s notion of structuration, the notion of biocultural diversity, and the
mathematics of chaos and catastrophe and of ‘complex adaptive systems’ (see e.g. Ellen
2006a). At the same time, Maurice Edelman and others have been demonstrating at the
neuronal level the enculturation of the mind (e.g. Ellen 2006b), while Tim Ingold (e.g.
2000) – in tune with trends in developmental systems theory – has reworked a theory of
the reproductive dynamics of social relationships which, while mindful of the influence
of biological maturation and bodily engagement, eschews simple models of genetic
reductionism.This is thecontext inwhichevolutionaryprocessestakeplace,andalthough
contextual systems generate the variation and selection from which evolutionary trajec-
tories are derived, and are in turn altered in part by them, their scientific understanding
cannot be limited to an understanding of such processes.

Integrating theory
The ways I have suggested we might divide up the theoretical cake inevitably force us to
go beyond the limitations of theory as it used to be understood by social anthropolo-
gists of the old school (e.g. Gluckman 964). There can be little doubt that we urgently
need to find ways in which evolutionary theories based on individual behaviour geared
to immediate survival and reproduction can be reconciled with theories that best
explain system dynamics, and that address how individual actions are in turn

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constrained by the systems of which they are part, and which at the same time provide
the context of other individual actions. In this regard I take my inspiration from a body
of writing that includes, indicatively, the early Leach ( 96 ), Goody’s ( 966) develop-
mental cycle, Giddens ( 986) on structuration, and the insights of historical ecology. We
need theory that can simultaneously accommodate both strong empirical causation
and the uncertainties of ‘emergent systems’.

Two recent examples, both from 2007, directly address the issue of integration, but
they do so in very different ways. The first is an exchange between Alex Mesoudi,
Andrew Whiten, and Kevin Laland (2007) and Tim Ingold (2007a), in Anthropology
Today, following a paper by Mesoudi and his co-authors (2006) in Behavioural and
Brain Sciences. This turned out to be a model confrontation between, on the one hand,
what we might describe as the forces of ‘consilience’ and evolutionary psychology on a
mission to colonize the social sciences and, on the other, those vigorously defending the
subject matter of social anthropology and its methodologies. While it had the virtue of
forcing some singular theoretical assumptions and prejudices into the open, it was
inconclusive and ultimately unhelpful. The same might be said for the account of the
present state of our subject in a 2008 issue of The Higher (Fearn 2008). By contrast, the
second example, Daniel Nettle’s 2007 Royal Anthropological Institute Curl Lecture
(Nettle 2009), is a considered attempt to bridge the gap that the other protagonists
sought to widen. To some degree it is also a view that reflects my own.

Nettle, rather than attempting to swallow up all explanations of socio-cultural
patterns into a Darwinian bulldozer, opts – in effect – for a pyramid of nested theories
and levels of explanation (Fig. ) that evokes some of the distinctions in kinds of theory
that I have already mentioned. On the right hand side of the diagram, I have used the
names ‘Darwin’, ‘Radcliffe-Brown’, and ‘Geertz’ as grand exemplars reflecting their
totemic role in certain kinds of anthropological discourse. I do not deny that there
might well be arguments about their general appropriateness, and other theorists may
have served the purpose equally well. Here they are merely mnemonics.

Despite the different claims made for these levels of theorizing, all are based on
certain universal assumptions about what we crudely call ‘human nature’: for example,
in the case of Geertz, say, assumptions about the universality of discourse construction,
or what might a century ago have been called ‘the psychological unity of mankind’. I

Figure 1. The nested properties of anthropological theory.

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agree with Nettle that explanations at these three levels are not alternatives (in the sense
in which I was using the Necker cube illustration above), but do have to be consistent
over the longer term or else the systems they are claimed to perpetuate would collapse.

A theory at the top of the pyramid is not a better theory, only a simpler one that
claims to explain a wider range of data, but with much less to say about any particular
case. As we move from the base to the tip of the pyramid, our explanations and
interpretation of our data must become simpler to accommodate the forms of mea-
surement that each level demands, and indeed they explain less and less of the diversity
of human socio-cultural behaviour. There is, if you like, an explanatory deficit, and they
explain fewer and fewer contingent variables, each of which need to be ‘normalized’ out
for the theory to work. The mathematics of population genetics are indeed elegant and
powerful, but they require levels of data simplification that tend to drive out other
features that are no less worthy of our attention as anthropologists and, indeed, may
themselves contribute to Darwinian fitness despite being intractable to measurement.

As someone trained in social anthropology, I am painfully aware of the shortcom-
ings of superficial short-term fieldwork trawling for the kind of data that keeps evo-
lutionary biologists happy, and I understand those critics who assert that despite the
theoretical posturing and the quantification, such approaches often seem to have little
to offer other than confirming what we already know. I am aware of the virtues of social
anthropology as an approach using middle-range theory, and of methodologies that
seek to contextualize and interpret rather than simply quantitatively measure, and that
occupy what Herzfeld happily calls ‘the militant middle ground’ (200 : x). I am also
aware how, by dividing up and modularizing data to achieve explanations at increas-
ingly higher levels of application, we suppress the network and systemic features of the
data we begin with, and sometimes fail to appreciate the artificiality of the boundaries
between those units and the patterns established by connections across them that
cannot be reduced in the same way. And although some anthropologists and evolu-
tionary biologists are trying to address the same questions, most biologists are just not
interested in the variety of perfectly legitimate intellectual (and in every sense scien-
tific) questions that anthropologists seek to ask of their data. If you wanted to find out
something about a particular population with a view to making a practical interven-
tion, you would I suspect in the first place prefer the general authority of an experi-
enced ethnographer, rather than the specific authority of a scientific account looking at
a narrow hypothesis. If I want to understand the dynamics of community conflict, say,
in the Moluccas, in order to resolve a problem, it would not be sensible to secure the
services of an evolutionary biologist, because whatever the ultimate causes might be it
is the proximate causes that need to be addressed.

And then there is ‘culture’. Biologists and anthropologists (and anthropologists
amongst themselves) may honestly disagree about how we define culture, though it
would – I think – be useful to adopt a twin-track approach. By this I mean to treat
culture simultaneously not only as non-genetic information transmitted between bio-
logical individuals and its material manifestations, but also as some complex Geertzian
network of language-mediated symbols. Moreover, in the study of its movement
through social relationships, ‘culture’ is no more or less real than atomic particles or the
waves of quantum mechanics, and – along with the explanation of cultural diversity –
lies at the core of what is distinctive about the anthropological enterprise and its theory.
Everything in the end is subservient to the need to transmit non-genetic information
over time, and to its development into increasingly complex emergent systems of social

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relations, networks of biological – indeed biocultural – interaction from which we can
read varying Darwinian valencies.

Some of my colleagues in social anthropology still react with hostility to such
approaches, rejecting the notion that it might have any relevance to their own intel-
lectual project. These are fatal reactions, and it is important that we respond in an
informed and positive way to enable us not merely to provide methodologically
screened cultural data for evolutionary analyses but also actively to contribute new
rules of engagement. Indeed, we might think that the really interesting questions in
anthropology are those that do not readily yield to a plausible evolutionary explana-
tion. So, while I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of a brave ‘new synthesis’
where consilience will rule all, and accept that it is neither possible nor desirable to
attempt to integrate high-level theory to the point where it explains nothing at all
(Hodder 2003), I do detect a wind of change that is compelling us to be less inward-
looking and at the same time to challenge the forces of consilience. The Darwinian
paradigm is a meta-theory of enormous power, such that anything human has a
potentially measurable signature of selectivity and adaptivity, but at the same time we
inhabit systems whose properties can never be reduced to them.

A plethora of holisms
In conclusion, I wish to return to the notion of holism implicit in the very idea of
anthropological theory (Parkin & Ulijaszek 2007), and to consider how different
anthropological theories intersect. Of course, there is no single holism, but rather we
are offered ‘a surfeit of lampreys’. There is the holism achieved through privileging
systems over causal reductionism, the holism of the ethnographic, Tylorian holism,
biocultural holisms of the historical ecology kind, nomothetic universalism over idio-
graphic relativism (the kind Marvin Harris [ 969] enjoined us to favour), the holism in
which a material object is seen as a focus for integrated approaches, the holism
acknowledging that the components of human society are mutually constitutive, and
the theoretical holism achieved through different kinds of Darwinian model. But in this
case we might ask, with David Parkin, whether holism therefore becomes any view ‘that
embraces an undivided view of humanity’ (2007: 3). Parkin seems to think not, while
Ingold prefers a processual holism of ‘open-ended comprehensiveness’ to what he
disparagingly calls ‘totalization’. Certainly, the aim of any holistic anthropology ‘should
not be to bolt together components of being, such as mind, body and culture’ or consist
of vacuous ‘exhortations for inter- or multi-disciplinarity’ (Ingold 2007b: 209). What-
ever holism we espouse, the argument seems to be that it should be methodologically
defensible, say bridging different specialisms to solve a shared problem, or countering
the kind of anthropological eclecticism and ever-circulating particularism caricatured
by some evolutionary psychologists. In fact, Parkin appears to be extolling the virtues
of a kind of ‘polythetic holism’ in which there are different horses for different courses.

Now, the Royal Anthropological Institute has attempted to foster an inclusive
anthropology for well over a century, and there has indeed been intermittent intellec-
tual engagement between the fields under its auspices. Although presidential addresses
have seldom explicitly considered matters of theory, it is occasionally instructive to do
so. Among those who have, I single out W.H.R. Rivers and Daryll Forde. In 922 Rivers
gave an address on ‘The unity of anthropology’. Sadly this may be remembered more
for its endorsement of the Egyptocentric version of diffusionism than for anything else,
but it is worth noting that it contained some recognizable advocacy for what we would

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now call ‘ethnographic holism’ before Malinowski had claimed it for functionalism
(Rivers 922: 2), a statement on the necessary connections between archaeology and
ethnology (meaning here the ethnography of contemporary and historic populations),
between psychology and anthropology, between linguistics (here philology), ethnology,
and archaeology, and between physical archaeology and ethnology, mainly from a
historical point of view. Perhaps more instructively, in 948, Daryll Forde gave an
address on ‘The integration of anthropological studies’. In this Forde bemoaned the
demise of the unified anthropology that Rivers had called for twenty-six years previ-
ously, which was then becoming ever more disunited and sectarian. At that time, Forde
– although he makes some very cogent arguments against fragmentation – was fighting
a losing battle. By the beginning of the twenty-first century we can observe that the
intellectual and institutional landscape has shifted entirely, and in some respects in
directions that Rivers and Forde would have approved.

While there have always been those who have striven for an integrated anthropology,
who have tried to build bridges, and who have accepted that our project must be
simultaneously biological, social, and cultural, as well as concerned with both historical
and contemporary human populations, developments over the last two decades have
given these aspirations some substantive basis. One major outcome is a realization that
the subdivisions of the new anthropology are as much determined by the kind of theory
we use as by the empirical characteristics of the phenomena we study. Theoretical
differences are not a necessary impediment to collaboration and not necessarily an issue
atall.Thereareawiderangeof issueswheresocialanthropologistsworkwithotherhuman
scientists and must have some understanding of their thinking if collaboration is to work.
There is no reason why social anthropologists and palaeoanthropologists and linguists
should not collaborate to understand the condition of early human sociality – indeed
there is clearly plenty of evidence for this (e.g.Dunbar,Knight & Power 999; James,Allen,
Callan & Dunbar 2008). But, by the same token, evolutionary biologists, social anthro-
pologists, and cultural theorists can all contribute to understanding contemporary
teenage motherhood without feeling that one approach must be reduced to the other,and
should be able to share their data constructively. It is to be hoped that all might have
something to say collectively to the world of policy-makers as well.

Having biological and socio-cultural anthropologists inhabiting the same research
space, perhaps also with linguists and archaeologists, serves to keep us constantly on
our intellectual toes, forcing us to translate between different scientific languages,
preventing us from being sloppy and complacent, and continually self-referential. My
reason for being an anthropologist is precisely because it is not just another ‘social
science’. Indeed, it has always acquired its vitality (and, I would argue, its distinctive
identity) by being critically ‘conjunctural’. Despite the periodic predictions of its immi-
nent demise, what has sustained my commitment to anthropology, in its broadest
sense, is the observation that if it did not exist then someone would have to invent it.
In other words, it provides a framework within which to pose generalizing and com-
parative questions about human diversity and origins, whether biological, social, cul-
tural, or (indeed) biocultural or biosocial. There is no danger of anthropology
disappearing because there will always be some kind of theoretical interface to address.
Its pretensions to rise above the gaps of misunderstanding between subjects without
falling into narrow disciplinary chauvinisms and conceits are – it seems to me – wholly
necessary if we are properly to address the ultimate anthropological questions, and we
can ultimately do this only through a strategic theoretical compromise.

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This is a revised version of the Royal Anthropological Institute Presidential address given at the ASA
conference on ‘Anthropological and Archaeological Imaginations’, at the University of Bristol on 9 April 2009.
It has benefited from the supportive criticism of anonymous reviewers and an editor who do not necessarily
agree with everything I say. I am grateful to Daniel Nettle for permitting me to use unpublished material from
his Curl Lecture, ‘Nature versus culture, or how is human behaviour to be explained?’, delivered at the British
Museum on 26 September 2007. Part of the text that appears here was also presented at a meeting in Paris in
November 2007 and subsequently appeared in Ethnologie Française (Ellen 2008). I am grateful to Martine
Segalen, Andrés Barrera-González, and Gisèle Borie for permission to use this material.

1 I have avoided a review of the literature in philosophy of science and epistemology on what constitutes
a ‘scientific’ theory. This would have taken the argument in a different direction, and the issues are well
covered elsewhere. I suppose my common-sense starting-point is that most people who consider themselves
to be anthropologists have notions of ‘science’ and ‘theory’ that are sufficiently shared to develop the
arguments reviewed here. On the whole, most practitioners of science or of anthropology do not feel it
necessary continually to refer back to the great foundational debates in the philosophy of science and
epistemology. Some do, and do it well, but in other cases where anthropologists get involved in such debates,
they either do it badly, or their philosophical reflections stand in the way of effective analysis.


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404 Roy Ellen

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Théories en anthropologie et « théorie anthropologique »


Qu’est-ce qui rend une théorie « anthropologique », en dehors du fait que les anthropologues l’utilisent ?
En posant une acception aussi large que possible de l’anthropologie, l’article invite à se rappeler à quoi
servent en réalité les théories. En distinguant les théories par le niveau de conjecture de leurs affirmations,
l’auteur propose une pyramide de niveaux d’explication imbriqués. En progressant de la base au sommet
de la pyramide, les attentes et l’interprétation des données doivent devenir de plus en plus simples, afin de
prendre en compte les formes de mesure exigées à chaque niveau. Sur la base de ce modèle, comment les
théories évolutionnistes, basées sur des comportements individuels visant la survie et la reproduction
immédiates, peuvent-elles être conciliées avec celles qui expliquent, au mieux, les incertitudes des
« systèmes émergents » ou qui examinent la façon dont les actions individuelles sont contraintes par les
systèmes dans lesquels elles s’inscrivent ? L’auteur conclut que l’anthropologie a toujours acquis sa vitalité
par une approche « conjoncturelle » critique et qu’elle doit être en fin de compte, par nécessité, un
compromis théorique stratégique transdisciplinaire.

Roy Ellen is Professor of Anthropology and Human Ecology at the University of Kent and Director of its
Centre for Biocultural Diversity. His recent books include On the edge of the Banda zone (University of
Hawai‘i Press, 2003) and The categorical impulse (Berghahn, 2006). He was elected a Fellow of the British
Academy in 2003.

School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, Marlowe Building, Canterbury CT2 7NR, UK.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 16, 387-404
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