PSA (Plain Style Anthropology)

Picassodon_quixote_2 Last week, I had the honor of speaking to a distinguished senior anthropologist.  (I will name him, if he’ll let me.)  We talked about a lot of things, but we stopped a moment to mourn the rise of a post modern anthropology. 

Today, I came across these well chosen words in the Times Literary Supplement. 
Traditionalists who lament the decline of old crafts and media in Western art are mourning a loss not so much of sophistication as of innocence.  It is not nowadays enough just to depict things because you think they’re interesting to think about, or, God forbid, pleasing to look at.  The almost Maoist culture of self-examination, and critical engagement with this or that artistic tradition, which modern Western art schools enforce, give much contemporary art its force, but also contribute to one big weakness.  Much contemporary art is what an old-school aesthete would call mannerist – it’s art about art, not art about life.

Different field, same problem, apparently.  For many of my disciplinary brothers and sisters, anthropology is about anthropology, not about life.  It’s mannerist.

Now I would like to say that I refused mannerist anthropology, rising up to slay the postmodern dragon with the bright sword of my Chicago training.  But the fact of the matter is simpler and less noble.  I make my living as a practicing anthropologist and post modernist verities don’t serve me very well. 

This October I will have done projects for a new media firm, a Canadian telecom, a sporting equipment company, and a research firm, and I will have given presentations to designers, financial marketers, and people interested in trends.  Every report and presentation was designed to fit what I believed would serve my client, and never once did it seem to me they needed to hear choice words from Derrida or Lacan.   I need ideas I can use, because I make my living selling ideas that clients can use. 

But no, it’s probably not just pragmatism.  It’s not just the market imposing an intellectual discipline.  I am Scottish Canadian Presbyterian of middle age for whom the "plain style" is more or less built in.  (I had to get over the pretensions of my youth for these to become clear.)  Postmodernism is too slushy for me.  (It may herald an epistemological springtime, but this Canadian wants the bracing clarities of a winter’s day.)  I think best when using simple propositions, put as plainly as possible, with evidence and argument summoned as necessary (and no more), with a "garnish" of metaphor to make comprehension faster and more fun. 

Plain style anthropology comes with engineering specs on the outside.  You can see what the pieces (propositions) are and how the relationships (the argument) work.  You can see what the fault lies, and what needs fixing…when something needs fixing.  And yes I understand that I making old fashioned demands, and that these badly misunderstand the intellectual, political and epistemological challenges before us.  But hey, I have a problem to solve, a client to satisfy, a post to right, and I have, usually, 40 minutes to wrap things up.  You’ve noticed I expect that postmodernists have a way of making the same argument over and over again.  They are, after all, mannerists.  Anthropology is about anthropology and always, come to that, the same anthropology. 


Miller, Keith.  2007.  More whaling and shouting.  Times Literary Supplement.  October 19, 2007, p. 17. 

Gratuitous remarks

I have just started up reading TLS after years away from it, and I have to say what a pleasure it is.  It’s never very expensive and it would be good value at 4 times the cost. 


Sorry not to have been posting.  I am at a kind of brainstorming thing in Mexico and time and internet access are in short supply.

7 thoughts on “PSA (Plain Style Anthropology)”

  1. The way it should work (in an ideal world) is that anthropologists *trained* in postmodern theory would be better at *applying* modern methods. In the same way that engineers are required to take physics courses rather than just blindly follow formulae. In particular, the “almost Maoist culture of self-examination” is precisely what is needed to choose between and refine competing modern methods.

    Granted, this isn’t how postmodernism has worked out in academia. But that’s because academia would manage to fuck anything up. Modernism wasn’t any more functional when it was the dominant research paradigm.

  2. Wow. I’ve never disagreed with you before, but now I disagree with you fervently.

    First, there are zero definitive conclusions that can emerge from ethnography because it is a translation, and in every translation there is something lost and something added. Observing languaged action in one culture and translating it to the language of the ethnographer alone does this.

    Second, it would seem that someone who is doing ethnography for the sake of solving a problem that a reflexive, systems-aware approach would be NECESSARY.

    As for the comment above mine, I find it amazing that we even cling to any sense of modernism, given the nature of culture worldwide. How one can assume a static, measurable sense of self in a hypermediated culture blows my mind.

  3. I don’t see mannerism in art as being a weakness, Grant, but a strength. When it is done well, it is something to behold and appreciate. Indeed, it may be what we use to distinguish great art from the merely very good. It certainly tells us what is great artistry.

    Each line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #20 contains the four letters h, e (or u), w and s. Clearly, this was a deliberate signal, since writing to achieve this took effort. We don’t know for certain what the signal meant, or who Shakespeare intended the receiver of the signal to be. (Perhaps it referred to HEnry WriotheSley, his patron in the 1590s.) Is the quality of the poetry or the extent of our apprecation of Shakespeare’s artistry reduced by noticing this signal? No, the reverse is true.

    But, how we view mannerism in art depends on what we think art is for. Perhaps the same is true for anthropology. What is anthropology for? If the main function of anthropology is to support better marketing or to perceive the likely intentions of our enemies in a war, then perhaps mannerism gets in the way.

    Or, perhaps not. During WW II, the US Federal Communications Commission expended enormous efforts to monitor and understand the news broadcasts of the enemy. If the Nazi leadership broadcast some message X, did they mean just “X”, or did they mean, “We want the German people to believe X”, or, “We want our enemies to believe X”, or, “We want our enemies to believe that we believe X”, or, “We want our agents in enemy territory to believe X”, or, “We want our agents in enemy territory to believe Y”, and so on.

    Getting to the bottom of these signals would not be possible without a deep understanding of the culture of the enemy, right down to and including, their use of irony, sarcasm, metaphor, euphemism, euphuism, and all those other mannerist tropes known to literary criticism. (See: Alexander L. George [1959]: “Propaganda Analysis: A Study of Inferences Made from Nazi Propaganda in World War II”. Row, Peterson and Company, Evanston, IL). I think it no coincidence that the CIA’s long-term chief of counter-intelligence during the Cold War was James J. Angleton, someone who had studied poetry.

  4. >>>never once did it seem to me they needed to hear choice words from Derrida or Lacan. I need ideas I can use<<< I love you. 🙂 Per "mannerist anthropology" divorcing itself from broader real world applicability -- I'm reminded of the recent "Design For the Other 90%" initiative in the design world. Some designers got disgusted that Design (with a capital D) was seen (at best) as making insanely expensive toys for rich people or (at worst) as putting lipstick on pigs. The "Other 90%" group encouraged designers to focus on problems faced by 90% of people in the world: the need for affordable, functional, sanitary -- and yes well-designed -- housing, clothing, water, food, etc. Sometimes I think we need an "anthropology for the other 90%" -- a Plain Style, practical anthropology for people who aren't focused on the intellectual esoterica, but who are working with organizations to develop an improved understanding of the world, with the goal of more effective decisions and informed action.

  5. Grant notes an interesting paradox: The self-consciosly postmodern analyses (or interpretations), while ostensibly committed to a diverse, fluid, and patchy way of looking at the world, end up producing a monolithic master narrative that is always about anthropology itself. And a pragmatically positivist anthropology, while ostensibly committed to a monolithic “best practice” methodology, ends up reflecting the diverse, fluid, and patchy world it tries to map.

    We have a similar phenomenon in economics, although the “modernist” position is the mainstream one there. The post-Keynesians and Austrians and others who decry monolithic positivism end up saying essentially the same thing about every topic–“all is flux”–while the “neoclassical” pragmatic positivists come up with zillions of diverse stories about different aspects of the economic world.

  6. Tim: If you’ve never disagreed with Grant before, you either haven’t been reading very long or reading very deeply. This post is just an explicit argument against PoMo Anthro, a position that Grant has clearly been behind for quite some time…

    As an anthropologist (trained at a notoriously post-modern school) who now works as a planner in the ad world, I agree with some of Grant’s points. It took me a few years to learn keep the post-modern side of me in check (one of my former professors aptly referred to this inner-monologue as, “the deconstructionist in the basement.”) I resisted at first, feeling like I was compromising some higher value by presenting ideas and strategy without the post-colonial check-lists included.

    In the end though, simplicity won out. My stance now is that if we have to include Adorno and Lacan in every work we will only come off as irrelevant elitists. And that’s a shame, because the work being done today in anthropology (pomo and otherwise) is incredibly important. It falls on deaf ears because it is couched within so many post-colonial concerns that the message is muddled, if heard at all.

    I disagree with Grant in some ways: I think throwing out all of PoMo Anthropology is throwing the baby out with the bath water. It’s irrelevant to present to clients, but the learnings from post-modern works are invaluable to help you recognize trends (especially for a Canadian media co!)

    1. I think it’s important to make yourself clear when it comes to literature,
      but just because most people can’t achieve the message when it’s not
      plain style, it doesn’t mean (or it shouldn’t!)writers should lower down to their level
      in order to be understood or to achieve the purposes of the market to sell.
      It took a long time for the english language to concquer the level
      that it’s within now. For example, if you take a look at how we
      the world wrote the history of music during the 20th century you’ll find that it was
      too “plain style” or, in many cases, extremely mediocre just to serve
      the purpose of economy to sell to as many people as you can.

Comments are closed.