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Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties

  • Sherry B. Ortner (a1)

Every year, around the time of the meetings of the American Anthropological Association, the New York Times asks a Big Name anthropologist to contribute an op-ed piece on the state of the field. These pieces tend to take a rather gloomy view. A few years ago, for example, Marvin Harris suggested that anthropology was being taken over by mystics, religious fanatics, and California cultists; that the meetings were dominated by panels on shamanism, witchcraft, and “abnormal phenomena”; and that “scientific papers based on empirical studies” had been willfully excluded from the program (Harris 1978). More recently, in a more sober tone, Eric Wolf suggested that the field of anthropology is coming apart. The sub-fields (and sub-sub-fields) are increasingly pursuing their specialized interests, losing contact with each other and with the whole. There is no longer a shared discourse, a shared set of terms to which all practitioners address themselves, a shared language we all, however idiosyncratically, speak (Wolf 1980).

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This essay contains much of my own intellectual history. There will be no more appropriate context in which to thank my teachers, Frederica de Laguna, Clifford Geertz, and David Schneider for having turned me, for better or for worse, into an anthropologist. In addition, I wish to thank the following friends and colleagues for helpful contributions to the development of this essay: Nancy Chodorow, Salvatore Cucchiari, James Fernandez, Raymond Grew, Keith Hart, Raymond Kelly, David Kertzer, Robert Paul, Paul Rabinow, Joyce Riegelhaupt, Anton Weiler, and Harriet Whitehead. Parts of this work were presented at the Department of Anthropology, Princeton University; the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Stockholm; the Social Science History Seminar (founded and coordinated by Charles and Louise Tilly), University of Michigan; the Humanities Seminar, Stanford University; and the Seminar on Theory and Methods in Comparative Studies (coordinated by Neil Smelser) at the University of California, Berkeley. I received valuable comments and reactions in all of these contexts

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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