Chomsky, social theory, activism

August 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

I just read Fred Branfman’s article When I Saw Noam Chomsky Cry on, and found the following particularly interesting:

I recently remembered Noam weeping in the Lao refugee camp, and again found myself wondering why he is that way. What in his childhood or life could account for that? It proved impossible to make much progress in this area, however. For Noam not only guards his privacy but is not particularly interested in psychological and spiritual explanations of human behavior. Although he acknowledges that therapy has been useful for people he knows, he regards attempts to explain human behavior as essentially “stories.” He believes there are too many variables involved in understanding human beings for the human brain to ever really comprehend it — not to mention the impossibility of conducting the kind of controlled experiments that might yield scientifically credible answers.

And, one suspects, he regards too much time devoted to such “stories” as misplaced when so many actual human beings are suffering and building mass movements is the only hope of saving them.

I think this could be read as a criticism of social science, but I think perhaps it should be read as a criticism of social theory which in an important way validates social anthropology as I understand it: as a carefully developed method for describing (rather than explaining) social life in a way that shows that things are never as cut-and-dried and always substantially more complex than most “stories” told by other spokespeople (whether they are social scientists, politicians, the media, laypeople, activists, or others). As such, social anthropology’s contribution lies in bringing into focus the variety of ways in which a particular situation can be – and is – understood by those involved with it; by so doing, anthropology makes it possible to see a variety of ways of changing that situation.


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