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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Anthroplus Conference at University of Maryland

The grad students at the University of Maryland are sponsoring a DC area conference in March, http://sites.google.com/site/anthroplusconference/. I'm honored that they invited me to give the keynote lecture. We emailed some and landed in themes of integrating theory and practice and thinking of anthropology as an open rather than closed system. Here's the abstract I sent them.

Towards a Trans-Disciplinary (rather than interdisciplinary) Practical Theory (rather than theory of practice)

Michael Agar


First of all, some thoughts on the theory/practice distinction to clear the air. Kurt Lewin said there is nothing so practical as a good theory. William James said you can't pick up rocks in a field without a theory. The two, theory and practice, are always present in any situation, always connected in some way. But how? Drawing on figures like Garfinkel and Toulmin, we’ll see that an important part of the connection between practice and theory goes like this: Any human/social theory worth its salt must be connected by short inference chains to some set of situations as experienced by humans, or else it shouldn't be considered as human/social theory at all. But those links between theory and practice will always and only be partial. Practice is always more than theory can handle.

For present purposes, a theory is defined as a professional mental model, in Johnson-Laird’s sense of mental model, and in a loose sense of profession as a community organized around a set of problems. Practice, on the other hand, is a social process involving a number of different actors who have a number of different mental models, professional and otherwise—all of them partial, remember, even though some actors deny that modest evaluation because of naïve realism. This variety of humans, engaging in a shared practice, will see and react to the contingencies that their mental models do not cover in different ways, possibly with well-known clinical strategies like denial.

So the interesting thing is, how does a group of humans dealing with a problem handle this theory/practice relation that is always present but often doesn’t work? What’s the professional mental model--the theory--for that?

Anthropology takes this discrepancy between a social mix of diverse and partially relevant mental models and practical contingencies as its core intellectual problem. It approaches the discrepancies with an iterative, recursive, abductive logic; with an inquiry into variations in context and meaning; with multiple strategies for making a systematic case; and with a translational representation that re-configures the original situation in a more inclusive and comprehensive way. This anthropological mental model--epistemology is the better word here--is as characteristic of the academic tradition as it is of its application or its practice.

Several examples from the presenter’s experience as an academic, applied and practicing anthropologist will illustrate this practical theory as it works--and doesn’t--since it applies to itself. One conclusion will be this: Any single characteristic of anthropology’s way of handling theory/practice discrepancies is now widely distributed across many professional domains. In our post-disciplinary era, anthropology could be viewed as a “trans-discipline” that, because of its peculiar history, integrates those characteristics into a single mental model. As near as the presenter can tell, the future of anthropology is not so much about redefining a disciplinary boundary as it is in offering a coherent mental model of theory/practice discrepancies in an emerging trans-disciplinary world. It becomes a kind of jazz born of migration and hybridity rather than a kind of classical born of frozen tradition.

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