Tuesday, 2 June 2009


By Marshall Sahlins.

Thomas Kuhn and others have wondered whether the social sciences have paradigms and paradigm shifts like the natural sciences. Nothing seems to get concluded because some say that the natural sciences don’t even have them, and others that in the social sciences you couldn’t tell a paradigm from a fad. Still, considering the successive eras of functional explanation of cultural forms—first, by their supposed effects in promoting social solidarity, then, by their economic utility, and lately, as modes of hegemonic power—there does seem to be something like a Kuhnian movement in the social sciences. Though there is at least one important contrast to the natural sciences.

In the social sciences, the pressure to shift from one theoretical regime to another, say from economic benefits to power effects, does not appear to follow from the piling up of anomalies in the waning paradigm, as it does in natural science. In the social sciences, paradigms are not outmoded because they explain less and less, but rather because they explain more and more—until, all too soon, they are explaining just about everything. There is an inflation effect in social science paradigms, which quickly cheapens them. The way that “power” explains everything from Vietnamese second person plural pronouns to Brazilian workers’ architectural bricolage, African Christianity or Japanese sumo wrestling. But then, if the paradigm begins to seem less and less attractive, it is not really for the standard logical or methodological reasons. It is not because in thus explaining everything, power explains nothing, or because differences are being attributed to similarities, or because contents are dissolved in their (presumed) effects. It’s because everything turns out to be the same: power.

Paradigms change in the social sciences because, their persuasiveness really being more political than empirical, they become commonplace universals. People get tired of them. They get bored. In fact power is already worn out. Borrrring! As the millennium turns over, the new eternal paradigm du jour is identity politics. The handwriting is on the wall: I read where fly-fishing for trout is a way the English bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth century developed a national identity. “In nineteenth century England, fishing, not less than war, was politics by other means,” writes anthropologist Richard Washabaugh in a book called Deep Trout. (Is this title a play on Clifford Geertz, so to speak, or on “Deep Throat”?) Well, the idea gets at least some credibility from the fact that fishing is indeed the most boring sport on television. Coming soon: the identity politics of bowling, X-games, women’s pocket billiards, and Nascar racing.

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