Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The future of the past of anthropology



Or was it the other way around?

Yesterday I crossed the Detroit River to see Stephen Christomalis talk about issues in anthropology raised by his recent book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. The talk was mainly before colleagues and students of his department At Wayne State University, but they did him proud with a decent catered lunch and a comfortable room to listen in. People were very interested in what Steve had to say, and no wonder. His specific research (I suppose we should say "old" research, now that it's been published) on the invention, life, and abandonment of number systems, is pretty darned cool, and some of it was incorporated in the talk. But he also talked about bigger issues, such as the fact that his numerical notation research has led him to reject usefulness of both a particularist view of anthropological reality (everything is unique), and its polar opposite, universalist approaches. Chrisomalis likes the theory that works 99% of the time. Why not all the time? There is some interesting interaction lurking behind that situation. Then there is his championship of historical anthropology. He made the point that almost all theoretical work in anthropology is based on data from merely the last 100 years. What about cultures that died out before ethnographic investigation was devised? It only stands to reason that things that are not present now or in the recent past may well have existed 10,000 years ago. And an understanding of 10,000 years ago may be vitally important to understanding "human nature."

Well, someone who used to write "Muhlberger's Early History" is not going to argue with that!

Image: Stephen talking.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I have my very own tag, look at that!

    Thanks for saying nice things about me. Originally my plan was to post the talk up on my blog but that seems to be changing - a couple of my colleagues suggested that I should publish it. So we'll see how that goes.

    Steve Chrisomalis

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