THE BLOG
12/05/2013 02:52 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

Narrative and the Future of the Social Sciences

As we approach the end of another academic semester, the news from our college campuses has been filled with stories about the decline of the social sciences and humanities. Grant money is drying up. The dwindling numbers of students who want to major in something like philosophy or anthropology prompt fiscally conscious administrators to sharpen their budget-cutting knives. They don't want to support programs that can't spit out "job-worthy" students.

Wedged between the natural sciences and the humanities, the social sciences are a particularly easy target for disdain. Natural scientists often consider scholars of the social as being methodologically insufficient -- not scientific enough. Humanities scholars, for their part, often consider social scientists as theoretically shallow. Such in-betweeness makes the social sciences the frequent subject of institutional attack. Who needs such an ambiguous and unproductive field of scholarship? Given such a battle-scarred turf, it is not surprising that social scientists sometimes seem desperate for some kind of academic validation -- a quest that sometimes leads to increasingly esoteric debate and writing that few people can truly appreciate, let alone understand. Such esoteric practice, in turn, creates a perceived irrelevance that is fodder for political or administrative rebuke.

My discipline, anthropology, is no exception to this pattern in the social sciences. During the past 30 years, anthropologists have spent much of their time and effort fashioning anthropological theories. During those 30 years, I have witnessed the arrival and disappearance of many theoretical orientations (too numerous name in this blog), all borrowed from disciplines like philosophy, cybernetics, sociology, biology, or cognitive science. No matter the source of conceptual inspiration, our theorists have valiantly attempted to tame the beast of social and cultural difference. Each orientation has generated much excitement in its turn and, like the life of a blog, has been eventually replaced by the "next new thing," which has its fleeting moment of fame only to dissipate into the intellectual ether. Such impermanence, which is the stuff of everyday life, can be disorienting. And yet, the rules of the academic game require a fast and furious mastery of each "next new thing," a mastery that generates research funding, book contracts, and prestigious academic positions. These days the pace of conceptual change is so fast that it makes your head spin.

Events at the recent meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago reinforced these general impressions. Two densely packed panels introduced American anthropologists to the "next new thing in our discipline," "the ontological turn," a move, in part, to bring anthropology back to big questions like what is the relationship between nature and culture, between human beings and objects. Indeed, "the ontological turn" takes anthropological discussion into an arcane philosophical arena.

In a recent article, "Relativism and the Ontological Turn Within Anthropology," Martin Palecek and Mark Risjord, two philosophers, state that most followers of "the ontological turn" hone in on a society's most abstract categories, attempt to incorporate local ideas into anthropological theory, reject "representationalism" and adopt a stance called "perspectivism." Even though there seems to be much confusion about what "the ontological turn" means -- and means for -- anthropology, hundreds of scholars, young and old, packed into a ballroom to listen to a debate about these rather arcane philosophical ideas. As I overheard lingering buzz about "the ontological turn" in corridor conversations, I wondered if the most recent arrival of "the next new thing" would temporarily quench our anthropological need for intellectual validation.

I don't want to belabor the already belabored ontological turn, which, in fact, has something to contribute to anthropological and philosophical discourse, except to suggest that it, too, will fade away and be replaced by yet another theoretical scheme. While it is intellectually important to debate grand theory, the discussion, at least from my vantage, can sometimes become shortsighted. What will scholars, or better yet, educated readers, think of "the ontological turn" 10, 20 or 50 years from now?

Refinement of social science theory is incontestably important, but does it not sometimes divert our attention from real-world problems -- extreme social inequality, structures of violence, environmental degradation, the ethical contours of social relations or the fleeting nature of human wellbeing in the world? Grand theory attracts institutional attention, but at what cost? Do these abstract notions, no matter their ephemeral explanatory power in the present, generate work that remains open to the world?

The power of anthropology and the social sciences is found, at least for me, in the narratives we put forward about the social conditions of people living in the world. In the social sciences, the books with legs are those that create a connection between writers and a diverse audience of readers. Such a connection is established not through a jargon-laden esoteric language, but through narratives that evoke themes that constitute the human condition.

A great book like Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People is a case in point. It consists of an inter-connected series of narratives about the Eveny people of Siberia. Even though The Reindeer People may not have the contemporary allure of "the ontological turn," its powerful stories evoke deep themes (about the relation of love and loss, courage and fear, and suffering and wellbeing) more powerfully than any abstract treatise. By the end of Vitebsky's work, readers have a palpable sense of what it is like to live a different life in a far off corner of the world -- a real connection. Because of this palpable connection, The Reindeer People is a work that will be read, savored and debated for many years to come; it teaches us what it means to live in the world.

It would be foolish to deny the institutional importance of ontological turns. They are certain to spark scholarly debate -- an essential element in the development of the social sciences. Taking the long view, though, it is evident that the future empowerment of the social sciences lies in the valorization of theoretically informed narratives that connect writers and readers, that explore human difference in a way that makes a difference, that compel readers to think a new thought or feel a new feeling. Such work will place the social sciences in a more comfortably productive space.

Who among us, after all, can ignore the power and glory of a really good story?