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Sherry Ortner (1984): Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties

by Felix Girke

My introductory remarks refer much less the content of Ortner’s text, which would be the specificities of the different anthropological schools and movements mentioned, but rather the essay and its textual strategies and academic aims. How does it operate, and why the way it does? As a caveat, the Ortner’s text is not clearly concerned with ‘anthropological proof’. She provides us, however, with tools to understand the extraacademic grounding of some of these approaches, and is therefore implicitly highly relativist concerning good epistemology, and noncommittal regarding ontology.

 Ortner presents her professional as well as personal assessment of the formation and reformation of various trends of anthropological thinking, and orders them in a particular chronology. This chronology is not to be understood, as she herself asserts, as entirely representative of actual developments, but she uses this as a device to
a) link the theoretical developments to questions of Zeitgeist and "real-world" events
b) consign certain approach not quite to the ash heap of history, but still, to indicate that we should move beyond them - they are, as it were, just too 70s.

What she ends up with, as proclaimed from the beginning of the text, is "practice theory", that is, an approach that does certain things much better than other theories that came before. I’ll come to this later.

Her method is actually very transparent and straightforward. She takes up several relevant strains of anthropological theorizing (schools, approaches), and does something which resembles another anthropological method, from more cognitivist approaches: A comparison through a distinctive features analysis. That is, instead of fully rendering every stance ever taken in lavish detail, she shows how each of these approaches handled mostly the major dichotomies that have been both haunting and stimulating the social sciences and the humanities since their inception (there is overlap between the elements and their oppositions):

The relations between ideas and the material base, the relation between the individual and the group (or society), the relation between autonomy and determinism, harmony and conflict, meaning and operation, field and system, power and solidarity, natural and human-made environment, the general and the specific, change and stability, "hard" vs. "soft", "emics" vs. "etics", mind and environment, ritual and the everyday, emancipation and mystification, historical and nonhistorical, more universal or more on the ground ... Every approach is clearly identified by aligning it to the different poles of some relevant exemplars of these continua. She points out emphases and neglects, and highlights advances as well as stagnation. In all this, we find that she is fairly sympathetic to most contributions, and is not too harsh on past sins.

In this way, a comparability across the broad spectrum of understanding and explication is created; the text, accordingly, is mostly written in a tenor of "Structural marxism is good at this, symbolic anthropology is good at that".

She manages to show the kinship between the different approaches. This includes on the one hand proper descent, as in some individuals reinventing themselves in another school or more or less linear developments of one approach into another, and on the other hand more of family resemblances. This succeeds, and is so very graphic, because (she writes deftly, and because) the distinctive elements of each theory can at all stages be related backwards and forwards in time and space to how different theories handle the same problem.

So, the climax is reached after her tour de force through the 60s and 70s, when she identifies the emergence of "practice theory". She is very careful to make quite clear that there is no proper school, or even clearly-marked camp with that name. But for one, the term "practice", and the related terms of "action" etc. have been showing up more and more in different people’s writing.

Also, explicit calls for a turn to "individual practice", attention to intention, the way people play their games as opposed to the mere rules set, have been raised. Furthermore, stronger than ever, the way this "action" is constrained and enabled by structure, or by a system, or by culture, which is simultaneously shaped by the continuous creative, manipulative attempts by people to have things go a certain way, has been object of discussion. The key word here is agency, which epistemologically as well as politically is supposed to uplift the individual agent, who, before the rise of the "practice" approaches, was often consigned to a passive role within a larger structure, system, culture, or society. Thus, in claiming to have identified a joint interest, expressed by a variety of anthropological actors, she points out where the different contemporary strands of anthropology can rally.

Having started out with the observation that for some time it seemed like the discipline of anthropology was irretrievably sundering, splitting up in specialist camps with not much holding them together but the institutional framework, this text itself is not merely a description of the field per se, in which she points out that a novel trend is emerging; much more than that, she herself tries to help people move along, to realise that there is this joint interest. So while she recognizes "practice theory" as emergent (as all theories), she (to use her own imagery) is "beginning to develop a photograph, to coax a latent form into something recognizable."

This is extremely interesting, because - as I said above - she repeatedly points out in which ways certain theories were representative of and reactions to the time when they emerged. She mentions counterculture, the antiwar movement, women’s lib, and the masking of Marxist influences in the 50s. So there are, as it were, extradiegetic elements (if we see "theoretical discourse" as a narrative) in anthropological theorising, and the text is skirting the line between an academic argument for a turn to "practice" and an active, personal engagement for this turn - for which the time supposedly has come. Zeitgeist here is not only received, but claimed and perpetuated.

What does that mean for the main question of this session? "What is anthropological proof, and how do we prove what we are saying and writing in anthropology?" The text is obviously not centrally devoted to questions of representation, method and translation. The text I think is strongest in making clear that whatever stance we choose to take, we hold views on the individual and society which are largely intentionally chosen for a certain appeal, for how they link up with our world-view, our professional situation. Seen in this way, Ortner might be seen to point out that proof is in many ways what the times allow it to be. The choice element present here prevents us from forgetting the specific morality inherent in every perspective we assume.

A little too brief is her discussion on the importance of fieldwork, as on-the-ground effort, which she does mention as "anthropology’s distinctive contribution to the human sciences" (143), and of the role of "effort" in "getting there", so, basically, to counteract the problematic of otherness. This could have been a point of access to her view of how translation is possible (and also again show the relevance of actor-oriented approaches), but, as I said, it remains tantalizingly underdeveloped.

The relevance of this text for contemporary anthropology is ambiguous. For one, Ortner provides a clear charter, for an exciting intellectual project and for anthropology to find a common ground again. In this way, the text itself is an instance of what it is talking about, a self-exemplifiyng text (funnily, quite the opposite Latour), and I think very helpful in seeing the linkages and divides throughout anthropology, however biased. Also, some specificities of anthropology in its self-awareness are presented well. On the other hand, it failed to foresee the incipient reflexive and literary turn in anthropology (Clifford/Marcus 1986), which pretty much threw the discipline into a strongly felt upheaval just shortly after Ortner’s text appeared. Even more puzzlingly for a text so sensitive to extra-academic events, it makes no reference to the effect the end of colonialism had on the practice of anthropology of practice, which has to be seen as a major flaw.


  • Ortner, Sherry 1984: Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative studies in society and history, 26 (1), 126-166
  • Clifford, James and George E. Marcus (eds.) 1986: Writing culture. The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: UC Press.