The 2013 Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures

The Value of Comparison

The Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series
University of Rochester, 2013

Peter van der Veer

2013 Morgan Lecture Poster

The 2013 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture explores the value of comparison in the social sciences. Originally a specialist on Indian society, in 2001 Professor van der Veer published a book comparing religion and nationalism in India and Britain. Five years ago, he began comparative work on China, and has just published a book comparing the spiritual and the secular in India and China. He is currently editing another comparative work on Religion in Asian Cities. The lecture poses the question of comparison at a more general level, asking why do we need to compare and what should we compare? It proposes that anthropology can make a unique contribution to comparative analysis because of its specific ‘holistic’ approach. By paying special attention to the complexity of cultural translation, it problematizes both the generalizations that are implicit in the models of quantitative sociology and the universalizations that are implicit in the models of cognitive psychology.

For the first installment of the multimedia feature of the HAU-Morgan Lectures Initative brings you Professor van der Veer's 2013 Morgan Lectures in video format. See below for transcript and video index.



0:00 – Opening Remarks on Morgan’s Legacy in Comparative Kinship Studies

1:39 – Introduction to the Talk: “Comparison not from the angle of kinship but from the study of culture fragments” from a “holistic” position.

4:30 – The Particular and the Significant:

“It is important to emphasize that what I am suggesting is not to be understood as a process of generalization from the particular. The purpose is not to come to some general truth, but to highlight something that is not general, something specific, without any pretense to general truth but definitely of broader significance.”

6:55 – Theory, Wholism, and Translation in Anthropology

“The move from fragment to a larger insight is a conceptual and theoretical one and not a form of generalization or sentimentalization. It does not come from mere observation but is theory-laden. “Theory,” then, should be taken in its original sense of observing and contemplating.”

9:00 – The West, Modernity, and Interactions

“My approaches raises two related issues. First of all, nobody today is totally outside the modern west . . . ” Studying Interactions Within and Between Societies

10:30 – “Secondly, by acknowledging this history of interactions we turn a critical eye on the universal pretensions of models that are solely based on a putatively isolated Western historical experience.”

11:15 – “Comparison should not be conceived primarily in terms of comparing societies or events, or institutional arrangements across societies, although this is important, but as a reflection on our conceptual framework as well as on the history of interactions that have constituted our object of study.”

13:15 – Introducing an Anthropological Critique of Contemporary Social Sciences’ Statistical Models.

18:25 – How Anthropological Insight can Inform the Interpretation of Large Comparative Data Sets

22:00 – “I would propose that there is a more positive role to play for anthropology as a producer of valid knowledge through comparison.”

23:15 – Introducing Case Studies in Anthropological Insight into Issues in Complex Society: Social Inequality and Religion.

23:50 – “First, social inequality” : Dumont’s Comparative Perspective on Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in the Study of India

26:15 – “The anthropology of India somewhat moved away from the study of caste. . . . This shift in anthropological attention does not imply that the social phenomenon of caste has become less important.”

27:45 – Dumont’s comparative approach can illuminate the difference and similarity between Indian “caste” and American “race.”

32:05 – “In both the US and in India, these classes [American blacks and Indian dalits] have produced new religious forms of organization and representation.”

34:10 – Conclusions

34:50 – “The second area of inquiry that I want to discuss in this exploration of the comparative advantage of the anthropological perspective is religion.” : Viewing religious experience as a social phenomenon that in turn acts on the individual learning body, as in Mauss’ “Techniques of the body.”

36:00 – “Today, however, there is a strong movement in anthropology that moves away from the social. . . . It does so from an evolutionist perspective that privileges cognitive and biological above the social.”

37:25 – This approach has “been unable to resolve totally opposite observations on morality and certain forms of cooperation in comparisons of chimpanzees and young children.”

39: 30 – Despite its failings in the study of language, this approach has turned to religion, as in the example of examine “the skills people have acquired to ‘hear God.’”

41:20 – Why are some better at “hearing God” than others? “The question of talent” is a “question of training” or “learning” and not biology or psychology.

43:17 – Conclusions

44:33 - Conclusion:

“The arguments that are represented here constitute an apologia pro anthropologia. This is necessary in the light of the marginalization of cultural anthropology in the social and behavioral sciences. In spite of the increasing economic integration of the world there is a continuing Western ethnocentrsm in research.”

49:05 – “Let me summarize briefly what in my view the comparative advantage of anthropology is”

53:25 – END

Peter van der Veer is Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity at Göttingen. He has taught Anthropology at the Free University of Amsterdam, at Utrecht University, and at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1992 he was appointed as Professor of Comparative Religion and Founding Director of the Research Center in Religion and Society in the University of Amsterdam. In 1994 he was appointed as University Professor at Large at Utrecht University, a position he continues to hold. Among his major publications are Gods on earth: The management of religious experience and identity in a north Indian pilgrimage centre (LSE Monographs, 1988), Religious nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (University of California Press, 1994), Imperial encounters: Religion and modernity in India and Britain (Princeton University Press, 2001), and The modern spirit of Asia: The spiritual and the secular in China and India (Princeton University Press, 2013).