Reality remodeled: Practical fictions for a more-than-empirical world

Lars Rodseth


Most ethnographers have little use for models and other formal abstractions, yet even a staunch empiricist such as Franz Boas could appreciate the “aesthetic” advantages of idealization and simplification. These advantages have been largely ignored in recent decades, as anthropologists have come to favor ever more intricate and encompassing accounts. The resulting “ethnographic involution,” I suggest, has steadily diminished anthropology as a source of usable, socially shared knowledge. Much the same problem, interestingly, was confronted long ago by Max Weber, who developed the method of “ideal types” precisely as a way to grasp, represent, and investigate the complexity of historical reality. Weber converged in this regard with his contemporary at Halle, the neo-Kantian philosopher Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933). Since the late twentieth century, Vaihinger’s “fictionalism” has attracted renewed interest within philosophy and beyond. Yet his notion of “as-if” reasoning—a via media, I would argue, between particularism and positivism—remains virtually unknown within anthropology.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/719660