The value of anthropology

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Annelin Eriksen. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.037


The value of anthropology

Annelin ERIKSEN, University of Bergen

Comment on van der Veer, Peter. 2016. The value of comparison. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

The purpose of Peter van der Veer’s The value of comparison is hardly controversial; namely to show “the value of anthropological comparisons that are not grounded in evolutionary theory” (2016: 2), or rational choice models, game theory (9), or cognitive universalism (147). That is, it is hardly controversial in anthropology. As van der Veer rightly points out, this is, in social sciences in general, a much harder trend to counter. In light of this, this book is very welcome as a message from anthropology to the rest of the social sciences in a time when big data and calls for predictability (opinion polls), relevance, applicability, and reliability (surveys, “hard” facts, large-scale analysis with universal validity) are dominant is public academic discourse. This book is a defense for fragmentary knowledge, for slow and thorough knowledge that cannot rely on taken-for-granted universals that characterize, for instance, quantitative methodologies, rational choice theory, and evolutionary theory. This I applaud!

The comparison van der Veer values is the comparison that on the one hand avoids universal and generalizing knowledge of the Weberian and Durkheimian kind. He does not want ideal-types, universal models, or general truths. On the other hand, he does not want the kind of anthropology that disappears into particularities, and that can never set a dialogue between ethnographies because of the (unnecessary) privilege of context. In the spirit of Marcel Detienne’s Comparing the incomparable (2008), and in agreement with Detienne’s critique of historians’ ceremonious approach to comparison (where the Greek civilization, for instance, hardly can be compared to anything), van der Veer calls for the kind of anthropology that can compare unpretentiously. The book contains a series of fragmentary comparisons of India and China, mainly (on discourses on Muslims, on iconoclasm [524]and images, on separatism and mountain peoples, and on urban care of the poor). Sometimes the comparison stretches to Europe (for instance, in an analysis of the urban poor), but often it is explicitly a dialogue between India and China. Dialogue is perhaps the crucial word here; it is no systemic comparison.

The book in many ways proposes a “weak” comparison: not weak in the sense of “poor” but in the sense of “open” or, to some extent, implicit and “unfinished.” Although this open form of comparison can have value in itself, I must admit that when I first opened the book, I expected a more systematic kind of comparison. Other major contributions to anthropological comparison, as for instance Louis Dumont’s (1980) on India and Europe, or Bruce Kapferer’s (1988) on Australia and Sri Lanka immediately come to mind as similar enterprises. In my opinion, these are milestones in the development of comparative approaches in anthropology. These are approaches that neither build on models of ideal types or universals, nor on taken-for-granted notions of radical difference. Rather, these are thorough and systematic comparative analyses where focus is on structures of values (or on culture if you will). Kapferer’s comparative exercise shows how nationalism is fundamentally different given the two different contexts. It is the comparison that in many ways gives meaning to the specificity of the two cases: Sri Lanka and Australia. However, van der Veer’s comparison is fundamentally different. It is in many ways a reluctant, unwilling comparison, or as he says throughout the book, a comparison of fragments. This unwillingness to define the context for comparison as something other than a vague understanding of history (or genealogy; he repeatedly refers to Talal Assad), creates I think a weak ground for any comparison. In my mind, his comparison is not so much a comparative analysis (where focus would be on factors that make the cases structurally related or different), as much as it is a setting up of cases side by side based on an unclear (and not much explained) idea of a connection or similarity, for instance, what is shared between people living in mountains in chapter 5, or slums in cities in chapter 6. I wonder: what does anthropology bring to an analysis of China and India for instance, aside from ethnography (but in his analysis he often also refers to journalism, films, and novels, which I, by the way, find interesting and positive), if there are no concepts of culture, of values, or systems of meaning? I understand that van der Veer is trying to carve out a middle ground between narrow-sited ethnographic analysis and large-scale sociological generalizations based on ideal types, but I think he is ignoring an important tradition that already exists, in which the concept of culture (which is perhaps the trademark, analytically, of anthropology), is an important tool. The reason for his lack of recognition of the comparative potential in some of these earlier comparative analyses might be that van der Veer is unnecessarily afraid of what he calls generalizations or “generalisms.” Or rather that he works with a too broad definition of what a generalization is. On page 27, he argues, “The move from fragment to larger insight is a conceptual and theoretical one and not a form of generalization.” I agree! And later he critiques “the Pew Foundation’s recent report “Faith on the Move” (2016: 31) for being too general. He argues, “What happens in these large comparative data sets is a totally different form of ‘holism’ from the anthropological one and should be distinguished from it by calling it “generalism” (31). Again, I agree. However, later, in his critique of Dumont, he argues, “The fundamental problem with Dumont’s perspective is that he uses anthropological holism to ask [525]fundamental questions but ends up positing an Indian ‘whole’ as distinct from a Western ‘whole,’ creating artificial unities over time and space. While we have to reject this ‘generalism,’ Dumont nevertheless asks the important question” (34).

My question is this: Is Dumont’s “generalism” the same as the ones produced through surveys and statistics? Is a generalization a question of quantity of people? Is not Dumont’s analysis of hierarchy in India exactly an example of a holism, and not a generalism? When Dumont talks about the Indian hierarchy (based on the value of purity), he is not (like the quantitative sociologist) referring to an absolute correlation between the analytical models (the hierarchy), a specific number of people, and a geographical location. Analytical models might not be generalizations: it might be theories that push thinking. The way I see it, Dumont’s model is an analytical abstraction and not a generalization of all people in India. Thus, in van der Veer’s critique of some of the generalizing tendencies in some of the anthropological traditions, for instance, structuralism (in particular in his critique of Descola 2013 and Dumont 1980), van der Veer confuses generalizations with analytical models. Generalizations are in some way or another representative. An analytical model pushes thinking about social phenomena without making representativity (in terms of correlation between model and number of people, in the quantitative sociological sense) a relevant question.

The question is, what is the value of anthropology for van der Veer? How different is anthropology from, for instance, quantitative sociology or political science, where the aim is to produce data that represent in some way or another, where the analysis must be representative and general?

In my mind, anthropology is radically different. As van der Veer also emphasizes, anthropology is interpretative, it is open, and (as he repeatedly points out) not geared toward generalizations. Yet he seems to operate with an implicit notion of the importance of representativity. This is in particular evident in his critique of Philippe Descola and Louis Dumont. It is also evident in his critique of the notion of individualism in Christianity, based on Dumont (1980, 1992), among others. According to van der Veer, individualism is a metadiscourse, one discourse among many (2016: 73). Ideas of collectivism and transcendence are as much present, however, according to van der Veer. Here he portrays Dumont in a misleading manner: Dumont never denied the presence of collectivist values, or values of transcendence. Encompassment does not imply eradication; it implies that the value is there but as a lesser value. The lesser value can also be given fundamental significance, even more so than the value of the individual but in lesser-valued contexts.

Van der Veer also critiqued Webb Keane’s analysis of individualism. Keane has written on the significance of sincerity for Dutch Calvinist missionaries among the Sumbanese in Indonesia; van der Veer (himself Dutch) points to the significance of the disciplining gaze, the significance of being watched as a form of counterevidence against the significance of sincerity and interiority. However, emphasizing the significance of the individual and the significance of sincerity and interiority, as Keane does, does not imply that there are no other values. Calvinists are also social beings. Individualism as a value engages with other values, as relations, in different contexts, producing different social effects. The value of the individual, for instance, is very differently played out among Pentecostals than among Calvinists, as van der Veer points out (2016: 75). Pentecostal ways of cultivating the inner [526]self (by hearing God’s voice, for instance; see Luhrman 2012) take another form than the Calvinists’ sincere speech. Comparison is crucial here. When comparing Pentecostals with Calvinists, the role of the individual obviously takes different forms, and creates different effects, different moralities, et cetera. Looking for the difference between them does not necessarily imply that there are not also fundamental structural similarities. Often, comparing a culture based on the value of individualism to one based on other values can be truly revealing, and in my opinion this is where the true strength of anthropology lies.

Dumont has made comparison, (and not ethnography), into the space from which we can question the taken-for-granted. Daniel de Coppet (2008), taking the logical consequence of the Dumontian approach to value systems, argued that within such an approach you never compare the same. Following Dumont and de Coppet one can argue that race and caste, for instance, are not the same, and cannot be set in a comparative relation as if they are the same: they are categories from very different systems of value, one egalitarian, the other hierarchical. Van der Veer also points this out, but he claims that they are similar (2016: 37): they are both social constructions of inequality. If one claims this, however, as van der Veer does, his critique of the other major social sciences, as quantitative sociology and political science, is only a gentle one. He remains strongly on the same epistemological side. The bottom line is, reality is one, and as social scientists, we are looking for representability in our analyses. However, Dumont and de Coppet’s points are truly different, as their comparative models imply that we need to compare elements with the same position in the value system, or of the same “value magnitude” (de Coppet 2008). With this approach, anthropology develops a method with far-reaching potential for radically repositioning knowledge. This approach, however, is only possible if the value of anthropology is beyond representability in the quantitative sociological sense.

It is perhaps a little ironic that the aim of the book is to push against trends from disciplines like quantitative sociology, but that the epistemological ground is not challenged in any radical way. Rather, van der Veer does not give anthropology its own ground; he does not approach anthropology as a producer of another kind of knowledge. If anthropology is not given its own ground, it only becomes a weak form of sociology, in my opinion.

The above is perhaps a little unfair, because van der Veer explicitly says that he wants to develop comparison as anthropology. Thus, he has a very clear ambition for anthropology. He wants to develop what he calls a fragmentary approach that stills opens for “valid knowledge in its own right.” Others have made similar efforts at approaching fragments, for instance Strathern, in her Partial Connections ([1991] 2004). Here, she argues for a new kind of comparative anthropology, one that does not take for granted the applicability of Western social science, and one that is systematically open toward new ways of comparing, partially. She opens for radically new ways on conceptualizing relations between ethnography and theory. It is perhaps a little surprising that this work is not discussed at all in van der Veer’s approach to fragmentary comparison, although, clearly, what he values is exactly partial connections.

Perhaps this has to do with the opposition he sets up in the introduction: that anthropology used to be interested in general models and had a strong conception [527]of comparison as a method for establishing universal truths, whereas anthropology today has lost all interest in comparison, and is more concerned with local specificities. Here, of course, van der Veer again ignores a number of other traditions in anthropology, Strathern’s (1988, [1991] 2004) approach being one of them, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (2004) work on equivocations being another (see also Holbraad 2012). In the latter two cases, focus is on the comparison as confrontation (see also Candea 2016); the aim of the comparative analysis is to identify difference, not only between the “West” and “another place” but also between social science and taken-for-granted models of the world (like the “individual” or the “society” or “gender” (in the case of Strathern), or “nature/culture” (in the case of Viveiros de Castro). In other words, the aim for the latter comparative approach is to confirm difference and to critique any form of generalizing or universalizing theory. Indeed these are forms of comparison that resist generalizations but that are not discussed in this book.

However, in conclusion I want to acknowledge the effort van der Veer makes here: first, by drawing attention to the significance of comparison for anthropology, and second, by establishing this middle ground between universals and particulars. It is, on the one hand, perhaps an almost impossible task, like having the cake and eating it too. On the other hand, I think it is actually what many anthropologists do; it is a pragmatic attitude to comparison, one in which the impossible binary between universalism and relativism is handled in ethnographic descriptions that, of course, make use of concepts that move beyond the local. Perhaps what van der Veer primarily does is create an awareness of the significance of this kind of comparison, what he calls fragmentary comparison. In spite of the critique outlined above, I welcome this book and the effort made here to elaborate a specific ways in which one can be comparative in anthropology, a model that is neither structural nor only “localized,” but fragmentary.


Candea, Matei, 2016. “On two modalities of comparison in social anthropology.” L’Homme, 218: 2–22. Translated by Franck Lemonde.

Coppet, Daniel de. 2008. “From the Western ‘body’ to ‘Are’are ‘money’: The monetary transfiguration of socio-cosmic relations in the Solomon Islands.” In Exchange and sacrifice, edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, 3–26. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond nature and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Detienne, Marcel. 2008. Comparing the incomparable. Stanford, CA:Stanford University Press.

Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The caste system and its implications. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1992. Essays on individualism: Modern ideology in anthropological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.[528]

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in motion: The recursive anthropology of Cuban divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kapferer, Bruce. 1988. Legends of people, myths of state: Violence, intolerance, and political culture in Sri Lanka and Australia. New York: Berghahn Books.

Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter Berkeley: University of California Press.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. 2012. When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God. New York: Vintage.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The gender of the gift: Problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. (1991) 2004. Partial Connections, Updated Edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

van der Veer, Peter. 2016. The value of comparison. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2004. “Perspectival anthropology and the method of controlled equivocation.” Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2 (1): 1.


Annelin Eriksen
Department of Social Anthropology
University of Bergen
Fosswinckelsgate 6, Floor 8
5020 Bergen