These two lovely goats, hanging out close to our new home in Lucknow, got me thinking about epistemology again.1 Or rather of epistemologies, since there are at least two kinds: one is the thinking-inside-the-box variety, exemplified by the goat to the right. His head bumps against the wall, and he has no space to move. As a result, he can think as hard as he likes - it won't help him. Only stepping out of the box would help. Which incidentally his fellow goat to the left did. As a result, she relaxes comfortably, her thoughts can float freely, and her sight can glance over this world without obstruction.2

Epistemology is like these two goats: if you get the foundation wrong, you can think as hard as you whish - it will get you nowhere. If, however, the underlying logic of your exploration is sound, you can at once hang out - and think wide. Today's post thus follows up on this one and explains how to be a leftist goat. Or, to put it less cryptic and more academic: today's post is about epistemological assumptions and analytical strategies. How can one explore, how can one generate new insights, and how can one know that what one is doing is scientific? I intended to argue that thinking turns scientific if - and only if - it systematically disturbs everyday assumptions and commonplace knowledge, in particular the commonplace knowledge of ourselves fellow scholars. Thus, being scientific is fundamentally being critical. In order to achieve this systematic disturbance, however, deliberate epistemological strategies need to be put in place.

The key questions for becoming a leftist goat are thus: which concepts do we use to understand the world around us, transforming sensations and impressions into human language, and, perhaps more importantly, how shall we use these concepts, i.e. which logic of enquiry enables us to step out of the box?

On a very fundamental level, the concepts we use in our research - which tell us, for instance, that a goat is a goat (or an anthropologist, as the case may be) - might stem from either us social scientists, or from them, the subjects of our enquiry. Quite some scholarly master-goats (of the righthand-side variety) take firm decisions here: many sociologists prefer their own "etic" concepts, many anthropologists to the contrary stick to "emic" concepts they find in the field. While I tend towards the former for reasons given below, I feel that these master-goats actually worry about the wrong question. Since it is not so much which concepts we use than how we use them that determines the soundness of our epistemology...

Still: let me stick to the "which concepts" questions for a bit. In this regard, Saskia Sassen opened my eyes by writing that "we cannot understand the X [...] by confining our study to the characteristics of the X. [Instead,] an explanation of X needs to be configured in terms of the non-X".3 To take my own theoretical toolbox as an example: it might make sense to explain, say, "ethnic politics" with "identity", but it never makes sense to understand "identity" itself through "identity". If I were to do so, I would end up in endogeneity traps and fruitless definitionism. Solely splitting up identity into a set of sub-dimensions won't help either, but merely pushes circular tautology to higher levels. Instead, one should conceptualize identity as an assemblage of sub-dimensions which are not confined to being sub-dimensions of identity. Thus "reciprocal relations", to take another example, could be used as a sub-dimension of identity, precisely because they designate more than just said sub-dimension. Almost by definition, however, most emic categories are not different enough from what they designate and thus not very helpful as a conceptual basis for social research. They are right-goatie, so to say - and they easily lead to tautological arguments.

Such tautology, to continue the argument, does not only pose logical problems - it also tends to hide power differentials. As Rogers Brubaker wrote: "'Nation', 'race', and 'identity' are used analytically a good deal of the time [...] in an implicitly or explicitly reifying manner, in a manner that implies or asserts that 'nations', 'races', and 'identities' 'exist' as substantial entities and that people 'have' a 'nationality', a 'race', an 'identity'. [...] This is not a matter of intellectual sloppiness. Rather it reflects the dual orientation of many academic identitarians as both analysts and protagonists of identity politics".4. For me this implies that we need to break up emic categories by confronting them with etic concepts, lest we quickly end up doing politics, not science. Or, to quote another of my favourite writers: if "the crystallization of rules into roles is the basic fact of society and thus of social science"5, we should look beyond emic roles to discover who rules.

Surely: etic concepts might encapsulate power as well, and it is the merit of post-colonial and feminist studies to remind us of these. But the only way to deal with the power of concepts remains reflexivity; to assume that "indigenous" concepts are per se less problematic is a fallacy. We can only learn from the contrast between empirical givens and heuristic concepts, not from either alone. If we use everyday terms as concepts, we engage in identity politics. If we instead treat everyday uses of "belonging" as an empirical fact to be explained, however, we have no choice but to resort to our own concepts to do this explaining.

There is one author who made this probably most explicit: Charles Peirce.6 In his epistemology, he termed such confrontation of empirical givens and etic concepts abduction. Let me again take "identity" as an example of what he means. Classic deductive arguments go this way: agency stems from identity, we observe that X has agency, and we conclude that X's agency stems from her identity. All knowledge is already determined a-priori: the proposition suffices, the observation is dispensable. This logic is rightly criticized by proponents of emic categories. But they are mistaken in that their usual alternative, induction, would be much better. Induction argues as follows: we observe that X has agency, we observe that X's agency stems from his or her identity, and we conclude that everybody's agency stems from identity. Even after numerous repetitions, this conclusion remains a mere summary, rather than a synthesis. Because the conclusion of deduction is contained in theory and the conclusion of induction remains confined to empirical observations, Peirce introduced a third logic of enquiry: abduction. Abduction argues, like deduction, that agency stems from identity, but then observes X's identity, and concludes that the same might influence its agency. Only by confronting emic observations with etic concepts, we learn something new (however hypothetically). Obviously, this requires not just emic observation, but likewise etic concepts in the first place.

Precisely to be able to understand and explain the categories which I find inside the box, I must therefore use outside-the-box concepts. Usually this means etic rather than emic ones. But more importantly than this decision is probably the logic of enquiry - the question of how I use concepts. And here I totally follow Peirce, since only abduction allows me, I think, to end up as a leftist goat. Which is what all anthropologist should aspire to be...

  • 1. Yes, you non-academic readers: that's how my mind works...
  • 2. I am, by the way, pretty sure she is an anthropologist - given that, as David Gellner once put it: anthropological method is not hanging out, as many believe - it's in fact deep hanging out...
  • 3. Sassen, S. (2006). Territory, authority, rights. Princeton: Univ. Press.
  • 4. Brubaker, R. (2004). Ethnicity without groups. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.
  • 5. Dahrendorf, R. (1973). Homo Sociologicus. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
  • 6. Peirce, CS. (1958). On the logic of drawing history from ancient documents, especially from testimonies. In A.W. Burks (Ed.), Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Vol 7. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.