What do Anthropologists Have in Common?

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

The "Medawar Zone"--as dubbed by ecologist Craig Loehle (1990)--refers to the scientific sweet spot between theoretical and methodological difficulty (horizontal axis) and methodological yield, in terms of increasing knowledge, clarity of description, and power of explanation or prediction (y-axis). Because knowledge and insight require comprehensible theories and effective methods, intellectual progress--however measured, whether by quantity or complexity of phenomena explained or by level of mutual academic understanding of a difficult-to-grasp phenomenon--is often confounded by a tangle of theory and method too simple to address new or more complex phenomena.
The “Medawar Zone”–as dubbed by ecologist Craig Loehle (1990)–refers to the scientific sweet spot between theoretical and methodological difficulty (horizontal axis) and methodological yield, in terms of increasing knowledge, clarity of description, and power of explanation or prediction (y-axis). Because knowledge and insight require comprehensible theories and effective methods, intellectual progress–however measured, whether by quantity or complexity of phenomena explained or by level of mutual academic understanding of a difficult-to-grasp phenomenon–is often confounded by a tangle of theory and method too simple to address new or more complex phenomena.

Anthropologists of very different sorts–whether they focus on genetics, on prehistoric stone tool technologies, or on the ontology of sovereign power–have a similar trick. All anthropologists utilize methodologies that involve zooming out and studying aspects of humanity that we can’t easily grasp within the myopic experiences that we usually have of our lives and surroundings, as we constantly work to discipline our emotions and actions in responding to daily challenges, in setting goals, and juggling competing obligations. In doing so, anthropologists bring into focus surprisingly intimate details about us. With what Claude Lévi-Strauss (1992) called “the view from afar,” anthropologists document, compare, and investigate important biological or cultural structures and processes that are at work on the scales of populations, societies, and beyond. Yet, many of the larger-scale structures and processes that anthropologists document and seek to explain in even broader comparative or evolutionary perspectives involve finer-scale features: bodily biological functions (like giving birth), embodied technological acts (harvesting grain stalks with a sickle), intricately evocative practices (telling myths or performing rites). And each of these embodied human phenomena–spanning the physical boundaries of our bodies, from within cells to contemporary world systems, and reaching across temporal scales, from the nanoseconds of biochemical reactions, to the multi-generational impact of the built environment and landscape on ongoing social interactions and experiences, and even to the biological inheritance of highly conserved genetic regulatory growth systems that have been maintained and tweaked by ongoing natural selection since initially evolving hundreds of millions of years ago in the common ancestor we share with all other animals–is embedded in a dynamic, sometimes shifting non-nested hierarchical relationship to the environmental phenomena, which in turn act at multiple spatial and temporal scales. What is important here is that anthropologists observe biological and cultural features embedded in these complex multiscalar contexts. This is what gives anthropologists a clear focus on the intimate, while also yielding insight into the general. The anthropological view from afar has the peculiar advantage of surprising depth of field.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we as anthropologists really know what to make of such multiscalar sets of observations, which we have to filter in two difficult ways. We know–before, during, and after observation–that the phenomena we are recording are systemically linked across scales in some way, and we know that we’re linked, as observers, to the multiple scales of phenomena we document. Thus, we have to worry about teasing apart the challenging, extraordinary complexity of what we seek to observe and explain from our multiple, interrelated theoretical preconceptions and methodological limitations as observers. These worries have been so intractable that we’ve often developed over-reliance on certain simplifying–but perhaps not simple to express–theoretical ideas, which end up serving as defense/denial mechanisms. In other words, we rely inappropriately heavily on reductionist principles–whether its a structuralist overemphasis on the way binary symbolic oppositions can shape belief and action, a Marxist overemphasis on economic class-level conflicts over material interests, or a biological overemphasis on expecting natural selection to produce and maintain fitness maximizing behaviors across populations, regardless of environmental complexity.

Theoretical frameworks–that is, the sets of concepts that anthropologists use, refine, and clarify, as we develop our reasoning about what we expect to observe and what we record–have often proven productive at first but soon hit an academic wall limiting progress in effective communication and increased knowledge. Twentieth century anthropology is replete with concepts and theoretical approaches that have offered important but partial, and eventually limiting, insight into human diversity, history, and experience. I have already discussed how cultural relativism, which has historically been a highly influential idea in cultural anthropology, is now best considered as situationally, rather than generally, useful for understanding cultural diversity and difference. The concept–if applied uncritically or stubbornly broadly–obscures the embodied, political, and symbolic processes involved in dynamic cultural change. Indeed, theoretical notions, conceptual definitions, and methodological approaches that have been met with diverging understandings among anthropologists tend to follow the notable rift between natural science/evolutionary and humanistic/cultural divides that widened remarkably in the 1970’s and 1980’s, increasingly straining connections between biological and cultural anthropologists, and then limiting mutually understood and engaged discourse between processual archaeology and the “post-processual” reaction. What I would like to emphasize is that we can learn something quite anthropologically fundamental about how we learn, think, and communicate as humans when we stop to consider why intellectual understanding and joint intellectual progress seems to be so difficult, even among communities of people who spend decades refining their abilities to inquire, read, write, argue, and teach. Why do very highly trained thinkers and analysts get hung up on unproductive ideas and investigative and observational methods? What’s so hard about philosophical and scientific inquiry, anyway?

Of course, cycles of conceptual innovation and scientific insight followed by conceptual and scientific stagnation are hardly atypical of academic inquiry across the disciplines, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities (Kuhn 1996). The figure above left is a redrawing of Craig Loehle’s (1990) “Medawar Zone,” named after the British biologist Peter Medawar. Loehle graphically formalizes Medawar’s (1967) notion that science is the “art of the soluble,” a complicated balance of conceptual, methodological, and communication-focused creativity, on the one hand, and practical focus on obtaining rigorous, well-documented, or repeatable results, on the other. Too much creativity, and you can’t apply the theoretical notion to research … or perhaps the methodology required is too expensive or simply doesn’t exist yet … or your colleagues simply don’t understand that your idea can lead to new insight. Too little creativity, and the results–while robust–are a trivial demonstration of what we already knew. To the right, I have used ideas that my wife, Liv Nilsson Stutz (2003) has discussed in addressing the difficulty of interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological work, to modify the graphic formalization of the Medawar Zone. Nilsson Stutz has been particular interested in the difficulty that researchers face when they try to communicate about new methodologies that can help to resolve theoretical debate that has largely entered the realm of unproductive polemic. Polemical discourse itself can fully consume the goals, efforts, and perspectives of academic researchers, who–after all–enter into debate, in print and at conferences and seminars, with the sincere expectation that the discourse itself will help to generate deeper understanding. It should not be not be surprising, then, that more difficult theoretical problems become mired in unproductive discussion and debate, delaying recognition that new methods might generate reliable observations that could help to move academic inquiry into a new, more creative phase.

ANTHROPOLOGY IN MOTIONBut it is not just the fact that anthropologists are human and can get thoroughly caught up in polemical debate about truly confounding theoretical ideas, so that they miss new (or sometimes old) methodological solutions sitting right in front of them. It is also that the structure of anthropological inquiry in particular tends to buffet our thought in very different directions. With the constant risk of losing the coherence of how you interpret the world and the questions that are most relevant to you, it shouldn’t be surprising when you find yourself retreating into a polemic position, perhaps going so far as to write off whole areas of contemporary research and thinking as having no connection with logic and reality. A second figure–shown at right–emphasizes two important dimensions of anthropological academic engagement with the world. In other words, this graphic deals (1) with how anthropologists think–that is, the form and content of our general concerns about the world, our research questions, and our arguments about possible answers. But it also deals with how we respond to actual instances of those conceptual concerns when we encounter them in our lives.

The vertical axis deals especially with conceptual concerns, highlighting an aspect of academic inquiry into how the world works, how we learn about it and exist in it, that is shared across pretty much all disciplines. Good intellectual engagement should involve a kind of dynamic oscillation. This oscillation should critically reverberate for each of us, within our own individual internal conversations and interrogations, but it should also pervade our discourse with colleagues, students, and the general public. This oscillation is namely between developing concepts that help us to reduce complex phenomena to general, underlying factors, influences or principles, on one end, and stepping back and appreciating the complexity–often involving non-nested hierarchical systems–of the phenomena we are trying to understand or predict the behavior of, on the other. This kind of dialectical approach can drive us to improve the coverage of our explanations, the clarity of definitions, the predictive power of models, or the insight gained from critical comparisons. Considering the dimension of this oscillation–again, shown as the vertical axis in the figure at right, we may better appreciate the parallel emergence of tensions between, say, structuralism and thick-description approaches (examine the figure immediately above toward left) and human evolutionary ecology and biocultural critiques (see immediately above, toward right).

But there is another aspect of anthropological inquiry and engagement that involves a very different kind of tension, a different pattern of intellectual oscillation. The horizontal axis focuses on anthropology’s (surprisingly intellectually defining) ambiguous position between seeking scientific, universal knowledge and forms of existence, on one end, and grappling with and illuminating how the local or context-specific is different and unique, on the other. This axis of intellectual tension resolves, in turn, the political tensions between anthropologists who find themselves allied more closely with the humanities versus those who define themselves as scientists. The political issue is basically that Anthropology–as a diverse field of inquiry spanning the universal to the unique and local–is continually politically polarized by its long-term, complicated entanglement in the history of Western colonial and continued post-colonial domination, beginning more or less in 1492 and set to continue as long as the United States maintains its global super-power position. Although contemporary scientific inquiry hardly remains under the hegemonic purview of Western institutions, the project of producing scientific knowledge can reinforce the ideological impact of narratives concerning modernity, development, technology, globalization and domination and control of the environment. These may be further incorporated into narratives about a Western-dominated political order as beneficial–at least on the balance–and necessary for the foreseeable future. This amounts to a conservative status quo political ideology, and it’s one that many cultural anthropologists and some archaeologists and biological anthropologists have actively argued against. Still, as the figure immediately above shows, this universal/science — local/different axis forms a spectrum, with degrees of emphasis on the local and relative versus the universal. And because the status quo in which science, technology, data, and novel discovery are valued–in our cultural narratives and in monetary terms–we tend to see a dynamic in which scientific inquiry’s political implications and disruptions are often not clearly seen as constituting political concerns that we have a responsibility to respond to; scientific value is unmarked relative to the marked extreme of post-modern reaction. This is unfortunate, as polarized debate in a politically and monetarily imbalanced field makes effective discourse much harder to achieve across the extent of the universal/scientific — local/relativist axis. More scientifically oriented anthropologists may feel uncomfortable exploring systemic but indirect connections between their work and larger ideological structures in which scientific institutions contribute to disruptive and unequal development and change. Their position in terms of access to funding and prestige do not depend on exploring such connections, and indeed, systematic reflection over science’s symbolic role in this globalizing cultural moment may derail any given laboratory or team’s success. At the same time, many cultural anthropologists may feel that they have to deepen and broaden their critiques of scientific knowledge projects with their centuries-deep cultural genealogies of Western domination. Again, this is unfortunate. It is unfortunate in part because it’s not intellectually healthy for scientific anthropologists to be in a position of simply writing off serious political reflection and analysis, while more philosophically and politically engaged anthropologists seek to tear down the relevance of science. More to the point, it is unfortunate, because no one involved is really stepping back and saying, maybe–just maybe–the tension itself between understanding and VALUING the local, on the one hand, and understanding and valuing the universal on the other may be very good for anthropology. In other words, we’d all understand a lot more–and have more productive projects, discussions, and debates–if we acknowledged that spanning the horizontal axis (again, see the figure immediately above) is a good thing for the discipline overall and better serves professional academic goals of modeling and encouraging critical thinking, scientific literacy, curiosity, and perhaps above all, tolerance and reflective, constructive engagement with diversity and change.

anthropological intellectual trendsIn fact, if we further modify the graphic showing the inquiry axis (reductionism-complexity, or “revolution-evolution”) intersecting the more politically fraught universal-local axis, we can concisely summarize an argument for a contemporary Boasian Anthropological project, in which we work to actualize the potential for an unusually potent synthesis of profoundly, seemingly eternally difficult concerns. Concerns about the relationship or distinction between individual and society, mind and body, culture and nature, thought and action, evolutionary continuity and change. This holistic framework allows us to engage on–if not clearly common conceptual ground–creatively similar conceptual ground. After all, the local and global concerns are the same across all human community scales. Whether we are anthropological researchers or the subjects of anthropological study, we are engaged in–and thus concerned about–social worlds that are themselves systems facilitating complex, often contested processes of becoming, the forces of which are all too often difficult to identify and trace. Yet, these forces always involve tension and fluctuations in awareness about self and other, in the context defined at once by difference and change, kinship and continuity.


Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 212–218. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip4104_2

Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (4th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1992). The View from Afar. University of Chicago Press.

Loehle, C. (1990). A Guide to Increased Creativity in Research: Inspiration or Perspiration? BioScience, 40(2), 123–129. doi:10.2307/1311345

Medawar, P. B. (1967). The Art of the Soluble. Methuen.

Nilsson Stutz, L. G. (2003). Embodied Rituals & Ritualized Bodies: Tracing Ritual Practices in Late Mesolithic Burials. Almquist & Wiksell Intl.