Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis by Renato Rosaldo (Beacon Press: $21.95; 253 pages)
The social sciences, as their name implies, are modeled on science. They seek to gather impartial, objective facts and use them to discover the laws of social organization, just as physicists try to discover the laws of nature.
Until recently, this attitude was pervasive in anthropology, which went out to study other cultures from a "neutral" or "objectivist" perspective. But it is no longer the case.
"A sea change in cultural studies has eroded the once-dominant conceptions of truth and objectivity," Renato Rosaldo tells us in "Culture and Truth."
"The truth of objectivism--absolute, universal, and timeless--has lost its monopoly status," he says. "It now competes, on more nearly equal terms, with the truths of case studies that are embedded in local contexts, shaped by local interests, and colored by local perceptions."
Rosaldo, an anthropologist at Stanford, is an advocate for the new stance in social analysis, and while his book represents one side in a deep intellectual debate, it is neither academic nor musty in tone. If you want to know what many social scientists are up to these days, "Culture and Truth" is an excellent place to find out.
This debate in one form or another rages throughout the academy. It has counterparts in sociology, history, literature and law, among other fields. It is sometimes said to be between "objectivists" and "relativists," and to a certain extent it is. The basic issue is what counts as knowledge and how it is attained. Is there objective truth--as the Enlightenment taught--or is that a myth? Is there a God's-eye point of view? If not, what do we mean by truth?
In addition, this debate has political counterparts. There is a pretty good fit between objectivists and political conservatives on the one hand and relativists and liberals on the other. The debate over the canon of books that should be taught to undergraduates is a manifestation of this basic dispute.
Traditional social science values detachment and objective analysis. "The detached observer epitomizes neutrality and impartiality," Rosaldo writes. "This detachment is said to produce objectivity."
But, he asserts, this position cannot be achieved and should not be sought. It disguises what is really going on, and it misses the most important elements for observation and analysis.
Facts do not exist in isolation but only as part of an interpretive whole. The observer can understand only if he recognizes that he is part of what he is observing. Value-free inquiry is a myth. The observer always has a point of view, and that point of view always influences what he observes.
"Social analysts can rarely, if ever, become detached observers," Rosaldo says. "There is no Archimedean 'objective' point from which to remove oneself from the mutual conditioning of social relations and human knowledge. Cultures and their 'positioned subjects' are laced with power, and power in turn is shaped by cultural forms. Like form and feeling, culture and power are inextricably intertwined."
But Rosaldo has written more than a manifesto for the interpretive school of social science. True to the method that he expounds, he gives many examples from his own experience, particularly his study of the Ilongots in the Philippines, and he shows how his personal life and history was inextricably intertwined with his work.
Rosaldo's book is a call to a different, eclectic approach to knowledge, which celebrates case studies and the diversity of life more than its sameness. It focuses on the particular rather than the general. Its method is narrative and storytelling rather than second-level analysis.
It is worth noting that this split is not limited to the social sciences. It exists in the hard sciences as well. In his book, "Infinite in All Directions," the physicist Freeman Dyson observed that the goal of some sciences, like physics, is to find a single absolute to nature.
Other sciences, however, particularly biology, focus on diversity--finding many different kinds of butterflies rather than the law of butterflies. In this area we see empiricists and inventors rather than theoreticians.
Could it be that the social sciences have reached the same dichotomy? The drive to discover laws of nature is a powerful intellectual prod, but it is not the whole story, even less in the social sciences than in the hard sciences.
Rosaldo argues that the quest for high-level laws ignores the changing nature of human facts and obscures the real truths embedded in meaning and interpretation.
"The once-dominant ideal of a detached observer using neutral language to explain 'raw' data has been displaced by an alternative project that attempts to understand human conduct as it unfolds through time and in relation to its meanings for the actors," he says.
This view is powerful, controversial and very well presented in this book.