Leverhulme Early Career Researcher
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Via Zoom: https://upenn.zoom.us/j/98587974603?pwd=SC9KRXY5ZTdLQlc2ODlwWUI3dFpMUT09
Cultural Groups, Essentialism, and Ontic Risk
The comparative study of cultural groups—ethnology—went through turbulent changes over the course of the twentieth century. After shedding an association with ideas of universal progression and social Darwinism, it had become a central subject of anthropological research by the turn of the century. Long-simmering concerns about the culture concept, however, and the assumed “organic” character of cultural groups, soon led to withering criticism. By the end of the millennium, most social anthropologists had come to scorn the use of the culture concept (and those nearby, like “cultural group”) and had moved away from ethnological comparison. Yet over the period of time that the comparative study of cultural groups was losing popularity in social anthropology, it was emerging with gusto in the social sciences. Researchers from political science and economics to cultural evolution, sociology, and psychology were picking up both the culture concept and the comparative method and running with them.
It seems the study of cultural groups is now in an unusual epistemological situation. Researchers in one set of disciplines—anthropology, literary studies, and other critical humanities subjects—take themselves to have repudiated the study of cultural groups and the culture concept. Yet researchers in many of the social sciences are dedicated to such comparative cultural work. What are we to make of such a situation?
In this talk I’ll be looking at some of the longstanding metaphysical and ontological concerns voiced about the concept of cultural groups. These are concerns that are often put in terms of the supposed “essentializing” tendency of social scientific work. This “essentializing” is taken to be bad scientific practice, leading to wrongheaded characterizations of human populations, and empirically unprincipled research. Against such critics, I’ll be suggesting that these concerns are not as serious as they appear. If contemporary work is “essentialist” in some way, it is not the kind of “essentialism” that should trouble these critics. Nonetheless, I’ll close by pointing to future work which identifies a pressing kind of ontological worry: what my colleague Joeri Witteveen has called ontic risk. Choices around how cultural groups are ontologized (in models, theoretical claims) can generate harms and costs. While ontic risk does not repudiate comparative social scientific work, it does point to potentially serious consequences should be considered in research design.