Postmodernism describes a broad movement that developed in the mid to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture and criticism which marked a departure from modernism. While encompassing a broad range of ideas, postmodernism is typically defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including notions of human nature, social progress, objective reality and morality, absolute truth, and reason. Instead, it asserts that claims to knowledge and truth are products of social, historical or political discourses or interpretations, and are therefore contextual and constructed to varying degrees. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, irreverence and self-referentiality.
The term postmodernism has been applied both to the era following modernity, and to a host of movements within that era (mainly in art, music, and literature) that reacted against tendencies in modernism. Postmodernism includes skeptical critical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, history, linguistics, economics, architecture, fiction, feminist theory, and literary criticism. Postmodernism is often associated with schools of thought such as deconstruction and post-structuralism, as well as philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard and Frederic Jameson.
Postmodern philosophy is a philosophical direction which is critical of certain foundational assumptions of Western philosophy and especially of the 18th-century Enlightenment. It emphasizes the importance of power relationships, personalization and discourse in the "construction" of truth and world views. Postmodernists deny that an objective reality exists, and deny that there are objective moral values.
Postmodern philosophy is often particularly skeptical about simple binary oppositions characteristic of structuralism, emphasizing the problem of the philosopher cleanly distinguishing knowledge from ignorance, social progress from reversion, dominance from submission, good from bad, and presence from absence.
Postmodern philosophy has strong relations with the substantial literature of critical theory.
According to Brian Duignan of the Encyclopædia Britannica, many postmodern claims are a deliberate repudiation of certain 18th-century Enlightenment values. A postmodernist might believe that there is no objective natural reality, and that logic and reason are mere conceptual constructs that are not universally valid. Two other characteristic anti-Enlightenment postmodern practices are a denial that human nature exists, and a (sometimes moderate) skepticism toward claims that science and technology will change society for the better. Postmodernists also believe there are no objective moral values. Postmodern writings often focus on deconstructing the role that power and ideology play in shaping discourse and belief. Postmodern philosophy shares ontological similarities with classical skeptical and relativistic belief systems, and shares political similarities with modern identity politics.
(Wikipedia: Postmodern philosophy)
Postmodernism (sometimes abbreviated as Po-Mo) is a term applied to a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature, and culture, which are considered to have emerged from, or superseded, modernism, in reaction to it, soon after the end of World War II, which caused people much disillusionment.
Many theorists agree that we can distinguish between two senses of postmodernism: 1) postmodernism as a reaction to the aesthetic "modernism" of the first half of the twentieth century in architecture, art, and literature; and 2) postmodernism as a reaction to the long-standing "modernity" tradition of the Enlightenment from the eighteenth century. To be distinguished from the former which is more aesthetic, the latter is quite often called "postmodernity," referring to more historical and social aspects of postmodernism. The latter is closely linked with post-structuralism (cf. Jacques Derrida's deconstruction), insinuating a rejection of the bourgeois, elitist culture of the Enlightenment. Without this distinction, postmodernism may lack a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle, embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, and interconnectedness or interreferentiality. But, its general features are usually considered to include: a rejection of grand narratives; a rejection of absolute and universal truth; non-existence of signified; disorientation; a use of parody; simulation without the original; late capitalism; and globalization.
Postmodernism has invited a wide spectrum of criticisms, from conservatives who feel threatened by its rejection of absolute truth, from Marxists who may tend to be allied with the Enlightenment, and from intellectuals who cannot make sense of it. It, however, is welcomed by schools such as feminism. It is even accommodated by Christian theologians as a good opportunity to develop a more convincing, new theology, and some of the examples include Jean-Luc Marion's postmetaphysical theology and John D. Caputo's deconstructive theology in search of a true God.
(New World Encyclopedia)
The question of what postmodernism means is problematic because the notion is complex. Ihab Hassan, one of the first to discuss about postmodernism in the 1960s and 1970s, writes in 2001: "I know less about postmodernism today than I did thirty years ago, when I began to write about it… No consensus obtains on what postmodernism really means."
The historical origins of the term lead back at least to English painter John Watkins Chapman, who was probably the first to use the term "postmodernism." He used it in the 1870s to simply mean what is today understood to be post-impressionism. In 1934, Spaniard Federico de Onis used the word postmodernismo as a reaction against modernist poetry. In 1939, British historian Arnold Toynbee adopted the term with an entirely different meaning: the end of the "modern" Western bourgeois order of the last two- or three-hundred-year period. In 1945, Australian art historian Bernard Smith took up the term to suggest a movement of social realism in painting beyond abstraction. In the 1950s in America, Charles Olson used the term in poetry. Only in the 1960s and 1970s was the term more popularized through theorists such as Leslie Fielder and Ihab Hassan.
(New World Encyclopedia)
Origins of term
The term postmodern was first used around the 1880s. John Watkins Chapman suggested "a Postmodern style of painting" as a way to depart from French Impressionism.
J. M. Thompson, in his 1914 article in The Hibbert Journal, used it to describe changes in attitudes and beliefs in the critique of religion: "The raison d'etre of Post-Modernism is to escape from the double-mindedness of Modernism by being thorough in its criticism by extending it to religion as well as theology, to Catholic feeling as well as to Catholic tradition."
In 1921 and 1925, postmodernism had been used to describe new forms of art and music.
In 1942 H. R. Hays described it as a new literary form.
However, as a general theory for a historical movement it was first used in 1939 by Arnold J. Toynbee: "Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914–1918".
In 1949 the term was used to describe a dissatisfaction with modern architecture, and led to the postmodern architecture movement, perhaps also a response to the modernist architectural movement known as the International Style. Postmodernism in architecture is marked by a re-emergence of surface ornament, reference to surrounding buildings in urban architecture, historical reference in decorative forms (eclecticism), and non-orthogonal angles.
Peter Drucker suggested the transformation into a post modern world happened between 1937 and 1957 (when he was writing). He described an as yet "nameless era" which he characterised as a shift to conceptual world based on pattern purpose and process rather than mechanical cause, outlined by four new realities: the emergence of Educated Society, the importance of international development, the decline of the nation state, and the collapse of the viability of non-Western cultures.
In 1971, in a lecture delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, Mel Bochner described "post-modernism" in art as having started with Jasper Johns, "who first rejected sense-data and the singular point-of-view as the basis for his art, and treated art as a critical investigation."
More recently, Walter Truett Anderson described postmodernism as belonging to one of four typological world views, which he identifies as either (a) Postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed, (b) Scientific-rational, in which truth is found through methodical, disciplined inquiry, (c) Social-traditional, in which truth is found in the heritage of American and Western civilization, or (d) Neo-Romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature and/or spiritual exploration of the inner self.
Postmodernist ideas in philosophy and the analysis of culture and society expanded the importance of critical theory and has been the point of departure for works of literature, architecture, and design, as well as being visible in marketing/business and the interpretation of history, law and culture, starting in the late 20th century. These developments—re-evaluation of the entire Western value system (love, marriage, popular culture, shift from industrial to service economy) that took place since the 1950s and 1960s, with a peak in the Social Revolution of 1968—are described with the term "postmodernity", as opposed to Postmodernism, a term referring to an opinion or movement. Postmodernism has also been used interchangeably with the term post-structuralism out of which postmodernism grew; a proper understanding of postmodernism or doing justice to the postmodernist concept demands an understanding of the poststructuralist movement and the ideas of its advocates. Post-structuralism resulted similarly to postmodernism by following a time of structuralism. It is characterized by new ways of thinking through structuralism, contrary to the original form. "Postmodernist" describes part of a movement; "Postmodern" places it in the period of time since the 1950s, making it a part of contemporary history.
Since postmodernism emerged from modernism, it is essential to have some understanding of modernism first, but modernism itself is not a single entity. If we carefully look at modernism, we realize that it has two different facets, or two different definitions:
1) twentieth-century aesthetic modernism, which emerged during the first half of the twentieth century as a reaction to nineteenth-century traditions such as the Victorian tradition; and
2) the much longer historical tradition of "modernity," which started from the humanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and which was still continuously influential till the twentieth century.
Theorists such as David Lyon and Mary Klages have made this distinction between the two facets of modernism, and also a resultant distinction between two senses of postmodernism as well.
(New World Encyclopedia)
Modernism was a series of aesthetic movements of wild experimentation in visual arts, music, literature, drama, and architecture in the first half of the twentieth century. It flourished especially between 1910 to 1930, the period of "high modernism."
Modernism in this sense was rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. It was a trend of thought that affirmed the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology, and practical experimentation. Embracing change and the present, it encompassed the works of thinkers who rebelled against nineteenth-century academic and historicist traditions, believing that the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization, and daily life were becoming "outdated." They directly confronted the new economic, social, and political aspects of an emerging fully industrialized world.
The older ideas that history and civilization are inherently progressive, and that progress is always good, came under increasing attack. Arguments arose that not merely were the values of the artist and those of society different, but that society was antithetical to progress, and could not move forward in its present form. Philosophers called into question the previous optimism.
Two of the most disruptive thinkers of the period were, in biology, Charles Darwin and, in political science, Karl Marx. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined religious certainty of the general public, and the sense of human uniqueness among the intelligentsia. The notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals" proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality. Marx seemed to present a political version of the same proposition: that problems with the economic order were not transient, the result of specific wrongdoers or temporary conditions, but were fundamentally contradictions within the "capitalist" system. Both thinkers would spawn defenders and schools of thought that would become decisive in establishing modernism.
Of course, there actually were a few reforming spiritual and theological movements around the same time which also reacted against the nineteenth-century traditions. They include Neo-orthodoxy by Karl Barth in Europe, and pentecostalism and fundamentalism in America. But, they seem to have been less visible and less prevalent than activities of radical aesthetic modernism.
Twentieth-century aesthetic modernism took diverse forms such as surrealism, dadaism, cubism, expressionism, and primitivism. These forms were apparently immediate reactions to the Victorian values such as bourgeois domesticity, duty, work, decorum, referentiality, utilitarianism, industry, and realism. Some of the forms of aesthetic modernism naturally resemble Romanticism, which was rejected in the Victorian period. According to Dino Felluga, the features of modernist aesthetic work include:
1.Self-reflexivity (as in Picasso's painting "Women in the Studio").
2.An exploration of psychological and subjective states (as in expressionism or stream-of-consciousness writings such as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse).
3.Alternative ways of thinking about representation (as in cubism).
4.A breakdown in generic distinction (as in between poetry and prose).
5.Fragmentation in form and representation (as in T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land").
6.Extreme ambiguity and simultaneity in structure (as in William Faulkner's multiply-narrated stories such as The Sound and the Fury).
7.Some experimentation in the breakdown between high and low forms (as in dadaism or T.S. Eliot's and James Joyce's inclusion of folk and pop-cultural material).
8.The use of parody and irony (as in surrealism, dadaism, or James Joyce's Ulysses).
(New World Encyclopedia)
In order to grasp an idea of what the "postmodernism" movement (in all its variations) is reacting against, one must first have an understanding of the definitive elements of "modernism."
Modernism in the second definition can be traced back to the Enlightenment, which was a humanistic reaction in the eighteenth century to the premodern, medieval type of religious dogmatism which could still be found in Lutheran and Calvinist scholasticism, Jesuit scholasticism, and the theory of the divine right of kings in the Church of England in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course, against this premodern type of religious dogmatism, there was another, religiously more profound, reaction in the eighteenth century, expressing itself in Pietism and John Wesley's Methodism. But the humanistic tradition of the Enlightenment was more influential than that.
Since its beginning, this Enlightenment tradition has a long history of philosophical, cultural, social and political development until most of the twentieth century, much longer and older than twentieth-century aesthetic modernism, and it is quite often called "modernity." This "modernity" tradition of the Enlightenment stressed the importance of the rational human self, objective truth or law, order, progress, etc., and it was behind most of the nineteenth century traditions. So, when the limitations of the nineteenth century were felt, "modernity" served as an indirect background against which twentieth-century aesthetic modernism sprang. When the limitations of "modernity" were more directly felt later in the twentieth century, it issued in a reaction called postmodernism, which, as will be explained below, is of a second kind, i.e., "postmodernity."
Clear thinking professor Mary Klages, author of Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, lists basic features of "modernity" since the Enlightenment as follows:
1.There is a stable, coherent, knowable self. This self is conscious, rational, autonomous, and universal—no physical conditions or differences substantially affect how this self operates.
2.This self knows itself and the world through reason, or rationality, posited as the highest form of mental functioning, and the only objective form.
3.The mode of knowing produced by the objective rational self is "science," which can provide universal truths about the world, regardless of the individual status of the knower.
4.The knowledge produced by science is "truth," and is eternal.
5.The knowledge/truth produced by science (by the rational objective knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection. All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason/objectivity) and improved.
6.Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what is right, and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom consists of obedience to the laws that conform to the knowledge discovered by reason.
7.In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no conflict between what is true and what is right (etc.).
8.Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective; scientists, those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased rational capacities, must be free to follow the laws of reason, and not be motivated by other concerns (such as money or power).
9.Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating knowledge, must be rational also. To be rational, language must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real/perceivable world which the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name them (between signifier and signified).
(New World Encyclopedia)
Corresponding to the two different facets of modernism, there are two distinguishable senses of postmodernism:
1) postmodernism as a reaction to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism; and
2) postmodernism as a reaction to the "modernity" tradition of the Enlightenment.
In order to be distinguished from the former, the latter is quite often called "postmodernity."
(New World Encyclopedia)
Postmodernism as a reaction to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism emerged soon after World War II. It still carried most of the features of twentieth-century aesthetic modernism. So, some have argued that it is essentially just an outgrowth of modernism, and not a separate movement. But, there is a fundamental difference. It is that while aesthetic modernism had presented fragmentation, for example, as something tragic to be lamented (as in Eliots' "The Waste Land"), postmodernism no longer laments it but rather celebrates it. Thus, postmodernism is inclined to stay with meaninglessness, playing with nonsense. Dino Felluga sees this difference and lists some of the things "that distinguish postmodern aesthetic work from modernist work" as follows:
1.Extreme self-reflexivity, more playful and even irrelevant (as in pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's "Masterpiece" or architect Frank Gehry's Nationale-Nederlanden Building in Prague).
2.Irony and parody (many examples in pop culture and media advertising). Regarding how to assess it, postmodern theorists are divided. While Linda Hutcheon, for example, values parody as a postmodern way to resist all ideological positions, Marxist critic Fredric Jameson characterizes it as "blank parody" or "pastiche" without any motive or impulse in the dystopic postmodern age in which we have lost our connection to history.
3.A breakdown between high and low cultural forms in more immediately understandable ways (as in Andy Warhol's painting for Campbell's Tomato Soup cans).
4.Retro. It is to use styles and fashions from the past with fascination but completely out of their original context (as in postmodern architecture in which medieval, baroque, and modern elements are often juxtaposed). Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard tend to regard it as a symptom of our loss of connection to history in which the history of aesthetic styles and fashions displaces real history.
5.A further questioning of grand narratives (as in Madonna videos such as "Like a Prayer" and "Material Girl," which question the grand narratives of traditional Christianity, capitalism, etc.).
6.Visuality and the simulacrum vs. temporality. The predominance of visual media (tv, film, media advertising, the computer) has lead to the use of visual forms (as in Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus: A Surviver's Tale through the medium of comics). Visuality also explains some other related features of aesthetic postmodernism: a more breakdown between high and low cultural forms, and a retro. Baudrillard and others have argued that a retro involves copies ("simulacra") of the past without any connection to real past history, blurring the distinction between representation and temporal reality.
7.Late capitalism whose dominance is generally feared (as in the predominance of paranoia narratives in movies such as "Blade Runner" and "the Matrix"). This fear is aided by advancements in technology, especially surveillance technology, which creates the sense that we are always being watched.
8.Disorientation (as in MTV or those films that seek to disorient the viewer completely through the revelation of a truth that changes everything that came before).
9.Return of orality (based on an influx of oral media sources such as tv, film, and radio).
Postmodernism in this sense was much discussed in the 1960s and 1970s by theorists such as Leslie Fielder and Ihab Hassan, although Hassan gradually extended his discussion to a general critique of Western culture, somewhat dealing with postmodernism in the other sense as well. Many other theorists such as Baudrillard, Jameson, and Hutcheson later joined the discussion on postmodernism in the first sense, perhaps having in mind postmodernism in the other sense as well.
(New World Encyclopedia)
Up until the 1970s the discussion on postmodernism was generally confined to postmodernism in its first sense. In 1980, however, Jürgen Habermas's lecture on "Modernity: An Unfinished Project" helped bring a shift in the discussion from postmodernism in its first sense (i.e., a reaction to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism) to postmodernism in the second sense (i.e., postmodernity), ironically because of its strong defense of modernity against postmodernity. Of course, the debate on modernity versus postmodernity had already started with the involvement of critics such as Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida in favor of postmodernity, as they felt that the modernity tradition of the Enlightenment was in crisis because of the emergence of problems such as alienation and exploitation within that tradition in spite of its original promise of positive cultural and social development. But, when Habermas was trying to defend modernity as an "unfinished project" we should not abandon yet, it prompted those who were in favor of postmodernity to react. Since then, a large volume of literature has continued to snowball, focusing on postmodernity as the more important facet of postmodernism.
Habermas now became the target of criticism especially from Lyotard, who published The Postmodern Condition in English in 1984, his best-known and most influential work. Lyotard declared the end of the Enlightenment and rejected its tradition of "grand narrative," a totalistic, universal theory which promises to explain and solve all problems by one set of ideas.
After summarizing modernity in terms of order and rationality, Mary Klages lists some of the basic characteristics of postmodernity over against it, as follows:
1.Postmodernity is, as is expressed especially by Lyotard, the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives in favor of "order" serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice even including Marxist society. It rejects grand narratives about large-scale or global universal concepts in favor of more situational and provisional "mini-narratives" about small practices and local events.
2.There are only signifiers. Signifieds do not exist.
3.This means that there are only copies, i.e., what Baudrillard calls "simulacra," and that there are no originals. For example, cds and music recordings have no original. Related to this is the concept of virtual reality, a reality created by a computer simulation game, for which there is no original.
4.Knowledge is not good for its own sake. Its functionality or utility is more important.
5.Knowledge is also distributed, stored, and arranged differently thought the emergence of computer technology, without which it ceases to be knowledge. The important thing about knowledge is not to assess it as truth (its technical quality), as goodness or justice (its ethical quality), or as beauty (its aesthetic quality), but rather to see who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided. In other words, says Lyotard, knowledge follows the paradigm of a language game, as laid out by Wittgenstein.
What should be added to the list as an important aspect of postmodernity is Jacques Derrida's project of deconstruction as an attempt to criticize what is called logocentrism beyond text.
GoTo Deconstruction/Jacques Derrida
(New World Encyclopedia)
The two different senses of postmodernism are reactions to the two different facets of modernism, respectively. One can observe that the reaction of postmodernity to modernity seems to be more radical than that of aesthetic postmodernism to twentieth-century aesthetic modernism, for whereas postmodernity is a big leap from modernity, aesthetic postmodernism still resembles twentieth-century aesthetic modernism at least in some external ways. Aesthetic modernism was already a very progressive movement in the first half of the twentieth century; so, aesthetic postmodernism, reacting to it, does not have to be a very big leap.
However, it is safe to say that the two different senses of postmodernism cohere and are not separate, even though they are originally two different reactions to the two different facets of modernism, respectively. Timewise, they both started soon after World War II. In terms of content as well, they concur in many respects. They interact, and "the postmodern turn can result from the interaction between" the two "in the postmodern pie." One good example of this interaction is references made by Foucault and Derrida to Belgian artist René Magritte's experiments with signification, with their appreciative understanding of Magritte's suggestion that no matter how realistically the artist can depict an item, verisimilitude is still an artistic strategy, a mere representation of the thing, not the thing itself.
The interaction of the two has resulted in a convergence of them also. Today, as some of the general characteristics of postmodernism as a whole, the following points in more popular terms are mentioned:
1.No absolute truth.
2.No absolute ethical standard. Hence the cause of feminists and homosexuals should also be tolerated.
3.No absolute religion. This means to promote religious inclusivism. It usually leans toward the New Age religion.
4.Globalization. There is no absolute nation. National boundaries hinder human communication.
5.Pro-environmentalism. Western society is blamed for the destruction of the environment.
(New World Encyclopedia)
Interestingly, postmodernism has invited a wide spectrum of criticisms, not only from conservatives but also from Marxist scholars and other intellectuals.
The term "postmodernism" is sometimes used to describe tendencies in society that are held to be antithetical to traditional systems of morality. Elements of the Christian Right, in particular, have interpreted postmodern society to be synonymous with moral relativism and contributing to deviant behavior. Conservative Christians also criticize postmodernism of being a serious challenge to scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical tradition, which they regard as foundations of their faith. Muslim fundamentalism, too, dislikes postmodernity in much the same way, even banning postmodern books such as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
Jürgen Habermas, a member of the Frankfurt School who is somewhat connected to Marxism, has an interesting criticism of postmodernity, saying that it is "neo-conservative." According to him, postmodernity is neo-conservative because it is irrational and potentially fascist in its abandonment of the rational program of the modernity tradition of the Enlightenment. Postmodernity, says Habermas, comes from the problematic tradition of what is called the "Counter-Enlightenment," which belittles autonomous rationality of the individual, scientific objectivity, rationalistic universalism, and public law in favor of will, spirit, and imagination. He argues that even though the Enlightenment may not have been perfect, we have to rehabilitate it.
Frederic Jameson, a Marxist, has offered an influential criticism of postmodernism. According to him, what lies behind postmodernism is the logic of "late capitalism," i.e., consumer capitalism, with its emphasis on marketing and consuming commodities, and not on producing them. One serious symptom of postmodernism today, therefore, is that the historical past has been shallowly transformed into a series of emptied-out stylizations, which are then consumed as commodities easily. Jameson relates this symptom to what he calls "pastiche" as contrasted from "parody." While parody can still make a strong political critique to the establishment based on its norms of judgment, pastiche as a juxtaposition of emptied-out stylizations without a normative grounding is "amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter." This also means a loss of our connection to real history. His criticism of postmodernism resembles Jean Baudrillard's based on his notion of "simulacra" (copies) of the past without any connection to real past history.
Alex Callinicos, not quite satisfied with the criticisms by Habermas and Jameson, has presented a stronger criticism. Callinicos blames the irrationalism and tepid relativism of Derrida and others, saying that it is simply constituted by a nihilistic reaction of those disillusioned bourgeois academics who experienced the failure of the student insurrection of Paris 1968 which ruled out any chance of a "people's revolution." Thus, it carries no sense of political resistance at all. Callinicos also attacks the theory of "post-industrial" society, which claims that "post-industrial" society with its mystified structures of global or disorganized capital in the postmodern age is beyond the ken of Marxism. For him, there is no such thing as post-industrial society, and worldwide revolution is still necessary. Still another criticism from him is directed toward the alleged existence of aesthetic postmodernism; according to him, it actually does not exist as it is nothing more than a refinement of aesthetic modernism.
(New World Encyclopedia)
The linguist Noam Chomsky has suggested that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals won't respond as "people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames."
There are lots of things I don't understand—say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc.—even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest—write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won't spell it out. Noam Chomsky
The criticism of postmodernism as ultimately meaningless rhetorical gymnastics was demonstrated in the Sokal Affair, where physicist Alan Sokal proposed and delivered for publication an article purportedly about interpreting physics and mathematics in terms of postmodern theory, which he had deliberately distorted to make it nonsensical. It was nevertheless published by Social Text a postmodernist cultural studies journal published by Duke University. Interestingly, editors at Social Text never acknowledged that the article's publication had been a mistake but supported a counter-argument defending the "interpretative validity" of Sokal's article, despite the author's later rebuttal of his own article.
(New World Encyclopedia)
Among the many criticisms, strictly speaking, there are some who have actually stated against postmodernism that the postmodern era has already ended, suggesting the coming of a new age of "post-postmodernism," which is a return of many of the features of modernity. British photographer David Bate observes that postmodernism has been replaced with what he calls "neo-realism" in which the postmodern type of representation no longer exists and instead "descriptive" works as in the photography exhibition in 2003 at the Tate Modern in London called Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth Century have emerged "to produce a reality as though this is 'as it really is', to make reality certain through realism and without interrogating it." In his essay "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond," literary critic Alan Kirby argues that we now inhabit an entirely new cultural landscape, which he calls "pseudo-modernism": "Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual's action the necessary condition of the cultural product."
(New World Encyclopedia)
Postmodernism has also been appreciated by various schools leaning toward liberalism such as feminism and accommodated even by religious and theological people especially in Christianity.
Some feminists such as Julia Kristeva, Jane Flax, and Judith Butler have found postmodernism to be in support of their cause. According to them, the categorization of the male/female binary in society came from the modernity tradition of the Enlightenment, and therefore it must be deconstructed. The gender difference is not naturally given. This position has built on the ideas of not only Simone de Beauvoir but also Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, etc., and it can be called "postmodern feminism" to be distinguished from other branches of feminism.
(New World Encyclopedia)
Some religious people welcome the relativist stance of postmodernism that says that there is no universal religious truth or law, for they believe that it provides an opportunity for interreligious dialogue with a spirit of pluralism. For a completely different reason, conservative believers, who are otherwise far from appreciative of postmodernism, welcome the condition of postmodern vacuum as a good context for evangelism: "A growing number of these Christians are embracing some postmodern ideas—- not uncritically, but believing they offer an authentic context for Christian living and fresh avenues of evangelism."
There are also theologically ambitious Christians who accommodate the challenge of postmodernism in such a creative way as to come up with a more understandable and even convincing, new theology in the midst of postmodern uncertainty. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology lists seven types of such theologians:
1.Theology of communal practice, which enables us to see the patterns of God in communities not through any theoretical foundations of modernism (John Howard Yoder, Nicholas Lash, etc.).
2.Postliberal theology, which involves biblical narratives to make the characters in the stories come alive, avoiding reaching any timeless core doctrine (George Lindbeck, etc.).
3.Postmetaphysical theology, which expresses God not in terms of being but rather in terms of goodness or love (Jean-Luc Marion, etc.).
4.Deconstructive theology, which goes through Derrida's deconstruction, but which ends up being a way of longing for God after deconstruction (John D. Caputo, etc.)
5.Reconstructive theology, which is Whiteheadian postmodernism, pursuing a non-dogmatic theological reconstruction after deconstruction (David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., etc.).
6.Feminist theology (Judith Butler, etc.).
7.Radical orthodoxy, which presents classical Christianity as a genuine alternative not only to modernity but also to postmodernity (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, etc.).
From above, it seems that postmodernism that may have brought a lot of challenges to many people is not necessarily an unpleasant thing but rather a good thing from which something new, truthful, and reliable can be expected to come.
(New World Encyclopedia)
Western European anthropology, around the time of World War I, was influenced by eugenics and biological determinism. But as early as the 1880s, this was beginning to be questioned by German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) (for example Boas, Franz. 1907. The Mind of Primitive Man), based at Columbia University in New York. He was critical of biological determinism and argued for the importance of environmental influence on individual personality and thus modal national personality in a way of thinking called ‘historical particularism.’
Boas emphasized the importance of environment and history in shaping different cultures, arguing that all humans were biologically relatively similar and rejecting distinctions of ‘primitive’ and civilized.’ Boas also presented critiques of the work of early evolutionists, such as Tylor, demonstrating that not all societies passed through the phases he suggested or did not do so in the order he suggested. Boas used these findings to stress the importance of understanding societies individually in terms of their history and culture (for example Freeman, Derek. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth).
Boas sent his student Margaret Mead (1901-1978) to American Samoa to study the people there with the aim of proving that they were a ‘negative instance’ in terms of violence and teenage angst. If this could be proven, it would undermine biological determinism and demonstrate that people were in fact culturally determined and that biology had very little influence on personality, something argued by John Locke (1632-1704) and his concept of the tabula rasa. This would in turn mean that Western people’s supposed teenage angst could be changed through changing the culture. After six months in American Samoa, Mead returned to the USA and published, in 1928, her influential book Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (Mead 1928). It portrayed Samoa as a society of sexual liberty in which there were none of the problems associated with puberty that were associated with Western civilization. Accordingly, Mead argued that she had found a negative instance and that humans were overwhelming culturally determined. At around the same time Ruth Benedict (1887-148), also a student of Boas’s, published her research in which she argued that individuals simply reflected the ‘culture’ in which they were raised (Benedict, Ruth. 1934 Patterns of Culture).
The cultural determinism advocated by Boas, Benedict and especially Mead became very popular and developed into school which has been termed ‘Multiculturalism’ (Gottfried, Paul. 2004 Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy). This school can be compared to Romantic nationalism in the sense that it regards all cultures as unique developments which should be preserved and thus advocates a form of ‘cultural relativism’ in which cultures cannot be judged by the standards of other cultures and can only be comprehended in their own terms. However, it should be noted that ‘cultural relativism’ is sometimes used to refer to the way in which the parts of a whole form a kind of separate organism, though this is usually referred to as ‘Functionalism.' In addition, Harris (Headland, Thomas, Pike, Kenneth, and Harris, Marvin. 1990 Emics and Etics: The Insider/ Outsider Debate) distinguishes between ‘emic’ (insider) and ‘etic’ (outsider) understanding of a social group, arguing that both perspectives seem to make sense from the different viewpoints. This might also be understood as cultural relativism and perhaps raises the question of whether the two worlds can so easily be separated. Cultural relativism also argues, as with Romantic Nationalism, that so-called developed cultures can learn a great deal from that which they might regard as ‘primitive’ cultures. Moreover, humans are regarded as, in essence, products of culture and as extremely similar in terms of biology.
Cultural Relativism led to so-called ‘cultural anthropologists’ focusing on the symbols within a culture rather than comparing the different structures and functions of different social groups, as occurred in ‘social anthropology’ (see below). As comparison was frowned upon, as each culture was regarded as unique, anthropology in the tradition of Mead tended to focus on descriptions of a group’s way of life. Thick description is a trait of ethnography more broadly but it is especially salient amongst anthropologists who believe that cultures can only be understood in their own terms. Such a philosophy has been criticized for turning anthropology into little more than academic-sounding travel writing because it renders it highly personal and lacking in comparative analysis (Sandall, Roger. 2001 The Culture Cult: On Designer Tribalism and Other Essays, Ch. 1).
Cultural relativism has also been criticized as philosophically impractical and, ultimately, epistemologically pessimistic (Scruton, Roger. 2000 Modern Culture), because it means that nothing can be compared to anything else or even assessed through the medium of a foreign language’s categories. In implicitly defending cultural relativism, anthropologists have cautioned against assuming that some cultures are more ‘rational’ than others. Hollis (Hollis, Martin. 1967 “The Limits of Irrationality”, European Journal of Sociology 8, 265-271.), for example, argues that anthropology demonstrates that superficially irrational actions may become ‘rational’ once the ethnographer understands the ‘culture.’ Risjord (Risjord, Mark. 2000 Woodcutters and Witchcraft: Rationality and the Interpretation of Change in the Social Sciences) makes a similar point. This implies that the cultures are separate worlds, ‘rational’ in themselves. Others have suggested that entering the field assuming that the Western, ‘rational’ way of thinking is correct can lead to biased fieldwork interpretation (for example Rees, Tobias. 2010. “On the Challenge – and the Beauty – of (Contemporary) Anthropological Inquiry: A Response to Edward Dutton.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16, 895-900).
Critics have argued that certain forms of behaviour can be regarded as undesirable in all cultures, yet are only prevalent in some. It has also been argued that Multiculturalism is a form of Neo-Marxism on the grounds that it assumes imperialism and Western civilization to be inherently problematic but also because it lauds the materially unsuccessful. Whereas Marxism extols the values and lifestyle of the worker, and critiques that of the wealthy, Multiculturalism promotes “materially unsuccessful” cultures and critiques more materially successful, Western cultures (for example Ellis [Ellis, Frank. 2004. Political Correctness and the Theoretical Struggle: From Lenin and Mao to Marcus and Foucault] or Gottfried [Gottfried, Paul. 2004 Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy]).
Cultural determinism has been criticized both from within and from outside anthropology. From within anthropology, New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman (1916-2001), having been heavily influenced by Margaret Mead, conducted his own fieldwork in Samoa around twenty years after she did and then in subsequent fieldwork visits. As he stayed there far longer than Mead, Freeman was accepted to a greater extent and given an honorary chiefly title. This allowed him considerable access to Samoan life. Eventually, in 1983 (after Mead’s death) he published his refutation: Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Freeman 1983). In it, he argued that Mead was completely mistaken. Samoa was sexually puritanical, violent and teenagers experienced just as much angst as they did everywhere else. In addition, he highlighted serious faults with her fieldwork: her sample was very small, she chose to live at the American naval base rather than with a Samoan family, she did not speak Samoan well, she focused mainly on teenage girls and Freeman even tracked one down who, as an elderly lady, admitted she and her friends had deliberately lied to Mead about their sex lives for their own amusement (Freeman 1999). It should be emphasized that Freeman’s critique of Mead related to her failure to conduct participant observation fieldwork properly (in line with Malinowski’s recommendations). In that Freeman rejects distinctions of primitive and advanced, and stresses the importance of culture in understanding human differences, it is also in the tradition of Boas. However, it should be noted that Freeman’s (1983) critique of Mead has also been criticized as being unnecessarily cutting, prosecuting a case against Mead to the point of bias against her and ignoring points which Mead got right (Shankman, Paul. 2009. The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy, 17). There remains an ongoing debate about the extent to which culture reflects biology or is on a biological leash. However, a growing body of research in genetics is indicating that human personality is heavily influenced by genetic factors (for example Alarcon, Foulks, and Vakkur 1998 or Wilson 1998), though some research also indicates that environment, especially while a fetus, can alter the expression of genes (Nettle, Daniel. 2007 Personality: What Makes Us the Way We Are). This has become part of the critique of cultural determinism from evolutionary anthropologists.
The ‘postmodern’ thinking of scholars such as Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984) began to become influential in anthropology in the 1970s and have been termed anthropology’s ‘Crisis of Representation.’ During this crisis, which many anthropologists regard as ongoing, every aspect of ‘traditional empirical anthropology’ came to be questioned.
Hymes (1974) criticized anthropologists for imposing ‘Western categories’ – such as Western measurement – on those they study, arguing that this is a form of domination and was immoral, insisting that truth statements were always subjective and carried cultural values. Talal Asad (1971) criticized field-work based anthropology for ultimately being indebted to colonialism and suggested that anthropology has essentially been a project to enforce colonialism. Geertzian anthropology was criticized because it involved representing a culture, something which inherently involved imposing Western categories upon it through producing texts. Marcus argued that anthropology was ultimately composed of ‘texts’ – ethnographies – which can be deconstructed to reveal power dynamics, normally the dominant-culture anthropologist making sense of the oppressed object of study through means of his or her subjective cultural categories and presenting it to his or her culture (for example Marcus and Cushman 1982). By extension, as all texts – including scientific texts – could be deconstructed, they argued, that they can make no objective assertions. Roth (1989) specifically criticizes seeing anthropology as ‘texts’ arguing that it does not undermine the empirical validity of the observations involved or help to find the power structures.
Various anthropologists, such as Roy Wagner (b. 1938) (Wagner 1981), argued that anthropologists were simply products of Western culture and they could only ever hope to understand another culture through their own. There was no objective truth beyond culture, simply different cultures with some, scientific ones, happening to be dominant for various historical reasons. Thus, this school strongly advocated cultural relativism. Critics have countered that, after Malinowski, anthropologists, with their participant observation breaking down the color bar, were in fact an irritation to colonial authorities (for example Kuper 1973) and have criticized cultural relativism, as discussed.
This situation led to what has been called the ‘reflexive turn’ in cultural anthropology. As Western anthropologists were products of their culture, just as those whom they studied were, and as the anthropologist was himself fallible, there developed an increasing movement towards ‘auto-ethnography’ in which the anthropologist analyzed their own emotions and feelings towards their fieldwork. The essential argument for anthropologists engaging in detailed analysis of their own emotions, sometimes known as the reflexive turn, is anthropologist Charlotte Davies’ (1999, 6) argument that the ‘purpose of research is to mediate between different constructions of reality, and doing research means increasing understanding of these varying constructs, among which is included the anthropologist’s own constructions’ (see Curran 2010, 109). But implicit in Davies’ argument is that there is no such thing as objective reality and objective truth; there are simply different constructions of reality, as Wagner (1981) also argues. It has also been argued that auto-ethnography is ‘emancipatory’ because it turns anthropology into a dialogue rather than a traditional hierarchical analysis (Heaton-Shreshta 2010, 49). Auto-ethnography has been criticized as self-indulgent and based on problematic assumptions such as cultural relativism and the belief that morality is the most important dimension to scholarship (for example Gellner 1992). In addition, the same criticisms that have been leveled against postmodernism more broadly have been leveled against postmodern anthropology, including criticism of a sometimes verbose and emotive style and the belief that it is epistemologically pessimistic and therefore leads to a Void (for example Scruton 2000). However, cautious defenders insist on the importance of being at least ‘psychologically aware’ (for example Emmett 1976) before conducting fieldwork, a point also argued by Popper (1963) with regard to conducting any scientific research. And Berger (2010) argues that auto-ethnography can be useful to the extent that it elucidates how a ‘social fact’ was uncovered by the anthropologist.
One of the significant results of the ‘Crisis of Representation’ has been a cooling towards the concept of ‘culture’ (and indeed ‘culture shock’) which was previously central to ‘cultural anthropology’ (see Oberg 1960 or Dutton 2012). ‘Culture’ has been criticized as old-fashioned, boring, problematic because it possesses a history (Rees 2010), associated with racism because it has come to replace ‘race’ in far right politics (Wilson 2002, 229), problematic because it imposes (imperialistically) a Western category on other cultures, vague and difficult to perfectly define (Rees 2010), helping to maintain a hierarchy of cultures (Abu-Lughod 1991) and increasingly questioned by globalization and the breakdown of discrete cultures (for example Eriksen 2002 or Rees 2010). Defenders of culture have countered that many of these criticisms can be leveled against any category of apprehension and that the term is not synonymous with ‘nation’ so can be employed even if nations become less relevant (for example Fox and King 2002). Equally, ‘culture shock,’ formerly used to describe a rite of passage amongst anthropologists engaging in fieldwork, has been criticized because of its association with culture and also as old-fashioned (Crapanzano 2010).
In addition, a number of further movements have been provoked by the postmodern movement in anthropology. One of these is ‘Sensory Ethnography’ (for example Pink 2009). It has been argued that traditionally anthropology privileges the Western emphasis on sight and the word and that ethnographies, in order to avoid this kind of cultural imposition, need to look at other senses such as smell, taste and touch. Another movement, specifically in the Anthropology of Religion, has argued that anthropologists should not go into the field as agnostics but should accept the possibility that the religious perspective of the group which they are studying may actually be correct and even work on the assumption that it is and engage in analysis accordingly (a point discussed in Engelke 2002).
During the same period, schools within anthropology developed based around a number of other fashionable philosophical ideologies. Feminist anthropology, like postmodern anthropology, began to come to prominence in the early 1970s. Philosophers such as Sandra Harding (1991) argued that anthropology had been dominated by men and this had led to anthropological interpretations being androcentric and a failure to appreciate the importance of women in social organizations. It has also led to androcentric metaphors in anthropological writing and focusing on research questions that mainly concern men. Strathern (1988) uses what she calls a Marxist-Feminist approach. She employs the categories of Melanesia in order to understand Melanesian gender relations to produce an ‘endogenous’ analysis of the situation. In doing so, she argues that actions in Melanesia are gender-neutral and the asymmetry between males and females is ‘action-specific.’ Thus, Melanesian women are not in any permanent state of social inferiority to men. In other words, if there is a sexual hierarchy it is de facto rather than de jure.
Critics have countered that prominent feminist interpretations have simply turned out to be empirically inaccurate. For example, feminist anthropologists, such as Weiner (1992) as well as philosopher Susan Dahlberg (1981), argued that foraging societies prized females and were peaceful and sexually egalitarian. It has been countered that this is a projection of feminist ideals which does not match with the facts (Kuznar 1997, Ch. 3). It has been argued that it does not follow that just because anthropology is male-dominated it is thus biased (Kuznar 1997, Ch. 3). However, feminist anthropologist Alison Wylie (see Risjord 1997) has argued that ‘politically motivated critiques’ including feminist ones, can improve science. Feminist critique, she argues, demonstrates the influence of ‘androcentric values’ on theory which forces scientists to hone their theories.
Another school, composed of some anthropologists from less developed countries or their descendants, have proffered a similar critique, shifting the feminist view that anthropology is androcentric by arguing that it is Euro-centric. It has been argued that anthropology is dominated by Europeans, and specifically Western Europeans and those of Western European descent, and therefore reflects European thinking and bias. For example, anthropologists from developing countries, such as Greenlandic Karla Jessen-Williamson, have argued that anthropology would benefit from the more holistic, intuitive thinking of non-Western cultures and that this should be integrated into anthropology (for example Jessen-Williamson 2006). American anthropologist Lee Baker (1991) describes himself as ‘Afro-Centric’ and argues that anthropology must be critiqued due to being based on a ‘Western’ and ‘positivistic’ tradition which is thus biased in favour of Europe. Afrocentric anthropology aims to shift this to an African (or African American) perspective. He argues that metaphors in anthropology, for example, are Euro-centric and justify the suppression of Africans. Thus, Afrocentric anthropologists wish to construct an ‘epistemology’ the foundations of which are African. The criticisms leveled against cultural relativism have been leveled with regard to such perspectives (see Levin 2005).
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