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Theory in Anthropology since the Si Sherry B. Ortner Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 1. (Jan., 1984), pp. 126-166. Stable URL hitp:/flinks.jstor-org/sicisici=0010-4175%28198401%2926%3A 1% 3C 126%3ATIASTS% 31 CO%3B2-T Comparative Studies in Society and History is currently published by Cambridge University Press Your use of the ISTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at hup:/www,jstororglabout/terms.hml. ISTOR’s Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www jstor.orgyjoumals/cup.html, ch copy of any part of'a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the sereen or printed page of such transmission, ISTOR is an independent not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating and preserving a digital archive of scholarly journals. For more information regarding JSTOR, please contact support @ jstor.org. hupulwww jstor.org/ Mon Aug 21 13:41:58 2006 Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties SHERRY B. ORTNER University of Michigan Every year, around the time of the meetings of the American Anthropological Association, the New York Times asks a Big Name anthropologist to contrib- lute an op-ed piece on the state ofthe field. These pieces tend to take a rather gloomy view. A few years ago, for example, Marvin Harris suggested that anthropology was being taken over by mystics, religious fanaties, and Cal- ifornia cultists; that the meetings were dominated by panels on shamanism, witchcraft, and “abnormal phenomena”; and that “scientific papers based on empirical studies” had been willfully excluded from the program (Harris 1978). More recently, in a more sober tone, Eric Wolf suggested that the field of anthropology is coming apart. The sub-fields (and sub-sub-fields) are in- creasingly pursuing their specialized interests, losing contact with each other and with the whole. There is no longer a shared discourse, a shared set of terms to which all practitioners address themselves, a shared language we all, however idiosyncratically, speak (Wolf 1980), ‘The state of affairs does seem much as Wolf describes it. The field appears to be a thing of shreds and patches, of individuals and small coteries pursuing disjunctive investigations and talking mainly to themselves. We do not even hear stirring arguments any more. Although anthropology was never actually unified in the sense of adopting a single shared paradigm, there was atleast a period when there were a few large categories of theoretical affiliation, a set of identifiable camps or schools, and a few simple epithets one could hurl at “This esay contains much of my ov intellectual history. Thee will be no. more appropriate context i which to thnk my teachers, Federica de Laguna, Clifford Geert, and David ‘Scheider forhaving timed me, forte of for worse, ita anthropologist. nation, Uwish to thank the folowing friends and colleagues for bef cntibutions tothe development of this ‘say: Nancy Chodorow, Salvatore Cacti, James Femandez, Raymond Grew, Keth Hat, Raymond Kelly, David Renter, Robert Pal, Pas! Rabinow, Joyce Riegel, Anton Weiler, and Harriet Whitehead. Pars ofthis work were presented atthe Department of Anthropology. Pnceton University, the Department of Socal Anthropology, Untverty of Stockh the Social Science History Seminar (ounded and coordinated by Chares and Louis Tilly). Univer- ‘iy of Michigan: the Humanities Seminar, Stnford Univer: andthe Seminar on Theory and ‘Methods i Comparative Studies (coordinated by Neil Smeler atthe Univers of Califor, Berkeley. I recerved valuable comments and reactions inal of these context. (0010-4175/84/1709.0100 $2.50 © 1984 Society for Comparative Sudy of Society and History 126 THEORY IN ANTHROPOLOGY SINCE THE SIXTIES 127 ‘one’s opponents. Now there appears to be an apathy of spirit even at this level. We no longer call each other names. We are no longer sure of how the sides are to be drawn up, and of where we would place ourselves if we could identify the sides, Yet as anthropologists we can recognize in all of this the classic symptoms of liminality—confusion of categories, expressions of chaos and antistruc- ture. And we know that such disorder may be the breeding ground for a new and perhaps better order. Indeed, if one scrutinizes the present more closely, ‘one may even discern within it the shape of the new order to come. That is ‘what I propose to do in this article, 1 will argue that a new key symbol of theoretical orientation is emerging, which may be labeled “practice” (or “action”” or “‘praxis”). This is neither a theory nor a method in itself, but rather, as I said, a symbol, in the name of which a variety of theories and methods are being developed. In order to understand the significance of this trend, however, we must go back at least twenty years and see where we started from, and how we got to where we are now. Before launching this enterprise, however, it is important to specify its nature. This essay will be primarily concerned with the relations between various theoretical schools or approaches, both within periods of time, and ‘across time. No single approach will be exhaustively outlined or discussed in itself; rather, various themes or dimensions of each will be highlighted insofar as they relate o the larger trends of thought with which I am concerned. Every anthropologist will probably find his or her favorite school oversimplified, if not outright distorted, insofar as I have choosen to emphasize features that do not correspond to what are normally taken, among the practitioners, to be its ‘most important theoretical features. Thus readers seeking more exhaustive discussions of particular approaches, and/or discussions pursued from a point of view more interior to the approaches, will have t0 seek elsewhere. The concer here, again, is with elucidating relations. Although there is always some arbitrariness in choosing a starting point for any historical discussion, I have decided to begin in the early 1960s. For one thing, that is when / started in the field, and since I generally assume the importance of seeing any system, at least in part, from the actor's point of ‘wv, I might as well unite theory and practice from the outset. It is thus fully acknowledged that this discussion proceeds not from some hypothetical exter- nal point, but from the perspective of this particular actor moving through anthropology between 1960 and the present. But actors always wish to claim universality for their particular experiences and interpretations. I would further suggest then that, in some relatively objective sense, there was in fact a major set of revolutions in anthropological theory, beginning in the early sixties. Indeed it appears that such revisionist