Anthropological theory: Post-Modernism

As an intellectual movement postmodernism was born as a challenge to several modernist themes that were first articulated during the Enlightenment. These include scientific positivism, the inevitability of human progress, and the potential of human reason to address any essential truth of physical and social conditions and thereby make them amenable to rational control (Boyne and Rattansi 1990). The primary tenets of the postmodern movement include: (1) an elevation of text and language as the fundamental phenomena of existence, (2) the application of literary analysis to all phenomena, (3) a questioning of reality and representation, (4) a critique of metanarratives, (5) an argument against method and evaluation, (6) a focus upon power relations and hegemony, (7) and a general critique of Western institutions and knowledge. For his part, Lawrence Kuznar labels postmodern anyone whose thinking includes most or all of these elements.

Postmodernism has its origins as an eclectic social movement originating in aesthetics, architecture and philosophy. In architecture and art, fields which are distinguished as the oldest claimants to the name, postmodernism originated in the reaction against abstraction in painting and the International Style in architecture. However, postmodern thinking arguably began in the nineteenth century with Nietzsche’s assertions regarding truth, language, and society, which opened the door for all later postmodern and late modern critiques about the foundations of knowledge.

Postmodernism and anthropology Postmodern attacks on ethnography are generally based on the belief that there is no true objectivity and that therefore the authentic implementation of the scientific method is impossible. For instance, Isaac Reed (2010) conceptualizes the postmodern challenge to the objectivity of social research as skepticism over the anthropologist’s ability to integrate the context of investigation and the context of explanation. Reed defines the context of investigation as the social and intellectual context of the investigator – essentially her social identity, beliefs and memories. The context of explanation, on the other hand, refers to the reality that she wishes to investigate, and in particular the social actions she wishes to explain and the surrounding social environment, or context, that she explains them with. In the late 1970s and 1980s some anthropologists, such as Crapanzano and Rabinow, began to express elaborate self-doubt concerning the validity of fieldwork. By the mid-1980s the critique about how anthropologists interpreted and explained the Other, essentially how they engaged in “writing culture,” had become a full-blown epistemic crisis that Reed refers to as the “postmodern” turn. The driving force behind the postmodern turn was a deep skepticism about whether the investigator could adequately, effectively, or honestly integrate the context of investigation into the context of explanation and, as a result, write true social knowledge. This concern was most prevalent in cultural and linguistic anthropology, less so in archaeology, and had the least effect on physical anthropology, which is generally the most scientific of the four subfields.

The following are some proposed differences between modern and postmodern thought: Contrast of Modern(M) and Postmodern Thinking(PM)


M:From foundation upwards

PM:Multiple factors of multiple levels of reasoning. Web-oriented.


M:Universal Optimism

PM:Realism of Limitations


M:Parts comprise the whole

PM:The whole is more than the parts


M:Acts by violating “natural” laws” or by “immanence” in everything that is

PM:Top-Down causation



PM:Meaning in social context through usage

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