Week 2: The Norm

What Durkheim is presenting us with is the framework for a sociological method that, by now, is quite familiar: one that separates individual experience from social fact. For Durkheim, “society is not the mere sum of its individual members” (Perry, 19). There is something that exists as a crystallized and resistant that exists outside of the individual subject that shapes his (intentional pronoun choice) behaviour. There is something (public conscience) that exercises a “check on every act which offends it” (Durkheim, 2). Constraints on subjects are not necessarily violent but are of a
social nature. These constraints form the “category of facts” that Durkheim wants to classify as social. Articulated, differently Durkheim wants to study the crystallized forms of, what we now commonly refer to as ‘norms’ which become crystallized “by reason of their repetition” (7) and as a result they “thus acquire a body, a tangible form, and constitute a reality in their own right, quite distinct from the individual facts that produce it” (7; emphasis added). The language Durkheim uses (rigid, condense, crystallize) sets the stage for poststructuralist works such as Butler’s ‘performativity’, I want to keep this in mind for when we read Butler later in the semester. Social norms are the, to use Butler’s language, ‘sedimented’ structures that make social performances intelligible. Because norms or social facts have distinct bodies (and I hope that tomorrow we can build on our previous analysis of bodies) Durkeim wants to consider social facts as “things” (14) that can be ‘objectively’ studied.

While there is much more happening in the Durkheim piece, I want to turn my attention over to the Morgan and the Boas texts. Before I do, however, I want to also signal an increased reliance on statistical data as way to study
social facts not as ideas or individual instances but as ‘things’. We can see that there that data is emerging as  the only way to ‘objectively’ study society.

Morgan’s text is concerned with time and, like Tylor’s concept of
survivals, posits that multiple ethical periods can coexist. The
anthropologist can encounter members of a previous period. According
to Morgan those living in a previous period are ‘living fossils’. This idea of multiple temporalities coexisiting brings to mind more current work such as McClintocks’s concept of “anachronistic space”: spatio-temporal relations are not fixed. A Morgan-type anthropologist exists in modern time while the savages he witnesses are relegated to another time-space. It is very telling that Morgan dismisses time as factor in his ethnical periods.

Though equally problematic, Boas is doing something different and it is with his argument that I would like to finish. Obviously influenced by Durkheim and Morgan Boas is trying to rethink anthropology as a study of the “external conditions” (13) and, like Durkheim, is trying to erase the individual in favor of collective or cultural facts (12). Boas, however, is not erasing race as a defining feature of a ‘group’ but is stating that it is one factor among many which affects “development”  (16).  While he argues that in theory external conditions affect the individual and that individual change dramatically depending on local (46), he also makes claims like “…but serially the Negroid brain is less extremely human than that of the White” (40). What Boas is doing is negating external circumstance as an unchangeable form of difference and situating unchangeable difference internally, biologically (an idiot is always an idiot)…(What Paul Gilroy traces as the shift from biology to culture). Specifically, he examines material culture by comparing “similar inventions” (61). It is not coincidence that those in the Pacific Islands only have technologies relegated to what Morgan would call the barbarian period and the Old World is credited with the invention of writing (61).This makes claims that Boas is able to “disregard the racial position of people we study” (62) all the more difficult.

This week I hope we can look at the emergence of statistical data and also what Jaspir Puar calls spatio-temporal assemblages. Time and space is layered and multiple and, as the simultaneous existence of multiple ethnical periods shows, not linear.

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