Friday, March 04, 2005

The Doomsayers

Ur-symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz reviews the latest offerings by Jared Diamond and Richard Posner (which focus on disaster and social collapse) in the latest New York Review of Books. Leave it to the researcher with years of ethnographic experience to point out the shortcomings of encapsulated portraits of culture, leading to simplistic explanations of human behavior.

What is most striking about both Diamond's and Posner's views of human behavior is how sociologically thin and how lacking in psychological depth they are. Neither the one, who seems to regard societies as collective persons, minded super-beings intending, deciding, acting, choosing, nor the other, for whom there are only goal-seeking individuals, perceiving and calculating rational actors not always rational, has very much to say about the social and cultural contexts in which their disasters unfold. Either heedless and profligate populations "blunder" or "stumble" their way into self-destruction or strategizing utility maximizers fail to appreciate the true dimensions of the problems they face. What happens to them happens in locales and settings, not in culturally and politically configurated life-worlds—singular situations, immediate occasions, particular circumstances.

But it is within such life-worlds, situations, occasions, circumstances, that calamity, when it occurs, takes intelligible shape, and it is that shape that determines both the response to it and the effects that it has. However "natural," "physical," or "material" they may be, and however unpredictable or unintended, collapse and catastrophe are, like coups and recessions, riots and religious movements, social events.

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