This introduction to the Common Knowledge symposium titled “Comparative Relativism” outlines a variety of intellectual contexts where placing the unlikely companion terms comparison and relativism in conjunction offers analytical purchase. If comparison, in the most general sense, involves the investigation of discrete contexts in order to elucidate their similarities and differences, then relativism, as a tendency, stance, or working method, usually involves the assumption that contexts exhibit, or may exhibit, radically different, incomparable, or incommensurable traits. Comparative studies are required to (...) treat their objects as alike, at least in some crucial respects; relativism indicates the limits of this practice. Jensen argues that this seeming paradox is productive, as he moves across contexts, from Lévi-Strauss's analysis of comparison as an anthropological method to Peter Galison's history of physics, and on to the anthropological, philosophical, and historical examples offered in symposium contributions by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern, and Isabelle Stengers. Comparative relativism is understood by some to imply that relativism comes in various kinds and that these have multiple uses, functions, and effects, varying widely in different personal, historical, and institutional contexts that can be compared and contrasted. Comparative relativism is taken by others to encourage a “comparison of comparisons,” in order to relativize what different peoples—say, Western academics and Amerindian shamans—compare things “for.” Jensen concludes that what is compared and relativized in this symposium are the methods of comparison and relativization themselves. He ventures that the contributors all hope that treating these terms in juxtaposition may allow for new configurations of inquiry. (shrink)
A development in anthropological theory, characterized as the 'moral turn', is gaining popularity and should be carefully considered. In examining the context, arguments, and discourse that surrounds this trend, this volume reconceptualizes the discipline of anthropology in a radical way. Contributions from anthropologists from around the world from different theoretical traditions and with expertise in a multiplicity of ethnographic areas makes this collection a provocative contribution to larger discussions not only in anthropology but the social sciences more broadly.
This piece addresses Marilyn Strathern's article, “Binary License,” and the important contribution she makes to the development of an anthropology that is truly comparative and that aims to escape some important disadvantages of an earlier relativism. This comment places her in the context of the related effort of Louis Dumont, which involved a sustained critique of Eurocentricism, in which he saw anthropological comparativism as hitherto being bound. A question is raised concerning the extent to which Strathern has escaped the kind (...) of criticism that Dumont developed. Additionally, Strathern's Hagen materials are considered in relation to the earlier Zambian studies of the “Manchester school” of anthropology and which addressed similar ethnographic materials. Strathern's work is regarded in this comment as bearing some similarity with current directions in actor-network theory, although sustaining an ontological approach that is seen by some as contributing to the risks of anthropological relativism. The comment attempts to work within the spirit of Strathern's original contribution and is concerned with how anthropological comparativism may avoid some of the pitfalls that are commonly associated with it. (shrink)