Postmodernism and Its Critics

By Daniel Salberg, Robert Stewart, Karla Wesley and Shannon Weiss

Basic Premises

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,  and (7) a general critique of Western institutions and knowledge (Kuznar 2008:78). For his part, Lawrence Kuznar labels postmodern anyone whose thinking includes most or all of these elements.

Importantly, the term postmodernism refers to a broad range of artists, academic critics, philosophers, and social scientists that Christopher Butler (2003:2) has only half-jokingly alluded to as like “a loosely constituted and quarrelsome political party.” The anthropologist Melford Spiro defines postmodernism thusly: “The postmodernist critique of science consists of two interrelated arguments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based on subjectivity. First, because of the subjectivity of the human object, anthropology, according to the epistemological argument cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivity of the human subject precludes the possibility of science discovering objective truth. Second, since objectivity is an illusion, science according to the ideological argument, subverts oppressed groups, females, ethnics, and third-world peoples” (Spiro 1996: 759).

Postmodernism has its origins as an eclectic social movement originating in aesthetics, architecture and philosophy (Bishop 1996). 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 (Callinicos 1990: 101). 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 (Kuznar 2008: 78). Nietzsche asserted that truth was simply: a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are. [Nietzsche 1954: 46-47]

According to Kuznar, postmodernists trace this skepticism about truth and the resulting relativism it engenders from Nietzsche to Max Weber and Sigmund Freud, and finally to Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and other contemporary postmodernists (2008:78).

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 regarded as the most scientific of the four subfields.

Modernity first came into being with the Renaissance. Modernity implies “the progressive economic and administrative rationalization and differentiation of the social world” (Sarup 1993). In essence this term emerged in the context of the development of the capitalist state. The fundamental act of modernity is to question the foundations of past knowledge, and Boyne and Rattansi characterize modernity as consisting of two sides: “the progressive union of scientific objectivity and politico-economic rationality . . . mirrored in disturbed visions of unalleviated existential despair” (1990: 5).

Postmodernity is the state or condition of being postmodern. Logically postmodernism literally means “after modernity.”  It refers to the incipient or actual dissolution of those social forms associated with modernity” (Sarup 1993). The archaeologist Mathew Johnson has characterized postmodernity, or the postmodern condition, as disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals (Johnson 2010). Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his seminal work The Postmodern Condition (1984) defines it as an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is, somewhat ironically, a product of scientific progress (1984: xxiv).

Postmodernity concentrates on the tensions of difference and similarity erupting from processes of globalization and capitalism: the accelerating circulation of people, the increasingly dense and frequent cross-cultural interactions, and the unavoidable intersections of local and global knowledge. Some social critics have attempted to explain the postmodern condition in terms of the historical and social milieu which spawned it. David Ashley (1990) suggests that “modern, overloaded individuals, desperately trying to maintain rootedness and integrity . . . ultimately are pushed to the point where there is little reason not to believe that all value-orientations are equally well-founded. Therefore, increasingly, choice becomes meaningless.” Jean Baudrillard, one of the most radical postmodernists, writes that we must come to terms with the second revolution: “that of the Twentieth Century, of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. Whoever lives by meaning dies by meaning” ([Baudrillard 1984:38-39] in Ashley 1990).

Modernization “is often used to refer to the stages of social development which are based upon industrialization. Modernization is a diverse unity of socio-economic changes generated by scientific and technological discoveries and innovations. . .” (Sarup 1993). Modernism should be considered distinct from the concept of “modernity.” . Although in its broadest definition modernism refers to modern thought, character or practice, the term is usually restricted to a set of artistic, musical, literary, and more generally aesthetic movements that emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century and would become institutionalized in the academic institutions and art galleries of post-World War I Europe and America (Boyne and Rattansi 1990). Important figures include Matisse, Picasso, and Kandinsky in painting, Joyce and Kafka in literature, and Eliot and Pound in poetry. It can be characterized by self-consciousness, the alienation of the integrated subject, and reflexiveness, as well as by a general critique of modernity’s claims regarding the progressive capacity of science and the efficacy of metanarratives. These themes are very closely related to Postmodernism (Boyne and Rattansi 1990: 6-8; Sarup 1993).

Sarup maintains that “There is a sense in which if one sees modernism as the culture of modernity, postmodernism is the culture of postmodernity” (1993). The term “postmodernism” is somewhat controversial since many doubt whether it can ever be dignified by conceptual coherence. For instance, it is difficult to reconcile postmodernist approaches in fields like art and music to certain postmodern trends in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. However, it is in some sense unified by a commitment to a set of cultural projects privileging heterogeneity, fragmentation, and difference, as well as a relatively widespread mood in literary theory, philosophy, and the social sciences that question the possibility of impartiality, objectivity, or authoritative knowledge (Boyne and Rattansi 1990: 9-11).

Points of Reaction

In the previous section, it has been asserted that, in the broadest sense, rejecting many fundamental elements of the Enlightenment project has been identified as the stimulus for the development of postmodernism.  This section addresses cross-currents within the varied practices found inside of what might loosely be called the Postmodernism project.

“Modernity” takes its Latin origin from “modo,” which means “just now.” The Postmodern, then, literally means “after just now” (Appignanesi and Garratt 1995). Points of reaction from within postmodernism are associated with other “posts”: postcolonialism, poststructuralism, and postprocessualism.

Postcolonialism has been defined as:

  • A description of institutional conditions in formerly colonial societies.
  • An abstract representation of the global situation after the colonial period.
  • A description of discourses informed by psychological and epistemological orientations.

Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993) uses discourse analysis and postcolonial theory as tools for rethinking forms of knowledge and the social identities of postcolonial systems. An important feature of postcolonialist thought is its assertion that modernism and modernity are part of the colonial project of domination. Debates about postcolonialism are unresolved, yet issues raised in Said’s Orientalism (1978), a critique of Western descriptions of Non-Euro-American Others, suggest that colonialism as a discourse is based on the ability of Westerners to examine other societies in order to produce knowledge and use it as a form of power deployed against the very subjects of inquiry. As should be readily apparent, the issues of postcolonialism are uncomfortably relevant to contemporary anthropological investigations.

Poststructuralism In reaction to the abstraction of cultural data characteristic of model building, cultural relativists argue that model building hindered understanding of thought and action. From this claim arose poststructuralist concepts such as developed in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1972). He asserts that structural models should not be replaced but enriched. Poststructuralists like Bourdieu are concerned with reflexivity and the search for logical practice. By doing so, accounts of the participants’ behavior and meanings are not objectified by the observer. In general postructuralism expresses disenchantment with static, mechanistic, and controlling models of culture, instead privileging social process and agency.

Postprocessualism  Unlike postcolonialism and poststructuralism, which are associated with  cultural anthropology, postprocessualism is a trend that emerged among archaeologists. Postprocessualists “use deconstructionist skeptical arguments to conclude that there is no objective past and that our representations of the past are only texts that we produce on the basis of our socio-political standpoints (Harris 1999).

Leading Figures

Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007) Baudrillard was a sociologist who began his career exploring the Marxist critique of capitalism (Sarup 1993: 161). During this phase of his work he argued that, “consumer objects constitute a system of signs that differentiate the population” (Sarup 1993: 162). Eventually, however, Baudrillard felt that Marxist tenets did not effectively evaluate commodities, so he turned to postmodernism. Rosenau labels Baudrillard as a skeptical postmodernist because of statements like, “everything has already happened….nothing new can occur,” and “there is no real world” (Rosenau 1992: 64, 110). Baudrillard breaks down modernity and postmodernity in an effort to explain the world as a set of models. He identifies early modernity as the period between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, modernity as the period at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and postmodernity as the period of mass media (cinema and photography). Baudrillard states that we live in a world of images, but images that are only simulations. Baudrillard implies that many people fail to understand this concept that, “we have now moved into an epoch…where truth is entirely a product of consensus values, and where ‘science’ itself is just the name we attach to certain modes of explanation,” (Norris 1990: 169).

Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) is identified as a poststructuralist and a skeptical postmodernist. Much of his writing is concerned with the deconstruction of texts and probing the relationship of meaning between texts (Bishop 1996: 1270). He observes that “a text employs its own stratagems against it, producing a force of dislocation that spreads itself through an entire system.” (Rosenau 1993: 120). Derrida directly attacks Western philosophy’s understanding of reason. He sees reason as dominated by “a metaphysics of presence.” Derrida agrees with structuralism’s insight, that meaning is not inherent in signs, but he proposes that it is incorrect to infer that anything reasoned can be used as a stable and timeless model (Appignanesi 1995: 77).  According to Norris, “He tries to problematize the grounds of reason, truth, and knowledge…he questions the highest point by demanding reasoning for reasoning itself,” (1990: 199).

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) – Foucault was a French philosopher who attempted to show that what most people think of as the permanent truths of human nature and society actually change throughout the course of history. While challenging the influences of Marx and Freud, Foucault postulated that everyday practices enabled people to define their identities and systemize knowledge. Foucault is considered a postmodern theorist precisely because his work upset the conventional understanding of history as a chronology of inevitable facts. Alternatively, he depicted history as existing under layers of suppressed and unconscious knowledge in and throughout history. These under layers are the codes and assumptions of order, the structures of exclusion that legitimate the epistemes by which societies achieve identities (Appignanesi 1995: 83). In addition to these insights, Foucault’s study of power and its shifting patterns is one of the foundations of postmodernism. Foucault believed that power was inscribed in everyday life to the extent that many social roles and institutions bore the stamp of power, specifically as it could be used to regulate social hierarchies and structures. These could be regulated though control of the conditions in which “knowledge,” “truth,” and socially accepted “reality” were produced (Erikson and Murphy 2010: 272).

Clifford Geertz (1926 – 2006) was a prominent anthropologist best known for his work with religion. Closely identified with interpretive anthropology, he was somewhat ambivalent about anthropological postmodernism. He divided it into two movements that both came to fruition in the 1980s. The first movement revolved around  essentially literary matters: authorship, genre, style, narrative, metaphor, representation, discourse, fiction, figuration, persuasion; the second, essentially entailed adopting political stances: the social foundations of anthropological authority, the modes of power inscribed in its practices, its ideological assumptions, its complicity with colonialism, racism, exploitation, and exoticism, and its dependency on the master narratives of Westerns self-understanding. These interlinked critiques of anthropology, the one inward-looking and brooding, the other outward-looking and recriminatory, may not have produced the ‘fully dialectical ethnography acting powerfully in the postmodern world system,’ to quote that Writing Culture blast again, nor did they exactly go unresisted. But they did induce a certain self-awareness and a certain candor also, into a discipline not without need of them.. [Geertz 2002: 11]

Ian Hodder (1948 – ) is a founder of postprocessualism and is generally considered one of the most influential archaeologists of the last thirty years. The postprocessual movement arose out of an attempt to apply insights gained from French Marxist anthropology to the study of material culture and was heavily  influenced by a postmodern epistemology. Working in sub-Sahara Africa, Hodder and his students documented how material culture was not merely a reflection of sociopolitical organization, but was also an active element that could be used to disguise, invert, and distort social relations. Bruce Trigger (2006:481) has argued that perhaps the most successful “law” developed in recent archaeology was this demonstration that material culture plays an active role in social strategies and hence can alter as well as reflect social reality.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1944-) Scheper-Hughes is a professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In her work “Primacy of the Ethical” Scheper-Hughes argues that, “If we cannot begin to think about social institutions and practices in moral or ethical terms, then anthropology strikes me as quite weak and useless.” (1995: 410). She advocates that ethnographies be used as tools for critical reflection and human liberation because she feels that “ethics” make culture possible. Since culture is preceded by ethics, therefore ethics cannot be culturally bound as argued by anthropologists in the past. These philosophies are evident in her other works such as, Death Without Weeping. The crux of her postmodern perspective is that, “Anthropologists, no less than any other professionals, should be held accountable for how we have used and how we have failed to use anthropology as a critical tool at crucial historical moments. It is the act of “witnessing” that lends our word its moral, at times almost theological, character” (1995: 419).

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998) was the author of a highly influential work on postmodern society called, The Postmodern Condition (1984). This book was a critique of the current state of knowledge among modern postindustrial nations such as those found in the United States and much of Western Europe. In it Lyotard made a number of notable arguments, one of which was that the postmodern world suffered from a crisis of “representation,” in which older modes of writing about the objects of artistic, philosophical, literary, and social scientific languages were no longer credible. Lyotard suggests that: The Postmodern would be that which …that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations–not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable.[Lyotard 1984]

Lyotard also attacked modernist thought as epitomized by “Grand” Narratives or what he termed the Meta(master) narrative (Lyotard 1984). In contrast to the ethnographies written by anthropologists in the first half of the 20th Century, Lyotard states that an all-encompassing account of a culture cannot be accomplished.

Key Works

  • Baudrillard, Jean (1995) Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1997) Of Grammatology. Corrected ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Foucault, Michel (1970) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon.
  • Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Marcus, George E. and Michael M. J. Fischer (1986) Anthropology as Cultural Critique. An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Norris, Christopher (1979) Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.
  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1993) Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Tyler, Stephen (1986) Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult To Occult Document. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Vattimo, Gianni (1988) The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics. In Post-Modern Critique. London: Polity.

Principal Concepts

“Culture” in Peril – Aside from Foucault, other postmodernists felt that “Culture is becoming a dangerously unfocused term, increasingly lacking in scientific credentials” (Pasquinelli 1996). The concept of Culture as a whole was tied not only to modernity, but to evolutionary theory (and, implicitly, to eurocentrism). In the postmodernist view, if “culture” existed it had to be totally relativistic without any suggestion of “progress.” While postmodernists did have a greater respect for later revisions of cultural theory by Franz Boas and his followers, who attempted to shift from a single path of human “culture” to many varied “cultures,” they found even this unsatisfactory because it still required the use of a Western concept to define non-Western people.

Lament – Lament is a practice of ritualized weeping (Wilce 2005). In the view of Wilce, the traditional means of laments in many cultures were being forced out by modernity due to many claiming that ritualized displays of discontent, particularly discontent with the lost of traditional culture, was a “backwards” custom that needed to be stopped.

Metanarrative – Lawrence Kuznar describes metanarratives as grand narratives such as the Enlightenment, Marxism or the American dream. Postmodernists see metanarratives as unfairly totalizing or naturalizing in their generalizations about the state of humanity and historical process (2008:83).

Polyvocality – Paralleling the generally relatativst and skeptical attitudes towards scientific authority, many postmodernists advocate polyvocality, which maintains that there exists multiple, legitimate versions of reality or truths as seen from different perspectives. Postmodernists construe Enlightenment rationalism and scientific positivism as an effort to impose hegemonic values and political control on the world. By challenging the authority of anthropologists and other Western intellectuals, postmodernists see themselves as defending the integrity of local cultures and helping weaker peoples to oppose their oppressors (Trigger 2006:446-447).

Power – Foucault was a prominent critic of the idea of “culture,” preferring instead to wield the concept of “power” as the major focus of anthropological research (Barrett 2001). Foucault felt that it was through the dynamics of power that “a human being turns himself into a subject” (Foucault 1982). This is not only true of political power, but also includes people recognizing things such as sexuality as forces to which they are subject. “The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in which certain actions modify others. Which is to say, of course, that something called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist” (Foucault 1982: 788).

Radical skepticism – The systematic skepticism of grounded theoretical perspectives and objective truths espoused by many postmodernists had a profound effect on anthropology. This skepticism has shifted focus from the observation of a particular society to a reflexive consideration of the (anthropological) observer (Bishop 1996). According to Rosenau (1992), postmodernists can be divided into two very broad camps, Skeptics and Affirmatives.

Skeptical Postmodernists – They are extremely critical of the modern subject. They consider the subject to be a “linguistic convention” (Rosenau 1992:43). They also reject any understanding of time because for them the modern understanding of time is oppressive in that it controls and measures individuals. They reject Theory because theories are abundant, and no theory is considered more correct that any other. They feel that “theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparate, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Rosenau 1992: 81).

Affirmative Postmodernists – Affirmatives also reject Theory by denying claims of truth. They do not, however, feel that Theory needs to be abolished but merely transformed. Affirmatives are less rigid than Skeptics. They support movements organized around peace, environment, and feminism (Rosenau 1993: 42).

Realism – “…is the platonic doctrine that universals or abstractions have being independently of mind” (Gellner 1980: 60). Marcus and Fischer note that: “Realism is a mode of writing that seeks to represent the reality of the whole world or form of life. Realist ethnographies are written to allude to a whole by means of parts or foci of analytical attention which can constantly evoke a social and cultural totality (1986: 2323).

Relativism – Relativism is the notion that different perspectives have no absolute truth or validity, but rather possess only relative, subjective value according to distinctions in perception and consideration. Gellner writes about the relativistic-functionalist view of thought that goes back to the Enlightenment: “The (unresolved) dilemma, which the thought of the Enlightenment faced, was between a relativistic-functionalist view of thought, and the absolutist claims of enlightened Reason. Viewing man as part of nature…requires (us) to see cognitive and evaluative activities as part of nature too, and hence varying from organism to organism and context to context. (Gellner in [Asad 1986: 147]). Anthropological theory of the 1960s may be best understood as the heir of relativism. Contemporary interpretative anthropology is the essence of relativism as a mode of inquiry about communication in and between cultures (Marcus & Fischer, 1986:32).

Self-Reflexivity – In anthropology, self-reflexivity refers to the process by which anthropologists question themselves and their work, both theoretically and practically. Bishop notes that, “The scientific observer’s objectification of structure as well as strategy was seen as placing the actors in a framework not of their own making but one produced by the observer, “ (1996: 1270). Self-Reflexivity therefore leads to a consciousness of the process of knowledge creation (1996: 995). There is an increased awareness of the collection of data and the limitation of methodological systems. This idea underlies the postmodernist affinity for studying the culture of anthropology and ethnography.


One of the essential elements of Postmodernism is that it constitutes an attack against theory and methodology. In a sense proponents claim to relinquish all attempts to create new knowledge in a systematic fashion, instead substituting an “anti-rules” fashion of discourse (Rosenau 1993:117). Despite this claim, however, there are two methodologies characteristic of Postmodernism. These methodologies are interdependent in that interpretation is inherent in deconstruction. “Post-modern methodology is post-positivist or anti-positivist. As substitutes for the scientific method the affirmatives look to feelings and personal experience. . . the skeptical postmodernists reject most of the substitutes for method because they argue we can never really know anything (Rosenau 1993:117).

Deconstruction emphasizes negative critical capacity. Deconstruction involves demystifying a text to reveal internal arbitrary hierarchies and presuppositions. By examining the margins of a text, the effort of deconstruction examines what it represses, what it does not say, and its incongruities. It does not solely unmask error, but redefines the text by undoing and reversing polar opposites. Deconstruction does not resolve inconsistencies, but rather exposes hierarchies involved for the distillation of information (Rosenau 1993). Rosenau’s Guidelines for Deconstruction Analysis:

  •  Find an exception to a generalization in a text and push it to the limit so that this generalization appears absurd. Use the exception to undermine the principle.
  • Interpret the arguments in a text being deconstructed in their most extreme form.
  • Avoid absolute statements and cultivate intellectual excitement by making statements that are both startling and sensational.
  • Deny the legitimacy of dichotomies because there are always a few exceptions.
  • Nothing is to be accepted, nothing is to be rejected. It is extremely difficult to criticize a deconstructive argument if no clear viewpoint is expressed.
  • Write so as to permit the greatest number of interpretations possible…..Obscurity may “protect from serious scrutiny” (Ellis 1989: 148). The idea is “to create a text without finality or completion, one with which the reader can never be finished” (Wellberg, 1985: 234).
  • Employ new and unusual terminology in order that “familiar positions may not seem too familiar and otherwise obvious scholarship may not seem so obviously relevant”(Ellis 1989: 142).
  • “Never consent to a change of terminology and always insist that the wording of the deconstructive argument is sacrosanct.”
  • More familiar formulations undermine any sense that the deconstructive position is unique (Ellis 1989: 145). (Rosenau 1993, p.121)

Intuitive Interpretation – Rosenau notes that, “Postmodern interpretation is introspective and anti-objectivist which is a form of individualized understanding. It is more a vision than data observation. In anthropology interpretation gravitates toward narrative and centers on listening to and talking with the other, “(1993:119). For postmodernists there are an endless number of interpretations. Foucault argues that everything is interpretation (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983: 106). “There is no final meaning for any particular sign, no notion of unitary sense of text, no interpretation can be regarded as superior to any other” (Latour 1988: 182-3). Anti-positivists defend the notion that every interpretation is false. “Interpretative anthropology is a covering label for a diverse set of reflections upon the practice of ethnography and the concept of culture” (Marcus and Fisher 1986: 60).


Critical Examination of Ethnographic Explanation – The unrelenting re-examination of the nature of ethnography inevitably leads to a questioning of ethnography itself as a mode of cultural analysis. Postmodernism adamantly insists that anthropologists must consider the role of their own culture in the explanation of the “other” cultures being studied. Postmodernist theory has led to a heightened sensitivity within anthropology to the collection of data.

Demystification – Perhaps the greatest accomplishments of postmodernism is the focus upon uncovering and criticizing the epistemological and ideological motivations in the social sciences, as well as the increased attention to the factors contributing to the production of knowledge.

Polyvocality – The self-reflexive regard for the ways in which social knowledge is produced, as well as a general skepticism regarding the objectivity and authority of scientific knowledge, has led to an increased appreciation for the voice of the anthropological Other. Even if we do not value all interpretations as equally valid for whatever reason, today it is generally recognized (although perhaps not always done in practice) that anthropologists must actively consider the perspectives and wellbeing of the people being studied.


Roy D’Andrade (1931-2016) – In the article “Moral Models in Anthropology,” D’Andrade critiques postmodernism’s definition of objectivity and subjectivity by examining the moral nature of their models. He argues that these moral models are purely subjective. D’Andrade argues that despite the fact that utterly value-free objectivity is impossible, it is the goal of the anthropologist to get as close as possible to that ideal. He argues that there must be a separation between moral and objective models because “they are counterproductive in discovering how the world works.” (D’Andrade 1995: 402). From there he takes issue with the postmodernist attack on objectivity. He states that objectivity is in no way dehumanizing nor is objectivity impossible. He states, “Science works not because it produces unbiased accounts but because its accounts are objective enough to be proved or disproved no matter what anyone wants to be true.” (D’Andrade 1995: 404).

Ryan Bishop – “The Postmodernist genre of ethnography has been criticized for fostering a self-indulgent subjectivity, and for exaggerating the esoteric and unique aspects of a culture at the expense of more prosiac but significant questions.” (Bishop 1996: 58)

Patricia M. Greenfield – Greenfield believes that postmodernism’s complete lack of objectivity, and its tendency to push political agendas, makes it virtually useless in any scientific investigation (Greenfield 2005). Greenfield suggests using resources in the field of psychology to help anthropologists gain a better grasp on cultural relativism, while still maintaining their objectivity.

Bob McKinley – McKinley believes that postmodernism is more of a religion than a science (McKinley 2000). He argues that the origin of postmodernism is the Western emphasis on individualism, which makes postmodernists reluctant to acknowledge the existence of distinct multi-individual cultures.

Christopher Norris – Norris believes that Lyotard, Foucault, and Baudrillard are too preoccupied with the idea of the primacy of moral judgments (Norris 1990: 50).

Pauline Rosenau (1993) Rosenau identifies seven contradictions in Postmodernism:

  1. Its anti-theoretical position is essentially a theoretical stand.
  2. While postmodernism stresses the irrational, instruments of reason are freely employed to advance its perspective.
  3. The postmodern prescription to focus on the marginal is itself an evaluative emphasis of precisely the sort that it otherwise attacks.
  4. Postmodernism stress intertextuality but often treats text in isolation.
  5. By adamantly rejecting modern criteria for assessing theory, postmodernists cannot argue that there are no valid criteria for judgment.
  6. Postmodernism criticizes the inconsistency of modernism, but refuses to be held to norms of consistency itself.
  7. Postmodernists contradict themselves by relinquishing truth claims in their own writings.

Marshall Sahlins (1930 – ) criticizes the postmodern preoccupation with power. “The current Foucauldian-Gramscian-Nietzschean obsession with power is the latest incarnation of anthropology’s incurable functionalism. . . Now ‘power’ is the intellectual black hole into which all kinds of cultural contents get sucked, if before it was social solidarity or material advantage.” (Sahlins, 1993: 15).

Melford Spiro (1920 – 2014)  argues that postmodern anthropologists do not convincingly dismiss the scientific method (1996). Further, he suggests that if anthropology turns away from the scientific method then anthropology will become the study of meanings and not the discovery of causes that shape what it is to be human. Spiro further states that, “the causal account of culture refers to ecological niches, modes of production, subsistence techniques, and so forth, just as a causal account of mind refers to the firing of neurons, the secretions of hormones, the action of neurotransmitters . . .” (1996: 765).  Spiro critically addresses six interrelated propositions from John Searle’s 1993 work, “Rationality and Realism”

  1. Reality exists independently of human representations. If this is true then, contrary to postmodernism, this postulate supports the existence of “mind-independent external reality” which is called “metaphysical realism”.
  2. Language communicates meanings but also refers to objects and situations in the world which exist independently of language. Contrary to postmodernism, this postulate supports the concept of language as have communicative and referential functions.
  3.  Statements are true or false depending on whether the objects and situations to which they refer correspond to a greater or lesser degree to the statements. This “correspondence theory” of truth is to some extent the theory of truth for postmodernists, but this concept is rejected by many postmodernists as “essentialist.”
  4. Knowledge is objective. This signifies that the truth of a knowledge claim is independent of the motive, culture, or gender of the person who makes the claim. Knowledge depends on empirical support.
  5. Logic and rationality provide a set of procedures and methods, which contrary to postmodernism, enables a researcher to assess competing knowledge claims through proof, validity, and reason.
  6. Objective and intersubjective criteria judge the merit of statements, theories, interpretations, and all accounts.

Spiro specifically assaults the assumption that the disciplines that study humanity, like anthropology, cannot be “scientific” because subjectivity renders observers incapable of discovering truth. Spiro agrees with postmodernists that the social sciences require very different techniques for the study of humanity than do the natural sciences, but while insight and empathy are critical in the study of mind and culture, intellectual responsibility requires objective (scientific methods) in the social sciences (Spiro 1996).

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