Anthropology and Common Sense: Fuentes, Béteille, and Public Anthropology

While reading Agustín Fuentes’ recent piece, Anthropology and the Assault on Common Sense, I was reminded of an essay by André Béteille, Sociology and Common Sense (published in Economic and Political Weekly in 1996). I re-read Béteille’s piece, and it fits so well with what Fuentes said that I thought I’d offer a short commentary, bringing that essay into the discussion. Discussions of common sense and how it is culturally determined are relevant to conversations about anthropology and public engagement or public education.

André Béteille is an eminent Indian sociologist who taught for many years at one of my almae matres, the Department of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. He is currently Professor Emeritus there. Many people are not aware of this, but sociology, as it is taught in India, is very close to anthropology as it is taught in the U.S. Indian sociology students learn, among other things, a lot about British/European and Indian social anthropology and sociology proper, as well as social philosophy. So Béteille’s comments about sociology and common sense have relevance to discussions about anthropology and common sense.

Fuentes’ refers to Geertz’s point that common sense is “a cultural system” that can, as cultural systems do, vary among groups. As all introductory anthropology students know, therefore, assumptions about what is “normal” behavior may seem universal, though they are always culturally bounded or determined. As Fuentes observes, the realization that the “truths” we build our lives on are usually experientially ordained rather than “natural” (biologically determined?) can be difficult to face, and often meets with denial. Fuentes correctly says that this kind of anthropological perspective – one which explains how common sense perspectives vary culturally – is important, especially now. It helps us realize that “the process of becoming and being human is messy” (Fuentes). To give in to the assumption that what is “common sense” (the dominant way to do things) in a group is the only way, the natural way, to do things is dangerous and fallacious. Anthropology is an important instrument of generating social clarity in this regard.

So how can anthropology teachers and scholars help generate that clarity, or help people take a step back and see the lens through which they view society and culture? That’s where Béteille comes in. I’m going to extrapolate some of his comments about sociology to social science here, just so it’s easier to understand their value to anthropology.

The Sociology and Common Sense article was originally written, I think, partly as a way to demarcate sociology from, well, common sense. Béteille explains how sociology is distinct from common sense understandings of how society works, though it may seem superficially similar. At the heart of this difference, he says, is “a body of concepts, method, and data,” a “vast reservoir of sociological concepts, methods, and theories” that sociologists draw on. However, equally important is the ability of the scholar to be “alert and critical” of their own work (an attitude Fuentes also recommends). To be alert and critical requires the kind of clarity that I just mentioned, a clarity scholars both acquire, and learn to circulate, through their studies and training.

Common sense, says Béteille, is based on limited experiences of people and places. It is “particular and localised” and also “highly variable, subject to the constraints of time and place as well as other, more specifically social constraints.” Moreover, he notes that it is “unreflective,” because it does not “question its own origins and presuppositions.”

Nevertheless, as Béteille says, non-academics (“the civil servants, the bank managers and the engineers”) may present their common sense as social science. The simple fact of the matter is that almost everyone who lives in society has an opinion on it. These opinions, when they are part of the dominant discourse of the group, can become commonsensical, i.e. become naturalized to such a degree that they begin to seem like “truths,” or, at the very least, the most appropriate way of doing things (language ideology theory is a great place to explore these processes further). These discourses can then become interwoven into explanations of why society or culture is the way it is, or works the way it does. In other words, dominant discourses serve to justify the ways of life of dominant groups. Scholars and students of society are well placed to show how this process works, to expose it, and thereby to dull its effects.

Are they well placed to do so effectively?

At the moment, in the U.S., perhaps not. In order to be effective, two things have to happen: first, the people scholars are trying to reach (the general public) have to be listening, and second, scholars have to stop talking only to each other. (I realize this is a somewhat incongruous statement coming from a blog that is generally oriented toward anthropology, but I’m working on that).

These two things feed off each other. If no one’s listening, anthropologists preach to the choir. If anthropologists stop talking to the public, the public starts grumbling about ivory towers and stops listening.

Béteille has an insightful thought about communicating with the public. Because everyone has an opinion about society, and because sociologists are defensive about this and seek to distinguish their discipline from these commonsensical perspectives, they often take to saying the simplest things in very complex ways. And, as he puts it, “technical virtuosity becomes a distraction when pursued as an end in itself.”

The solution is, of course, to keep it simple and leave off the jargon. This is easy in principle, but many of us have forgotten how. Moreover, teaching, as Béteille says, is a “serious and unremitting effort to open the mind to new facts and new arguments, and the unsuspected connections among them.” It’s the unremitting part that’s really difficult, particularly when people aren’t listening to each other, particularly when scholars are convinced of an “anti-intellectual bias” in the public, and the public is convinced of scholarly prejudices against it.

Common sense is dangerous when used as a basis of social policy or explanation because, as Béteille comments, “common sense easily constructs imaginary social arrangements in which there is no inequality, no oppression, no strife, and no constraint on individual choice.” Nevertheless, if scholarship falls out of public discourse, then common sense takes over. Like magic, science, and religion, scholarship and common sense are modes of explanation. And when one is not available or accessible, another will fill the gap.

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