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The theoretical school of postmodernism claims that it is impossible for anyone to have objective and neutral knowledge of another culture. This view comes from the notion that we all interpret the world around us in our own way according to our language, cultural background, and personal experiences. In other words, everybody has their own views based on his or her social and personal contexts. Because of this aspect of human nature, anthropologists can never be unbiased observers of other cultures. When postmodern anthropologists analyze different societies, they are sensitive to this limitation. They do not assume that their way of conceptualizing culture is the only way.

The postmodernists believe that anthropological texts are influenced by the political and social contexts within which they are written. Therefore, it is unreasonable when authors try to justify their interpretations and underlying biases by using the concept of objectivity. The postmodernists claim that the acceptance of an interpretation is ultimately an issue of power and wealth. In other words, we tend to legitimize particular statements represented by those with political and economic advantage. In order to heighten sensitivity towards those who are not part of mainstream culture, the postmodernists often promote unpopular viewpoints, such as those of ethnic minorities, women and others through their works. Postmodernists also re-introduced a focus on individual behavior, which has become known as agency theory. Agency approaches examine how individual agents shape culture.

The postmodern anthropologists gave other anthropologists an opportunity to reconsider their approaches of cultural analysis by ushering in an era of reflexive anthropology. The anthropologist tries to become sensitive to his or her unconscious assumptions. For example, anthropologists now consider whether they should include in ethnographies different interpretations of culture other than their own. Furthermore, anthropologists need to determine their own standards for choosing what kind of information can be counted as knowledge. This reflection leads anthropologists to enrich their work.

At the same time, the challenges by postmodernists often result in backlash from those who feel their understandings are threatened. Some anthropologists claim that the postmodernists rely on a particular moral model rather than empirical data or scientific methods. This moral model is structured by sympathy to those who do not possess the same privilege that the mainstream has in Western societies. Therefore, postmodernism will undermine the legitimacy of anthropology by introducing this political bias. Another typical criticism on postmodernism comes from the fear of extremely relativistic view. Such critics argue that postmodernism will lead to nihilism because it does not assume a common ground of understanding. Some opponents claim that postmodernism will undermine universal human rights and will even justify dictatorship. Postmodernism is an ongoing debate, especially regarding whether anthropology should rely on scientific or humanistic approaches.

Renato Rosaldo (1941- Present, The United States)

Rosaldo’s work includes the following points which are considered Postmodern approaches. First, rather than writing a conventional anthropological report, Rosaldo focuses on the process of doing fieldwork. He describes his personal experiences that lead him to understand Ilongot head-hunting. The Postmodernists value the process of understanding another culture and often write about their fieldwork experiences. This reflexivity includes the analysis of their own cultures, which is necessary to understand other cultures. Therefore, the Postmodernists see their fieldwork as the opportunity to reflect upon and analyze their own cultures as well as to analyze other cultures.

Secondly, the Postmodernists do not assume there are absolutely objective ways of analyses. When Rosaldo tried to apply the classic exchange theory to the Ilongot head-hunting, he realized this model was invalid under the local contexts of the Ilongot. Even though the theory explains observed behaviors, Rosaldo did not see it as absolute because its ideas were totally incomprehensible to the Ilongot themselves. Social scientists usually give special credibility to certain types of explanations and dismiss others in order to justify their theoretical positions. Reacting against this general trend, the Postmodernists argue that Western social science has favored a theoretical model used in physical sciences. This preference has led anthropologists to forcefully apply “objective” explanations to non-Western societies. In other words, the Postmodernists claim that anthropologists should consider local contexts of their fields and give legitimacy to explanation by the people.

Thirdly, the Postmodernists break the distinction between anthropologists and those who are observed by the anthropologists in fieldwork. In conventional situations, anthropologists’ interpretations have priority over the views of the observed. Rosaldo did not count on this kind of authority and left room for other interpretations by the Ilongot themselves. When anthropologists do not assume this authority, they are simply individuals who are trying to know certain things about another culture.

19th-century Evolutionism | Historical Particularism | Functionalism | Culture and Personality | Neoevolutionism | Materialism and NeoMaterialism | Structuralism | Symbolic Anthropology | Postmodernism