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2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 23–37


Anthropological reasoning
Some threads of thought

Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge

The interventionist properties of description are considered in relation to two strands

of thinking, each as evidently “outside” anthropology as “inside.” In terms of concept
formation, the nature–culture dyad seems forever to be subject to critique, reformulation,
and re-critique; examples from current debate over clinical practices in South America
make the point. In terms of engagement with “human subjects,” anthropology has been as
much heir to regimes of audit and self-scrutiny as it has shown their limits; the reflexivity
now routine in ethnographic inquiry is shown up in approaches to present-day health
policies for Aboriginal people in Australia. Both arenas (nature–culture/self-scrutiny) have
contributed at once to anthropology’s self-formation and to the kind of knowledge it makes
more widely visible. Both were also topics of huge interest to the European Enlightenment.
A suggestion is proffered about the outlines of a newly apparent object of knowledge
then, which could have been something of a driver, and seems to have been a driver of
anthropological reasoning ever since.
Keywords: health interventions, relations, nature–culture, self-scrutiny, the Enlightenment

Given the ambition of this collection to think about anthropology’s world, its con-
ditions of possibility, and the clues to that contained in what counts as interventions
in it, we may wonder about the discipline’s relational practices. What, for instance,
might be learned from colleagues? Anthropologists’ descriptions of professionals
whose very job it is to make interventions in people’s lives reflect back on their an-
thropology in interesting ways. Indeed, an ethnographer who worked with a com-
munity of health professionals in Australia’s Northern Territory puts into words
something akin to the position I wish to take here. Where knowing interventions

 his work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Marilyn Strathern.

ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.003
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Marilyn Strathern 24

in the world of affairs rest on describing what is happening, then description itself
is an intervention.1
Medicine has always been an arena in which interventions are deliberate, aimed
to be effective and to have benign outcomes. Given the endemic ill health of the lo-
cal Aboriginal population, Territory Health Services address an ever-deteriorating
situation with ever more effort at intervening. They apply a huge organizational
apparatus, the need to coordinate services proliferating in schemes for “collabo-
ration, cooperation, networking, team-building, [and] information sharing” (Lea
2008: 63). Yet the more the administration tries, the more apparatus is needed: the
greater coordination to which the administration aspires, the greater fragmenta-
tion it sees.2 This underwrites a bureaucratic project. People wanting to deliver care
do their best by the systems of organization that also organize them: intervention
through organizational means implies making the organization work.3
One means is through self-description. The organization keeps detailed track
of itself, and we should not be surprised to find auditing procedures addressed not
only to the outcomes for the health of the population but also to the officials’ orga-
nizational effectiveness as service-providers. Implementation plans are rolled out
with performance indicators, and targets are given numerical thresholds, alongside
annual reports, data summaries, program reviews, workshop recommendations,
and so on. An inordinate amount of time, many complain, is taken up with pa-
perwork: that is, with describing what is happening. Yet describing bureaucratic
performance itself is seen as a precondition to changing things.4 At the end of every
day of their exhausting induction “in the field,” new recruits are presented with
evaluation sheets (Lea 2008: 87). Regardless of any external monitoring, and al-
ways working to improve the program, the organizers themselves beg for feedback

1. The status of the activity of “description” is key here, and would be central to any com-
parison with (say) Holbraad’s (2008, 2009) work on the inventive definitions or “infini-
tions” that characterize Cuban diviners’ pronouncements; these are imagined not as
claims about the world but as ontological interferences in it.
2. Lea describes how “coordination” takes on a social life of its own, producing organiza-
tional complexes that succeed in the “unintended consequence of pinpointing the need
for more effective coordination” (2008: 63). I do not do justice here to Lea’s sympathetic
rendering of bureaucratic lives (see further Strathern 2014a).
3. All the workshops, fact-finding missions, and health instruction programs which the
health officers try to bring to the local population rest on the conviction that “better
quality and more accurate information will eventually become better self-understand-
ing for the Aborigines” (Lea 2008: 121). By the same token, the better the data are col-
lected and analyzed, the nearer the bureaucrats will be to implementing the “helping
state.” Welfare bureaucracies attempt to change the world by orienting the “bureau-
cratic inhabitant so that she or he conceptualizes the world in terms of reform and
intervention” (ibid.: 225). Is this in part the academization of bureaucracy?
4. In which the reviewers and reviewed concur. Added to anxiety about the health work-
ers’ own efforts to improve things for the local population was a quite different set of
anxieties about the ethics of intervention: in this particular context, health workers
expressed anxiety about causing collateral damage to indigenous culture.

2014 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 23–37

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25 Anthropological reasoning

from those they have been inducting on the way they have carried out their job (of
This is the world in which the anthropologist also lives. Lea minces no words
about the liberal rationalism that brings bureaucrats and anthropologists into
proximity; rather than simply chiding bureaucratized perceptions for their limi-
tations, anthropologists might also want “to comprehend the cultural habits we
share with their formulators” (ibid.: 234). What is interesting in Lea’s rehearsal of
this stance, which has been the subject of much debate in the discipline at large
(“trying to make sense of people whose job it is to produce sense,” as she puts it
[ibid.]), is her emphasis on the task of description. “We” anthropologists “are en-
snared by the same belief in the power of representation to bring the misconcep-
tions of others to correcting light”’ (ibid.). Her monograph concludes that, for all
the problems there are,
it can be liberating to gain some sense of the lived-in, externally driven
and consensual limits on our own agency. Or at least that is my hope, a
hope which is the ultimate honouring of bureaucratic magic and the faith
it sustains in the power of description to amend conceptualizations of
how the world “really is,” and with that improved perception to somehow
yield a better outcome. (Lea 2008: 237)
To begin with this thoroughly conflicted situation dispenses with the thought that
interventions are conflict-free. Yet I have to share the hope that Lea expresses. For
someone whose tools of work include making descriptions, it is close to the hope
that anthropologists responding to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011
have powerfully expressed as a matter of retooling (Riles, Miyazaki, and Genda
2012). You don’t abandon your tools: you go back to the tools you already have
and reconstruct them according to the current situation. But in the case of those
anthropologists dealing with the aftermath of the natural disasters in Japan, you do
it with the professionals.5 In a commentary on the Australian material, and with
Graeber’s (this volume) contribution in mind, Salmond (pers. comm.)6 poses a
similar relational question, this time with respect to anthropologists/bureaucrats
and the subjects of their inquiries. There are other ways of interacting, other forms
of attentiveness, that might make of the latter something more than a means for im-
proving the internal processes of the former. Of course. Nonetheless, just how rela-
tions themselves come into focus as an object of knowledge is of moment in itself.

5. The authors’ disciplines cover anthropology, law, and labor economics. I am very grate-
ful to them for permission to cite this work, intended for Japanese professionals—from
one set of professionals to another—as yet unpublished in English. “Retooling” is not
to be taken lightly, and in evoking a collaborative endpoint Riles (2013) lays out some
of the interpersonal and epistemic complexities of this instance.
6. She trenchantly turns the critique of bureaucrats’ concerns with their own self-elab-
oration back on anthropology itself, a stance with which Lea would sympathize. I am
grateful for permission to cite her thoughtful and illuminating comments, which come
from a review for Hau that she de-anonymized. Let me add here that I am at the same
time grateful to the several anonymous reviewers of the draft, some of whose words I
have also borrowed.

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Marilyn Strathern 26

Inside and outside the discipline

In the invitation to pursue threads of thought across material that lies as much out-
side anthropology as within it, what strength might a thread have? Rather than as a
road to go down or rope to hang onto, and without the regular patterning of warp
and weft, I take a thread to be something that can be caught, both caught hold of
and getting itself caught onto what is in its vicinity. Although going somewhere be-
cause it is coming from somewhere, a thread gains what striated substance it has in
becoming entangled with other threads just as (at the moment when) the entangle-
ments (knots) seem to make further tracing impossible. Any particular thread of
thought might appear as a singular twist, might seemingly take the form of a gene-
alogy or archaeology, but in truth it was never unknotted from innumerable others.
“Inside” and “outside” are altogether more ambiguous, for there is nothing un-
usual about anthropology as a knowledge system to observe of it that anything it
touches “becomes” anthropology.7 We have to be wary, though, of assuming that we
already know the anthropology we are within: postulating an outside is to postulate
another perspective. I catch the threads of two apparently distinct, certainly ongo-
ing, discussions to elucidate the point, and which will compose my subject matter.
First, in terms of concept formation, the nature–culture or nature–society dyad
seems forever subject to fresh criticism and reformulation, and forever to regain its
influence. Secondly, in terms of engagement with “human subjects,” anthropology
has been as much heir to regimes of audit and self-scrutiny as it has shown their
limits. Both arenas have contributed to anthropology’s self-formation and to the
kinds of knowledge it makes more widely visible. Both were also topics of huge
interest to the English/Scottish versions of the European Enlightenment.8 This leap
is a little more artful than clutching at a straw (hardly a thread at all): I am drawn
(by stronger threads) in that direction by what I already know, to places in which I
have already been entangled. Seemingly separate threads may indeed at one stage
have been knotted together.
Thinkers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment cultivated the secular hu-
manism from which a self-acknowledged economics was to emerge, a precondition
to the divergences that Gregory (this volume) identifies. Its [the period’s] interest
to the present argument is for what it suggests about certain preconditions within
anthropological reasoning that have made the two arenas (self-scrutiny, nature-
society) so enduringly salient. Familiar to anthropological debates, they are equally
familiar to the humanities and social sciences, and beyond academia altogether.
To keep discussion brief, I refer to some ethnographic situations where ideas
springing from these arenas seem to have been the carriers of interventions, by

7. I am thinking of Luhmann’s (1990) “system,” whose environment is already system-

atized; reflections on the insides and outsides of knowledge as such would need to take
into account Corsín Jiménez’s (2013) recent excursus.
8. “English” to reflect the language; “Scottish” to reflect its seats of learning. I am not
here defending the idea of the “Enlightenment,” any more than I intend an informed/
old-fashioned periodization by the references to different “centuries”—each should be
taken as deploying the same deliberate clumsiness as “Euro-American”; the clumsiness
signals ffd(d), for further definition (should definition be desirable).

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27 Anthropological reasoning

anthropologists and by others. One such situation has already appeared. The re-
flexivity that has become routine in both anthropological and ethnographic enqui-
ry in some senses mirrors the self-conscious auditing of present-day health policies
for Aboriginal people in Australia. As for nature and society, to keep a parity of
sorts examples will come from current discussions of clinical practices in South
America, although they will be treated at somewhat greater length.

A short thread: Self-scrutiny

Description seems such a mundane activity for the text-based scholar that it is inter-
esting to come across it as a focus of attention in other fields. Corsín Jiménez’s (2013)
account of the strabismic double vision of anthropological knowledge making con-
tains an extended discussion of Alpers’ work on realism in seventeenth-­century
Dutch painting. The art historian called her book The art of describing (1983).9 We
quickly learn it was description in a special sense—the technique of making the
observer disappear by dislocating the eye from a single viewpoint. “The mobile eye
[of Dutch composition] cuts the world two ways: it multiplies with one eye what it
divides with the other, and in doing so opens up a space for a third form of vision: a
‘seeing double’ that is more than one and less than many” (Corsín Jiménez 2013: 54).
Among several “scopic regimes of modernity” (after Jay 1988), it is one—and Corsín
Jiménez draws attention to the connection—that might have been shared with mi-
croscopists and optical experimenters of the time. The world seen microscopically
both multiplies the innumerable small elements within a larger body and in en-
largement divides a small part from the whole (my paraphrasing of Alpers). Painter
and microscopist alike treated the eye as taking in the world. “A split eye signals the
birth of . . . an aesthetic ‘which consisted in making something visible, in being a
pure apparition that made appearance appear, from a position just on its edges’ . . .
(Buci-Glucksmann [1984] 1994: 60)’ (Corsín Jiménez 2013: 55–56, my emphasis).
This is not the place to start undoing the many knots these writers have so
skillfully tied. But conceivably we have here some of the conditions of possibil-
ity for what was to be reconceived as a splitting of the self.10 In his discussion of
the Enlightenment formulation of the self as a rational entity through being di-
vided into two, a management theorist, Keith Hoskin (1996: 270), picks up another
thread. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume “proposed that the self
becomes ethical by considering how one’s actions are viewed by an ‘impartial spec-
tator’” (ibid.: 271). Let me give Hoskin’s argument in full, the line he draws running
through Hume from Thomas Hobbes, a century before, to Hume’s contemporary,
Adam Smith.

9. Which is what perspective entails. The interest of Alpers’ work for Corsín Jiménez (e.g.
as he quotes her at 2013: 53) is that, by contrast with the Italian solution, Dutch com-
position presumed an aggregate of views made possible by a mobile eye, so an optical
capacity was added to a perspectival one.
10. I say reconceived, since Hoskin (1995—and Hoskin is discussed by Corsín Jiménez
on this point [2013: 57–58]) argues for earlier, preperspectival, models of a split self
(through double-entry bookkeeping).

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Marilyn Strathern 28

Where Hobbes had looked out, through his perspectival window, onto
the foolish and selfish selves in the thought-world beyond, Hume had
attempted to construct a sort of reverse viewing, from the thought-
world beyond, back on to the self who views. Hume’s formulation of the
impartial spectator paints a picture wherein I become ethical by looking
through my window on the world and seeing there some moral Other,
the impartial spectator, whose surveillance of me ensures that I develop
moral sentiments. On this reading, what Smith achieves is a step beyond
this, by discovering on the far side of the “window” a mirror self, the self
that examines, which stands in for and replaces the Other as judge of self.
(Hoskin 1996: 271)
Hoskin articulated a historical trajectory that set the conditions of possibility for
new forms of description. This was the description of performance to which mea-
surements could be given, applicable to university examinations and financial audit-
ing alike. The ethical double self was the self-examining self.11 Other (nonpictorial)
conventions of description were to develop, and at various times anthropologists
have rehearsed all three positions (Hobbes, Hume, Smith), whether following no-
tions of the privileged observer, of the relativity of the familiar and unfamiliar, or of
discovering the self in the other. Where philosophers were concerned with ethical
formation, for anthropologists these positions point to diverse concerns with the
accuracy or appropriateness of the social knowledge so gained—“social” insofar as
such knowledge rests on the kinds of relations the writer has with his or her subjects
of study and fellow academics. The gap between the Australian ethnographer and
the Northern Territory health bureaucrats, as Lea describes it, is also their proxim-
ity: the relation lay in the nature of their descriptive endeavors. To see this rapport
is itself something of a descriptive intervention on the anthropologist’s part.

Longer threads: Nature and society

Suppose you are in a place where it is far from clear what the ontological status of
people’s “descriptions” of themselves might be. Suppose, for example, that people
think it is possible to change one’s “race” or “body,” as we know is true in parts
of South America. Euro-Americans would not be surprised if the anthropological
description of those particular “descriptions” become entangled in the language
of nature and society, or nature and culture. In the interventions I am thinking
of, such a language pulls at two kinds of threads. On the one hand, ideas about
a natural world and its progressive modernization appear to underlie the efforts
of some of the health practitioners who treat these people; on the other hand, the
anthropologist finds disciplinary theorizing on the topic a crucial analytical tool.
Take the bodily change implied by the process of “becoming white.” Becoming
white is becoming criollo or creole, to take as reference points Venezuelan whites in
Amazonia (Kelly 2011) or Ecuadorian whites in the Andes (Roberts 2012, 2013). In

11. Hoskin (1995: 156), who also draws on Alpers, says that by his introducing “the Self
into the epistemological space where only the Other has been before . . . I see Smith as
doing for epistemological space what the art of describing had done for pictorial space.”

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29 Anthropological reasoning

various ways these whites would describe themselves as moderns. All those activi-
ties requiring organizational effort that characterize bureaucracies are equally proj-
ects of a global modernity. In the Venezuelan Amazon, they are found in the travails
of young doctors on field assignments, undergoing training in a state-­provided
health service. (Kelly [2011: 13] refers to the doctors’ ideologies as “Western” or
“Euro-American.”) In the Ecuadorian Andes, however, the modernization associ-
ated with technological interventions sits a bit differently, as we shall see; here the
ethnographic context is that of private fertility clinics. The anthropologists describ-
ing these moderns either link their efforts to ideas about nature and society, or
make a contrast with those who hold such ideas. For both ethnographic situations,
the kind of medical care being offered is taken by the recipients or clients as signs
of their own increasing ability to enact whiteness. Through receiving this care, they
become “white people.” This in turn looks like a case of indigenous redescription.
In their civilizing mission, Venezuelan doctors—criollos—working among
Yanomami Indians “make bodies,” in the sense of changing what they would see as
indigenous lifestyles, and “make society” thereby. “[One] component of the civiliz-
ing project is about making society . . . because for criollos, society was missing
and needed to be made’ (Kelly 2011: 97). Again, “doctors see Yanomami as part of
nature: [above all] disorganized” and “the more disorganized Yanomami appear,
the more doctors strive to organize” (ibid.: 137, sentences transposed). It is the
criollo nature–society axis that leads Kelly to distinguish what Yanomami and crio-
llo each take for granted, that is, between what is assumed as a given and what is
regarded as subject to human intervention. In this respect, criollos participate in
the general Euro-American understanding of society as a developmental project in
relation to nature. Social conventions that are innate for Yanomami are fabricated
for the criollo. However, Kelly (ibid.: 98, 222–3) is at pains to point out the knots
here; neither the understandings nor the misunderstandings each has of the other
match up.12 Neither should we jump to any easy conclusion about what is involved
in Yanomami “redescribing” themselves.
Now the kind of care that Yanomami would like to elicit from the doctors—a
wish that is often frustrated because staff are stationed for such brief periods—is
the care of kinship. In the comment about what criollos thought was missing, I
missed out a phrase: the full phrasing reads: “[One] component of the [doctors’]
civilizing project is about making society, not kin” (ibid.: 97, my emphasis), for
making kin is a Yanomami aspiration. Like race (whiteness), kinship is to be made.
In the case of criollos, outsiders must at least be domesticated into the status of
potential in-laws (affines) who will mediate between Yanomami and the outside
world (bringing its knowledge and goods, not restricted to medical care). So as
much as criollos would change them, Yanomami are trying to change criollos—not
to go all the way and make them Yanomami, but to turn them into potential in-laws
(there is no intermarriage; the potentiality remains), thus keeping up the flow of
the distinctive services, knowledge, and goods that only criollos can bring. At this
point in the argument, the descriptive intervention of the anthropologist becomes
apparent. In Kelly’s view, if there were an indigenous analogue of nature it would

12. “Yanomami are not becoming the criollos we conceive of, nor are the Indians the state
wants to reinstate the ones Yanomami take themselves to be” (ibid.: 194).

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Marilyn Strathern 30

be affinity. He writes, “doctors and Yanomami enter each other’s worlds as forms
of the innate,” “innate” being subsequently glossed, “potential affinity and nature,
respectively” (ibid: 137, 225). The expository consequences of this intervention, the
analogy, are evident. We come to understand that affinity is an innate condition of
the world, a world of social convention, which Yanomami take for granted.13
It is the quality of affinal relations that makes sense of the apparent continuum
in becoming white. Yanomami describe one another in terms of those who are
more and those who are less white; crucially, however, any specific point along this
continuum juxtaposes positions that are radically “other” to each other. Otherness
is not diminished by the continuum; rather, people assume positions that are now
white, now Yanomami.14 This is not seen by the medical staff, who would them-
selves understand “becoming criollo” as an evolutionary or developmental process.
In this sense, the becoming/being white that might have a transcendent value for
criollo medical staff (the inevitability of the modernization that they at once rep-
resent and that goes beyond their efforts to assist it) holds a very different place in
Yanomami thinking. What for Yanomami is prior to and beyond human agency is
the social condition of alterity: there will and must always be others. Yanomami are
not so much redescribing themselves as distributing themselves at different mo-
ments in time and place between already-existing descriptions.
Roberts’ account shifts the axis of analysis. She sustains a running contrast with
attitudes derived from the European Enlightenment, such as those found in twenti-
eth- and twenty-first century Euro-American accounts of assisted conception (e.g.
Roberts 2012: 94–5, 114). Among them is the kind of agency entailed in a once
firmly held nature–society (she talks of nature–culture) paradigm whose starting
point was that nature, to which “the body” belongs, is a more or less immutable
given. Now whereas the effect of Kelly’s recourse to this topic (nature–society) is to
illuminate the way ideas held by the Venezuelan doctors are entwined with those of
anthropological discourse, Roberts separates out the threads. What might be true
for anthropological accounts of assisted conception in North America (say) is not
a truth that holds across all of the Ecuadorian clinics.
Roberts argues that many (and, conversely, not all) Ecuadorian clinicians share
with their clientele approaches likely to have their roots in religious categories based
on prebiological determinations15 of lineage, which were precursors to the present-
day concept of ‘race’ (ibid.: 117). The continuing assumption is that ‘in Ecuador,
people can change their race’ (ibid.: 114). Here is another descriptive intervention

13. Against (from) which background consanguines have to be purposively carved out
(ibid.: 95, quoting Viveiros de Castro 2001: 26).
14. “In becoming napë [Yanomami term for criollo] or civilazado, then, Yanomami are
not becoming or seeking to become mestizo or to be assimilated with whites; on the
contrary, the relation between Yanomami and napë must remain, for in the napë trans-
formational context, people must be able to alternate from one meaningful position to
another” (ibid.: 221, also 137). Napë are non-Yanomami whites, that is, whites in rela-
tion to Yanomami.
15. “To this day [‘race’] is enacted through profession, language, and level of education”
(ibid.: 9). Children of the same family can be of different “race” (ibid.: 121).

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31 Anthropological reasoning

on the anthropologist’s part.16 Its consequence is the weight to be put on “the mul-
tiplicity and plasticity of the ontological world” (ibid.). The phrasing (“people can
change their race”) is intended to describe neither logical confusion nor social
construction but the ever-present possibility of ontological transformation. These
people are participating in Ecuador’s nation making through what Roberts calls a
national whitening project, the continuation of earlier “whitening interventions”
(2013: 568). Especially in the case of the poor or clients of Indian background,
simply to be the object of such attention is transformative. Under the care of whites
(as doctors and clinical staff categorically are), the client becomes white. “Through
IVF,” Roberts says (2012: 75), “women can become whiter reproducers . . . [that is,]
through being cared for the way whiter women are cared for.”17 This is based on a
grounding assumption about the malleability of bodies, and produces redescrip-
tions very different from those the ethnographer can accomplish.
There is something to be said about the kinds of social relations at issue too. The
epithet “assisted” before “assisted reproduction” takes on unexpected resonances.
In this Catholic country, whose church frowns on fertility procedures, God is ev-
erywhere, and an immediate not distant presence. God’s giving of life is constantly
brought home. But rather than it halting their activities, this presence is harnessed
by the clinics. The scientific techniques that assist the procedure are also the means
through which clinical personnel assist God: in deliberately evoking common
Euro-American notions, Roberts observes that they do not perceive themselves
to be “playing God” but rather as being “God’s helpers.” Hierarchically speaking,
patients are in turn assisted. The focus of assistance for many patients is less about
the modification of the materials of fertility (IVF, egg or sperm donation, embryo
freezing) than about the patronage bestowed upon them. There is regional varia-
tion, but, generally speaking, “private medical clinics are similar to haciendas18 in
that the relations are paternalistic (not consumer oriented)” (ibid.: 57). Patronage is
acted out in the clinic through all the social activity that is entailed in attending to
the patient’s health and comfort. This relationship of dependence is actively sought
by many Ecuadorian women with fertility problems: “Assistance, not autonomy, is
the very basis of existence” (ibid.: 212). The clinic demonstrates that the patient is
worthy of care and of the patron’s notice.

16. Roberts quotes several ethnographers who have said the same. In neither this nor the
Amazonian case am I suggesting that the intervention is authorially novel; rather, the
point is that these descriptions are examples of anthropological interventions, and bril-
liantly so.
17. In a chapter on “Assisted whiteness,” Roberts observes that when “IVF patients with
limited material resources go about financing and gathering assistance for their re-
productive projects, they become whiter. Both reproductive dysfunction [i.e., having
the ailment itself] and attempts to alleviate that dysfunction are physiological and eco-
nomic markers of whiteness” (ibid.: 76).
18. Landed estates allotted to Creoles, which for a long time controlled the labor of Indians;
said to have been more widespread in Ecuador than in any other Andean nation, they
implemented labor policies to justify hierarchical structures, including programs “for
whitening the national racial stock through mestizaje (mixture)” (ibid.: 59).

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Marilyn Strathern 32

Is this the kind of pre-Enlightenment modernity that some Europeans of that mo-
ment would have recognized? Roberts (ibid.: 116–18) gives her own history of various
Creole concepts that eventually became the basis of “race,” and it is a complex one.
However, a significant axis, which she clearly sees as a departure from Enlightenment
ideas (and she refers to them as such), concerns the character of God’s “intervention”
in everyday life, as in enabling people to have children, and thus concerns understand-
ings of nature. A noninterventionist God is another proposition altogether. Roberts
quotes Hume to the effect that a miracle would be a violation of the laws of nature.
Catching that thread, I elongate it. Rather than marking a section break here, this turn
to the (English-speaking19) eighteenth century simply makes this section longer.
The same Enlightenment philosopher who was caught up in ideas about self-
scrutiny was of his time in also being committed to elucidating human nature.
Hume argued against the political theorist Hobbes on this score too: natural lean-
ings are not to be reviled but to be cultivated.20 We may note that one means of culti-
vation in the (social) world at large was the cultivation of connections. Connections
referred to persons also known as kin, familial or otherwise, or more generally one’s
associates. Arguably such connecting first stood alongside and then displaced ear-
lier perceptions of patronage; the new sense of connection could well have brought
a new sense of choice in laying claim to those one knew. The very concept itself was
different. “Patronage”—as between Ecuadorian clinical staff and clients—described
the quality of a specific tie between persons known to one another; “connection,”
by contrast, was a generic term (Tadmor 2001: 131–32) of unspecified possibility,
out of which one chose to emphasize this or that associate or refuse others. For the
propertied and aspiring middle classes of the English-speaking eighteenth century,
one could almost say that acquiring good connections was like becoming white.
Nonetheless, there was a crucial difference: Enlightenment notions of refine-
ment and cultivation were constantly tethered back to a view that one should not
move too far from nature (one’s own nature or the workings of nature in general). A
relation existed here,21 quite as much as the relation between the two selves, in that
cultivation (“society”) and nature also entailed each other. In this context, Hume’s
project of putting human understanding itself (understanding understanding) on
a “scientific” basis was to align description more accurately with what was now
being understood, redescribed, by many writers as an autonomous natural world.
Further, and specifically, the eighteenth-century idea of desirable connections mo-
bilized the concept of affinity through connotations of similarity. Similarity held
in a double sense, both in terms of one of the dominant usages of “connection”
to refer to alliances between families through marriage, and in terms of the like-
ness found among same-status kin or associates. By contrast, patron and client

19. And specifically to the kind of “language community” of readers, letter writers, and di-
arists that Tadmor (2001: 13) evokes, and of the authors on whom Perry (2004) draws.
20. The phrase comes from Porter’s (2000: 179) placing of Hume’s Treatise of human nature
(1739–40), which was to be followed by An enquiry concerning human understanding
(1748), in the context of extensive philosophical interest in the “anatomy of the mind.”
21. Porter (2000: 156) quotes Hume to the effect that it is evident that “all the sciences have
a relation” to human nature. It was a short step from here to the “science of man.”

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33 Anthropological reasoning

were differentiated not just by social standing but also by a hierarchical relation-
ship. We might recall that Yanomami affines made others “other” to themselves. In
Yanomami, affines evoke alterity, not likeness, and the transactions that made one
“more white,” apparent interventions along a continuum, in fact enacted at every
juncture a radical break. If, in what was taken for granted in relation to criollos, the
Yanomami analogue of nature was indeed affinity, then affinity had a quite differ-
ent location in the kinship universe from that imagined by English-speakers.22 In
English, affinity, by derivation connoting “on the borders” or “bordering on,” and
thus neighboring or near to others, gives the viewpoint of the speaker as an ego in
a center looking outward. Indeed there is, in this respect, no ontological difference
in the radiating spheres of affinity and of consanguinity.23
These generic English-language concepts for interpersonal ties all invited cal-
culations as to nearness to and distance from the speaker. Perhaps we could say
that they made such calculations into “interventions” in a social world. To solicit
or deny a (social, kinship) connection was not to evoke a preexisting alterity, but to
produce or create difference or sameness anew (either up or down). Every assertion
of or denial of recognition was a social intervention. The same might be said, epis-
temologically speaking, of every interpretation or choice of descriptive language,
or scientific investigation. Producing such a specific effect (the named, discovered,
invented) mirrors back the producer’s viewpoint. Whatever presented conditions
of possibility for discussion about society and nature, then, we might want them to
account for interpersonal relations quite as much as for ideas about civilization and
the physicality of the body.

The knot
The kind of description at which anthropology excels is expository, making an
interpretive relationship with its world explicit. However lyrical or empirical the

22. This comes out of a well-rehearsed theoretical position that Kelly at once makes ex-
plicit and further illuminates. Consider, for example, the contrast between Amazonian
consanguinity (“constructed”) and affinity (“given”). Affinity at once points to relations
based on difference, not identity, and “is the given because it is the ontological condi-
tion underlying all ‘social’ relations . . . [belonging] as such to the fabric of the universe”
(Viveiros de Castro 2009: 259).
23. What appeared a single viewpoint from one angle could be divided between two, ac-
cording to whether one took a view from nature or from society, and brought together
again in a simple contrast, as in the later-eighteenth-century contrast between ties that
were given (“family”) and ties by choice (one of the uses of the term “connection”).
There were earlier contrasts too. Perry’s (2004: 230–31) account of the privatization
of marriage, as she calls it, notes a complicated triangular relationship between the
law and the different marriage strategies of the English landed classes and wealthier
middle classes. (In her terms, following Randolph Trumbach, the latter are between
“marriage-of-incorporation,” which conserved the “consanguineal family” by incorpo-
rating affines, and “marriage by alliance,” which cemented relations between families
while making upward mobility possible and putting the interests of the new conjugal
unit above those of their parents.)

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Marilyn Strathern 34

form, or however knowing the doubt (Carrithers, this volume), a view about un-
derstanding is being expounded. In other words, the view implies something about
to be understood. Yet because different moments or aspects of elucidation come
into view at different times, there is nothing new in saying that exposition is also
an entanglement of descriptions from many hands. In other words, anything avail-
able to description is of course already described, a kind of strabismic precondition
of anthropological knowledge making.24 That does not mean one has to put one’s
tools aside. It has been helpful to consider as interventions two clusters of con-
cepts (self-scrutiny, nature–society) that animate anthropological debate within as
well as flourishing on its outside, germane to the kind of knowledge anthropology
makes visible. I have threaded them through three ethnographic loci to make vis-
ible another facet of anthropological knowledge making: the descriptive endeavor
does not get very far without the invocation of social as well as conceptual relations.
It is a truism that specific times and places yield specific descriptive genres. Yet
perhaps there is something particularly interesting for social anthropology in some
of the descriptions of the English-speaking world prevalent at about the time of the
scientific revolution, and subsequently sedimented in Enlightenment sensibility.
Present-day anthropologists are thoroughly aware that much of their social knowl-
edge consists in relating relations. That stance, relating relations, finds echoes in
certain kinds (not all) of painterly and experimental optics whose descriptive effect
can be explained more generally as making appearance itself appear—as I flagged
in the quotation from Buci-Glucksmann above. It seems to be repeated in certain
(not all) philosophical musings on human nature that made explicit the notion of
understanding understanding. Appearance as an object of viewing, understanding
as an object of reflection: through specific ideas of eye and mind they become ob-
jects of description. But we have already slipped through the knots by which these
two areas of discussion are tied together—there is no need to tie them more tightly.
Rather, we might ask if that other thread can be threaded in as well. Should we be
asking about other conditions of possibility? Should the anthropologist be ponder-
ing on how relations became an object of description, and thus of knowledge, too?
One answer surely has to be through acts of relating, including relating between
persons. I do not mean here the social networking that in Europe of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries informed the verification of experiments or gave writers
their audiences, but rather a particular kind of objectification (as in “object of knowl-
edge”) of the concept of relations. It was one that outlined the contours of the notion
simultaneously in reference to and distinct from its enactment among persons. Con-
ceivably, for English-speakers, it is there in their usages of affinity and connection.
At this time there was a kind of two-way passage in the connotations of these
terms. They acquired, one could say, at once a strength and a striation of sorts. On

24. Corsín Jiménez’s concern is with how we grant epistemic status to objects, and, as he
says at the outset (2013: 2), thus with exploring the conditions of description as we
understand it, when what “appears to be a description of an object is, on closer inspec-
tion, turned inside out into a description of epistemic awareness.” He offers “conceptual
interventions” of his own, as “an effort at ‘trapping’ the descriptive forms of late liber-
alism within their own culture of description, and an attempt to place description at
perpendicular angles vis-à-vis emerging forms of global public knowledge” (ibid.: 28).

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35 Anthropological reasoning

the one hand, the concept of “affinity” moved from its delineation of kinship rela-
tions by marriage and alliance to include epistemically understood resemblances or
rapports, perhaps thereby endorsing25 an abstract stress on empathy or likeness. On
the other hand, in the opposite direction, there was an expansion of “connection,”
from an epistemological or conceptual usage in the seventeenth century to, in the
eighteenth, embracing kin as well, although by no means exclusively.26 In fact the
introduction of this specific abstraction (connection)27 into the kinship universe
mirrored an earlier change in the way “relations” itself was used—from a term for
epistemic relations to, in the seventeenth century, a term also used for related per-
sons (in this case restricted to kinsfolk, consanguineal and affinal alike). Might we
see here diverse outlines of a newly visible attention to knowledge about persons
and their interactions? If so, they would come with injunctions (albeit of etiquette
and politicking) about the social— and thus interventionist—consequences of
acknowledging people’s relatedness. Variously termed, a relation was already a con-
cept that pointed to (the act of) relating as itself an object that could be described.
Anthropologists might think it banal in the extreme to say that the threads of
self-scrutiny and the nature–society debate are tied together in relations, that is, in
a presupposed ability to perceive relations at once internal to these concepts and
external with respect to others. That this is true of countless occurrences would
seem to deflate the interest of any single set. Yet following these particular strands
of thought catches, and momentarily catches on, some taken-for-granted banalities
that intervene all the time in their/our descriptions.

Jeanette Edwards’ characteristically illuminating comments have since taken me in
other directions, but that is not reflected here: this is basically the text on which she
commented. My appreciation of Sarah Green’s open invitation should be evident;
my gratitude to Hau’s reviewers is expressed in situ (note 6). And I extend warm
thanks to José Kelly and Elizabeth Roberts for their helpful elucidations of my ear-
lier use of their material.

Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The art of describing: Dutch art in the seventeenth century. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

25. The possibility was always there in early usages of the term for (positive) alliance or
26. As I have noted elsewhere (most recently Strathern 2014b).
27. As Hume and Smith used “connection” in referring (for example) to “principles of
connection”—raising of course the further question (doubt) as to what counted as

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Marilyn Strathern 36

Buci-Glucksmann, Christine. (1984) 1994. Baroque reason: The aesthetics of modernity.

Translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Sage.
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jects of evidence: Anthropological approaches to the production of knowledge,” edited
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———. 2009. “Ontography and alterity: Defining anthropological truth.” Special issue,
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Le raisonnement anthropologique: quelques fils de pensée

Résumé : Les propriétés interventionnistes de la description sont considérées  à
la lumière de deux modes de pensée, tout deux évidemment ‘interne’ et ‘externe’
à l’anthropologie.  Du point de vue de la formation des concepts, la dyade nature-
culture semble faire l’objet de critiques et de reformulations toujours renouvelées,
comme en témoigne le débat actuel sur les pratiques cliniques en Amérique du
Sud. En ce qui concerne l’engagement avec des ‘sujets humains’, l’anthropologie a
hérité des régimes de contrôle et d’auto-analyse mais en a également démontré les
limites; on peut voir cette même réflexivité, qui fait maintenant partie de la routine
de l’enquête ethnographique, à l’œuvre dans l’approche adoptée par les politiques de
santé conçues pour la population Aborigène en Australie. Ces deux thèmes (nature-
culture/auto-analyse) ont contribué autant à l’auto-formation de l’anthropologie
qu’au type de savoir qu’elle rend visible. Tous deux passionnèrent également les
Lumières Européennes. Cet article esquisse ainsi les contours possibles d’un objet
de savoir devenu apparent depuis peu, qui pourrait avoir été une sorte de moteur, et
qui semble avoir conduit le raisonnement anthropologique depuis son apparition.

Marilyn Strathern had the good fortune to receive initial—and indelible—train-

ing in Papua New Guinea, which led to work, among other things, on kinship and
gender relations. In the United Kingdom she subsequently became involved with
anthropological approaches to the new reproductive technologies, intellectual
property, audit cultures, and interdisciplinarity. Now retired from the Cambridge
Department of Social Anthropology, she is (honorary) life president of the Asso-
ciation of Social Anthropologists. Strathern is currently working on issues in the
conceptualization of relations, some of which were sketched out in her 2005 book,
Kinship, law and the unexpected: Relatives are often a surprise.
 Marilyn Strathern
 Girton College
 Cambridge CB3 0JG

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