Political Anthropology Makes Tom A Dull Boy

My dissertation is in political science, so even though I spend a lot of time reading about the logic, causes, and consequences of economic policy decisions, the real point I have to make is about politics. Furthermore, policy does not come from economic science, it comes from politicians. There is a political logic to why policy makers decide what they decide. Economics as a science shows us the consequences of how little parts of the economy work together. But long-term economic goals always impose short-term costs on members of society. (This is the tirade of every political scientist who studies the economy, and something that economists just put up with because we’re not quite so good with equations and they feel sorry for us.) My work focuses on political configurations within different autocratic governments lead autocrats to make particular economic policy decisions.

To do that, you need to know politics. So I’m learning a lot about that too. An odd but rather understandable feature of political studies of non-Western countries is that they often tend to be written by people who really think that these non-Western states are inherently different than their Western counterparts. While most (but not all!) mainstream political science studies “real” politics with presidents, parliaments, courts, and constitutions, non-Western countries that don’t have these are left by the wayside. The people who study politics in non-Western settings seem far more willing to tell you that their country is incredibly different than the West. Mainstream political science (read: focusing on the West) imagines little individual utility-maximizers bumping into objective institutional constraints. Studies of non-Western politics are usually either simple (not “simple,” but rather non-theoretical) histories or grand accounts of cultural conceptions of politics that explain why these foreigners act so differently. Mainstream political science emphasizes sameness, while non-Western political studies emphasize difference. I find this both intellectually unsatisfying and a little colonial.

Today I read Benedict Anderson’s Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Anderson is a famous social scientist on the Government faculty at Cornell but widely read instead by anthropologists and Asianists. In this book he sets out a particular thesis about the fact that Indonesians, and in particularly Javanese, just think of politics differently than Westerners. This is the theoretical foundation for a larger project of understanding how Indonesian politics works.

He identifies four differences. (1) “Power is concrete. This is the first and central premise of Javanese political thought. Power exists, independent of its possible users. It is not a theoretical postulate but an existential reality.” (2) “Power is homogeneous. It follows from this conception that all power is of the same type and has the same source. Power in the hands of one individual or one group is identical with power in the hands of any other individual or group.” (3) “The quantum of power in the universe is constant…concentration of power in one place or in one person requires a proportional diminution elsewhere.” (4) “Power does not raise the question of legitimacy…power itself antecedes questions of good and evil.”

I just don’t get how these things are different than the West. On (1), saying that power is “concrete” is too vague, and he doesn’t elaborate later. He does not mean that power is something that you can grasp, but if he just means that power is (in the scientific realist sense) something that has a causal effect on society, then that’s the same as the West. On (2), I’m not sure that this statement has any real meaning. I’m open to suggestions. On (3), this I know to be the same as in the West. This is the heart of the realist international relations school and zero-sum noncompetitive game theory. On (4), this is also the same as in the West. You can talk about power without talking about whether or not power is good or bad. In fact, it is only in the application of power that raises normative issues.

The point of this is at least (1) that Anderson is wrong, and perhaps (2) also that I can discount culturalist explanations in studying Southeast Asian politics because even if they appear to work in reality, they fall apart in theory.

Comments 3

  1. Chu October 13, 2004

    I don’t know how I feel about applying the “western”, “mainstream” political science to the rest of the world. We are all situated in a cultural context (even rational choice theorists) and it would be a shame to miss what other cultures have to teach us about power and politics because we were too busy trying to fit them into a western intellectual paradigm. It is not that we shouldn’t try to treat the study of diverse cultures similarly such that we could get a more comprehensive view of the world: it is that we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that our tools, which invariably highlight our strengths vis a vis other cultures, are the ones that will get us to the promise land.
    I believe that everything that Benedict Anderson said on power (at least what I could gather from your post) was hogwash. Power is relational. It arises between different objects. It is not like Newtonian gravity – it is like Einstein’s relativity. If there were less than 2 people in the world, there would be no power. Even if there were millions of people, if they were sufficiently spread throughout the Earth such that there were no interactions or externalities to account for, then there would still be no power. More pertinent to actual world history, there has been an explosion in the amount of power that is present throughout the world due to advances in communication and transportation technology. I guess you could say that the British were more powerful than the Songhai in 1500 but what does that mean. First, it is pure conjecture. Second, what is power if it has no effect or even the capability to do so… If you can’t project power, do you really have any?
    Just the thought of a theorist that is treating another culture outside the norm of “mainstream” political science. 🙂

  2. Jeff October 13, 2004

    As the risk of showing how naive and uninformed I may be, I will say that I seem to disagree with what Anderson says power is. I think power is a matter of perception; that if you have power over me, it is only because you and I both believe that to be so. In most cases, people agree with one another about what constitutes power in a given situation. But what about MLK or Ghandi overcoming those with political and physical power with their own organized passive resistance. Didn’t real power change hands only when the perception of power changed, and the other, agreed-upon kinds of power changed only after that change in perception? If so, isn’t power more abstract than concrete at its core?
    This explains why the BoSox are cursed and will be beaten by the Yankees.

  3. Tom October 13, 2004

    Chu– I think that you’re right to say that we shouldn’t assume that our tools happen to be the right ones to understand the whole world. It’s a bit like saying that one just happened to be raised in the only religion that gets you to heaven. That said, I agree with the rest of your comments. I think that part of Anderson’s problem is that he think that looking at Javanese mythology tells us a heck of a lot about how Indonesian politics works. Like trying to read the Iliad to figure out how American politics works, it’s an interesting exercise, but the proof is in whether or not it tells you anything you wouldn’t have been able to figure out yourself in the first place.
    Jeff– I think that you’re totally right about power being a relational concept. Insofar as I think that Anderson might agree with you, I think that’s the problem; there’s nothing particular Javanese or Western about it. What we measure when we measure “power” are things like guns and veto privileges, but MLK, Gandhi, and Tom DeLay know that the real foundation of power depends on everyone agreeing about what power is.
    I can’t remember if you’re a Boston or NY fan (and Wallingford is right on the line), but I do believe that power means nothing if you continually have a crappy manager going into the ALCS.

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