Anthropology, Asian studies, Asian American studies: Open systems, closed minds

Nancy Abelmann

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Aseries of papers written in 1957 and 1958 culminated in prominent British anthropologist Max Gluckman's 1964 edited volume, Closed Systems and Open Minds: The Limits of Naivety in Social Anthropology. The subtitle of this chapter inverts that title: open systems and closed minds. That early volume's methodological interest in how anthropologists define and delimit their "field"-both in the disciplinary and ethnographic sense (that is, field site) - was indeed prescient of debates to come in anthropology (for example, Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Lavie and Swedenburg 1996). Gluckman and collaborators (Devons and Gluckman 1964a, 15) champion naiveté-the treatment of complex social phenomena "as simple, crude, or gross"-so as to "get on with the job." In parallel, they defend interdisciplinary naiveté or "artlessness" in order to be disciplined-as anthropologists, that is. They explain: "We have confined naiveté to the situation where the anthropologist disregards the researches and conclusions of other disciplines about aspects of the events he is studying, as irrelevant to his problem" (Devons and Gluckman 1964b, 212). Both the introduction and conclusion to the volume assert that one of the essays, although included, is in fact outside of their venture: namely, that of William Watson (on social mobility and social class in industrial communities), who became overly entangled in bordering social processes (in a disciplinary sense). Devons and Gluckman (1964b, 211) matter-of-factly declare, "In short, he ceased to be a social anthropologist and became himself a sociologist." That is, they defended an eyes-open and humble eschewal of geographic, processual, and disciplinary borderlands.1 Eyes-open humility refers, then, to the "open minds" in the equation: namely, that while necessarily "closing his [sic] system" the anthropologist nonetheless recognizes the "entanglements" of the "web of reality" and by exten-sion the necessary artifice and arbitrariness of closed systems (ibid., 185). In this chapter, I consider the costs of that artifice and arbitrariness, both in the institutional life of the academy and in our classrooms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDisplacements and Diasporas
Subtitle of host publicationAsians in the Americas
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780813537511
ISBN (Print)0813536103, 9780813536101
StatePublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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