Brad DeLong has a go at the anthropologists at “Savage Minds” for two posts which in turn attack Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m mostly in agreement with Brad, but think that there’s a more interesting question lurking in the background; the Savage Minds critiques seem to me to be less motivated by professional jealousy than by a wrongheaded understanding of levels of causation. Ozma, one of the Savage Minds bloggers suggests in comments that while she thinks that Diamond is wrong on the facts, her more fundamental objection to his work is that it’s the wrong kind of anti-racism.
What distresses anthropologists most about JD’s book & its enormous popularity has to do with a more general problem confronting anthro (and sociology) …It has to do with varieties of anti-racism. JD’s falls squarely in the camp of “no nothing” anti-racism, which drives us bananas. “no nothing” anti-racism insistently locates racism at a convenient scale. What we mostly face in the classroom are students who vociferously insist that while there might still be some scary tribes of racists out there (they usually point south, fabled homeland of the last living groups of uncontacted cretins who might hold such retrograde views), they think racism isn’t such a big deal because they look into their own hearts and see none, and into the hearts of their near and dear ones and see none there, either (oh, except grampa joe. and aunt ellen. golly, maybe their brother-in-law, too, and, well, anyway, definitely not MOST of the hearts in question).
Okay, so a book like GG&S really hits our buttons. [It] is another variety of no-nothing anti-racism, here writ REALLY REALLY LARGE (into geography) rather than really really small (into individual hearts and minds). It helps make impossible the kinds of thinking about race, power, and history that sociological/anthropological scholarship indicate are necessary to bring about (1) genuine causal understanding and (2) change. It obviates what we take to be the all-important “middle part” between human origins and human psyches.
If I’m reading Ozma correctly here, her claim is flat-out wrong. There is absolutely nothing about the study of large scale structural processes that obviates or prevents the study of racism at the meso-level. First off, an interest in macro-processes isn’t inherently right-wing or denialist – see, for example, the work of noted sociologist Charles Tilly. Second, Diamond is quite explicitly reasoning from macro-level causes to macro-level consequences – how various environmental factors affect the ability of societies to accumulate physical resources. That he doesn’t talk about the meso-level is not to deny that it can be important; it’s just to say that the specific questions he is interested in are better examined at a different level of causation. Finally, it’s quite clear that if one wanted to, one could use a macro-level account of the kind that Diamond provides as the starting point for a meso-level account of the effects of racism, examining, for example, how different environmental endowments have privileged groups that have then used their superior level of physical resources to pursue overtly or covertly racist agendas. Ozma seems to be claiming that accounts of human society that stress macro-level non-cultural factors are inherently accommodationist, and that only meso-level accounts provide genuine “causal understanding.” This is not a helpful argument.