Alien vs Predator, Shampoo vs Conditioner: dimensions formed by the correlational structure of semantic contraries between Louis Dumont & Roy D’Andrade

 

 

From the age of about six I had a clear preference – I liked shampoo better than conditioner. This wasn’t based on anything to do with utility, nor was it based on any innate quality I was attributing to one or the other. I still used both. I just preferred shampoo over conditioner.

Call me neurotic but I also associated shampoo with the ‘right’ as in my ‘right hand side’ and conditioner with ‘left’. I assumed (in my later years) that this was a developmental thing and played out as such because I am right handed.

The late Louis Dumont (1911 – 1988) would delight in this story. I’m sure he would argue that in this context the shampoo ‘encompasses’ or includes the conditioner (in an hierarchical and evaluative sense), which is also its opposite. This is what Dumont calls ‘encompassing the contrary’ – a principle of hierarchy that he considers to apply to all significant binary oppositions.

According to Dumont a good old Structuralist analysis should begin with the identification of key conceptual oppositions such as those between raw & cooked, pure & impure, masculine & feminine and the like. Once such culturally relevant oppositions have been identified the anthropologist can then busy themselves ‘mapping out’ how these sets of oppositions relate to one another in the various different aspects of that particular system of cultural knowledge.

Unlike other Structuralists Dumont was of the opinion that the structural relations between cultural oppositions could and should be considered in term of value – in relation to any given pair of oppositions, one will be considered superior. This superior term always ‘encompasses’ the other (inferior one). According to David Graeber (I couldn’t check the reference because the university doesn’t have access to the Proceedings of the British Academy apparently), one of Dumont’s favourite illustrations of this hierarchical encompassment is the opposition between right and left.

 

‘One of Dumont’s favourite illustrations is the opposition of right and left. Anthropologists having long noted a tendency, which apparently occurs in the vast majority of word’s cultures, for the right hand to be treated as somehow morally superior to the left (Hertz 1907, Needham 1973). In offering a handshake, Dumont notes, one must normally extend one hand or the other. The right hand put forward thus, in effect, represents one’s person as a whole – including the left hand that is not extended (Dumont 1983, see Tcherkezoff 1983). Hence, at least in that context, the right hand “encompasses” or includes the left, which is also its opposite’ (Graeber 2001, p. 17).

 

While there is a lot to merit Dumont’s approach I think the focus on binary oppositions is a little overdrawn. Roy D’Andrade’s 2008 publication ‘A Study of Personal and Cultural Values’ gives me further reason to suspect this is the case.

The material collected as part of D’Andrade’s three-culture study suggests that the relationship between associative value-concepts such as ‘individualism and collectivism’,  ‘altruism and self-interest’ is not necessarily one of opposition. I think this is a really significant finding and one that will or should change the course of current debates about cross-cultural concepts of personhood and subjectivity. Quoting D’Andrade:

 

‘It is true, as Schimmack et al. point out, that the individualism versus collectivism and altruism versus self-interest are not formed by contradictory opposites such as up and down. But, to repeat the point made earlier, this does not mean that they are not dimensions. As dimensions they are formed by the correlational structure of semantic contraries (things opposed in nature or tendency) rather than contradictories (whatever is true of one is logically false about the other)’ (D’Andrade 2008, p. 44).

 

 

 

(- and so perhaps I can have my shampoo and eat it too).

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Filed under Anthropology, General personal writings

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