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A Sheepish Question

Ahem... What's the difference between sociology and anthropology? I'm starting to read through the first assignment for Anthropology and the Law. While it's very interesting, I guess I'm a little confused because I'm not quite clear on how to define the sphere of what are broadly Anthropological Questions, and where that sphere overlaps and does not overlap with what are Sociological Questions.

I'll confess now to having much more experience with sociology than anthropology. Unfortunately, since neither was my area of specialty in undergrad, my encounters with both were shallow and involved somewhat older scholarship. I'm led to understand that both fields have altered radically since they stopped being exclusively the province of Dead Old (Likely Racist/Imperialist) (Quite Probably German) White Men.

My general impression of sociology is that it sort of arose as a blending of political science, economics, psychology, and history, with the idea of using tools from the various disciplines to answer larger-scale questions of How Societies Work and Why People Act the Way They Do. When I think of sociology, I tend to think of Max Weber. I tend to think of the sociological project as looking at society as it exists now and trying to explain how it works, and to break down what factors cause different societies to act in different ways.

When I think of Anthropology, I tend to think of Margaret Meade and Alfred Kroeber. My impression is of people studying the societies and cultures of ostensibly primitive peoples, and either saying "This is how we used to be back before we got civilization," or "This is how folks interact in the State of Nature, which tells us important lessons about human nature that we can apply to our own lives/societies." I tend to think of anthropological questions as focused on specific cultures, and as being more concerned with how people interact in pre-modern societies.

And yet, and this is where my knowledge gets more fuzzy, I feel as though both disciplines have evolved in ways that make them more difficult to distinguish. I'm under the impression that Sociology has lost a lot of its hubris about seeking to create formulae for how societies operate, and has retreated to a more descriptive goal of "let's look at societies as they are now and talk about what's going on in them." Anthropology, meanwhile, seems to have gotten embarrased of the way that it tended to de-humanize less developed societies and turn them into circus sideshows. The anthropological project, from what I can tell, has expanded to include all manner of contemporary societies. Further, my feeling is that anthropology, too, has stopped trying to make arguments about Human Nature and instead focuses on descriptive studies.

So, looking at the state of the fields right now, how would you differentiate the two? Is it a matter of focus? Sociologists are concerned with societies at large, while anthropologists are concerned with the smaller component groups? Is it a question of ideology? Anthropologists principally wish to describe cultures without attempting to distill their behavior into universal rules, while sociologists are still looking to arrive at big ideas about how societies work? Or is there very little practical difference between the two disciplines as they stand today, and the fact that they're organized in separate departments is a relic of their having arrived at the same place from different origins?

Feel free to correct my gross (and likely inaccurate) generalizations. Also, I now realize that I should have clarified that I'm talking about cultural-type anthropology, rather than the more biological anthropology. Which, again, shows how little I know about the field.


I'm trying to come up with a good name for a cat. Not my own, sadly, but I've been asked for advice. Anyhow, it'll be a male silver tabby cat. So far my favorite choices:

1. Hippo
2. Chairman Meow.
3. Der Hund, Beppo.

Other possibilities:
Melville, Catty Bumpo, Nacho, The Great Catsby (ne Jay Catsby, ne Jay Catz), Theodore Katcizinsky, The Sorrow and the Kitty, Dib, Florian, Petronius, Juan, Justice Meowliver Wendell Holmes, Justice Felis Frankfurter (these last two work best if you have a pair. Or you could collect nine cats and create a whole kitty Supreme Court!).

Any other ideas?

Big Philosophical Questions

Between Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Property, and Law and Philosophy, there've been a surprising number of Big Philosophical Questions coming up in my academic life lately. Not, generally, philosophical to the highest level of abstraction, but philosophy as applied to high-level political organization. I think these are interesting questions, and I'd be intrigued to hear how you all would answer them.

These aren't, generally, questions that are debated in current politics, so they're not emotionally-charged (No "Does life begin at birth, or conception, or somewhere in between?" type questions). They're about political organization, but they aren't necessarily fought over by the political parties in America today. Also, I'll try to phrase them in a non-loaded way, since I think all of them are subject to legitimate debate.

1. (I'll start with a very broad one) Should the morality of an action be judged based on overriding moral principles, irrespective of the action's consequences, or should morality be judged based on what the likely real-world consequences of that action will be?

2. What is the goal of criminal punishment? To visit retribution on the criminal for an immoral offense against society? To deter future crime? To rehabilitate the criminal?

3. Is it better for judges to mechanically apply the law in all cases that come before them, regardless of the circumstances under which the case arose, or for a judge to have little regard for prior precedent, deciding each case on an individual basis according to personal theories of what is right and which party deserves to win (subject to the constraints of the relevant legislation)?

4. Where do rights come from? Do we have rights because they are practical and useful for society, or do rights come from some outside moral rule (be it God's Law, Natural Law, Human Nature, an inherent sense of justness and fairness, or whatever else)?

5. Should government be bound by past generations? That is, if the popular, democratic will wishes to do something which is opposed by some aspect of the constitution, should the people be forbidden from doing what they wish because, at a time in the past, a sufficient number of people believed otherwise and codified this belief in the Constitution?

6. To what degree should a democratic society be governed according to the popular will, and to what degree should it be governed by non-elected experts?

7. In setting up a scheme of representative government, should the priority be towards maximizing responsiveness of the national government to the national will, or maximizing responsiveness of individual representatives to the community they represent?

For all of these questions, even though they're framed as A or B, don't feel obliged to take the extreme. You can militate or mix as you like, though I'd like to know which side you lean towards intuitively.

Offensive Boredom

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Of course, relating to that last post, the one perk of having a job others find boring is that it's a good way to cut short unwanted conversation. A few years ago I volunteered to work at my sister's Grad Night, which involved being locked in a gym with about 800 graduating High School seniors for a night. And, in my case, being forced to share a ticket redemption table for 9 hours with an evangelical Christian mom. After humoring her for an hour, smiling and nodding along to her discussions of Christ's love and all the sinful jeans the girls were wearing nowadays, I decided to put a stop to it.

"In many ways," I said, "That reminds me of my job at the library. Let me tell you about the 1981 India Census. About a year ago we got this call from this public interest organization in Connecticut. You might have thought they'd be affiliated with Yale, but they weren't. They were in Hartford, but Yale is in New Haven. Did you know that New Haven used to be a colony on its own, seperate from Connecticut? But they merged before the Revolution, so that's why there's only one state of Connecticut. But my point is this: These people are making these microfilms, see? Of important public documents? And I suppose they thought somebody would want a microfilm of the 1981 India Census. Why anyone would want that is beyond me. But I suppose some statisticians or demographers might find it useful. Still, though, it seems like there ought to be executive summaries that'd be just as good. In any case, they needed a copy of this census, so that they could make a microfilm of it. Well, they looked around and apparently our library at Berkeley has the most complete set of the 1981 India census in the country. So they made a deal where we'd ship them the census, and they would microfilm it, and then ship it back to us. And eventually the job fell to me to handle this whole mess. Well, shipping that census out was no walk in the park, let me tell you. The first thing that needed to be done was that the books had to get put in their proper order. Now, the library of congress call number system..."

And so on for about twenty minutes. By the time I finished that one story she looked anxious and slightly mortified. "Oh," she said, "That's interesting."

"Well, if you think that was interesting, wait'll I tell you about six months later when the same people requested the 1991 India census!"

"Um, maybe you could tell me later. I've got this book I'm reading for my book club and I wanted to make some progress tonight..."

"A book, eh? I wonder what the Library of Congress call number would be..."

"No need! Let's just sit silently and read."


And I think we shared about 10 words the rest of the evening.

Bureaucratic Efficiency

It is often complained that bureaucracies are inefficient. This is amusing insofar as the theoretical idea behind bureaucracies is that they are supposed to be modernity's great innovation in terms of organizational efficiency; they take a huge task and build an organizational structure that breaks the task down into its smallest components and staffs an expert on each of these components in a position to handle it. The specifics of why bureaucracies become bloated and inefficient are not, however, the subject of this post.

I submit that bureaucracies can be highly efficient, provided it is a subject in which they take a heavy interest, and not something unimportant like serving people. I submit the following example from my years working as a clerk at the library:

Several Springs ago the Berkeley campus was beset by a tragedy. Professor Andrew Zelnick, prominent historian of Russian history, was killed in an utterly pointless tragedy on campus. He was backed over by a slow-moving water delivery truck on the service road by the top of the stairs next to Moses Hall. A report appeared in the Daily Cal the next day.

I read the report sitting at my computer at the library. I had never taken a class with Professor Zelnick, but had taken classes in the Russian division of the History department, so I started looking up information about him on the Berkeley website. After a few minutes, it struck me that I could look up his patron information in GLADIS, the Berkeley Library's book database. When I did so, I discovered that, though the news of his death had been reported just a few hours prior, he already had his library privileges cancelled in GLADIS, with a note marking him "DECEASED." Moreover, his entire inventory had been recalled. It's nice to know, in times of grief, that the library has its priorities straight.



A few random things to post on. None of them long enough to warrant a post, but (I think) vaguely interesting.

Fiery Hot Flautists
I just discovered today that a flautist lives across the hall from me. She was practicing what sounded like Bolero. I wish she would practice more often. Not, you know, because she's bad. She's fine. I just wish I could hear her more often. I like Bolero.

Cotton-Eyed Joe
I've moved from Old Time Religion to Cotton-Eyed Joe in my banjo training. I've never actually heard Cotton-Eyed Joe before, which makes learning it tricky. On top of that, it requires a new roll that I'm still getting down. But I imagine I'll get used to the roll, and I can probably find the song on-line, since my guess is that most old banjo tunes are public domain. That's not the point. The point is Cotton-Eyed Joe's lyrics: "I'da been married long ago, if it hadn't been for Cotton-Eyed Joe. Where did you come from? Where did you go? Where did you come from, Cotton-Eyed Joe?" Unless Cotton-Eyed Joe is just some random scapegoat that the singer blames for all his problems, the suggestion is that Cotton-Eyed Joe stole the singer's intended from him. Now, I've never met a man with cotton eyes before, but I would guess that if you're losing suitors to cotton-eyed rivals, you've probably got bigger problems than can be dealt with by blaming those rivals.

Cole Porter
In the case of Arnstein v. Porter, Mr. Arnstein sued Cole Porter, arguing that Cole Porter had infringed his copyright and stollen his songs. He alledged that Porter had hired "stooges," to follow him, harrass him, steal his music and "live in the same apartment" with him. Huh. There was a motion to dismiss, and it was denied on appeal. I don't know how it turned out, but probably not too well for Mr. Arnstein.

Torts and its Discontents
I essentially spent the whole of Torts today playing Civilization. I took some notes, but mostly we went off on a very long Constitutional Law tangent. I took relevant notes, but there wasn't too much relevant. So, Torts session effectively missed, but on the other hand my catapults stand amassed at the gates of Berlin and I'm a stone's throw from conquest of the German empire.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

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