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Cultural groups, essentialism, and ontic risk

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The comparative study of cultural groups – ethnology – experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune in the twentieth century. Though initially central to the field, by the millennium’s end many in social anthropology had not only abandoned ethnology but also adopted sceptical attitudes toward the culture concept (and those nearby, like ‘cultural group’). The opposite seems true for the social sciences, which increasingly adopted both the culture concept and comparative methods over the same period of time. The study of cultural groups is now in an unusual epistemological situation: researchers in one set of disciplines take themselves to have repudiated the comparative study of cultural groups and the culture concept, yet in another, researchers take these to be critical for ongoing empirical work. What are we to make of such a situation?

This talk considers some longstanding metaphysical critiques of ethnology. These are concerns around a supposed ‘essentializing’ tendency of comparative cultural work. This ‘essentializing’ is taken to be bad scientific practice, leading to wrongheaded characterizations of human populations and empirically unprincipled research. I’ll be arguing that these concerns are not as serious as they appear. If contemporary work is ‘essentialist’ in some way, it is not the kind of ‘essentialism’ that should trouble critics. Yet I’ll suggest there is a more pressing kind of metaphysical worry for the comparative social scientist: what Joeri Witteveen has called ontic risk. Choices around how cultural groups are ontologized (in models, theoretical claims, classifications) can generate harms and costs for extant populations. While ontic risk does not repudiate comparative social scientific work, it does point to potentially serious consequences that should be considered in research design.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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