Reading Strathern

Partial Connections

Simon Cohn

This seminal book addresses a number of overlapping themes in social anthropology and the social sciences more generally. Not always written in an accessible style, structured in a format designed to reflect her argument which at times feels a little forced, and full of key ideas raised almost in passing, this was not an easy read.

(c) Daphne Todd OBE; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Daphne Todd OBE; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So, instead, I want to draw out two central concerns that we had lively discussions about; that of holism, and that of comparison. They are linked, of course, because the normal way to think about comparison is to assume that you are comparing two different and disconnected entities: You actively juxtapose them, bring them together, in order to see similarities and differences. This could be said to underlie the core anthropological project of cross-cultural comparison, leading to classic texts on such things as ‘African Political Systems’ and ‘Kinship and Marriage’.

But towards the end of the 20th century social anthropology was increasingly uncomfortable with this general idea of holism underlying conceptualisations of society, and hence the notion that they can ever be discrete or bounded. The point is that societies (and cultures) simply are not, and never were, discrete or homogeneous. So although holism may well have been an important heuristic device, especially with respect to various moral and ideological projects anthropology had engaged with over the years, any justification to defend it started to lose credibility. Researchers not only pointed out the limitations of trying to apply it to diverse fields of social life, but they also acknowledged the fact that it may well inadvertently serve to reproduce ideas of the other, the exotic, the ahistorical, and so on, that would curtail anthropology’s relevance in a globalised, late-capitalist world.


Strathern takes this so-called ‘crisis of representation’ as her cue. Drawing on the interest of Chaos Theory at the time of her writing – and in particular the image of fractals to rethink ideas of repetition and replication, and implicitly the infamous impact of a butterfly to reconsider notions of scale and interaction, Strathern strives to preserve ethnography and the productive work of juxtaposition to think through the question of similarity and difference without reproducing the idea of wholes, and by implication, the idea of parts.

For Strathern (and here one can see the image of the fractal at work), there are no a priori ‘wholes’ or ‘parts’ (no singulars or plurals). Instead, the active work of scale foregrounds certain entities and makes others recede, producing objects in comparison. What is key here is the intrinsically contingent and relational nature of it all – things are brought into focus through the effort of the observer. And this remains a dynamic process – as one fleetingly shifts one’s gaze, or zooms in and out, or settles on objects at a different distance, so new configurations emerge.

Yet – and here we found one of the most interesting suggestions – despite this constant variation, there may well be things that are repeated at different scales; repeated, not because of anything essential to overarching categories or containers of the objects, but through the way they are on any occasion brought in relation to each other. An investigation into culture, therefore, is not about encompassing or capturing, but instead comprises of sensitively tracing those partial connections produced by the act of bringing certain things to light.

I think as a group, we were very supportive of Strathern’s thesis, as far as we could grasp it, and we appreciated those sections which drew on ethnographic illustration more explicitly (particularly at the ‘smaller scales’). But we also felt that some of the main messages of the book were now quite common-place. Over the last twenty years or so we have learnt to problematize many of the things Strathern’s text is actively critiquing (much credit to Marilyn, no doubt). And yet, few of us around the table had easy solutions, or alternatives.

butterfly wingGiven we all worked at LSHTM, where many of our colleagues are dedicated to delineating and describing populations as a means to research health and suggest how to improve people’s lives, finding a way to retain sophisticated and dynamic views of social and cultural life, without them simply being mapped over these more positivist ideas remains an important task. So I, for one, will repeatedly go back to Partial Connections – not to find the answer, but to find inspiration and productive provocations.