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From Bell Curve to Power Law

Distributional Models between National and World Society

Keith Hart

Statistical patterns can be found in nature and society. Their distribution may conform to mathematical models. Thus, if two unbiased dice are rolled a thousand times, the number seven will occur with six times the frequency of two or twelve. The resulting histogram will be symmetrical with one peak where the mean, median and mode coincide. Or take a large sample of adult human beings and measure their height. Most cases will fall between five and six feet with very few less than four or more than seven feet. Because this is a continuous variable, the results can be plotted on a graph to which a curve may be fitted. It too will have a single peak with fantails on the high and low ends. We call this the ‘normal’ distribution or popularly the ‘bell curve.’ For more than a century, statistical inference has largely been based on this curve with its parameters of mean and standard deviation.

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Because Antelope Can't Talk

Natural Agency and Social Politics in American Environmental History

John Herron

This essay examines the origins and development of American environmental history. Emerging from the political contests of the 1960s, environmental history attempts to add a natural dimension to more traditional social and political histories. For many observers, nature remains the picturesque backdrop to human a airs, yet environmental historians endeavor to show how the non-human world influences American life. With special attention paid to the question of natural agency, this essay investigates how debates over the ability of nature to "act" impacts both the direction and acceptance of their field.

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'A Punishment More Bitter Than Death'

Dirck Coornhert's Boeven-tucht and the Rise of Discipline

Roger Deacon

Dirck Coornhert (1522-90) was a Dutch humanist whose seminal 1587 book, Boeven-tucht, redefined issues of poverty, charity, development and crime. A transitionary document, Boeven-tucht lies on the cusp of what Michel Foucault called the 'great confinement', which took place between about 1600 and 1750 and which was the common response by local and national authorities to the social disorder concomitant upon population expansion, a widening gap between rich and poor, religious discord and war. Inspired by Boeventucht, the Amsterdam Rasphuis and Spinhuis were the European prototypes of houses of correction which sprang up all over Europe, intended to apply 'a punishment more bitter than death' to all 'criminal idlers'. This introduction to the first-ever English translation of Boeven-tucht situates Coornhert's text in the space between unmediated absolutist sovereignty and full-blown modern discipline, when disciplinary techniques were as yet only gradually emerging from the monasteries and lay fraternities in which they had been incubated, and before they spread into all facets of modern society.

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Yusuf Has

My aim in this article is to move the problematic of violence and its role in politics to a historico-ontological plane. I propose a perspective that breaks with the dominant subjectivist concept of human violence and its metaphysical foundations, which fail to distinguish this concept from that of aggression. According to this perspective, we are already in the field of violence in our everyday social existence, regardless of our personal choices or intentions, the sources of which are systemic. The ontological essence of this systemic violence lies in the fact that it is not external to human subjects but is engraved in their very social being by penetrating into the discourses, practices and frames of mind that make up their historical disposition, which makes it in many instances harder to escape than subjective violence. What I call from this ontological perspective the 'violence of closure' has the effect ultimately of suppressing the possibilities of social being open to human beings in their given historical situation, by normalising the existing way of social and political existence, and closing them off to alternatives. I argue that to this violence of closure must be opposed the violence of dis-closure, which, in its various particular intellectual and practical forms, can open up human social existence to its repressed possibilities.

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Jon Harald Sande Lie

Through its post-structural critique of development, post-development provides a fundamental dismissal of institutional development. Drawing on the work of Foucault, post-development portrays development as a monolithic and hegemonic discourse that constructs rather than solves the problems it purports to address. Yet post-development itself becomes guilty of creating an analysis that loses sight of individuals and agency, being fundamental to its development critique. This article discusses the discourse-agency nexus in light of the post-development context with specific reference to the grand structure-actor conundrum of social theory, and asks whether an actor perspective is compatible with discourse analysis and what—if anything—should be given primacy. It aims to provide insight into social theory and post-development comparatively and, furthermore, to put these in context, with Foucault's work being pivotal to the seminal post-development approach.

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Sabine Weiland

The bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis challenged one of the basis principles of modernity: the divide between nature and society. In a case study on the German agricultural sector, I analyze how the societal actors responded in order to cope with the crisis. In their attempt to re-establish the division between nature and society, they employed the ambivalences of this relationship for strategic purposes. The actors sought to relocate or to newly define the boundary in line with their own ideas and interests. It can be seen how "nature" was frequently used as legitimizing ground in the narratives. The analysis of the politics of nature aims to add a process dimension to Latourian diagnosis of the eroding nature-society divide.

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Space, power, and prestige in the academic field

A case-study of Russian scholars

Artyom Kosmarski

This article investigates Russia's relationship with the West in the 1990s and 2000s by analyzing changes in a specific segment of the contemporary global economy—the academic sphere. It traces how the social sciences and the humanities in Russia have evolved from relative insularity and hierarchy during the Soviet era to a more complex web of multiple local institutions, setting their own rules, alongside powerful international agents. Assuming that individual trajectories can make objective spatial structures visible, the article analyzes the biographies of three young Russian scholars, collected in 2004 and 2005 during a research project in the anthropology of science. Patterns of academic migration and intellectual exchange with the West are presented here as providing clues to the spatial structure of the Russian scientific field and its place in the global academic economy. The article concludes with a discussion whether these findings may be generalized to other spheres, and applied not only to Russia but to other post-Soviet states caught in-between the First and the Third Worlds.

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Power and Authority in Religious Traditions in Islam

Reflections about Issues of Power and Authority in the Traditions and the Present Situation of Muslims in Europe

Hüseyin Inam

The article begins with an example of the significant impact of antireligious restrictions in the twentieth century, which led to an intellectual retreat of Muslim authorities and a change of traditional authority structures. It makes clear the negative role that was played, and continues to be played, by the dominant European perspective on Islam. The article tries to describe the systematic misunderstandings about the role of the Islam in the Muslim communities. How can Muslims or non-Muslims give an authoritative response to several questions posed to Islam? It then clarifies how early the caliphate lost its significance so that the schools of religious jurisprudence took on the decisive role for the religious life of Muslims. Theological conceptions and their historic backgrounds show us that Islam contains a lot of positive potential for interpretation, which can be used by Muslim communities to rebuild new, democratic authority structures. How relevant are the new western-christian influences, and what are the essential bases for a Muslim argumentation? In the German context the article deals with the importance of the mosque as a centre for the religious life for the individuals and the community. Finally it discusses the important question, how could a new formation of Muslim authorities within the communities be constructed, and what role might the interfaith experience play in this.

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Christopher C. Taylor

If anthropology is in need of a lesson against reductionism, it would appear that no longer is it in need of one against reification, for this is more often the logical flaw that contemporary anthropologists strive hardest and most consciously to avoid. Yet for all the merits of the critique against reification, it has its downside: it renders us less sensitive to the dangers of reductionism. Quite frequently today the charge of reification is leveled against what was once the discipline’s core concept, the concept of culture, which we are told is overly deterministic, excessively totalizing, and insufficiently sensitive to issues of multivocality and hermeneutic multiplicity. Cultural theorists are accused of investing the concept with too much causal weight and of sheltering it from the tides of history and contingency. Mere museum curators rather than observers of the dynamic human condition, cultural theorists are said to place ‘cultures’ under bell jars and then to claim that culture determines everything.

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Eleanor Rimoldi

Sacrifice is an act and a concept of considerable importance to contemporary conflict. However, interpretations of the role and nature of sacrifice vary historically, culturally, and situationally. This article discusses the various ways that sacrifice has been interpreted in the anthropological literature, including an analysis of forms of conflict, negotiation, and sacrifice pertaining to Bougainville. Professional conciliators and government emissaries negotiating a solution to the Bougainville conflict brought into play ideologies and processes they often claimed were based on an understanding of indigenous ways of resolving conflict. A critical assessment of this claim discusses the possible effects of the co-option of ritual and traditional means of negotiation and considers what is lost in translation.