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One more turn and you’re there


Whatever one may think of its substance, Morten Axel Pedersen (2012) is undoubtedly correct in noting the success of anthropology’s recent self-described ‘ontological turn’ in terms of the degree of attention it has generated for itself, and the fun both proponents and critics have had in engaging with its provocative ideas. Whilst we do not yet know whether future generations will look back on it as an example of ‘(good) anthropology’ turning into ‘(bad) philosophy’, or as a ‘technology of description’ (ibid.) that allowed for a radical overhaul of the way in which anthropologists make sense of their data, we can at least be sure that they will have the arguments of a vibrant debate on the subject to help them decide (e.g. Carrithers et al. 2010), something that can only be a good thing.

And whether or not the time has come, as Pedersen puts it, to recognise the limited degree to which ‘the turn’ itself was meant to be taken seriously (a ‘comic turn’ then, perhaps?), and to look forward now to a new and different, perhaps post-recursive ‘move’, it can safely be assumed that the insights generated during these debates regarding the possibilities for thinking about difference will continue to have an impact in years to come on those of us who have been enthralled and diverted by the show. We, for our own part, do take wholly seriously the question Pedersen and others such as Holbraad (2012) have raised, of how anthropologists can best establish a genuinely recursive relationship between data and analysis, enabling ethnography to transform the concepts we use.

Pedersen suggests that some forms of critique are more productive than others. Among the latter, he singles out that which attempts to ‘defend an imagined status quo’ (2012). So let us begin by stating that in a certain sense what we say here is motivated by that same spirit of recursivity, and thus by the same central ambition as that of the ‘turn’, of which it will, nevertheless be somewhat critical. Far from defending a status quo which, if anyone is defending it, is most certainly imagined, we wholeheartedly concur with Pedersen’s astute suggestion that perhaps the time has come to move beyond not only the relational anthropology upon which ‘ontological turn’ ethnographies have hitherto been so dependent, but also the idea of ‘radical alterity’, which has been the problem with which they have preferentially imagined themselves to be dealing. What Pedersen calls ‘common sense’ is indeed in dire need of investigation. But such investigation cannot begin from the premise that it is not (sense, that is).

So whilst this short essay is a response to Pedersen’s challenge to critics of the ‘turn’, ‘to stand up and make explicit their own theoretical ground’ (ibid.), it is made in a conciliatory spirit, albeit one that may itself be read as a form of critique. Because whilst it is impossible not to share Pedersen’s enthusiasm for the turn’s potential to recalibrate entirely the level at which anthropological analysis takes place (Course 2010, in Pedersen 2012) – who could not be excited at such a prospect? – his rebuttal of some of its various critics exemplifies both a few unfortunate consequences of wholeheartedly embracing it, and perhaps some of the benefits of a little of the scepticism which he asks its critics to justify. For in choosing to conclude his piece with a paraphrased invocation of Geertz’s critique of ‘common (non)sense’, Pedersen provides us with an excellent example of one of the primary dangers of the turn to ontology: that its implicit presuppositions oblige us to begin from the premise that those who do not share them are simply wrong.

Hardly a contentious accusation, one might respond. Proponents of particular theoretical arguments are unsurprisingly wont to believe their critics to be wrong; and, with some justification, Pedersen, and others would no doubt respond that these critics themselves believe Pedersen and others to be wrong in a symmetrical manner. Yet beneath this apparent symmetry there is an equivocation at work, for the word ‘wrong’ does not (and cannot) mean the same thing to Pedersen and others as it does to their critics. More importantly, it may not mean the same thing to Pedersen and others as it does to their ethnographic interlocutors.

Pedersen describes the position of his critics as ‘common nonsense’. The antonym, perhaps, of ‘radical alterity’, ‘common nonsense’ suggests certain widespread presuppositions that Pedersen believes to be incorrect, the most fundamental and basic of which is that theory and ontology are – at least occasionally – different things. The problem for Pedersen, we submit, is that this supposed nonsense is indeed, as his title implies, common, though in two importantly different ways. It is, one might say, surprisingly common, in the sense that there exists a range of people and peoples across the world who think that theories and things are different, and in some cases also that thinking this is itself a theory and not a thing. But it is, equally, common surprisingly, in that it is not possible to map such thinking neatly onto particular geographical locations that can then be categorised according to whether they are in fact to be ‘taken seriously’ or otherwise (Candea 2011). So, just as there are no doubt Amerindians whose world (or worldview) is not that of Jaguars drinking manioc beer and living in houses, so there are ‘Euro-Americans’ whose philosophy looks remarkably like the indigenous thought we find in perspectivist ethnographies (Laidlaw 2012). So, if anthropology is to be the science of ‘the ontological auto-determination’ of ‘peoples’ (Viveiros de Castro 2003, 2011), even if not of anthropologists, the positions of critics of the ‘ontological turn’ can be ‘common’ – in this sense – and they can also be ‘nonsense’ but they cannot happily be both.

But what Pedersen really seems to want to imply with the ‘common’ of ‘common nonsense’ is that such ideas are presuppositions, in the sense of a failure to recognise

the intrinsic and inescapable theoretical ground of all ethnographic description and anthropological analysis, including – and perhaps especially so – those descriptions and analyses that claim “to not be overly theoretical” or, worse, to “not be theoretical” at all, as if “theory” was the name of a spirit that could be exorcized by denying its presence and not talking about it (2012).

In other words, there is a double critique at work in the notion of ‘common nonsense’: first, one addressed at the level of content, related to the debate surrounding the relationship between models and essences, worlds and worldviews, that is dealt with in the ‘certain recent reviews’ that Pedersen discusses (Course 2010; Heywood 2012; Keane 2009; Laidlaw 2012); the second, interesting in the ways that it relates to the first, is slightly more complex: for Pedersen is accusing his critics not only of possessing mistaken theories regarding the relationship between theory and ontology, but also of being in denial about the nature of these last as theories. The begged question here, of course, is what ‘theory’ actually means in a debate in which it forms one of the terms at issue. In fact, none of the authors Pedersen cites makes any claim not to be theoretical, explicitly or implicitly, in the works cited or elsewhere. So what in Pedersen’s approach or lexicon inclines him to hear them as doing so?

At the root of this problem is a conflation of two terms, present throughout Pedersen’s essay, namely ‘meta-ontology’ and ‘theory’. It is safe, no doubt, to assume that this conflation is deliberate when speaking of his own outlook, given the more general arguments Pedersen and others within the ‘turn’ have made regarding the value of a ‘slippage’ between essence and theory, epistemology and ontology. For instance, responding to Laidlaw, Pedersen declares ‘I am happy to admit that my use of the term ontology “oscillates” between two different and apparently contradictory meanings, namely ontology in the sense of “essence” (what there is) and ontology in the sense of “theory” or “model” (of what there is)’ (Pedersen 2012). So far so good, provided you happen to agree that such a slippage is indeed valuable: it is certainly valuable to have the acknowledgement that there is a slippage. The problem lies in Pedersen’s characterisation of his critics’ attitude to it. On the one hand, it would seem fairly obvious that those who disagree with the ‘turn’ are unlikely to share its proponents’ belief that epistemology and ontology are one and the same thing; indeed, this is the point that Pedersen brings out of Laidlaw’s review of his book (2012, in Pedersen 2012).

Yet when discussing his critics elsewhere in the piece Pedersen seems to attribute to them an antipathy for ‘theory’ in the same breath as to ‘meta-ontology’. Indeed, this is the other meaning of the ‘common’ of ‘common nonsense’, namely the idea that his critics possess a ‘theory/meta-ontology’ just as he does. Referring to Heywood’s (2012) critique, for example, he writes ‘Heywood is evidently touching upon a rather delicate question, namely whether the ontological turn amounts to a big theory (or “meta-ontology”, in Heywood’s terms) or not?’; or later, noting the tendency of ‘ontological turn’ ethnographies to share certain theoretical proclivities, such as an interest in relationality, he notes

Certainly, some of my own work is guilty of this – if that is what it is to analyse from a set of theoretical assumptions: a sin for which one can be charged and found guilty in the Cambridge court. As far as I am concerned, the meta-ontological critique made by Heywood does not refer to an ethnographic crime but an anthropological necessity of which one can, as long as one maintains a high level of theoretical reflexivity, consider oneself proud. Indeed, as I am going to suggest in what remains of this essay, this is the main weakness of Heywood’s and other recent critiques of the ontological turn: they are curiously blind to their own theoretical ground. For, no matter whether they want this or not, they too are meta-ontological sinners.

And it is at this juncture that the slippage between theory and essence, epistemology and ontology, becomes a problem, for it has ceased to be the object of debate and become instead an assumption driving it, in a manner exemplary of the dangers of conflating the two. This is clearest in the idea that ‘whether they want this or not’, critics of the ‘ontological turn’ must possess some kind of ‘meta-ontology’.

But of course, this idea itself is the consequence of that meta-ontological assumption (there is no difference between having a theory about the world and making a statement describing it – quite clearly a meta-ontological assumption by virtue of its contents); and at this point let us be clear: it is not an assumption that these particular critics of the ‘ontological turn’ share. So whilst we would be more than content to share a place in the dock when it comes to the accusation of having a ‘theoretical ground’, one aspect of which is that there is (sometimes at least) a difference between theory and reality, it is precisely by virtue of this admission that we refute the charge of being ‘meta-ontological sinners’. Pedersen and proponents of the ‘ontological turn’ are obliged to believe that theories about the relationship between theory and ontology are also ontologies. Their detractors are not. And therefore our response here to his challenge does not, as he assumes it must, consist of proposing a (meta)ontology of our own.

So the idea of ‘common nonsense’ is a little more confusing than Pedersen makes clear; he is quite correct in asserting that both camps in the debate share a great deal in common. The problem, however, as in all good perspectivist ethnographies, is that they disagree on what those commonalities happen to be. Both make assumptions about the relationship between models and essences, but in substance those assumptions are markedly different. What, from Pedersen’s perspective, appears as an ontology (‘there is a difference between theory and ontology’), appears from our perspective to be a theory; and – again, as in all good perspectivist ethnographies – we are faced with the problem of how to translate.

Following Viveiros de Castro – the ‘enemy’s point of view’, as it were – we might describe one method as a presumption of ‘a univocality – the essential similarity – between what the Other and We are saying’ (2004: 8). This is essentially Pedersen’s position: that although we (and presumably, others, even if not the Other) might think that what we are proposing is a theoretical assumption, it is, whether we want it to be so or not, a meta-ontological one no different from his. Theory and (meta)ontology are essentially synonymous in this argument, different words which essentially describe the same thing. As in the case of culturalist readings of Amerindian cosmologies, however, this method of translation ‘necessarily implies the negation or delegitimization of its object’ (ibid: 5). Ethnographic accounts of Amazonian perspectivism that privilege epistemology and worldviews over ontology and worlds read indigenous thought on the subject as a simple category mistake, an ‘inverted’ form of anthropology in which difference is (mis)explained as a product of nature instead of – its ‘real’ source – culture. Likewise, Pedersen’s ‘review of certain reviews’ reveals that his reviewers are in error not so much because of what they say but because of how they say it: they are entitled to their curious cosmology in which concepts and objects are different things; what they must not do is get confused about how to express it. Like the ‘primitive and fetishised’ kind of anthropological reasoning – ‘it’s all about ontology’ – that culturalist ethnographers found in the Amazon, Pedersen finds in his reviewers a ‘retroprojection’ (Latour 1996 cited in Viveiros de Castro 2004) of the ‘common nonsense’ of those very culturalist ethnographers: ‘it’s all about epistemology’; and since for him and other theoreticians-ontographers of the ‘turn’ it is all really about both being the same thing, that makes us doubly wrong.

But if, remaining within the world (or worldview) of Viveiros de Castro, anthropological accounts of perspectivism sinned by assuming that difference is directly translatable – that it is all epistemological and not ontological – then surely Pedersen’s perspectivist account of his anthropological critics commits a comparable sin in arguing that our difference is really all (meta)ontological and not at all epistemological (or both in so far as they are really the same thing).

Pedersen, in other words, must describe our difference of opinion on the relationship between epistemology and ontology as an ontological one – as well as an epistemological one – if he is not to concede that we are correct in suggesting that sometimes the two may be distinct. But in doing so he belies the rhetoric of the ‘turn’ itself when it comes to dealing with things that are not ‘radical alterity’ – instead of seeing in action Holbraad’s ‘compelling response’ to Heywood’s critique, namely a ‘relative lack of commitment to the heuristic concepts that it [the ‘turn’] creates and deploys to make sense of “ethnographically driven aporia”’ (Pedersen 2012), we find the assertion that what is not ‘radical alterity’ must instead be ‘common nonsense’: ‘nonsense’ because it is wrong and ‘common’ because it is so (meta)ontologically; and in so far as such ‘nonsense’ is ‘common’ in the first sense we discussed, in so far as it is not only anthropologists who lend credence to it, this does not bode well for the capacity of the turn to deal with ‘alterity’ that is not in its own preferred way ‘radical’.

All this leaves Pedersen and his critics in the unfortunate position of being unable even to agree to disagree, given that one of the things we seem to disagree about is exactly what we disagree about. But what if Holbraad is in fact correct? What if ‘ontology’ really is just another ‘heuristic concept’ to which ‘the turn’ is not committed; what if it can, as Pedersen suggests, be abandoned? Would it not be meet to do so, in the face of a stark choice between that and describing ethnographic concepts as ‘common nonsense’?

If such an ‘ontological U-turn’ were indeed possible, we would have returned, we suspect, to the position from which ‘the turn’ departed and with which we conclude: that ‘no post-anything overarching theory’ (Laidlaw 2012) is required to practise the precept of ‘taking seriously’; and that such theories (or ontologies) are indeed detrimental to this aim, as they will almost inevitably result in somebody somewhere being accused of ‘common nonsense’ when they disagree. Pedersen’s reading of Holbraad’s injunction to ‘the turn’ not to take itself seriously looks, in fact, much like the self-evident anthropological wisdom that it is truthfulness in relation to our objects of study, rather than fidelity to our theoretical commitments, that is our first intellectual duty. This, of course, is neither a theory nor an ontology: indeed one might even call it common sense.



Candea, Matei. 2011. ‘Endo/Exo’. Common Knowledge, 17: 146-50.

Carrithers, Michael & M. Candea, K. Sykes, M. Holbraad, S. Venkatesan. 2010. ‘Ontology is Just Another Word for Culture: Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory’. Critique of Anthropology 30: 152-200.

Course, Magnus. 2010. ‘Of Words and Fog: Linguistic Relativity and Amerindian Ontology’. Anthropological Theory, 10: 247-263.

Heywood, Paolo. 2012. ‘Anthropology and What There Is: Reflections on “Ontology”’. Cambridge Anthropology 30, 143-151.

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keane, Webb. 2009. ‘On Multiple Ontologies and the Temporality of Things’. Material world blog, 7 July 2009. URL:

Laidlaw, James.2012. ‘Ontologically Challenged’. Anthropology of this Century 4, URL:

Latour, Bruno. 1996. Petite réflexion sur le culte modern des dieux faitiches. Leplessis-Robinson: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2011. Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

— 2012. ‘Common Nonsense: A Review of Certain Recent Reviews of the ‘Ontological Turn’. Anthropology of this Century 5, URL:

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2003. And. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

— 2004. ‘Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation’. Tipiti 2: 3-22.

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