Accepted paper:

The study of individuals and the interaction of social fields


Jan Patrick Heiss (University of Zurich)

Paper short abstract:

I argue that a study of individuals is needed if we try to understand how different social fields (e.g. religion + economic behaviour) interact. I apply this idea to a Hausa peasant's life and the relations his life has to the structures of peasant societies and to the local variety of Islam.

Paper long abstract:

If we construe generalised statements about a society, we work with a wide variety of people. As a corollary of that, we cannot study them closely. If we study, however, individuals, we can spend more time on studying them. We unfold their being and show its complexity in a way a study striving for general insights cannot. For some research questions, such an approach seems desirable. This is the case if we want to understand how different social fields interact. A short glimpse at Weber's Protestant ethic serves to illustrate that. Weber related inner states and ways of action of members of different religions to their religious doctrines and duties. Yet, in the Protestant ethic he did not relate his findings to the social structures the believers were embedded in. He could thus not control if the behaviour of the believers were due to religion only or to other features of society as well. A study of a smaller number of 'field-subjects' enables us to relate the findings to a wider variety of factors. In other words, if a wide variety of explanatory models refers to a certain phenomenon, we have to reduce the number of samples to which we apply the explanatory models. A holistic approach, so one might argue, might, therefore, sometimes demand the study of individuals. I try to make this point by relating some features of the life of a Hausa peasant (Niger) to the structures of peasant societies and to the local variety of Islam.

panel P029
The individual in anthropology: a future paradigm in anthropology?