Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement | Vol. 24 No. 2 | BRENDA FARNELL and CHARLES VARELA: Editorial Introduction

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Editorial Introduction

Brenda Farnell and Charles Varela

This issue of JASHM presents the preface and first three chapters of an unpublished manuscript written by Drid Williams, entitled Signifying Bodies, Signifying Acts. This has been a privately owned and distributed book-length manuscript, the content of which is taken primarily from Williams's doctoral thesis that was completed at Oxford University, England, in 1975. Compiled in 2003 for graduate students studying the anthropology of human movement at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and elsewhere, this manuscript presents in detail the principles of Williams's semasiological theory alongside subsequent work and contributions from colleagues. In this introduction we first locate Dr. Williams's contribution to significant theoretical developments in the social sciences historically, and then ask why it is, that over the course of forty years, she chose not to publish her dissertation in a book that systematically presented the heart of semasiological theory.

What Kind of Science for the Social Sciences?

The 1970s was a decade in which major changes were underway regarding the scientific understanding of the social sciences; especially in relation to the traditional debate between 'science' and 'humanism' on the philosophical problem of determinism and freedom (see Farnell 2012: 21–33; Varela 2009). Two major components of that change are relevant here and serve to locate the significance of Drid Williams's contribution.

     The first change was a renunciation of the belief that the practice of science was necessarily a positivist practice: for example, Pierre Bourdieu famously commented that positivism is the "spontaneous epistemology" of the sciences (cited in Steinmetz 2005: 35). In the decade of the 1970s, however, the rise of 'new realist' philosophies of science enabled us to understand that Bourdieu was wrong: the social sciences had to be realist in their scientific practice, not positivist.1

     The central reason for this difference has to do with the concept of determinism. For positivist science, determinism is based not on the idea of causation but on correlation, that is, the regular chance relationship among different factors. In contrast, 'realism' relies on both a concept of correlation and on 'causal power,' which as a force produces real consequences in the world. This matters for the social sciences if we are to conceive of a human being as a real force and hence as a genuine agent in the worlds of both nature and culture. This leads us directly into a second significant change.

     In the social sciences at this time, there was a fundamental shift in the terminology at the heart of the science/ humanism debate regarding human freedom and determinism. From the 1930s to the 1970s, in sociology, Talcott Parson's terms 'system' and 'volunterism' dominated the discussion of the problem. For Parsons, human beings were free in so far as they were capable of voluntary action, but situated in a world of physical deterministic causes (i.e., material bodies (energy), organisms (instincts), and human bodies (instinctive drives). What was never resolved was how to account scientifically for the freedom of the individual as a voluntary actor within this system. There were two major parts to this problem: first, in Parsonian sociology, the human body was defined in Freudian terms as a deterministic system, hence the human body was treated as an instinct machine. Second, this entailed the idea that the freedom of the individual had no scientific grounding in relation either to the body or the natural physical world in which determinism reigned.

     In response to this problem, between 1976 and 1979 Anthony Giddens proposed new terminology for rethinking this debate––'structure' and 'agency.' He insisted that we needed a new conception of determinism that included causation, not merely correlation. He recognized that agency, too, had somehow to be causal and that this idea would ground the idea that the person is a free agent in his/her everyday life (see Varela 2009: 3–41).

     One of the principle reasons why Drid Williams should be recognized as already a pioneer in anthropology at that time is located precisely here. She understood that the new realism in the philosophy of science had given us the new conception of determinism as a causal power, that Giddens was calling for. She had encountered the solution in Rom Harré's philosophy of science lectures during her studies at Oxford.

     Williams recognized that the new realist concept of causal power allowed us to understand the human body, not as an organically determined instinctively driven machine, but as an organic reservoir of dispositions for action: it is the materiality of the body that provides the corporeal ground for human agency; that is, the powers and capacities that afford the freedom to act. As renowned Harvard evolutionary theorist Richard C. Lewontin and colleagues have declared in this regard, "[I]t is our biology that makes us free" (Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin 1984: 290).

     Coincidentally, in the 1970s and 1980s there emerged a widespread corporeal turn toward the body across the social sciences (See Farnell 1994, 1999, and 2012). Williams's semasiology, as a theory of human movement, was and is unique in its focus on the moving person, not merely 'the body' as a social object, although there were additional contributions starting in the mid-1960s from anthropologists studying the dance (e.g., Adrienne Kaeppler, Joann Keali'inohomokuu, Anya Royce—see references cited in the body of this issue).

     Many investigators, in their efforts to embody the social sciences, turned not toward a semiotics of the moving body but toward the enticing and intoxicating rhetoric of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's existential phenomenology (See Farnell and Varela 2008). This was unfortunate in that, while this theoretical choice supported a swinging of the Cartesian pendulum over to 'the body' as a site of investigation, it was unable to resolve the problem of an adequate scientific account of human agency because Merleau-Ponty had rejected science as a source of theorizing human being in relation to the problem of freedom (Varela 1994; Farnell and Varela 2008). Therefore, while he could rightly conclude that freedom was some sort of power (though not the power of free will), in rejecting science in its traditional positivistic determinism (and dying ten years before new realist philosophies of science got on the way in the 'seventies), he had no way to ground human agentic power in the natural world in general, and in human evolution in particular (Varela 1994: 14–26, 267–92).

Publication of the Dissertation

If semasiological theory was developed and articulated in 1975, why did Drid Williams decide against publishing her dissertation until now? Williams delayed publication of her doctoral thesis for important reasons. First, she was aware that understanding the metatheoretical grounding of semasiology would require considerable training, and in anthropology at the time it was not understood how important the philosophy of science was for this problem. She also voiced concern that the mathematical components and the concept of "all theoretically possible human movement" might lend the theory to statistical and behaviorist manipulations that would undermine its application to a more rigorous ethnographically grounded analyses of the meaning of movement in cultural contexts. In addition, after the limitations of Levi-Straussian semiotic structuralism were revealed, sociocultural anthropologists in general turned away from formalist theories.

     In 1976, Williams did publish two papers in the Journal of Human Movement Studies that contained details of core concepts and formal structures of semasiological theory. Entitled "Deep Structures of the Dance" (Williams 1976a, 1976b), the reference to Chomskian linguistics was misunderstood and the papers were criticized as "mathematicising the dance." Although Williams also presented semasiology to the dance research community in a 1979 paper, and to British Anthropologists in an ASA volume in 1982, subsequently Williams chose to share semasiological theory with small groups of advanced students at New York University and the University of Sydney, and via numerous publications that illustrated its explanatory power through a wide variety of ethnographic contexts, publishing primarily in the journal Visual Anthropology as well as JASHM.

     Williams herself says of this manuscript that "with the aid of valuable work that has been done by others since the original theory was completed in 1975, I can at best only develop a general conceptual outline of semasiology here, because semasiological method does not constitute a unitary grid into which we force highly variant cultural data" (chap. 1, para. 42, this issue).

     We remain confident that anthropologists of human movement serious about the epistemological adequacy of their theoretical and metatheoretical commitments, and wide-ranging in their creative insights into its potential ethnographic application, will continue to find in semasiology a richly rewarding set of conceptual and analytical resources.


1 The difference between realist and positivist approaches to scientific explanation can be summarized as follows. Positivist approaches reject the idea of causation because one cannot observe causal forces––one can only observe correlations between events as regularities among different factors. The relation of one thing following another in positivist approaches is based on Newton's model of the machine-like automaticity of the physical world. The move to a realist philosophy of science recovers the idea of causation as 'causal powers' in the understanding of scientific explanation. Realism involves a rejection of positivism as an approach to scientific explanation because if correlation replaces causation, agency is lost. With this recovery, causation was properly understood as 'agent causality'; that is, any kind of causal activity is the activity of agency that presumes the power of a mechanism to become a force of production when performed. This is why a scientific law is understood as a description of the power(s) with which entities or bodies of various kinds do their work. For example, the emergence of biological species as the evolution of complexity is an account of the evolution of new forms of agency. Two major examples illustrate this nicely, (1) the shift from single-celled to multicelled organisms and (2) the shift from instinct-centered species (e.g., insects) to intelligence-centered species (e.g., Homo Sapiens). In (1), the agency of the single-celled organism is that single-cell in itself; whereas the agency of the multicelled organism lies in the whole organism and thus not any one of its parts (single cells). The evolution of complexity gives us different kinds of casual agents: from physical kinds that are in motion because they are moved by other bodies, to biological kinds that are in motion because they can move themselves. Modern physics is non-Newtonian in the sense that 'matter' is now understood as a field of centers of (causal) influences not machine-like mechanisms. Likewise, modern biology since Darwin views evolution as various environmental situations of interacting active organisms that interdependently contribute to the causal power of natural selection.

References Cited:

Farnell, Brenda
1994. Ethno-graphics and the Moving Body. MAN (n.s.) 29: 929–74.
1999. Moving Bodies, Acting Selves. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 341–73.
2012. A New Ontology of Personhood. In Dynamic Embodiment for Social Theory: "I Move Therefore I Am." Abingdon, UK: Routledge, pp. 21–33.

Farnell, Brenda, and Charles Varela
2008. The Second Somatic Revolution. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 38(3): 215–40.

Lewontin, Richard C., Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin
1984. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books.

Steinmetz, George
2005. The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Varela, Charles
1994. Harré and Merleau Ponty: Beyond the Absent Body in Embodied Social Theory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 24(2): 163–85.
2009. Science for Humanism: The Recovery of Human Agency. London and New York: Routledge.

Williams, Drid
1976a. Deep Structures of the Dance, Part 1: Constituent Syntagmatic Analysis. Journal of Human Movement Studies 2(3): 123–44.
1976b. Deep Structures of the Dance, Part 2: The Conceptual Space of the Dance. Journal of Human Movement Studies 2(3): 155–71.
1979. The Human Action Sign and Semasiology. CORD Dance Research Annual 10: 39–64.
1982. Semasiology: A Semantic Anthropologist's View of Human Movements and Actions. In Semantic Anthropology [ASA 22] (ed. David Parkin). London: Academic Press, pp. 161–82.



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