chapter
essentialism
Pages 5

Essentialism commonly appears as both a violation of anthropological *relativism and one of the besetting conceptual sins of anthropology. Exemplified by such totalizing ideologies as *nationalism and biological determinism, it is also frequently conflated with reification, †objectivism, and literalism. All four concepts are forms of reductionism and there is substantive semantic overlap among them. Reification may most usefully be seen as concerned above all with the logical properties of concepts, however, and objectivism primarily entails a priori assumptions about the possibility of definitive description, while literalism may be specifically understood as the uncritical, decontextualized application of a referential and abstract semantics. The distinctive mark of essentialism, by contrast, lies in its suppression of temporality: it assumes or attributes an unchanging, primordial ontology to what are the historically contingent products of human or other forms of agency. It is thus also a denial of the relevance of agency itself.