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Lecture 6

Lecture 6.

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ANTH 1001
Bernhard Leistle

Lecture 6: Ethnography as Interpretation and Writing 1. Method and Experience continued. -Problems with Participant Observation -Some Contemporary Developments -Malinowski’s Diary We have said last time that there is a strong tension between experience and method in anthropology, but also in other social and behavioral sciences, for example psychiatry. We have seen how one of the founders of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, wrote an ethnography in which he described his fieldwork in a somewhat romanticized tone. He said he had lived among the natives continuously and without contact to other white men; he wrote of the complexity and deep meaning of Trobriand practices, and how these practices all cohered within the organic whole of a balanced system, exemplified by the kula trade. If he said anything about his relations to the local people at all, he described these relations as friendly and himself as someone who was flexible and tolerant enough to mix and participate in their lives. His Diaries, published 25 years after his death, however, gave a quite different impression: Malinowski suffered from loneliness, sexual longing for European women and Trobriand women alike, hypochondria and a compulsion to read cheap novels to escape reality. It also turned out that he actually spent quite a lot of time in the company of other white men. These weaknesses would probably have passed as minor personal flaws. What caused a major scandal in the discipline were Malinowski’s racist outbursts which he allowed himself in the Diary, but suppressed in the ethnography: “Ethnographical problems don’t preoccupy me at all.At bottom I am living outside of Kiriwana, although strongly hating the niggers.” (264) “At 10 I went to Teyava, where I took pictures of a house, a group of girls, and the wasi, and studied construction of a new house. On this occasion I made one or two coarse jokes, and one bloody nigger made a disapproving remark, whereupon I cursed them and was highly irritated. I managed to control myself on the spot, but I was terribly vexed by the fact that this nigger had dared to speak to me in such a manner.” (272) “The natives still irritate me, particularly Ginger, whom I could willingly beat to death. I understand all the German and Belgian colonial atrocities.” (279) 1 What are we to make of this? Dismiss Malinowski as a racist and anthropology as discipline for colonialists? Some people have done so.As an alternative, however, one could apply the anthropological perspective on Malinowski himself. This perspective denies the claim that there is something like a culture-free position from which the other culture could be studied as a scientific object. The anthropologist cannot discard his own culture, and it will shape his encounter with the other culture, even more, it will shape what the other culture is in the first place. But neither the anthropologist nor the people studied are imprisoned in their cultures and closed off against each other. They are able to communicate in a space in-between cultures; anthropology is a genuinely intercultural project. The anthropologist opens himself or herself to the culturally Other by simultaneously seeing his own culture as Other and himself as part of it; the members of the Other culture begin to see their way of life through the eyes of the anthropologist when trying to answer his or her questions; this means they also start to see themselves as Other. Both therefore move out of their respective cultures and meet in an intercultural space. The true field of study is this space and not the “other culture” as an object. Malinowski came from a culture that was convinced of its cultural superiority, a conviction based on technological dominance. He could not shake off this belief, no matter how hard he tried, not even in the Argonauts, as we have seen. In times of distress he fell back on this belief, closed himself off and retreated into an imaginary home. This “home” also had other material forms, like the company of other whites, or the novels he devoured. His racism was a reflection of the racism of European culture in general, and more particular, of the colonial culture he was actively participating in. Malinowski saw the conflict and wanted to resolve it by distancing himself from this culture spatially; he failed to recognize, however, that he himself was embodying the problem. Awareness of his own cultural bias and acceptance of the inevitability of this bias would have enabled to him to deal with his frustrations, irritations, fears and anxieties in other ways. He, however, held on to the ideal of scientific neutrality and objectivity; when he was confronted with situations in which he was unable to keep up that ideal he vented his anger in his diary using racist language. In this way one can see that there is indeed aggression underlying the project of objectifying the Other, turning other people into objects of science. In general, it seems to be possible quite seamlessly to portray a way of life, a culture, in positive and seemingly understanding ways, while the experience on which one’s portrayal is based is tormented and negative. An anthropologist makes generalizations; from individual behavior taking place in concrete contexts, he or she fashions the portray of a “culture”, a typical way or style of behaving which is supposed to give individual behavior its collective stamp. Therefore “culture”, as traditionally described by anthropologists is an abstraction, a construct, which Levi-Strauss has tried to capture in his concept of structure. Due to its abstracted and constructed nature, ethnographic description and fieldwork experience can go in different directions, and an ethnographer who has suffered through his fieldwork can still write a positive account. However, the fieldwork experience must still come through at some point in the ethnography, even if every attempt is made to suppress it. Even in Malinowski’s case there are indications of a different reality which the ethnographic account does not explicitly address but to which it is nevertheless related. This occurs, for example, when he dwells more than necessary in his emphasis on living with the natives on the urge of the European to be with one’s own kind. One would probably not notice without knowing the Diary that he was writing about himself, but the passage nevertheless contains a reflection and commentary on his fieldwork experience. The same goes for the passages in which Malinowski’s condescendence comes through when he stresses that the natives are not capable of reflecting the systemic contexts in which they move, and need the anthropologist to formulate these for them. 2. Clifford Geertz: InterpretiveAnthropology and Thick Description Malinowski had formulated the ultimate objective of anthropology in his catchy phrase “grasping the native’s point of view”; to gain experiential insight into what the world is like from the viewpoint of another culture. He was, however, all but clear as to how this change in perspective was to be achieved, how the anthropologist could actually put himself or herself into the shoes of another, how he or she could understand another way of life from within. It seems that he assumed some sort of identification to take place, based on mimetic participation. Obviously he regarded human nature as plastic and flexible to be able to achieve this identification. But he was also not sure about whether his ethnography was actually successful in bringing it about, as is communicated in a series of “perhaps” at the end of the introduction of the Argonauts: 3 “Perhaps as we read the account of these remote customs there may emerge a feeling of solidarity with the endeavours and ambitions of these natives. Perhaps man’s mentality will be revealed to us, and brought near, along some lines which we never have followed before. Perhaps through realizing human nature in a shape very distant and foreign to us we shall have some light shed on our own. In this, and in this case only, we shall be justified in feeling that it has been worth our while to understand these natives, their institutions and customs, and that we have gathered some profit from the Kula.” (25) Malinowski’s own Diary makes it doubtful whether he himself has actually experienced that “feeling of solidarity” and this shared “mentality” and “human nature” of which he is writing. It becomes thus plausible that in a certain sense he invented his identification with the Trobrianders when writing Argonauts of the Western Pacific. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that he addresses himself to his readers in the above passage and reduces the purpose of understanding others to finding out something about oneself (Caution: this is not the anthropological perspective I am talking about. This perspective does not approach the Other with the explicit purpose of understanding the self; rather, it means that every effort at understanding the Other reflects back on the self, transforming it, making it Other. The best analogy is not the scientist exploring an object systematically, but the child trying to understand another person by imitating him or her, for example when learning to speak. The child develops its identity by identifying with others. It becomes itself by relating to the Other. Identification must not be at all be regarded as inherently positive. Even rejection and resistance are based on forms of identification with their objects. To reject and dismiss something means to recognize it as something. I am suggesting that this kind of fundamental relation between the anthropological self and the culturally Other underlies what is called “understanding” in anthropology. The anthropologist doesn’t engage in the relation to the Other from a culturally or personally neutral standpoint, but is himself or herself affected by the Other.) Obviously, this is not a good basis for anthropology as a science of other cultures. Malinowski had posed the question of what it means to live in a different culture, but he has not provided a theory to address the problem of cultural meaning. If we cannot access other peoples experiences because we are bound to our own culture and our own personal selves, how can we pursue anthropology as a science? It was theAmerican anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926 – 2006) who gave, or at least seemed to give at the time, an answer to this question. Geertz did fieldwork in the 1950s in Indonesia and in the 1960s in Morocco, writing about many different topics ranging from religion and ritual to economy and personhood. In 1968 he published a short book called Islam Observed, in which he compared religious development in Java (the main island of Indonesia) and in Morocco. His comparison brought out very well how Islam as a lived social practice interacted with local cultural traditions, producing very different cultural realities. Informed by a Hindu-Buddhist past, Islam in Java took on a contemplative style, striving for harmony and balance, while Moroccan Islam was centered on the deeds of energetic individuals regarded as saints (“maraboutism”). Geertz became famous, however, with a collection of his essays which appeared in 1973 under the title The Interpretation of Cultures. It is still one of the most widely read books in anthropology and Geertz one of the most widely cited anthropologists. The essay on our reading list with the title “Thick Description” was written specifically as an opener to the volume, intended to provide, as the subtitle suggested a move “toward an interpretive theory of culture”. (please go back to lecture 1 for advice on how to deal with “difficult”, yet crucial texts in anthropology and other similar disciplines!) Why interpretive? Because Geertz saw what anthropologists do, that is doing fieldwork and writing ethnography, essentially as processes of interpretation. When observing something, writing down his or her observations, interviewing an “informant” on the meaning of an observed event etc., according to Geertz, the ethnographer is never dealing with facts but with meanings that he has to interpret.Already the definition of what constitutes an event is an imposition of meaning, that is an interpretation; the decision of what to take down in one’s notebook and what to leave out adds another interpretive layer to the first one; further layers are added by how the anthropologist struggles to actively makes sense of his observation, by relating them to other observations and to a context in which they take place. And this process of multilayered interpretation does not begin with the ethnographer but already in the culture studied. For the people themselves do not interact with each other directly, in an unmediated factual reality, but through the exchange of signs and the communication of meanings. To illustrate this point, Geertz cites the philosopher Gilbert Ryle and his experimental distinction between twitches and winks. Both are identical as physical acts, a muscular contraction of the eye, but one, the twitch is involuntary and unintentional, and in one sense 5 devoid of meaning, the other is voluntary, intentional and a meaningful act. When humans communicate with each other they automatically distinguish between winks and twitches, between what is intended to send a message and what is not. Meaning therefore doesn’t begin at the level of language, but is already operative on the level of non-verbal behavior. In an important sense we can say that all of human behavior is inherently meaningful, since a twitch is inevitably interpreted as a non-wink. In the direction of greater complexity, there is no limit to the levels of meaning which can be superimposed one on top of the other:Awink can be parodied (performing a wink in an overt fashion, “wink – wink”), or rehearsed in front of a mirror; it can be used to signal a false complicity, etc. When we watch a movie, to give another example of our spontaneous faculty of interpretation, without a problem we can identify an actor that plays an actor in a film. We are able to appreciate when an actor gives a convincing presentation of a bad actor in the film and we can appreciate that “presentation of bad acting” as good acting. The same interpretive faculties are at play in everyday life and we use them continuously to make sense of what others and ourselves are doing. In this perspective, culture becomes a structured way of distinguishing between twitches and winks, and genuine winks from fake-winks, rehearsed winks, insincere winks etc. In more general terms, Geertz famously defines culture as webs of meaning: “The concept of culture I espouse….is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.” (5) -the term semiotic is the adjective to semiotics, the scientific study of signs, their characteristics, structures, forms and principles of their use. The idea here is, as was said before, that human beings are continuously communicating with each other through exchanging signs, and that there is no “brute” or “raw” reality which was unaffected by such exchange. This idea is sometimes referred by the term “semiotic universe”. Here Geertz defines culture as a system of meanings produced through repeated communicative exchanges. Invoking the image of a spider, man is depicted as a signifying animal, which is held by something which it produces itself. Those webs of meaning that man himself has spun constitute his reality, and if we take Geertz definition of man seriously we must concede that there is no other reality behind these webs. Aparticular culture, and culture must be considered as necessarily particularized, is then a specific way to distinguish between winks and twitches, or as Geertz says later in his essay, culture “consists of socially established structures of meaning in terms of which people do such things as signal conspiracies and join them or perceive insults and answer them.” (12/13) The task of the ethnographer is to unravel the webs of cultural meaning, to peel off the various layers of interpretation that inform any concrete social event. To this end the ethnographer must produce what Geertz calls “thick descriptions”, records and accounts detailed enough to enable the reader to discern what counts as a twitch and what as a wink in the culture under consideration. Geertz has no doubts about the ethnographer’s ability to intrude and unravel that other semiotic universe that is the other culture. Since neither I nor the Other are dealing with a factual reality, but produce a meaningful reality through practices of signifying and interpreting, there exists no ontological chasm between us. We both belong to the species of interpreting animals, and therefore can decipher each other’s codes and speech patterns. Understanding is not a problem in principle but one by degree. In one passage, Geertz compares culture to an old manuscript: “Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of “construct a reading of”) a manuscript – foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.” (10) It might be difficult to decipher, but given sufficient time and talent, the ethnographer is able to produce an interpretation that, like any “good interpretation of anything – a poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a society – takes us into the heart of what it is the interpretation.” (18) Geertz, however, is not naïve regarding the possibility of a final, complete interpretation. For him, the hermeneutic process is by definition open-ended.As was said before, everything noted down by an anthropologist is already an interpretation, and not even what Geertz calls a “first order interpretation” (only “members” can make those of their own culture) but second and third order interpretations (for example when you take down the interpretation of an event given to you by an informant this would constitute a second order interpretation; interpreting this 7 account in terms of what it means within the context of the culture is at least a third order, possibly even an interpretation of a higher order, etc.An additional interpretive layer comes in when you assume that the behavior itself, that is the other culture, already constitutes an interpretation of an indeterminate reality):
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