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Lecture 8

ANTHROP 3HI3 Lecture Notes - Lecture 8: Medical Anthropology, Natural Language, Clifford Geertz

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Dr. Rebecca Plett

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Narrative in anthropology
Anthro was very influenced by the narrative turn in a variety of disciplines in the 1980s -
linguistics, literary theory, history, psychology and philosophy
o In the discipline, there has always been a tendency for anthros to "notice stories
Narrative is understood to simply be an account of events
But what is narrative? Is everything narrative? Can we identify non-narrative?
The "use" of narrative in anthro falls generally into 2 "fields":
o Folklore and mythology
Influenced by structuralism, it argues for a difference between story and narrative
o Sociolinguistic studies
Influenced by performance and literary theories; attends to the temporal unfolding of
the story and interactions of characters/actors within
Performance-minded anthros argue its not what a story is but what it does
In the past, anthros sought generalizations, cross-cultural comparisons and broad theories
o As a result, individual stories, personal accounts and life histories were lost of disregarded
With the rise of phenomenology, hermeneutics and performance theories these accounts -
especially life histories - were taken seriously as informative in and of themselves
This is part of the development of interpretive or symbolic anthro developed by Clifford Geertz:
o Culture is composed of "webs of significance"; analyzing it is an interpretive search for how
people create meaning
o Culture lies in individuals' interpretation of events; using "socially established signs and
symbols," people act and give meaning to experience
A significant relationship in interpretive anthro is between story, meaning and experience:
o The meaning of events only becomes clear in their narrative expression
This idea is grounded in the phenomenological assumption that meaning is created through
o If all experience (the "perceptual world") is symbolic, you have to understand the cultural
contexts of symbols to understand experience
In this context, narratives:
o Are a resource that brings awareness to experience
o Provide a 'representation' of experience in which events are given meaningful and coherent
They both represent and create experience
One narrative form that is particularly salient for anthro is the "life history":
o A construct of personal experience in narrative form as a genre of self-expression
o Assertions of the self are enacted through narratives of personal experience; narrative and
self are inseparable because personal narrative both emerges out of and gives shape to
Personal narratives like life histories are paradoxical, however:
o You are narrating personal experience, yet the narratives are "socially forged" - there is a
relationship between the subject and the audience
o The interaction between teller and listener ("performer" and "audience") creates the
narrative, too
Narratives in medical anthropology
Anthros have also noted that narratives are particularly apt at attending to disruptions, or
emerging out of a "breach" of the commonplace
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