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Against Ethnography

Transcript of Against Ethnography

  • Wiley and American Anthropological Association are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toCultural Anthropology.

    Against Ethnography Author(s): Nicholas Thomas Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), pp. 306-322Published by: on behalf of the Wiley American Anthropological AssociationStable URL: 27-02-2015 05:12 UTC

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  • Against Ethnography Nicholas Thomas

    Australian National University

    In March 1803 Lord Valentia was traveling through Awadh, a part of north India which, as he observed, had not yet been liberated by the East India Company from Muslim oppression. At Lucknow he was surprised to find in the Nawab's palace an extensive collection of curiosities, including "several thousand English prints framed and glazed . . and innumerable other articles of European man- ufacture."

    The dinner was French, with plenty of wine ... the Mussulmauns drank none, [al- though] the forbidden liquor was served in abundance on the table, and they had two glasses of different sizes standing before them. The room was very well lighted up, and a band of music (which the Nawaub had purchased from Colonel Morris) played English tunes during the whole time. The scene was so singular, and so contrary to all my ideas of Asiatic manners, that I could hardly persuade myself that the whole was not a masquerade. [Valentia 1809 1:143-144]

    This aristocratic colonial traveler's confusion could be taken to be emblem- atic of one of the predicaments of late 20th-century anthropology. The problem of interpretation arises not from an ethnocentric expectation that other peoples are the same, from a failure to predict the local singularity of their manners and cus- toms, but from an assumption that others must be different, that their behavior will be recognizable on the basis of what is known about another culture. The visitor encounters not a stable array of "Asiatic manners" but what appears to be an unintelligible inauthenticity.

    This essay is concerned with anthropology's enduring exoticism, and how processes such as borrowing, creolization, and the reifications of local culture through colonial contact are to be reckoned with. Can anthropology simply extend itself to talk about transposition, syncretism, nationalism, and oppositional fab- rications of custom, as it may have been extended to cover history and gender, or is there a sense in which the discipline's underlying concepts need to be mutilated or distorted, before we can deal satisfactorily with these areas that were once ex- cluded?

    The current wave of collective autocritique within anthropology' has a par- adoxical character in the sense that while reference is made to crisis, experimen- tation, and even radical transformation in the discipline, one conclusion of most efforts seems to be an affirmation of what has always been central. Clifford, for


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    instance, affirms that "ethnographic fieldwork remains an unusually sensitive method" for cross-cultural representation (1988:23-24) and Borofsky's relativ- izing exploration of anthropological constructions of knowledge concludes with rather bland reflections on the importance of ethnography (1987:152-156).2 In a very different genre, a recent guide to method in economic anthropology claims that the "great future" of the subject arises from its "direct observation method of ethnographic analysis" (Gregory and Altman 1989:ix). There seems therefore to be one point about which we are all convinced, one stable term in a highly eclectic and contested discipline.

    The second feature of current debate relevant here is that while "writing" and "writing-up" have been increasingly problematized (in a manner which is essentially necessary and constructive), distinctions are constantly effaced be- tween fieldwork, ethnographic analysis, and the writing of ethnography.3 Gregory and Altman like many conflate methods of observation and analysis, and assume presentation in the standard form of the monograph (cf. Marcus and Fisher 1986:18-19). Of course, if the claims of cultural historians (e.g., Darnton 1984; Dening 1988) to write "ethnographic history" are recognized, it might need to be acknowledged that ethnography can be written in the absence of fieldwork (set- ting aside the metaphorical extension of that term to encompass the archives).

    This article, in contrast, sustains a hard distinction between practices of re- search and the particular kinds of writing that we recognize as "ethnographic."4 The purpose of such an assertion is not, of course, to permit naive empiricist sep- arations between observation and representation, since both research and writing are clearly political, discursive practices. While methods and research techniques such as inquiry through conversation and sociological questionnaires may strongly influence the form in which information is presented, and the kinds of questions asked of it, the relationships between practical research technologies and forms of writing should be evoked in a notion of mutual entanglement, rather than some kind of determinism: it is obviously possible to generate similar ana- lytic discourses from very different research procedures, and equally to use sim- ilar research procedures toward divergent theoretical genres. The survey, for in- stance, may be mainly associated with positivistic enumeration and claims about correlations, but Bourdieu's Distinction (1984) absorbs those styles to a limited extent in a work of "social critique" that seems closer generically to an 18th- century philosophical and empirical dissertation than it is to either the theory books or case studies of postwar sociology. My argument is thus that while ways of observing and ways of representing are often tangled up, and while methods admittedly constrain and influence forms of presentation, fieldwork and ethnog- raphy are separable, and that at present it helps to situate the enduring problems of anthropological vision in the constitution of the ethnographic genre, while leav- ing open the potential for another kind of writing energized by the experience of the field.

    While most comments on what has been variously called reflexive or post- modernist anthropology have been reactive and negative (e.g., Spencer 1989), I take the overall perspective, if not the specific arguments, of works such as Writ-

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    ing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and The Predicament of Culture (Clifford 1988) for granted. This article however attempts to move beyond the current de- bate by situating problematic features of anthropology, such as the tendency to exoticism, in the constitution of ethnographic discourse. One obstacle here is the commonsense epistemology of the discipline-which no doubt accords with a broader cultural model-that understands knowledge primarily in quantitative terms. Defects are absences that can be rectified through the addition of further information, and more can be known about a particular topic by adding other ways of perceiving it. "Bias" is thus associated with a lack and can be rectified or balanced out by the addition of further perspectives. My preferred metaphor would situate the causes of an array of moments of blindness and insight in the constitution of a discipline's analytic technology: particular kinds of overlooking arise from research methods, ways of understanding concepts, and genres of rep- resentation. This is essentially a model borrowed from feminist anthropology: as those critiques developed, it became apparent that the essentially imbalanced character of anthropological accounts of society could not be corrected without complex scrutiny of methods and analysis, that "academic fields could not be cured by sexism simply by accretion" (C. Boxer quoted in Moore 1987:2-3). It is not clear, however, that the problems I discuss are analogous to illnesses; the fabrication of alterity is not so much a blight or distortion to be excised or exor- cised, but a project central to ethnography's rendering of the proper study of man.


    Although Edward Said's work has aroused considerable interest in anthro- pology, the response has often been qualified or critical (e.g., Marcus and Fisher 1986:1-2; Clifford 1988:255-276).5 It is sometimes asserted that because anthro- pologists have engaged in many studies of European or American societies, and are concerned with universal humanity as well as cultural difference, the charge of exoticism is only partly justified. Without disputing either that work carried out under the name of anthropology has been extraordinarily diverse, or that a mis- leading stereotype of the discipline has wide currency, it must be said that this overlooks the fact that the presentation of other cultures retains canonical status within the discipline. That is, des