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  • 8/12/2019 Eriksen Comparison Fieldwork


    Anthropology is philosophy with thc pcoplc in,- T'int Irtgold

    This book is an invitation to a journey which, in the aulhor's opinion, is oneof the most rewarding a human being can embark on - and it is dclinitelyone of the longest. It will bring the reader lrom the damp rainforests of theAmazon to the cold semi-deserl of the Arctic; from the skyscrapers ofManhattan to mud huts in the Sahel; lrom villages in the New Cuincahighlands to African cities.It is a long journey in a different se nse too, Socialrand cultural anthropol-ogy has the whole of human society as its field oi in[eresl-, etnd tries tc.runderstand the connections between the variouS aspects of Our existence.When, for example, we study the traditional economic system of Lhe Tiv ol'central Nigeria, an essential part ofthe exploration consists in understand-ing how their economy is connected with other aspects oltheir society' IIthisdimension is absent, Tiv economy becomes incomprehensible to anthropol-ogists. If we do not know that the Tiv traditionally could not buy and sellland, and that they have customarily not used money as a means ofpayment, it will plainly be impossible to understand how they themselvesinlcrpret their situation and how they responded to the economic changesimposed on their society during colonialism.Anthropology tries to account lor the social and cultural variation in theworld, but a crucial part of the anthropological project also consists in con-ceplualising and understanding similarities between social systems andhuman relationships. As one of the loremost anthropologists of the tu'entiethcentury, Claude L6vi-Strauss, has expressed it: 'Anthropology has humanitylike the other

    verse manileabout how dit can be said t

    in common.Another prominent anthropolo gist, Cliflord Geerf ' has exPresst9 :-tl-11."'view in an- essay which essentially deals with the differences be tweenhumans and animals:

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    2 Snmll Places, Larqe lssucslf wc wirnt lt; discovcr what man amounts to, wc can only find it in whal" mcn are: andwhat mcn arc, abovc all oLhcr things, is various. lt is in undcrstanding thatvilriousncss - its ran8c. its naturc, its basis, and its implications - that wc shall cometo construct a conccpt ol humitn naturc that, morc than a statistical shadow and lessthan a prirnitivisI drcarn, has both substancc and truth. ((lccrtz ) 973, p.52)Although anLhropologistr^ havc n,idc-ranging and frequently highlyspecialised intcrests, they all share a common concern in trying tourrderstand both connccl"ions uril/rirr societies and connecti ons bctwaettsocicties. As will bccome clearcr as we proceed on this journey through thesubjcct-matter and theorics olsocial and cultural anthropology, there is amultitude of ways in which to approach these problems. Whether one rsinterested in undcrstanding why and in which sense the Azande of CentralAfrica believe in witches, why there is greater social inequality in Brazil thanin Sweden, how the inhabitants oI Mauritius avoid violent ethnic conflict.or what has happened to the traditional way of Iite ol-the Inuit (Eskimos) inrecent years, in most cases one or several anthropologists would have carriedout research and written on the issue, Whether one is interested in the studyof religion, child-raising, political power, economic life or the relationshipbetween men and rvomen, one may go to the professional anthropologicalliterature for inspiration and knowledge.

    The discipline is also concerned with accounting for the interrelationshipsbetween dillerent aspects of human existence , and usually anthropologistsinvestigate these interrclationships taking as their point of departure adetailed study oI local life in a parlicular society or a delineated sociatenvironment. One may therelore say that anthropology asks large questions,while at the samc timc it draws i[s most important insights from small places.It has been common to regard its traditional focus on small-scale non-industrial societies as a distinguishing feature of anthropology, comparedwith other subjccl-s dcaling with culturc and society. However, because oichanges in the world and in l-hc discipline itself, this is no longer an accuratedescription. Practically any social system can be studied anthropologicallyand contemporary anthropological research displays an enormous range,empirically as well as thematically.AN OUTLINE OF THE SUBJECTWhat, then, is anthropology? Let us begin with the etymology of the concept.It is a compound o[ two Greek words, 'anthropos' and 'iogos', which can betranslated as 'human' and 'reason', respectively. So anthropology means'reason about humans' or'knowledge about humans'. Social anthropologywould then mean knowledge about humans in societies. Such a definitionwould, o[course, cover the other social sciences as well as anthropology, butit may still be uselul as a beginning.

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    Introduction: ComparisonandContext 3The word 'culture', which is also crucial to the discipline, originates lrom

    the Latin 'colere' , which means to cultivate. (The word 'colony' has the sameorigin.) cultural anthropology thus means 'knowledge about cultivatedhumans'; that is, knowledge about those aspects of humanity which are notnatural, but which are related to that which is acquired''Culture' has been described as one olthe two or three most complicatedwords in the English language (Williams 1981, p. 87). In the early 1950s'Clyde Kluckhohn and Alfred Kroeber (1952) presented 161 difl'erentdefinitions oIculture. It would not be possible to consider the maiority ofthese delinitions here; besides, many oI them were - fortunately - quitesimilar. Let us therefore, as a preliminary conceptualisation of culture' de{ineit as those abilities, notions and lorms of behaviour persons have acquiredas members of society. A definition of this kind, which is indebted to both theVictorian anthropologist Edward Tylor and to Geertz (although the latterstresses meaning rather than behaviour), is the most common one amonganthropologists.

    Culture nevertheless carries with it a basic ambiguity. On the one hand,every human is equally cultural; in this sense, the term relers to a basicsimilarity within humanity. On the other hand, people have acquireddifferent abilities, notions, etc., and are thereby dillerent because ofculture.Culture refers, in other words, both to basic similarities and to syslematicdillerences between humans.

    If this sounds slightly complex, some more complcxity is necessary alreadyat this point. Truth to tell, during the last decades of the twentieth century,the concept ofculture was deeply contested in anthropology on both sides oithe Atlantic. The intluential Geertzian concept of culture, which had beenelaborated through a series of erudite and elegant essays written in the I 9 6Osand 1970s (Geertz f973, 1983), depicted a culture both as an integratedwhole, as a puzzle where all the pieces were at hand, and as a system ofme anings that was largely shared by a population. Culture thus appeared asintegrated, shared in the group and sharply bounded. But what of variatiouswithin the group, and what about similarities or mutual contacts with neigh-bouring groups - and what to make of, say, the technologically andeconomically driven processes of globalisation (see Chapter 19), whichensure that nearly every nook and cranny in the world is, to varying degrees,exposed to ne ws about football world cups, to wagework and the concept ol'human rights? In many cases, it could indeed be said that a national or localculture is neither shared by all or most of the inhabitants, nor bounded - Ihave myself explored this myth regarding my native Norway, a countr)'usually considered 'culturally homogeneous' (Eriksen f 9 9 3 b). Many beganto criticise the overly neat and tidy picture suggested in the dominant conceptof culture, from a variety of viewpoints, some of which will be discussed inlater chapters. Alternative ways of conceptualising culture were proposed(e.g. as unbounded'cultural flows'or as'lields of dipcourse', or as 'traditionsof knowledge'), and some even wanted to get rid of the concept altogether

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    4 S nlall places, Large lssues

    not just thc contcstcd meaning oIthc term culture, but also the fact thatculture concepts that are close kin to the classic anthropologicar one arebeing exploited politically, in identity politics (see Chapters 17_I9).The relationship between culture and society can be described in the[ollowing way. culturc relers to the acquired, cognitive and symbolic aspectsof existence, whereas society relers to the social organisation of human lil.e,patterns of intcraction and power relationships. The implications of thisanalytical distinction, which may scem bewildering, will eventuallv beevidcnt.A short definition of anthropology may read thus: ,Anthropology is thecomparative study of cultural and social life. Its most important method isparticipant observation, which consists in lengthy lieldwork in a particularsocial setting.' The discipline thus compares aspects of dillerent societies, and

    Further' the discipline emphasises the importance of ethnographiclieldwork, which is a thorough close-up study ol"a particular social andcultural environment, where the researcher is normally required to spend ayear or more.clearly, anthropology has many leatures in common with other socialsciences and huma.ities. Indecd, a difficult question consists in decidingwhether it is a science or one o[the humanities. Do we search for generallaws, as the natural scientists do, or do we instead try to understand anointerpret different societies? E.E. Evans-prilchard in Britain and Alfred

    some of the implications of t