Reading Ethnography

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Reading Ethnography John McCreery ([email protected]) Anthropology Writing Camp, NTHU 7/4/2017

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Page 1: Reading Ethnography

Reading EthnographyJohn McCreery ([email protected])

Anthropology Writing Camp, NTHU 7/4/2017

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—John Roberts, Professor of Anthropology, Cornell University September 1966

“The whole point of being a graduate student is to stop being a student.”

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–Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab

“Teaching is what others do to me. Learning is what I do for myself.”

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–John McCreery, NTHU, February 2017

“I am not here to teach you (不要叫你). I am hear to learn with you (一起學才好).”

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This Presentation• Not a finished argument

• A bricolage, an assemblage constructed of materials close to hand

• A provocation, an invitation to think about your research

• Reality >> Representation>>What’s it all about?

• Not only what you discover but how to write about it and who you are writing for

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Three Important Books

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Alike• All by Chinese anthropologists based on fieldwork in


• What Malinowski wrote of Peasant Life in China can be said of all three.

• The book… does not remain satisfied with the mere reconstruction of the static past. It grapples fully and deliberately with that most elusive and difficult phase of modern life : the transformation of traditional culture

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Different Times, Places, Historical Moments

• Yangtze Delta, August-July 1936, collapse of global demand for Chinese silk, ROC government, impending start of Second Sino-Japanese War.

• A village in Fujian, near Xiamen, 1984-1985, 1996, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, followed by post-Mao opening to capitalism. Once poor villagers become rich capitalists.

• The Nuosu, a branch of the Yi minority, in Western Sichuan, 2002-2009. Heroin and AIDS epidemics. Migration to and from cities. Growing individualization. Drugs, thievery, jail become a rite of passage. The community remains poor. The Nuosu remain stigmatized.

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Fei Xiaotong • Male, born in 1910, twenty-six at time of fieldwork.

• Fluent in the local dialect, familiar with local customs.

• “My sister, whose devotion to the rehabilitation of the livelihood of the villagers has actually inspired me to take up this investigation, had introduced me to the village and financed my work.”

• On excellent terms with village officials. Access was not a problem.

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Huang Shumin

• An established scholar with a tenured position at an American university, a visiting professor at Xiamen University. Spent half of each week in village.

• Grew up in Taiwan. Fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien.

• Frustrated and annoyed as fieldwork began but established rapport thanks to a malicious attack on Party Secretary Ye’s father’s tomb. Quickly established good working relationships with Ye and other villagers.

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Liu Shaohua• Our most “anthropological” (stranger in a strange land)

fieldwork. A young woman raised in Taiwan works with a minority people in western China.

• Dissertation fieldwork for PhD in in Sociomedical Sciences and Anthropology

• Not a native speaker of Nuosu. Credits father’s Hunanese for rapidly becoming fluent in Sichuanese. Uses local assistants/interpreters

• Experiences deep pain, suffering, loss. Achieves rapport through personal involvement in extraordinary events.

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Three Examples of “Writing Culture”

• Systematic and thorough descriptive analysis (Fei)

• Biography as ethnography. Use of life history to illuminate social change (Huang)

• A complex, multilayered combination of personal encounters, multiple life histories, and local and global trends (Liu)

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Three Tables of Contents

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Peasant Life in ChinaI. Introduction

II. The Field

III. The Chia

IV. Property and Inheritance

V. Kinship Extensions

VI. Household and Village

VII. Livelihood

VIII. Occupational Differentiation


1.Chia as Expanded Family

2. Continuity of “Incense and Fire”

3. Population Control

4. Parents and Children

5. Education

6. Marriage

7.The Daughter-in-law in the Chia

8. Cross-cousin Marriage and Siaosiv

IX. Calendar of Work

X. Agriculture

XI. Land Tenure

XII. The Silk Industry

XIII. Sheep Raising and Trade Ventures

XIV. Marketing

XV. Finance

XVI. Agrarian Problems in China

Lists of Topics, All Nouns

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The Spiral RoadIntroduction

The Chinese Peasantry in Historical Context

About This Book

The Significance of the Book

1 Prologue

Reflections on My Coming

Lin Village: First Impressions

Getting Acquainted

2 Family History

A Walk to the Tomb

The Importance of Geomancy

3 The Liberation

The Land Reform

School Years

4 Hunger, Hunger

The Great Leap Forward

Becoming a Political Activist

5 Joining the Act

The Four Cleanups

The Campaign

6 Return Home

A Peasant’s Story

Cultural Revolution

Ye’s Marriage and Family

7 Security Head

Ye Settles a Dispute

Internal Conflicts in the Village

More Village Crimes

8 Prosperous Years

The Strategy of Prosperity

Back-Door Connections

9 The Breakup

Ritual Celebration

Ritual Celebration: Analysis

Family Division

Dismantling the Collective

10 Village Cadres

Family Planning Campaign

Implementing the Policy

Ye’s Analysis

Ye as Mediator

Ye’s Programs

11 Village Change in the 1990s

Village Population

Social Problems Associated with Increased Population

Village Security Force

Theft in the Village

12 Wither Lin Village?

Line Village’s Recent Change

Ye’s Female Companion

Village Party Election

The Revival of the Lin Lineage

Casting the Ballots

Ye’s Analysis of the Election and Arrangement for Wang

Events, Frequent Use of Verbs, A Story Unfolds

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Passage to ManhoodBringing Peripheries to the Center

1 The Meandering Road to Modernity

2 Manhood, Migration, and Heroin

3 Multivocal Drug Control

4 Contentious Individuality on the Rise

5 Failed State AIDS Intervention

6 AIDS and Its Global Stigmatization

Titles of Linked Essays

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Why do these books impress us?

• Aristotle’s Rhetoric suggests three possible reasons

• Argument (facts and logic)

• Rhetoric (metaphor, simile, other tropes)

• Character (the personality and reputation of the author)

• When we talk about “reading ethnography,” we ask how rhetoric and representation of character influence our reception of argument.

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Our First Guide

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Four Key ElementsIn Tales of the Field, John van Maanen writes that discussions of ethnography must consider

(1) the assumed relationship between culture and behavior (the observed);

(2) the experiences of the fieldworker (the observer);

(3) the representational style selected to join the observer and observed (the tale); and

(4) the role of the reader engaged in the active reconstruction of the tale (the audience).

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Culture and Behavior

• In all of these books, culture is only one factor influencing behavior

• Others include

• Local conditions

• External conditions

• (Plus, in Huang and Liu) Individual choices

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Local Conditions

• Dense population, limited land, no possibility of adding new fields (Fei)

• Proximity to city that turns poor soil into valuable real estate (Huang)

• Mountainous, thinly populated, isolated terrain (Liu)

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External Conditions• Global silk market, Japanese imperialism (Fei)

• Maoist era policies, then opening to capitalism (Huang)

• Radical social transformations, hard times followed by growing wealth

• Maoist era policies, then opening to capitalism (Liu)

• Capsuling of local society, followed by drugs, AIDS, individualism, and continued poverty

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Individual Choices• Not a factor (Fei)

• Political and economic choices (Huang)

• Mixed motives, some traditional, some modern.

• Primarily PS Ye’s strategies and tactics

• Life choices affected by modernization (Liu)

• Mixed motives, some traditional, some modern

• Factors that motivate individual young men to migrate to cities, where they engage in theft and drug-dealing to pay for drugs.

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Fieldworker Experiences• Something new to consider

• Two cases of rapport achieved through unexpected events

• Vandalism of PS Ye’s father’s tomb (Huang)

• Anthropologist as witness, not personally affected

• Ghosts and bandits (Liu)

• Anthropologist as protagonist, personally deeply affected

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Tale Types

• Realistic Tales

• Confessional Tales

• Impressionistic Tales

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Realistic Tales

• Experiential Authority

• Typical Forms

• The Native’s Point of View

• Interpretive Omnipotence

A Curious Combination

Eyewitness plus Expertise

Things/Routines Taken for Granted

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Experiential Authority (How is it written?)

• Absence of the author from most segments of the finished text

• Focus on argument (facts and logic)

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Experiential Authority (Fei Xiaotong)

“This is a descriptive account of the system of consumption, production, distribution and exchange of wealth among Chinese peasants as observed in a village, Kaihsienkung, south of Lake Tai, in Eastern China.

“It aims at showing the relation of this economic system to a specific geographical setting and to the social structure of the community. The village under investigation, like most Chinese villages, is undergoing a tremendous process of Change. This account, therefore, will show the forces and problems in a changing village economy.”

From Peasant Life in China, “Introduction” (p.30)

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Typical Forms• Documentary style focused on “minute, mundane details of

everyday life.”

• Thus, for example,

“The villagers as a group possess certain cultural peculiarities. One of my informants mentioned three outstanding items to me : (i) that the villagers tend to palatalize the words such as gon, jeu, etc., in speech, (2) their women do not work on the farm, and (3) their women always wear skirts even in the hot summer.”

From Peasant Life in China, “The Field,” p. 73

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The Native’s Point of View

• Indicated by use of quotation or local terminology

• For example,

“The importance of the posterity is conceived in religious and ethical terms. The local term for the continuity of descent is ‘continuity of incense and fire’; this means a continuity of ancestor worship.”

From Peasant Life in China, “The Chia” (p.85)

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Interpretive Omnipotence

• Are we justified in assuming an omnipotent interpreter from clear, systematic presentation of facts?

• Do any of our authors actually make this claim?

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Confessional Tales

• Personalized Authority

• The Fieldworker’s Point of View

• Naturalness

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Personalized AuthorityVan Maanen writes,

• “The persuasiveness of the fieldworker's account replaces the combination of native point of view (buttressed by quotations) and interpretive omnipotence (buttressed by theory) in the realistic account.”

• “The traditional authority claimed for fieldwork by its early promoters and justified by them on the basis of their establishing ethnography as a human and behavioral science….has worn thin.”

• “Some confessional tales are written explicitly to question the very basis of ethnographic authority and to transform ethnography, insofar as possible, into a more philosophical, artistic, phenomenological, or political craft.”

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Personalized AuthorityMcCreery reflects

• The confessional mode can make the author seem more modest, thus more honest.

• Used effectively it can indicate clearly where evidence is strong or weak or never collected, clarifying the scope and power of theoretical propositions.

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Van Maanen writes,

• “Fieldwork confessions nearly always end up supporting whatever realist writing the author may have done and displayed elsewhere.”

• “The implied story line of many a confessional tale is that of a fieldworker and a culture finding each other and, despite some initial spats and misunderstandings, in the end, making a match.

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Example 1

“It was almost unthinkable that my perception of Party Secretary Ye of Lin Village could change so dramatically within such a short time. It was even more unthinkable that my initial hostility toward him would dissolve so quickly and completely that I could later sit in front of my typewriter to record his life history.”

From “Prologue” to The Spiral Road (p.11)

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Example 2 “I REMEMBER VIVIDLY the sense of calm and comfort that settled over me as I made my way alone, cradling a hen in my left arm and a bag of rice in my right, along the mountain basin path in darkness. The hen was submissive; its low clucking consolingly answered my weeping. I had just returned from visiting a friend who had fallen seriously ill from AIDS. He had been bedridden for a week, and struggled to sit up when I arrived...”

From “Preface” to Passage to Manhood

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Impressionistic Tales• Van Maanen writes, “The label .... is drawn from art historians

who regard impressionist painting as a novel representational form emerging in the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries….What a painter sees, given an apparent position in time and space, is what the viewer sees.”

• NOT ANTI-SCIENCE: Van Maanen quotes James Clifford,

"To recognize the poetic dimension of ethnography does not require one gives up facts and accurate accounting for the supposed freeplay of poetry. Poetry is not limited to romantic or modernist subjectivism; it can be historical, precise, objective."

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Impressionistic Tales

• The tale is told from the fieldworker’s first-person perspective.

• Evidence is fragmentary and encountered as a stream of consciousness.

• No comprehensive analysis interferes with the reader’s conclusions.

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Tale Types Compared Van Maarten writes,

• “Both confessional and realist accounts often suggest the not-so-gentle irony that members (or at least most of them) know their culture less well than the fieldworker. The impressionist tale immerses the reader in the moment and invites them to draw their own conclusions.”

• I think, however, of Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that all cultural understanding requires dialogue. Why? Because both observer and observed have blind spots and are ignorant of things that only the other can see.

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Positioning the AuthorRealistic Tales

Confessional Tales

Impressionistic Tales

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None of our three books is an impressionistic tale!

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Conclusions So Far• Fei Xiaotong’s Peasant Life in China is a realistic tale.

• Huang Shumin’s The Spiral Road is what we might call a confessional/realistic tale.

• It is also a rare example of ethnography in which fieldworker and informant interact as equals.

• Party Secretary Ye is a fully developed character and a presence throughout the book.

• The author’s confessions support realistic claims, whose implications are spelled out as the story unfolds.

• Liu Shaohua’s Passage to Manhood is also a confessional/realistic tale.

• Besides the opening paragraphs of the Preface, Liu’s encounters with ghosts and bandits have an impressionistic flavor. But the reader is not left to draw her own conclusions.

• The book includes six life-histories, but these individuals have only supporting roles. They are quoted to support the realistic analysis and do not become fully developed characters in the way that Party Secretary Ye does in The Spiral Road.

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Three Audience TypesCollegial Readers

Social Science Readers

General Readers

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General ReadersVan Maanen writes,

• “The issue of good and bad writing is pertinent here because often the ethnographers with large audiences are seen by their colleagues to have moved on to something that is not quite ethnography.”

• “Two other features are worthy of note. First, the ethnography must be relatively free of jargon (although a little is necessary to help establish genre typification and authorial expertise); and second, it must present materials a well-read but ethnographically unsophisticated audience would regard as interesting.”

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Social Science Readers

Van Maanen writes,

• “Readers from outside fieldwork traditions look to ethnographers for the information they supply on the group studied.”

• “Ordinarily, social scientists take only the raw empirical material of an ethnography and ignore the arguments that surround and give meaning to the facts.”

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Collegial Readers

Van Maanen writes,

• “Beyond jargon, the fellow-fieldworker crowd is concerned with matters of technique, definition, coverage and scope, levels of generalization, and the informing analytic apparatus and claims that surround and comprise ethnography.”

• We are trying to be this kind of reader.

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Our Books/Reader Types

General Readers Social Science Readers Collegial Readers

Peasant Life in China

The Spiral Road

Passage to Manhood

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Peasant Life in China

• When published it was written, like most early ethnography, for an educated general readership

• Now primarily of interest to social scientists (also historians) looking for data

• No longer of collegial interest to anthropologists who see its approach as old-fashioned

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The Spiral Road• “Most students, who probably read the book as a

required text, indicate that reading the life history of Party Secretary (P.S.) Ye presents a clear and intimate picture of the growth, turbulence, and transformation of a person, of a village, and of China as a nation. The weaving of all of these complex events into Ye's life narrative gives the students an immediacy that generally does not come from ordinary college texts.” (From Preface to Second Edition)

• A remarkable instance of research in which there is real dialogue between the researcher and his interlocutor.

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Passage to Manhood• A more complex and difficult text

• From Review by Sandra Teresa Hyde in Medical Anthropology Quarterly

Overall, this is a study written with remarkable care, emotional savvy, and public health intelligence. It is valuable reading for advanced students and specialists in medical anthropology and public health, especially those in interested in the local consequences of global public health interventions, Chinese minority studies, and the theorization of gender, globalization, and modernity.

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What Kind of Anthropology is This?

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Our New Guide

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Four Anthropologies

• Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

• Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande

• Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term

• Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

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Claude Lévi-Strauss• Autobiographical,


• Deeply philosophical with scientific ambition

• Rousseau, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss

• Searching for human universals

• A chemical table of the mind

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E. E. Evans-Pritchard

• The White Man’s question

• How can they?

• How can otherwise level-headed people believe in witchcraft, oracles, magic?

• Different kinds of beliefs answer different questions

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Bronislaw Malinowski

• Famously advocated “The Native Point of View”

• Diary demonstrates that empathetic understanding is no easy matter

• A betrayal of the field, say many

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Ruth Benedict

• Us vs Them

• Why they are so different

• NOTE: Not how can they be?

• No assumption of Western superiority

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Once More

• All three of the books discussed today are by Chinese anthropologists based on fieldwork in China

• What Malinowski wrote of Peasant Life in China applies to all three.

• The book… does not remain satisfied with the mere reconstruction of the static past. It grapples fully and deliberately with that most elusive and difficult phase of modern life : the transformation of traditional culture

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Could this be the future as well as the past of China’s

contribution to anthropology?

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If so, you will write it

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Thank You 謝謝同學們