Anthropology Reading Journal Series

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
II. 09/12/2011: Ethnography and/as Culture I 

As part of a critical reading journal for my graduate Ethnology class, I’ve decided to start documenting my responses to assigned readings in this blog.

It’s my hope that this will serve as an exercise to both develop my scholarly writing as well as to virtually document my time as a graduate student in pursuit of a second masters degree. As a librarian, I find that going back to school has enabled me to keep my mind engaged with some of the same concerns my patrons are experiencing.  

With that said, here are the first week’s worth of readings surrounding ethnography and culture. As a newbie, I found the readings to be overall enlightening. They helped to give me a historical framework for the discipline of anthropology and writing that I hadn’t encountered before.

Following are definitions from

1. ethnography – (noun) a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures.

2. culture – (noun)

-the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits,etc.
that which is excellent in the arts,manners,etc.
a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period :Greek culture.
development or improvement of the mind by education or training.
the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.

Reading #1: Clifford, James. 1980. “Fieldwork, Reciprocity, and the Making of Ethnographic Texts.” Man 15(3):518-532. 

The main topic of Clifford’s article, “Fieldwork, Reciprocity, and the Making of Ethnographic Texts”, is that of participant observation, a key process that involves the ethnographer not merely observing or watching his subject, but actively engaging with the subject, his environment and activities. It’s considered a key component for developing ethnography.

Clifford cleverly uses the work of the missionary anthropologist Maurice Leenhardt, whose ethnographic research took place in New Caledonia during the early 20th century as a way to explain one mode of creating ethnography.

He writes about Leenhardt’s unique ability to compartmentalize an evangelist’s goal of converting non-Christians and an anthropologist’s goal to study them. Clifford believes that it is this compartmentalization ability that enabled Leenhardt to produce distinctive and exemplary ethnographic records.  

In his account, Clifford writes that much of Leenhardt’s work remains largely unknown due to the successes of structuralists who followed him. Leenhardt established a common means of communication with New Calcedonian natives by teaching them how to speak and write in English. Clifford notes that Leenhardt then innovatively employed his informants to use their own newly-learned language to write of their experiences, in effect, producing their own firsthand accounts of ethnography.

As tactful as it was, this avant-garde approach was not without problems. One disadvantage was the creation of multiple and sometimes inaccurate transcriptions by informants who were divorced from the immediate performance they were describing. For example, informants could exaggerate aspects of or involvement in rituals in which they had participated. Another disadvantage concerned the manipulation of nuances that writing, as a practice, could produce. Details such as accuracy of description, voice, exaggeration, etc. were called into question. In essence, as subjective accounts, could these transcriptions be completely reliable?

On the flipside, Clifford explains that by writing a personal account, the informant is less likely to feel pressured and guided than when working with an ethnographer who is recording or leading the informant to answer questions in a manner that suits him. Another advantage is that Leendhardt cross-checked his informants by opening discussion and exploring the informant’s narrative. The preliminary translation offers what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s had labeled as “thick description”, a layered analysis of both behavior and context, and, in this case, as described by the native. This thick description was then cross-examined by Leenhardt and his colleagues, thereby creating collaboration between ethnographer and informant that previously had not been in existence.

The article goes on to describe at length both the disadvantages and advantages of Leendhardt’s style of anthropological investigation. The main message one hears when reading Clifford’s analysis is that he advocates Leenhardt’s methodology and believes that it is a process that should be more generally recognized.

Though I agree with many of the positive points that Clifford sheds light on in regards to Leenhardt’s work, I can’t help but think that Leenhardt wasn’t entirely unaffected by his evangelical goal of conversion, but instead found a more gentle and subtle method to gaining both his goals. At first, it might seem as though he has compartmentalized his religious and scientific selves, when in actuality, my thought is that he has combined them to softly (pull vs. push) get what he wanted: both conversion and analysis.

Reading #2: Marcus, George, and James Clifford. 1985. “The Making of Ethnographic Texts: A Preliminary Report.” Current Anthro. 26(2):267-271.

Marcus and Clifford’s short article is a basic report of the goings-on that took place during a seminar in 1984 at the School of American Research on the topic of ethnographic texts. The authors explore the way in which ethnographic texts have been constructed in the past century and look to compare this previous construction to the current approach of ethnographic texts in contemporary times. 

Initially, the authors go over points in which they found the seminar lacking. For example, they mention how the seminar might have been made more insightful by the participation of graduate students, students who are often still in the stages of struggling with their own early attempts of ethnographic writing. This group might have offered an added dimension to counter the current anthropological canon of writing. Also missing was the feminist perspective as well as the “third world or non-Western” perspective. The absence of the “third world” perspective was ironic considering that the subjects of many Western anthropologists study were non-Western objects. In these regards, the authors call attention to the seminar’s lack of a comprehensive perspective.

The first presentation that the authors discuss is Mary Louis Pratt’s paper on Robert Thorton’s article, “Chapters and Verses.” Thornton believed that to properly represent culture, one must organize it textually. This is viewed as a necessity to portray a culture authentically; one must process it through classification and writing. This topic incited questions as to whether Thornton’s approached narrowed or widened anthropology’s way of understanding their subjects.

Following was a discussion of Pratt’s own paper, “An-tropology, or Field Work in Common Places”, by the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano. He examines how Pratt’s paper explored “the moral dilemma” in “arrival stories”, ethnographies written by early anthropologists like Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard. The topic of fieldwork and its connection to authenticity was also touched on and an overview was given of how the reading of classic ethnographies remained relevant in order to learn anthropological practice.

Marcus and Clifford go on to explore many other papers discussed at the week-long seminar, covering topics such as ethnographies as allegories of origin, genre identity of travel ethnographies, post-Nietzschean sensibility and alternate textual possibilities of ethnographic writing.   

Since this reading was mainly a report on what occurred during the seminar, there wasn’t really an argument to consider. I did find that their points on what was lacking from the seminar, i.e., the lack of feminist or third-world perspectives, helped to inform the reader that although much was discussed, it was not necessarily comprehensive. It may even be viewed as source material for an analysis of the thinking or trends of anthropological process of its time. It was also intriguing to see that each discussion seemed to generate more questions than answers. I believe this to be a positive attribute of the seminar as it revealed that the discipline was open to assessing itself in an unreserved manner.

Readings #3-4:
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. pp 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, Clifford. 1972. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”. Daedalus 101(1 Winter).

In the first of the readings, Geertz explores thick description when writing ethnography. He talks about the object of ethnographical study being the key with which to decipher the many meanings behind structures as perceived by the ethnographer. For example, he mentions Gilbert Ryle’s discussion on structures in the sense of winks, twitches or fake-winks, and how they can appear to have more meanings than their initial actions imply. Thick description lies in the action, the intent behind the action, and the context. He goes on to further elucidate Ryle’s theory throughout his article. What I find to be most important in Geertz’s article is his interpretive theory of understanding culture, which is that ethnography lies in layered descriptions in which meaning is garnered through context. We become concerned with how culture can be conveyed in ambiguity based on the ethnographer’s partiality.

In his second reading entitled, “Deep Play”, we join Geertz as he travels through Bali to participate in and make note of the Balinese practice of cockfighting. Through a writing style that is quite engaging and personal in its narrative presentation, the reader can easily become enraptured with Geertz’s appealing story. Geertz tries to show what he believes to be the Balinese personality and how it is reflected in the practice of their obsession with the Balinese cockfight. Ritual becomes a larger symbolic gesture for the Balinese social reality.

As much of his claim that the Balinese cockfight is a reflection of the Balinese social reality lies in fact as it does in opinion. He offers linguistically solid facts on words related to the cockfighting practice as well as an explanation of the betting system employed during these events.

However, Geertz makes several assumptions about behaviors which he encounters during these events to substantiate his claims. He infers conclusions from the facial expressions and actions of Balinese males and applies his own meanings to them. One example of this can be found in Geertz’s description of the winner of a cockfight, in which he writes that, “It is little wonder that when, as is the invariable rule, the owner of the winning cock takes the carcass of the loser- often torn limb from limb by its enraged owner-home to eat, he does so with a mixture of social embarrassment, moral satisfaction, aesthetic disgust, and cannibal joy.”

He also glosses over the actual historical roots of social status in Bali and excludes any feminist perspective, leaving the reader to question Geertz’s interpretive approach to anthropology. Ironically, Geertz doesn’t truly apply his perspective of thick description with this experience.

Reading #5: MacClancy, Jeremy. 2002. “Taking People Seriously.” In Exotic No More: Anthropology at the Front Lines. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

In “Taking People Seriously”, MacClancy explores the ways in which ethnographies have, in the past, been perceived as exploitive. He gives an example of one anthropologist’s complicity to gaining self-recognition at the expense of his subjects, asking the question, “should the bad apparently performed by the odd renegade be allowed to overshadow the much greater good performed by the many?” MacClancy’s aim in this article is to answer this question by highlighting the many positive contributions to the understanding of societal history that the field of anthropology has produced and its potential to carry on as a successful discipline.

MacClancy writes that historically, many anthropological writings have been wrought with unnecessary academically-thick prose, obscuring the best intentions of the writer. It’s his hope to make clear the positive and simple purpose of anthropological study. He writes that, in essence, the focus of anthropology is taking people and the nuances of their culture seriously and documenting resultant findings as trust develops between the observer and the subject.

He goes on to dispel the negative historical aspects of anthropological practice. For example, he writes about the previous practice of “studying down”, the tradition in which anthropologists studied cultures that were perceived to be primitive societies. In reaction to this out-dated approach, many anthropologists now try to “study up”, seeing cultures as actualized social constructs unto themselves. In addition, anthropologists are now applying new trends such as ‘multisite ethnography’, following the migration of people from site-to-site. MacClancy further explains the variety of new ways in which anthropology is being approached by contemporary anthropologists such as Scheper-Hughes and ends his article on a positive note of the discipline’s optimistic potential.

One thought on “Anthropology Reading Journal Series

  1. I like his approach, because in its way, it seems like a firsthand account of his subjects’ activities and though process. Its like an interview. By doing this, I feel that he also helps to remove his own opinion or conclusions from the initial recording of information. I can’t say if future revision or edits change this in any way, but since its not a Q&A session, and thus not guided by his external probing of the subject’s activity, I think it gives the subject free reign to discuss a given topic in his/her own voice and with focus on the elements that s/he wishes to highlight.

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