Anthropology Reading Journal Series

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
III. September 19” Ethnography and/as Culture II

This week’s readings are a continuation of week II’s theme on ethnography and culture, though reading #2, Ruth Behar’s except, is more about the writing style that she employs than a critique on how ethnographies have previously been written.

Reading #1: Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Writing Against Culture” In Feminist Anthropology: A Reader. 153-169.

Abu-Lughod’s article explores two critical groups; “feminists and halfies”, groups whose perspectives have been excluded from fully understanding the process of ethnographic writing. She explains that these groups exemplify cultural identities that have multiple origins or perspectives. For feminists, one is both a ‘woman’ and ‘other’, whereas “halfies” are those “whose national identity is mixed by virtue of migration”.

At the heart of the article is her main question, “What happens when you disrupt or disturb the balance of traditional ethnographic practice that so often excluded these critical groups?” Her answer to this question is that when one achieves “writing against culture”, they reflect on the “conventional nature and political effects of distinction and ultimately reconsider that value of concept of culture on which it depends.” (p.466) Writing against culture, thus becomes a method of purposely including and recognizing these dualities or pluristic perspectives in order to reinforce distinctions with the hierarchy that is inherent in anthropology.

Abu Lughod supports her claims by explaining the problem when one is both ‘self’ and ‘other’. She discusses how feminists and anthropologists are different in how they construct knowledge with which to draw boundaries. There is an awkwardness that occurs for the feminists who situate themselves with the other but also feel that they are ‘under attack’ by the other. This is a missing perspective in much of ethnographic writing that cannot be fully captured by the non-feminist/halfie anthropologist.

In conclusion, Abu-Lughod says that because of these split selves, both feminists and halfies are constantly troubled with determining issues related to “speaking for and speaking from”. Though this is troublesome, it allows them to critically assess “positionality, audience, and the power inherent in distinctions in self and other.” (p. 468)

Reading #2: Behar, Ruth. “The Girl in the Cast.” in The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology at the Front Lines.

This week’s reading titled, The Girl in the Cast, struck me as a particularly poignant and well-articulated ethnography in this week’s group of readings. Out of the four assigned readings, I felt the most connection with Ruth Behar’s narrative. This was due to the evocative writing that both engages and transforms the reader into a personal witness to events that unfold through the course of the account.

Part of a larger piece, called The Vulnerable Observer, we open with Chapter 4: The Girl in the Cast. Behar begins this chapter with a copy of her own accident report from the NY Times of May 1966. Through the horrifically detailed account of the accident and its first person narrative, the reader is drawn into her story.

Through the narrative, we are privy to the specifics of a young Behar’s recuperation from her accident. What her personal narrative style achieves is the creation of a perspective in the reader mirroring exactly what she has titled her book; that of a vulnerable observer. She writes as an anthropologist who has become informed with both her body and its experience. Stepping away from conventional objectivity, Behar presents to us a reflective and personal perspective, like that of a memoir. This story offers the reader a glimpse into Behar’s mind and the drive which reinforces her writing, thought process, and fieldwork.

Behar is able to be reflexive in analyzing her self in relation to society, psychology, and emotion, often relaying the most self scrutinizing moments of her experience. At the same time, we find her story becomes more than just about the observer and the observed. In all, she creatively engages her audience.

Reading #3: Keane, Webb. 2003. “Self-Interpretation, Agency, and Objects of Anthropology: Reflections on a Genecology”. Comparative Studies in Society and History 45(2):222-228.

Keane’s main topic in his paper entitled, “Self-Interpretation, Agency, and Objects of Anthropology..” is the rethinking of objectification in culture and society. Keane first explores the original construct of objectification in terms of Boasian, Weberian and Durkheimian understandings and determines how the construction has changed by interpretation and symbolism. He then turns to contemporary perspectives that critique objectification and its related problems to “power, knowledge, and agency”. (p.224)

In particular, Keane continues his paper by focusing on the genealogy of a specific “ethic” in the social sciences that emphasizes human self-determinism as a value. This can be seen in a great deal of anthropological writing in recent years that opposes reductionism and essentialism.  It’s because of this that Keane believes we should be pushing anthropologists to “take responsibility for the key concepts they use and to promote such agency.” 

A main highlight of the article is “human agency and structure” with human agency defined as the “concept that the human individual within a culture has the ability to determine and choose by free will his/her actions and beliefs, etc.” This contrasts with the idea that humans are governed by either nature or environmental factors like culture due to the innate capacity for self-directed thought. It also implies that cultural and natural factors add to the complexity of understanding human behaviors within a culture. 

Keane’s response to handling the tension that arises from identifying freedoms with the “domain of ideas and the risk of opposing them in the domain of material determinations” is three fold. First, one must believe the positionality in which his subconscious registers rely. Secondly, rejection of the anti-deterministic and thirdly, keeping the cross cultural debate open so as keep oneself grounded with recognition of the situation.

Reading #4: Williams, Raymond. 1976. “Introduction”, “Culture”, and “Society”. In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

This reading is a little different from the others we’ve had in class. In William’s article, we looked at only two words, as chapters, from his book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, specifically the words, ‘culture’ and ‘society’.

In his chapter on ‘culture’, Williams explores the word ‘culture’ and how is has been defined through the ages. We get the linguistic roots as a noun, “the tending of something”, or “cultivating” and the symbolic definition of “material social process that produces class distinctions”. It is a word that denotes noun as process. To this end, Williams shows us a very systematic approach to looking at keywords in two connected senses- (1) in the context of formation of values and (2) in the context of general discussion. He uses the two-fold approach with both ‘culture’ and ‘society’.

In his chapter on ‘society’, we learn about the difficulties in explaining the word ‘society’ due to its relations to generality and abstraction. It’s interesting to see the etymological development of the word and how its association with state or sovereignty, and its meaning evolved to define the relationship of mankind and society.

What becomes important in regards to William’s reading is that all of his entomological research on keywords offers us values in understanding the differences of the meaning behind such words and where they overlap to inform our own understanding of their usage. To look at the specific history of words offers insights into how those words have changed over time. 

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