Joseph M. O'Neal (josephon@ADMIN.STEDWARDS.EDU)
Sun, 14 Jan 1996 11:56:01 CST

Shortly after contrbuting to the thread about activism in anthropology, I
re-read Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, and came across
the passages I quote below. I thought it would interest others following
this thread. It also addresses Matt Tomasso's interesting contribution
to the discussion.

These paragraphs are from pp. 78-80 of the book, to which the full
reference is given below in my signature file.

There may be situations in which the anthropologist can directly aid the
community, but my guess is that they are rare. I have heard "aid"
advocated most fervently by those who have never done fieldwork. The
position seems more justifiable within one's own society, where thought,
action, and responsibility are more closely connected. Having thought
about the problem over the years, however, it is unclear to me what I
could have done to aid the villagers which would not have been the kind
of blatant interference in their affairs for which we criticize A.I.D.
programs. If the ethical status of the anthropologist is ambiguous, then
the do-gooder, whatever his cause, would seem to be even more profoundly

The advocacy of political activity as a role for the anthropologist also
seems highly untenable in this kind of situation. I was the only
foreigner living in the entire jurisdictional circle of the gendarmerie.
All of my activities were observed, reported, and distorted by various
factions, as we shall see. If I had been organizing or advocating
anti-government action it would have gotten back to the local government
bureaus with lightning speed. There is no question that I would have
been forced to leave the country, and a distinct possibility of being
thrown into jail. This might sound like an attractive adventure in Paris
or Berkeley, but in Morocco it seemed frighteningly nonsensical.

Once one accepts a definition of anthropology as consisting of
participant observation, as I had, then one's course of action is really
governed by these oxymoronic terms; the tension between them defines the
space of anthropology. Observation, however, is the governing term in
the pair, since it situates the anthropologists' activities. However
much one moves in the direction of participation, it is always the case
that one is still both an outsider and an observer. That one is an
outsider is incessantly apparent. The cloud of official approval always
hung over me, despite my attempts to ignore it. My gestures were wrong,
my language was off, my questions were strange, and interpersonal malaise
was all too frequently the dominant mood, even after many months when
some of the grossest differences had been bridged by repetition and
habit. No matter how far "participation" may push the anthropologist in
the direction of Not-Otherness, the context is still ultimately dictated
by "observation" and externality. In the dialectic between the poles of
observation and participation, participation changes the anthropologist
and leads him to new observation, whereupon new observation changes how
he participates. But this dialectical spiral is governed in its motion
by the starting point, which is observation.


Joseph M. O'Neal 512-448-8745
St. Edward's University FAX: 512-448-8767
Austin, TX 78704

"Both the anthropologist and his informants live in a culturally mediated
world, caught up in 'webs of signification' they themselves have spun.
This is the ground of anthropology; there is no privileged position, no
absolute perspective, and no valid way to eliminate consciousness from
our activities or those of others." Paul Rabinow, _Reflections on
Fieldwork in Morocco_. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977.