Biting on McCreery's comment

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Fri, 19 May 1995 10:52:05 -0400

Just a little tug on McCreery's bait about whether anthros. should
work in teams like advertisers or scientists (the 'real ones') OR
whether we should work as individuals in a lonely vision quest as
participant observers:

I would argue that the --somewhat paradoxically -- the level of
complexities involved are completely incommensurate, and that it is
only the individual who can integrate high levels of complexity
successfully, while research teams can do so only if the problem is
relatively simple, or at least already decomposed into simple tasks.
This is paradoxical because it would seem, and is often argued that a
complex problem like ethnography or human behaviour has to be
attacked by a complex team who can bring all of their minds to bear
on the problem. In fact, it seems to me, it is the other way round.
Getting an advertising product out the door is a relatively simple
'task' because the steps are well known, the hierarchy to manage it
is in place, and the goal, resources available, demands and limits
are also well known. Under these conditions it is easy (or easier)
to delegate tasks and to work in teams. It is the same in the
physical science for most 'normal science' (Kuhn) tasks since all of
the parameters are known except for the experimental variable --
which is in most cases also known within a certain degree or
precision or reliability. Moreoever, for the most part, the steps to
get to more precision or better reliability are well known.
This is not the case with doing anthropology since the variables
are all complex, the 'variables' so far as they are known have many
degrees fo freedom and are generally relatively unreliable. What is
required is a creative mind that can integrate large amounts of
diffuse and confusing data, think laterally as well as linearly,
think narratively as well as analytically. As is well known,
committees do not invent good horses. Novels are not (or rarely)
written by committees or even by teams of two, and I would say that
the same is true for good ethnography.
Of course, for CRM work, Rapid Rural ASsessment procedures, and
such like, there is a precise analogy with areas where the tasks are
known and the procudures to achieve known goals are well mapped out.
Under these circumstances, obviously, team work does work. But
without the creative work of ethnographies and theory, there would be
little point to m,ore circumscribed procedures since there would be
no way to conceptualise their results or establish their validity.
This latter can only be done by individuals -- admittedly not by all,
but a good approach can be made by a well trained anthropologist. To
do so, however, requires something of a rite of passage. I think
that model is still very much valid -- it is just not all there is.

btw, whatever happened to 'Daniel Foss'? . . .

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
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South Africa
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