Practical epistemology

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 21 Nov 1994 08:23:56 JST

Joe Reilly writes,

"the thing is, john, its not difficult to demonstrate how/why
anthropology has been of assistance to imperialist domination."

The thing is, Joe, I never thought it would be. For the record, I was
an undergraduate at Michigan State when anthropologists were going
to Vietnam to work on pacification programs. My Ph.D. research was
funded by NSF and the Cornell (Ford funded) China Program at a time
in Academic history when there was lots of cash for people in Asian
studies because people in power thought it might be useful for a war
and world that were getting increasingly out of hand for Americans
who'd sign a loyalty oath to know Asian languages and something
about how Asian societies work. Working in Taiwan in the late
sixties meant working with people whose careless political remarks
could result in their being "disappeared", and almost everybody (the
native informants included) found it more comfortable to focus on
safe "traditional" topics. I live in Japan, whose anthropologists
working in China before and during World War II were funded and
organized by the imperial government. I can read in my facsimile
copies of _Minzoku Taiwan_ the editors' introductions that dwell on
the war and the need to contribute to the war effort.

I am also aware of great old books like _Village Life in China_ by
Arthur Smith (a 19th century missionary) to which I turn because,
while being highly opinionated and great fun to read when compared
to later, more "scientific", ethnographies they are also, on the
whole, remarkably accurate and provide more vivid detail. Thanks, in
part, to reading David Scott, I am now quite interested in knowing
more about the intellectual background that writers like Smith
brought to their observations, and that is surely a good thing.

What is not a good thing is writing that chants whatever the current
sectarian buzzwords are in a way which restricts the writer's
appeal to like-minded people. To me (and others will, of course, have
a different response) Kapferer and Scott both write in a similar
vein. Both are so terribly concerned to show me how terribly,
terribly sophisticated and "with-it" they are, that reading their
work is like listening to an endless repetitive spiel from a nervous
account executive. What is it that anthropologists are supposed to be
doing for the people(s) they write writing like this?

P.S. Please note that to me how we write about things is a central
epistemological/methodological issue. One useful thing I've learned from
the deconstructionists is that the old facts (true or false) vs style
(icing on the cake) view of anthropological (or any other) literature is
a cul de sac that needs to be rethought.

May our thoughts be useful...and communicable.

John McCreery