practical epistemology

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 22 Nov 1994 10:46:41 JST

"it would seem the difference between observation of the planets and
ourselves stems from the difficulty in defining proximate cause for
what we define as determinate relations. As we bring our frame closer
to the observer, in physics or in anthropology, we find that the observer
is inseperable from the observed since they influence each other."

Here, I suggest, is one of those ritualistic statements where the sword
of deconstruction needs to turn upon itself. When Heisenberg started
this line of chat he had in mind a definite physical situation: research
on a level where the energy input needed to achieve a measurement
would result in changing the output measured. Doing atomic physics
would thus be different from doing astronomy. (Peering through a
telescope would not change planetary motion in any significant way.)

Where anthropology involves intense conversations, like Victor
Turner's seminars with Muchona, the Ndembu healer, there is, I
suppose, a good chance of mutual contamination in the ideas they come
to share. At the other end of the spectrum are situations approaching
archeology, where the observer's influence on the people he studies is
minimal. (A different issue, of course, from the way preconceived ideas
may affect what s/he takes to be data!)

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that those most obsessed with
observer effects also tend to be those who assume that the people they work
with are poor, powerless victims pushed around by the systems impinging on
them. They are also likely to have done their fieldwork in the classic,
romantic situation in which the anthropologist is the only "authoritative"
source on the people he or she studies. The extent to which this is true needs
to be studied case-by-case. In my own case, I have worked with Chinese in
Taiwan and Japanese in Japan, with people who not infrequently are smarter,
richer, more powerful than I am. My work is exposed to scrutiny by literally
dozens of scholars with as many axes to grind. I can only wish I were more
influential. <g>

John McCreery