Re: Serious thoughts about objectivity

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 12 Oct 1996 00:52:53 +0900

>In a message dated 96-10-09 23:23:24 EDT, (John McCreery)
><< One observation-one inference is always a risky business.>>
>So if we eliminate this tendency methodologically, have we overcome
>sufficiently the tricky problems associated with "sustaining the difference
>between observed and composed" (or interpreted)?"

Heavens, no. We have barely begun.

>While it's great to be able to reliably sort Wade's dilemma -- is it an event
>or isn't it -- based on our new methodology -- are there not third
>possibilities, ones which simply applying the method wouldn't necesarily


>1) Couldn't Wade be dealing with a new kind of event, a different kind of
>go-betweening -- not a ritual one but some other sort, perhaps one relating
>to market penetration into the community? (The informant did say, after all,
>"I just went over there to talk and arrange some little things.") The event
>may or may not be "surreptitious." It might just be hard to distinguish
>because, on the surface, it looks similar to ritual go-betweening.

Could be. We lack the evidence to say.

>2) Could we be seeing an observer effect on what's being observed and
>measured? Our go-between guy doesn't really know who we are or what we're up
>to and, frankly, he doesn't trust us. What started out as a ritual
>go-between ended up just what he said it was, chatter.

Entirely possible.
>Both possibilities could be pregnant with unexplored significance.
>Simply piling up observations and inferences from different perspectives is,
>I think, not enough to turn up this kind of information (though it could
>certainly sensitize one to the possibility of their existence). One has to
>explore the discrepancies between "what the eyes are seeing and the ears are
>hearing," a different kind of process.

I couldn't agree more.

I took Wade to be wondering what grounds there might be for rejecting the
informant's statement and substituting another interpretation--his playing
the role of a ritual go-between being the speculation that came to the
anthropologist's mind. This bit of imagination might be a major insight. We
simply don't know without further evidence. With no great sophistication, I
tend in my own work to follow the lead of Victor Turner, who noted that we
work with (1) what we observe, (2) what our informants tell us, and (3)
social and historical contexts developed through other research. All are
data, and all must be tested against each other. Also following Vic (who
was, himself, a keen student of Marx and Freud), I am not surprised to find
people saying one thing and doing another; sometimes being aware of the
fact and sometimes not. Happens all the time. We humans are contradictory
beasts. (Uunconscious) repression and (deliberate) supression,whether
tactfully or brutally, are both inextricably integral to the ways we treat
each other. That is why we need to be constantly testing, to have even a
glimmer of what is actually going on.

What, then, of fiction and scholarship. Both, I suppose, involve
imagination, but one is content to build plausible worlds with a certain
internal consistency. The other insists on testing each point and
connection against evidence taken to be external to the world that is being

Coming down to earth, I wonder if it mightn't be worthwhile to have a look
at what folks in other fields do? Lawyers have rules of evidence,
historians historiography, medical researchers texts on clinical
inference....There are plenty of alternatives to econometrics and survey
research...Might be worth a look...


John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo