Re: Serious thoughts about objectivity

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 12 Oct 1996 10:30:16 +0900

>methodologically sound anthropological study that misses key categories as
>there is in an evocative, "rings-true" account, ethnographic in nature, that
>contains made up events and characters?
>I would argue that there is more fiction in the latter. And I would base my
>answer on the author's intent (and "situation"). In the latter case, the
>author intends to fabricate, even if the fabrications contain truths. In the
>former, the author intends to be accurate -- about a world he or she didn't
>create. If a second study were to find the missing categories, I would say
>that the first one provided a weaker interpretation, not that it was more
>Interpretation is taking a stand in a world of doubt; fiction is taking a
>stand in a world of certainty. (?!)

Have belatedly realized that in my last post I let myself ride off on my
epistemological hobby horse. Here I'd like to turn him around and get back
to the specific issue Mike raises here: the use of "made-up" events and
characters, and other devices found in fiction, in ethnographic studies.

When I went off to do fieldwork in Taiwan in 1969, the accepted wisdom was
to NOT identify specific informants. Besides the goal of appearing
"objective" and writing about "customs" instead of particular events, there
was also a strongly felt need to protect the informants themselves. At this
point in history, Taiwan was still an active police state, and people
identified as saying things that the government found objectionable
sometimes "disappeared." So the rule was, "The names have been changed to
protect the innocent," and the practice, not infrequently, to combine
material collected from several informants in an abstract description of a
"role," e.g., "The Taoist magician...." The effects of the practice
included both (1) an unattractive style and (2) concealing the considerable
variation in how particular individuals performed their roles.

>From both literary and scientific points of view, I now prefer to write
about particular individuals, noting--following Kluckhohn's famous
recipe--how they are (1) like all other human beings, (2) like some other
human beings, and (3) uniquely themselves and, for scientific purposes,
trying to keep these observations separated.

I count myself extremely fortunate that I live and work in a place where
people are legally free to speak their minds (there are, of course, other
constraints) and reporting what they say will not, usually, expose them to
harassment or arrest.Even here, however, there are areas where this may not
be true, as reporters and social activists involved in covering yakuza
(Japanese gangsters), right-wing political groups, or extreme religious
cults have discovered. What to do when reporting what informants say
exposes them to violence is a troubling issue that I, for one, cannot
resolve on scientific or literary grounds alone. I wonder how others handle
these problems?

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