We know about Cap'n Cook..or do we?

hjmartin (hatch@RICHMOND.INFI.NET)
Fri, 25 Oct 1996 16:46:03 -0400

Gananath Obeyesekere in his _The Apotheosis of Captain Cook_ (Princeton,
1992) remarks that "...ethnography is an emprical discipline that cannot
afford to turn its back on _evidence_.
Ethnographic interpretation cannot flout evidence, even though one might
argue that evidence is opaque and subject to multiple interpretations." (p.
xv, emphasis in original). This remark
reminded me that education lies in both apprehending the evidence and in
learning techniques to think critcally about it. But there is more.

Later, on page 66, the author makes what is to me a compelling observation.
While comparing
ehtnographic and historic methods he speaks of interview data a as private
archive (not public as, eg, archived historical data is) and goes on to say
that "The private archive becomes public only after the the ethnography is
written; consequently there are only a few ways to question the validity of
the data on which the interpretation rests. What provokes disagreeement and
debate is the theory or the interpretation - the public part of the
ethnography. This methodological dilemma is an embarrassment to
ethnography. Ethnography is supposed to be an empirical discipline based on
fieldwork that, for the most part, remains in private archives."

Obeyesekere's observation must be true in other spheres of life and is not
only a problem in
ethnographic method. For example, the (wretchedly dull) reports that I
prepare at work describe and explain information to which only I have
access; I consciously choose what to include and how, within limits, to
interpret it. I must trust that the people I work with present the details
of their private archives in such a way that the interpretation is not
flawed (ie, that it does not flout the - private - evidence). I cannot
recall enough grade school grammar to judge if the corrections that my
daughter's 4th. grade teacher marks on her papers really are wrong; the
teacher's archive is fresh and mine is stale, I guess. And yet there are
occasions when I am certain that the teacher's archive is defective or

A larger question must be how do we discriminate between reasonable and
wrong interpretation when most of the information is private? In biological
sciences (I am thinking of epidemiology) one standard of proof is
plausibility. Epidemiologists ask: In light of what we know about this or
that organism, does this (or that) explanation make sense? Is the
explanation plausible? Accepting plausibility as a standard of proof
presupposes that evidence is public and that people educated in the evidence
will reach similar judgements based on it.

Has anthropology has reached a similar point? If we take Obeyesekere's
observation at face value, the answer is probably 'no'. But I am not so
sure. What do you think? Apotheosis or not?


Jim Martin
Richmond, VA
(804) 740-0170 (H)
(804) 786-5188 (O)