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

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 26 Oct 1996 09:35:26 +0900

>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_.


>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."

I find myself wondering if Obeyeskere isn't overstating the case a bit,
drawing for support on the folklore of the anthropologist as someone who
goes where no (wo)man has ever gone before. While not for a second denying
the range of local variation or the selection imposed on particular data by
its being collected by a single observer, I would also note that
anthropologists these days frequently work in areas where other
anthropologists have been, not to mention growing numbers of historians,
economists, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, journalists,
etc. As soon as it becomes public the private observation is subject to
comparison with material gathered by others in which substantial overlap
builds grounds for consensus.

>Obeyesekere's observation must be true in other spheres of life and is not
>only a problem in
>ethnographic method.


Precisely. That at some level our private archives remain our own (Proust
and Joyce show us how hopeless the idea that exposing it all is) is no
grounds for the despairing conclusion that nothing can be shared.

>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.

Ah, yes, but what does "plausibility" mean outside of well-defined
statistical analysis? There may be hints in work on rules of evidence (in
the law) or clinical inference (in medicine). Then, in a sort of ascending
fuzzier logic scale come historiography, marketing presentations,
advertising, and, finally, what Walt Disney called the "plausible
impossible" (a cartoon character walking around in a flattened state after
being run over, for example).
>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?

We seek worship but our temples are in ruins. Still, there will one day,
perhaps, be an archeologist...

Shall we dig a little?


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