Re: Graber's "Truth": Reply to Karla Poewe

Karla Poewe (kpoewe@ACS.UCALGARY.CA)
Sun, 19 Dec 1993 13:04:07 MST

Rod you raised a very difficult question. You asked for examples
of "significant scientific truths that anthropologists themselves
discovered as a result of their fieldwork." The answer to your
question depends on what we think science and the scientific
method are. If we think that science has to do with the discovery
of laws, something Radcliffe-Brown strove to achieve, than we
must say that we have not come up with scientific truths through
our ethnographic research or that we have come up with things
that simple travel and common sense could also have told us, for
example, that all people, from "Khoikhoi" to "Harvard scholars," have a sense of history and are part of it, think rationally and
analytically but also use what I call the receptive imagination
centered on dreams and visions.
If, on the other hand, we argue that our search for scientific
truth -- actually there always are only scientific truths --
through the ethnographic method has resulted in building new
theories and changing the condition of human beings, the picture
changes. We are in the process, for example, of building new
theories about the nature and conditin of the human being. For
example, it is a truth which emerged from ethnographic research
that, despite cultural differences, researchers and researched or
people generally can recognize common lived experiences which are
human existentials that cannot be reduced further nor wished
Secondly, Bill, you missed, or saw as unimportant, the point of
my argument. In the dialectic between the non-relativistic
perception of one truth-cum-reality and the relativistic
perception of only ever knowing a bit of it, the emic-etic
distinction breaks down. Perhaps, the radical postmodern
insistence, the emphasis is on radical, that there is no
truth-cum-reality independent of the observer is simply absurd,
and when one looks at what scientists and inhabitants of mud huts
do, and how they behave, they in fact work with the assumption
that there is an "independent of" reality-cum-truth. Karla.