Color of Money (Truth Again)

Thu, 6 Jan 1994 11:50:38 CST

B. Rodman misunderstood me in a big way when he took "The Yanomamo are
aggressive" for an example of what I consider a true ethnographic
statement. I consider the truth value of that proposition to be highly
problematic, especially--but not solely--due to unsolved problems in
conceptualizing and operationally defining "aggressive" (same goes for
"intelligent," and many other attributes about which we know far less
than we like to imagine). The fact that we don't know quite what the
proposition means, and therefore are in a poor position to evaluate its
truth, is a problem quite distinct from the nature of truth itself.
Again: Knowing what truth is is easy; what's hard is finding out what is
true. Rodman asks for examples of "significant" ethnographic truths.
Well, I recently have given close readings to Turnbull on the Mbuti,
Tonkinson on the Mardu of Australia, and Balikci on the Netsilik.
These books all give every appearance of simply brimming over with true,
interesting propositions--thousands of them. Of course these
propositions are not all *certainly* true, and we should remember always
Abraham Kaplan's quip that there is no Immaculate Perception; but there
seems no warrant to doubt most of them, unless one is interested in
undermining rather than promoting our understanding of human culture.
An example, which I must paraphrase because I do not have the volume at
hand, is this, from Balikci: "According to the Netsilik Eskimo, changes
in weather are due to a giant, temperamental baby orphan in the sky
called 'Narssuk.'" Here is another apparently true proposition at a
higher level of generality, based on ethnographic work: "Customary
abandonment of the house of recently deceased persons is more frequent
in societies having relatively non-fixed rather than relatively fixed
settlements." (This is based on work by L. Simmons and R. Textor.)
I mention this because I have been looking into the subject recently,
not because I consider it among the more substantively significant
propositions produced by ethnography. (The correlation is, at any
rate, statistically significant, chi-square exceeding the critical
value for p = .001.) I am going to return to Narssuk in reference
to knowledge and D. Yee; for now, I would say this: All you pomo
types, both closeted and confessed: Give up all this futile "We-don't
really-know-anything" foolishness and study some real anthropology for a
change. --Bob Graber