Distinguishing ethnographers from ethnographies

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Thu, 2 Mar 1995 23:04:00 CST

On Thur, 2 Mar 1955, Elizabeth Vance asked:

================== Original message ==============================

Since I've seen a few people ask where the Anthropology discussions are,
I thought I'd ask a question that we discussed in class tonight. I'd be
interested in seeing some other opinions on the subject.

We're discussing TRANSLATED WOMAN: ESPERANZA'S STORY by Ruth Behar, and
one of the issues of debate was the significance of the biography of the
ethnographer. More specifically, how important, or is it important at
all, to know about the ethnographer when reading his or her work? This
doesn't just apply to Behar, but to any ethnography that you read. Do
you think that it is significant? To what degree?

- Elizabeth
==================== End quote =====================================

The identity, the personhood, of the ethnographer is supremely and
vitally important if you want to understand an ethnography. This is
not just a new discovery of the post-whatever epoch: my mentors back
in the 1950's kept telling us students that critical analysis of our
sources had to begin with whatever we could learn of the authors.

Maybe I can explain with an analogy. Once upon a very long time ago
I worked as a chemist. In those days, we used to weigh things with
an instrument called a beam balance. It was capable of extremely
fine measurement, in the hands of an experienced experimenter--but
the first thing you learned by using one was that your measurement
was not really a measure of the weight of an object. It was about
what the instrument said the weight was. You expected a different
instrument to give a different weight. The procedures you used to
work with the instrument you had began with calibrating it to some
standard that was not directly dependent on the instrument. As it
worked, you knew right up front that you had to make a statistical
approximation that WAS NOT the weight. When we got more advanced
kinds of scales, you no longer had to do the averaging that the old
beam balance demanded. You got a numerical display that said, in
essence, this thing weighs 7.368294 grams. Without experience in
using a beam balance, people get tempted to say that the weight is
whatever that number says--and it's not. The number is what the
instrument says the weight is, and that's absolutely not the same.

When I read--no, when I write--an ethnographic report, it says "the
people do this" and "they believe that", but I don't really believe
that's the truth of the real world. It still is true, in the sense
that I believe and affirm its truth, but what that truth is is a
measure of me as the instrument as well as of the people I study.
The only way you, the reader, can figure out what correspondence
there may be between what I believe, affirm, and write in an ethno-
graphic report and what's really happening out there is by knowing
who and what I am. I'm the filter, the measuring instrument, and
everything I say is skewed by who and what I am. The way you
calibrate this instrument is by looking at me.

With my old classmate, Bob Netting, I believe there is a reality
out there, and I believe what we do is try to discover and describe
and analyze it. Part of doing that is learning to discover, describe
and analyze the effect of the ethnographer on what is reported.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu>