ethnography and ethnographers

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Fri, 3 Mar 1995 00:09:23 CST

I agree with everything Mike Salovesh said, but I'd take it a step further.
Boas and his students recognized that the ethnographer was a person, too.
Observer bias comes from one's individuality as well as from one's training,
and this is good news with the bad news--individual creativity and
perceptiveness is a plus. There is still no recording machine made that is
more sensitive than a human being. Anthropologists, according to Margaret
Mead, have always been hard on one another, not to be nasty but to make sure
that they got it right. To the extent that anthropology can claim for itself
a scientific enterprise, it is because we have all been trained to assume that
we could be wrong, that we could miss data or misinterpret what people said
and juxtapose things that to the people we observe just don't go together at
all. The development of field method in our discipline has focussed on making
it possible to detect and correct our own errors, and to build into our
ethnography the means to falsify our hypotheses and our generalizations.
The media love to point out cases where anthropologists looking at the same
people come to very different, sometimes opposite conclusions about them.
This justifies charicaturing ethnography as impressionism. It ignores the
many cases of ethnographers looking at the same community and agreeing with
their generalizations. Our individual differences as ethnographers is
almost always focussed on the fact that we tend to pay attention to
different things and focus on different contexts of interaction. The Mead-
Freeman "debate" is a good example. Look at who Mead talked to and who
Freeman talked to. Mead was clear about the fact that her description of
Samoan adolescence was gathered from adolescent girls and represented their
point of view. Freeman claimed to represent "The Samoans", but if you read
carefully, you see that the only people he talked to were high status, older
men: chiefs, ministers, educators, and high level politicians. The
ethnographies that have followed have tended to integrate both descriptions
by filling in the social blanks. By successive approximations, errors are
corrected, generalizations become more sophisticated, and the foci expanded
to make ever richer ethnographic detail. One more thing: long term research
in a single community or area also serves to correct errors as a result of
both intellectual maturity, the advantages of growing older with the
people you work with, and repeated observations from different points of view
at different times.
Mike Lieber