Re: ethnography question

William Bangs (wbbangs@U.WASHINGTON.EDU)
Fri, 3 Mar 1995 14:35:39 -0800

Hi, Liz! Yes, it's helpful to keep in mind that the ethnographer, far
from being an objective and unobtrusive outsider, is indeed one among
many influences on the behavior of the group being studied. But for my
money much too much attention is paid to this subject. Think of it like
this: if the ethnographer is serious about her duty to try to understand
and record some sense of what it is to be a Chinese, Bedoin or Meratius,
she will do as much as posible, not to pretend she's not part of the
picture, but to get at the cultural system in which she is living *as a
system* -- one which, unless she's incredibly arrogant, she'll recognize
operated before, and will continue after, her brief interlude. There's
too much post-modernist naval contemplating for my taste in anthropology
right now, too many stupid fights over the nature of knowledge. So what
if the ethnographer is from East Germany, smokes cigarettes and was
molested as a child? It's her duty to separate herself as much as
posible from all that -- at least to the extent that she can -- and try
to see the 'real culture' in front of her own nose. The problem is that
our dicipline is being shaken to its very roots: many seem to doubt these
days that their *is* a describable, fixed culture that's independant of
every passing bit of history or political manuvering.

I guess there are some authors who I'd try to model myself on: Michael
Agar has written two very helpful books which look into all these
dynamics: Language Shock, and The Professional Stranger. For a model of
what good anthropology can be, I like Clifford Geertz, whose works on
Java and Bali make it obvious that, whatever his 'epistomological
stance', he's actually *been there*! I read Ruth Benedict's: The
Crysanthamum and the Sword" one year ago and loved it, but it turned out
that she never went to Japan! For my money, though (given that her work
was the ultimate in applied anthro: a character study sponsored by our
armed forces during WW II), this is still another good model of what
anthro should be -- though not as good as Geertz. He at least admitts
that his takes on Balinese (or what have you) culture are not absolutes,
but his opinion. He gives enough ethnographic data to let you judge for
yourself, and I think that's important.

I hope this answer helps. Believe me, there's no field more filled with
folks with big egos than anthropology. After all, we're studying no less
a subject than (wo)mankind her/himself!!! Can't get much more sweeping
and universalist than that! Happy reading,

Ben Bangs

We each must decide which values are worth saving,
which satisfactions are worth sacrificing,
what ultimately we wish from life.

I fear many do not give this proposition
the sufficient thought it deserves:
until they become too engrained in a superficial life,
too far removed to find such harmony again...