Re: New American Anthropologist

Eve Pinsker (U56728@UICVM.BITNET)
Sun, 6 Nov 1994 12:03:16 CST

On Sun, 6 Nov 1994 12:53:27 +0000 Tom Riley said:
>By definition you cannot do an ethnography of plays. You may be engaged in
>the anthropology of play orof plays, but ethnography is not the study of
>theatre or of plays. It is a particular kind of naturalisitic study of one
>of any number of peoples, usually isolated by a shared set of beliefs,
>customs, etc., and other habitus that have been passed on by learning and
>teaching, the description of which has been ignored by psychologists and
>Is that what ethnography is? I'm just a poor archaeologist and would like
>to find out.
>Thomas J. Riley
>University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

If people in our own field think ethnography is writing about "isolated
peoples," we're in worse shape than I thought. All the recent, and not so
recent, discussions of transnationalism, colonial conjunctures, cultural
complexity (Ulf Hannerz 1992), constructions of ethnicity and the politics of
culture, exchange and the appropriation of objects, "alterity" (discussed on
this list not too long ago), etc., etc, blows the idea of "isolated peoples"
out of the water.
There are good ethnographies of plays, for instance, Javanese shadow plays;
for a wonderful article length treatment, see Alton L. Becker's "Text-Building,
Epistemology, and Aesthetics in Javanese Shadow Theatre, " in _The Imagination
of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems_ ed. A. L. Becker and
AraM Yengoyan, Ablex 1979. What makes an ethnographic description of a play
or a genre of play-production, as opposed to say, drama criticism, is attention
to the social and cultural context of the performance and production of the pl
ay, including the assumptions about what is going on that the participants
(performers and audience) bring to what they're doing that inform any internal
criticism, but that need to be made explicit and explained or translated for
culturally-distant outsiders. (Generally, in order to do that, one needs to
gather data not just on a particular play or instance of its performances, but
data about variations and similarities between performances, hence data at the
level of genre). That kind of translation is what Becker does brilliantly in
the above-cited article.
It's clear enough to me what ethnography is when you're talking about
translating something that's culturally distant from your intended readership
; what's bugging me at the moment is what happens when what you're trying to
describe doesn't seem all that different -- when the paradigm of describing
apparently bizarre behavior so that is makes sense to your readers doesn't
work because the behavior doesn't seem bizarre to them in the first place.
Like wwhen one is doing an ethnography of say, a suburban U.S.classroom for a
middle-class U.S. audience; or, in my case, when you're describing national
politics in Micronesia and it doesn't look all that different from politics in
Chicago. Then I guess I have to explain the similarities as well as the differe
nces, and explain why the similarities don't vitiate the necessity to explain
the social and cultural contexts of political activity. Otherwise I get
accused of writing political science instead of ethnography. (although there is
some political science writing that's ethnographic, but I'm supposed to be
making a case that I'm writing as an anthropologist, so I'm supposed to know
how to do it better in order to justify an anthropology degree). A related
issue is the connection of "thick description" with ethnography, and what happe
ns when you're describing multiple levels of community, not just unitary,
"isolate" cultures: if "thick description" involves explicating shared social
meanings, what happens when the shared meanings are thin? Like they are when
you get up to the level of the nation in recently-imagined national communities
. You think an ethnography of plays is problematic, try doing an ethnography o
f a self-declared multicultural nation. Things were easier when we thought
looking at "little communities" (Redfield) was enough.
Eve Pinsker (sitting here at my terminal praying for some
revelation of ethnographic truth that I can put in my dissertation intro. I
feel like I've been exiled to some purgatory reserved for postulants to
disciplines who revel in disagreement about epistemological principles and
paradigms but tell you you're outside the pale when you try to write something.
It's like Goffman's analysis of asylums, where people keep invoking rules but
nobody can tell you what they are, or at least they don't bother to do so
until you break them. Actually it feels more like the ninth circle of Hell
than purgatory, and it feels more like that every time I reread my advisor's
comments on my ms. sometimes I feel like giving up . . .)rowing