practical epistemology

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Thu, 27 Oct 1994 13:45:08 EDT

John M., et al:

Mr. M.'s last message stated in part:

"What I am looking for, however, is some positive models of things we might
consider doing. Do you see any of this in Kapferer's work? Also, I'm curious
about what you mean by 'talking social life'? This seems to be your goal. How
do you envision it?"

Well,lemme tell ya. What was positive about Kapferer's work was his desire
to take the Sinhalese and their practices seriously, and to at least peri-
pherally address some of national and local politics that impinged on thier
performance/enactments of *yaktovil*. But these admirable tenets faded into
the background once Kapferer got warmed up, and to situate these rituals in
a more enriched and informed context would have made the more alive (even as
they interfered with Kapferer's clockwork analysis). But I think that K's
work is one good place to move from, an example of some of anthropology's
problems that we can use to contrast with better models. For me, that's
the harder part; talking about what works.

I had thought about maybe using K's book as an example to work from in this
respect, trying to pull info out of it and "re-placing" it w/in a framework
that may more effectively describe, explain, and interpret what's going on. I
did this in a seminar on humor and religion last year, and was pleased with the
results. But other folks may want to use other examples, either historical or
from their own work to talk about what works, since the context of each invest-
igation constrains your epistemology. Or do we want to talk theory first?

"Talking social life" is a phrase I lifted from a recent article by Paul
Stoller called "Ethnographies as Texts/Ethnographers as Griots" from the latest
issue of *American Ethnologist*, wherein he discusses some of the philosophical
intricacies and pitfalls of doing ethnography. He believes that an ethno-
grapher's primary goal is to elucidate the culture he is "studying" and
participating in, and through that communicate to his/her "home culture" about
the "host culture" as well as (this is me extrapolating a bit) talking back
to the "home culture." Anthropologists are in some way story tellers; some of
us tell the story of "human laws" and "cultural forms" and others talk about
"meaning"and "practice." Taking social life to me means learning to hear and
retell the stories in such a way that they reward and criticize both cultures,
informing, entertaining, stimulating, and serving the host and the home.
Whether I do that by "present-ing the past" (a la Greg Dening), or doing human
rights work, or following the contours of American cultures, that I what I'd
. . . sorry, that is what I'd like to do. It's an ideal, and I'm a romantic
cynic (i.e., I hope things will get better, but realize they probably won't),
so I take my own rhetoric with a grain of salt, but hey, it could happen!

Comments are welcome.


John H. Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston