Serious thoughts about objectivity

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 6 Oct 1996 08:50:09 +0900

Dear Friends,

The following exchange is from an off-line discussion between Mike Cahill
and myself. I thought it might be interesting to toss it out and see what
kinds of responses we get.


>I like the concept. My own inclination in the present work would be to stick
>with applying the techniques to "events observed" rather than to "events
>composed," although I can definitely see the value of the latter approach.
> In my case, something to consider for the future maybe.

Sustaining the difference between observed and composed is where things get
tricky. In scientific reporting, I like the good, old-fashioned approach of
separating observations and inferences. (Dan Sperber does a good job of
describing the difference in _On Anthropological Knowledge_.) The
practical/epistemological difficulty is sorting out where observation ends
and inference begins. On a theoretical plane there is an ever-growing body
of evidence that what we take to be perception is, in fact, a highly
inferential process. On a practical level, I find, it often comes down to
how to describe the paralinguistic stuff that accompanies what we are told.
Think of the difference between "She said, 'Stalin believes in God'" and
"She said, looking pale and furious, 'Stalin believes in God'" and "She
said, with a small, wistful smile on her face, 'Stalin believes in God'" or
"'Stalin believes in God,' she said, barely suppressing a giggle." I
frequently find myself wondering how many "beliefs" described in
ethnography were originally statements spoken in faith, in anger, in
irony, or if "myths" were told as scripture, tall tales, or both. I recall
a statement by my friend Don DeGlopper in re the study of Chinese religion
that we often manage, in effect, to conflate the Easter Bunny, Mardi Gras
and the Stations of the Cross. How, I wonder, should we go about
communicating the difference?


Over to you.

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo