Ethnography

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Ethnography

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Reflexivity has recently been designated as an indicator of postmodernism in anthropological texts. In this context, the practice is attacked as self-indulgent narcissism, but its true scope reaches much further. While some ethnographic texts exhibit an overemphasis on the author, and his position within the work, this is one extreme of the range reflexivity, which also serves as a methodological tool, unincorporated into the writing, and as a means to account for the ethnographers biases and affects on his informants. This entire span of meaning is shown in anthropological research and writings, in varying manners and to different ends.

An poignant example of reflexivity in writing is the much critiqued and criticized essay by Renato Rosaldo, “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage”, wherein he explores his reactions to and understanding of Ilongot headhunting, as based on his personal experiences with death, or lack thereof. He argues that “most anthropological studies of death eliminate emotions by assuming the position of the most attached observer,” a precarious position which often leads to “actual indifference.” (15) He also acknowledges that reflexivity can easily slip into self-absorption, wherein one loses sight of differences which do exist.

Despite attacks, by Michaelson and Johnson, that “Michele’s death gives Renato a newfound sense of ethnographic authority, a sense that he is ‘capable of feeling everything that the Ilongot do,” he never, in fact, makes this claim. (Behar, 171) Rosaldo, after sharing his experience of his wife’s death, and the grief that followed, emphasizes that the “statement should not lead anyone to derive a universal from somebody else’s personal knowledge.” (15) The author’s own experience does not give him a full understanding of the Ilongot, nor does he claim that it does so, but allows him to understand his informants explanations of headhunting which he had previously dismissed, not equating grief with rage. “Ilongot anger and [his] own overlap, rather like two circles, partially overlaid and partially separate.” (10) Or, as Marcus states it, “in any attempt to interpret or explain another cultural subject, a surplus of difference always remains.” (Marcus, 186)

Renato also briefly addresses the question of authority raised by reflexivity, and the admission of one’s shortcomings. What was once accepted as absolute truth is now being questioned, as the ethnographer acknowledges his own subjectivity, and “with the realization that [the] objects of analysis are also analyzing subjects who critically interrogate ethnographers.

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