The Return to Laughter, by Elenore Smith Bowen

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Question: Misunderstandings between the anthropologists and the people whose ways of life he/she is attempting to understand are often the most revealing moments of fieldwork. Discuss one or two of Bowen’s mistakes and explore what they told her about the Tiv and herself. The Return to Laughter is a fictionalized account by Elenore Smith Bowen about her experiences with the Tiv culture in Africa. It describes her struggles to learn and understand the local culture and beliefs, and juxtaposes her own conflicts, morals and beliefs. Bowen engages in what anthropologists termed participant-observation. The anthropologist made a few mistakes that provided revelations about herself and the Tiv people. Language difficulties provide the greatest barrier: as when the researcher is trying to understand the context of the conversation, while still struggling with the intricacy of a difficult language. Secondly, like most anthropologists Bowen knew that social relationships are a research requirement: informants are needed, yet she quickly realized that identification with one family, status or group in the society could hinder other critical relationships. These lessons are among a few that the anthropologist seeks to overcome. This essay will discuss that culture and language are dependent on each other and how forming social relationships can propel research and reveal insightful knowledge into a culture, while possibly hindering other useful information. As anthropologists seek to understand the culture that they are studying they must overcome the language barrier. Similar to the concept of culture, “people use language to encode their experiences, to structure their understanding of the world and themselves, and engage with on... ... middle of paper ... ...her expresses that “it is an error to assume that to know is to understand and that to understand is to like” (Bowen 1954:291). She also discovers the Tiv’s belief in witchcraft is another way to understand the world they live in. Thorough out this novel, Bowen attempts to reconcile her Western prejudice with those of the Tiv society. Her experience and her failures contribute to her lessons and revelations. She now holds the knowledge that language and social relationships are indispensable to research. Conclusively, Bowen understands that culture is reliant on understanding the cultures language and that this understanding will aid in social relationships. Works Cited Bowen, Elenore 1954 Return to Laughter. New York: Anchor Books Schultz, Emily, Robert Lavenda, and Roberta Dods 2012 Cultural Anthropology. Ontario: Oxford University Press

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