Ethnography

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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” (21) This problem is further explored by Dorinne Kondo, as she relates her own experience with distance and identity while doing fieldwork in Japan. She works with the assumption “that an anthropologist’s experience in the field is conditioned by his/her culturally and biographically mediated way of seeing,” and that “there can be no understanding free of value or presupposition.” (74-75) She quickly discovered that this statement applies to ethnographic subjects as well, who, having agency, attempted to control her actions and shape her identity.

The realization, or recognition, that informants have agency is in fact a part of the ethnographer’s positioning. There are shifting power relations between the two parties which both indirectly, and in this case directly, affect the anthropologist’s distance from the culture which he is studying. The “distance is not fixed, for one can move along a continuum from a moment of complete identification …to unsympathetic, even hostile, alienation and distance, on the other. At no time, however, is this distance or positioning a neutral ‘fact’.” (84) While the admission of subjectivity and biased, shifting position may detract from the classical “intellectual arrogance” of authority, it contributes to a “more honest appraisal of the anthropological enterprise”, which “would take these other elements …as integral to the process of understanding…For a discipline so solidly rooted in the empirical and experimental…it is particularly ironic that these modes of knowing virtually disappear in the usual holistic, traditional anthropological monograph.” (85)

It is this last statement which brings to the surface another facet of reflexivity, that of its use in the field, but not in the texts. Marcus explores the uses of reflexivity in a number of disciplines, and within anthropology, at a variety of stages. As a methodological tool, “the value if rhetorical self-awareness is in drawing our attention to the constructions through which, as professionals, [anthropologists] have learned partly to read but which still mask many difficult and misleading assumptions.” (198) This can be attained without the inclusion of reflexivity in one’s written work, though I believe the latter to be valuable as well. The problem with this, however, is that the “kind of reflexive ‘act of location,’ while potentially a practice of key importance, all too often becomes a gesture that is enforced by politically correct convention,” and is thus meaningless. (199)

Marcus also draws attention, as do many of the aforementioned authors, to the problem of truth and authority. Early into his essay “On Ideologies of Reflexivity”, he explores how the “premise that there is no possibility of a fixed, final, or monologically authoritative meaning has radicalized anthropology’s internal critique of its own forms of representation by challenging the authority on which they have been based. It has also undermined the practice of a kind of interpretation from which authoritative meanings could be derived.” (186) This seems useful within the field, as a form of self-critique, but becomes a larger issue for those attempting to argue that anthropology is in fact a science. Behar addresses this conflict, noting that “the critics of the kind of anthropology that matters to [her] claim that the price anthropology must pay to survive into the next century is to become a science, or risk becoming nothing.” This can be done, they say, if anthropology’s “’grotesque tendencies’…are reined in and anthropologists are enjoined ‘to abandon the pleasures of subjective narrativity’.” (163-164)

This latter critique, based on categories and borders and concerned only with the pragmatic, is clearly dismissed by Behar, who is much more interested in the theoretical shifts and trends actually taking place in her discipline. She believes that “the new focus on the possibilities and limits of identification is making anthropology finally and truly possible by leading us toward greater depth of understanding.” (165) This hope invested in the practice of reflexivity, shared by Marcus who believes that it marks a “crucial turn”, opening ethnographies to new possibilities, is admirable, but not without disharmony.

While reflexivity, in both writing and research, may expose a new truth, one based on position, distance and subjectivity, it destroys the traditional preconceptions of what truth is, as it acknowledges that there is no absolute truth, and that the “natives” may have as much authority as the trained anthropologist. Authority is again in a contradictory position as the admission of faults both discredits the author, and reinforces his authority on the basis of “I was there.” Likewise, the practice, in ethnographic texts, is problematic as it may easily become contaminated, either as a “PC” gesture, or as narcissistic self-indulgence, the author becoming the focal point of the study. These dilemmas plague the application of reflexivity, but do not discredit its worth altogether. When used methodologically, as well as in one’s writing, it is a valuable tool, capable of bringing honesty and humanity into our work, and our discipline.
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