Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

Anthropologists are people studying people

Anthropologists are people studying people

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, March 30, 2020 (Week 6)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/2.3.0

Required readings

Laura Bohannan “Shakespeare in the Bush,” Natural History Magazine, accessed December 13, 2019, http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/12476/shakespeare-in-the-bush.

Alma Gottlieb “Processing Privilege: Reflections on Fieldwork (Early, and Otherwise) Among Beng Villagers of Côte d’Ivoire,” Mande Studies 20, no. 1 (November 7, 2018): 123–135, http://muse.jhu.edu/article/708087.

Learning how to ask

  • A culture shapes how people use language to communicate
    • Cultures impose symbolic categories on different ways of speaking: some words are obscene, some topics are impolite to discuss with strangers.
    • Cultures also identify forms of conversation, and these forms imply roles and relationships for the participants.
      • interrogation
      • job interview
      • coffee
      • tetela (Auhelawa history, historical knowledge, and historical inquiry)
  • Fieldworkers want to do interviews, but may not get the kinds of information they want if they don't know people's cultural norms for communication.
    • If an interview reminds people of an interrogation, then the interviewees will treat the interviewer like a cop.
    • If people's experiences with interviews comes through their culture's emic category of job interview, then they will relate to the fieldworker like an employer.
      • Fieldworkers first need to be socialized to converse in the same way that people of the community also “learn how to ask” questions and participate in different kinds of conversation (Briggs 1984).
  • Ethnographic fieldwork often takes place through forms of conversation in which the fieldworker plays the role of a young and experienced person and the interviewee plays the role of an older, wiser, and more knowledgeable person. The interviewee can then speak freely from his or her own point of view.
  • In your next assignment, you want make your interview into a casual conversation. If you play the role of “anthropologist,” then your interview subject will think they have to play the role of “culture expert.” You should play the role that you normally play with your subject: child, friend, niece, nephew, or relative.

Stories of personal experience

One kind of talk found in many cultures takes the form of a narrative, that is, a description of something that happened as a series of connected steps from beginning to end. There are many genres of narrative: legend, folktale, history, autobiography, joke, gossip. Each culture has its own genres, but many cultures have a genre of narrative in which a person retells an experience.

These stories of personal experience often have a point to them, but they may not say what the point is in the story. When someone tells a story of their personal experience, they will emphasize certain elements to draw attention to the parts that are new, exciting, or important. What they think is important about a story is a clue about how they classify their experiences.

Key informants and the fallacy of the isolate culture

Laura Bohannan and ethnographic nostalgia

  • “Shakespeare in the Bush” (Bohannan 1966) dwells in one kind of ethnographic imagination in which the observer and observed live in completely different cultural worlds, and both come to realize that they see the world in distinct ways.

Cultures aren't isolates

  • No human population exists in isolation; throughout history, people have always interacted across borders (see Lesser 1961).
  • Cultures are not static. Every society changes, and every cultural system is a product of historical change.
  • The classical ethnographic depiction of a neatly bounded community is a device meant to emphasize the coherence of culture.
  • In some ways, ethnography is a form of knowledge that emphasizes continuity over change, and that is a limitation of the ethnographic imagination which anthropology has sought to overcome.

The key informant as the mirror of the anthropologist

Consider for instance how anthropologists learn most of what they know. Most anthropologists rely on a few “key informants,” especially in the beginning of fieldwork.

Some people become key informants because of what they know, especially if they possess a lot of factual information about specific areas of life, like medicine or hunting.

But anthropologists are often drawn to people who have thought a lot about their own community and its culture. People like this are similarly drawn to fieldworkers because they are a good audience for hearing these ideas.

Many people who become key informants are themselves marginal figures in their own communities, and may straddle multiple cultural worlds much like the fieldworker does.

  • Muchona, “The Hornet,” was a traditional healer who worked with Victor Turner on his study of Ndembu ritual. Muchona's mother was a slave in a neighboring chiefdom, and he had to buy his own freedom. He lived outside of the nearest village and was treated with suspicion by most people. His interpretations of the symbolic meaning of healing and other ritual were highly original (Turner 1970, 133–136).
  • Mari, John Layard's confidant, was an ex-laborer returned from a plantation, and needed to organize a feast only held once in a generation so that he could claim a respected grade through a sacrifice of pigs (see Layard 1936).

Key informants are more often than not multilingual and adept at moving between cultures. They may be recognized for their knowledge or savvy but this also alienates them from their own community. Anthropologists are professional strangers, and they are estranged from their own culture. So these two kinds of people find they have a lot in common.

Perhaps more importantly, key informants are themselves proof of the interconnectedness of diverse communities. In a colonial era and today in a globalized sociopolitical and economic order, more and more people must live in multiple social and cultural systems simultaneously. In the past, ethnographers would recognize this but only as an individual talent. Muchona and Mari are clever people, but the ethnographers who knew them could not see that these key informants were also products of the changes brought by colonialism (see Bourdieu and Sayad 2004, 463).

Translation, strong languages, and weak languages

To extend this idea, think of the role of translation in ethnography. It is common to use translation as a metaphor for ethnography.

  • The people observed and their cultural worldview is like a foreign language
  • The readers of an ethnography speak a distinct cultural “language” of their own, and cannot understand the “language” of the observed.
  • The ethnographer is the translator who is able to make it possible for the readers in one cultural worldview to understand how other people think and act by bridging between the two cultural languages.

But this is also somewhat misleading because the ethnographer is also a fieldworker, and probably does not know the local language of the people she wants to learn about.

  • Fieldworkers do spend a lot of time learning the local “field” language, but this would not be possible without bilingual informants.
  • Research assistants and key informants have to be bilingual too, at least in the early part of fieldwork.
  • Local people become bilingual in the fieldworker's language through contact with and learning about another social system in which this language is dominant.
  • Schools in colonial territories and postcolonial countries have historically used European languages, literary languages (Arabic, Hindi, Urdu), planned languages (Bahasa Indonesia), or modified versions of indigenous languages. As a result students who are members of small linguistic communities must receive their education in a foreign language and its culture.

Talal Asad argues that languages of the world are unequal in the social and political power they give to their speakers, and so ethnography cannot simply assume that its “translation” of culture is between equally valued ways of thinking (Asad 1986)

  • Some languages are “strong” because powerful, dominant societies use them; other languages are “weak” because they are spoken in communities which are dominated by another culture.
  • The inequality of languages was often created under colonialism when European states and Christian missions identified certain local languages that they could use as a medium for schools, church, and government.
  • Languages not appropriated by colonial governments remained oral for the most part. They are transmitted within the communities where they are spoken as children's first language, but speakers need to learn other languages to operate in the wider world. They must learn to translate themselves for other people.
    • When one translates from a weak language to a strong language, the cultural assumptions of the speakers of the strong language tend to determine the meaning of the weak language (Hanks 2014).
  • Oral languages are often stereotyped as primitive and simple. People can develop an internalized sense of their own inferiority because, for example, they think their language lacks “scientific” terms (even though they could just borrow these terms like everyone else does!) (see Graber 2019).
  • Ethnography tends to be written in strong, “global” languages (especially English). So even an ethnography that attempts to make another culture's emic perspective will to some extent also be read in terms of English-speakers' biases toward oral languages.

People have the right to say no

  • In the field of anthropology, researchers are expected to (1) inform people they want to learn about of the risks that come with participation, and then (2) allow them to freely choose whether or not to participate. The rule of informed consent applies to fieldwork.
    • Anthropologists allow their interviewees (or informants) to refuse to be interviewed, or to refuse to answer specific questions. Consent to participate can be withdrawn any time, before or after.
    • Most anthropologists take steps to lower the risks to their research subjects. For instance, if one is researching a sensitive topic and wants to ask personal questions, a researcher will let the informants decide whether the researcher can use their names in publications, and will take steps to make research notes and records anonymous (for instance by using codes or pseudonyms).
  • The national and local governments of the communities where anthropologists want to carry out field research also usually have an approval process for issuing visas for researchers and may also require that a researcher obtain various kinds of permission to carry out their research.
    • Vanuatu issues research visas only if the Vanuatu Cultural Center accepts the researcher as a visiting fellow. Visiting researchers are supervised by the VCC and all visiting researchers must agree to work on a joint project with a Ni-Vanuatu (Vanuatu national) researcher.
    • As a condition for receiving a researcher visa, Papua New Guinea requires that cultural anthropologists receive approval for their proposed research from both the National Research Institute and from the civil administration in the province in which they want to work. Other conditions include an agreement to donate copies of research publications to the NRI research library.
    • Since Bronislaw Malinowski's time, there has been a steady stream of researchers coming to Milne Bay province in PNG (where the societies of the Kula ring are located, and where Malinowski first did his research). In the 1990s, the provincial government of placed a ban on all approvals for new fieldwork research in the province. It was lifted after some years, and remains a very popular place for aspiring anthropologists to go.

Many anthropologists object to the regulation of their research in this way

  • In most cases, the ethical rules that anthropologists follow are mandated by governments as a condition of receiving research funds. They are overseen by university committees which may or may not have much experience with participant-observation fieldwork.
  • The standards applied to anthropology are based on those used for biomedical research. While there is a recognition that social-science research is different, the assumption is that the kinds of risks to research subjects are the same as those in medical experiments.
    • Ideas about anonymity, “personal” information, and consent are not cross-culturally universal. In some cultures, individuals are not free to decide for themselves whether or not to participate, and ethics committees refuse to recognize that it is unethical to let them choose for themselves without consulting others.
    • At the end of the day, anthropologists mainly observe people's self-presentation in everyday life and tell stories with people that they tell with their friends. Arguably the research method of participant-observation carries no risk at all to participants, and there may be other, more serious questions of what is right and wrong for anthropologists that cannot be handled with “consent” as a standard.

A remaining question of ethics

  • The ethical standards for anthropology mainly govern what people do in their research, but there are few standards for what anthropology considers to be an ethical use of ethnographic knowledge.
  • Many anthropologists take it upon themselves to uphold a higher standard, for instance by inviting collaboration with the people who host them as researchers, and giving members of the community a voice in the interpretation of the material about them.

Ethnographic refusal

  • Some argue that the “primitive isolate” image in ethnography is not only a distortion, but represents an ethical failure of anthropologists to document and critique forms of inequality and oppression experienced by the people they study. Sherry Ortner, a symbolic anthropologist, noticed this and gave it a name: “ethnographic refusal.” When she writes about “ethnographic refusal,” Ortner means specifically the refusal by an anthropologist to emphasize the emic perspective over an etic perspective (Ortner 1995)
    • Ortner's concept of ethnographic refusal is when an anthropologist foregrounds the effects of colonialism and integration with the global system of capitalism as an explanation for people's contemporary life, and refuses to look at these experiences in emic terms as part of a particular worldview.
    • One example is the way people talk about so-called “cargo cults” in PNG. Are they an example of “episodic time” or do they represent people's resistance to colonial domination (Errington 1974, McDowell 1988, Kaplan 1995, Billings 2002, Jebens 2004)?
  • More recently, scholars have revived this label and argued for a positive interpretation of refusal. When they use the term, they mean refusal to represent specific topics in pubilshed academic ethnographic writings, and instead collaborate with their informants on ways to for them to speak for themselves and create knowledge about themselves that is valuable for their community (Simpson 2007)
    • Intellectual ownership or “copyright”
    • Secrecy
    • Refusal to make people into ethnographic objects


Asad, Talal. 1986. “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 141–64. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Billings, Dorothy K. 2002. Cargo Cult as Theater: Political Performance in the Pacific. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Bohannan, Laura. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Natural History Magazine. Accessed December 13, 2019. http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/12476/shakespeare-in-the-bush.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Abdelmalek Sayad. 2004. “Colonial Rule and Cultural Sabir.” Ethnography 5 (4): 445–86. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138104050692.

Briggs, Charles L. 1984. “Learning How to Ask: Native Metacommunicative Competence and the Incompetence of Fieldworkers.” Language in Society 13 (1): 1–28.

Errington, Frederick. 1974. “Indigenous Ideas of Order, Time, and Transition in a New Guinea Cargo Movement.” American Ethnologist 1 (2): 255–67. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.1974.1.2.02a00030.

Gottlieb, Alma. “Processing Privilege: Reflections on Fieldwork (Early, and Otherwise) Among Beng Villagers of Côte d’Ivoire.” Mande Studies 20, no. 1 (November 7, 2018): 123–135. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/708087.

Graber, Kathryn E. 2019. “‘Syphilis Is Syphilis!’: Purity and Genre in a Buryat-Russian News Story.” In Storytelling as Narrative Practice: Ethnographic Approaches to the Tales We Tell, 226–52. London: Brill Publishers.

Hanks, William F. 2014. “The Space of Translation.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (2): 17–39. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.002.

Jebens, Holger, ed. 2004. Cargo, Cult, and Culture Critique. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kaplan, Martha. 1995. Neither Cargo Nor Cult: Ritual Politics and the Colonial Imagination in Fiji. Duke University Press.

Layard, John W. 1936. “Atchin Twenty Years Ago.” The Geographical Journal 88 (4): 342–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/1786338.

Lesser, Alexander. 1961. “Social Fields and the Evolution of Society.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17 (1): 40–48.

McDowell, Nancy. 1988. “A Note on Cargo Cults and Cultural Constructions of Change.” Pacific Studies 11 (2): 121–34.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1995. “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (1): 173–93.

Simpson, Audra. 2007. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures 9: 67–80.

Turner, Victor. 1970. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/2.3.0.txt · Last modified: 2020/04/03 00:55 by Ryan Schram (admin)