Anthropologists are people studying people

Anthropologists are people studying people

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Monday, March 30, 2020 (Week 6)

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Required readings

Laura Bohannan “Shakespeare in the Bush,” Natural History Magazine, accessed December 13, 2019,

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,

Learning how to ask

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

Cultures aren't isolates

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.

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.

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.

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)

Informed consent and ethnographic refusal

People have the right to say no

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

A remaining question of ethics

Ethnographic refusal


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.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Abdelmalek Sayad. 2004. “Colonial Rule and Cultural Sabir.” Ethnography 5 (4): 445–86.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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