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Melford E. Spiro and the strange and the familiar in ethnography

Melford E. Spiro was a psychological anthropologist, and was particularly committed to examining both the universal and the particular aspects of psychological phenomena in different societies. He also has an absolutely incisive statement on ethnography, and a widely-quoted one, but one I think that is often misunderstood. He writes:

[T]he dual operation of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar, has been employed by anthropologists not only as a pedagogical device, but also as a scientific method. In the first place, because it makes cross-cultural comparison and classification possible, that dual operation has been used as an indispensible first step in the attempt to discover social and cultural generalizations... (Spiro 1990, 49)

To produce the knowledge of people's lives that would allow us to generalize about the human condition, one must avoid the risk of seeing a particular people's way of life from an ethnocentric point of view and also avoid the risk of adopting their own perspective on themselves. Instead, Spiro says we must move to a third position outside both, and describe what we see with a “third set of concepts — that is, anthropological concepts” (ibid). This is what we would call an etic analysis of fieldwork observations. Spiro emphasizes that etic analysis is both objective yet retains the principle of cultural relativism. He says,

The operation of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar has been employed as a method of not only for cross-cultural generalizations, but also for single-culture explanations. For it compels the anthropologist to include in his explanatory net a variety of variables which, because that culture - depending on whether the anthropologist is a native or a foriegner - is either too familiar or too strange, would otherwise remain opaque to his perceptions.
To put it differently, if philosophers, as Thomas Nagel (1986) has recently put it, are driven to adopt "the view from nowhere" without however being able to relinquish "the view from here," then anthropologists have believed that they could overcome that quandary by adopting (what might be called) "the view from everywhere" - a view that encompasses the entire human experience on this planet, from the earliest hominids to our own time, and from Zuni to Zaire.

It is debatable how widely shared this specific view of ethnography is. Many anthropologists do not believe that social and cultural generalizations about humanity are possible or valuable. I do think that the “view from everywhere” is something that many anthropologists want ethnography to have. Rather than moving to an etic analysis of the kind Spiro describes, they would instead seek to achieve a view from everywhere by balancing emic and etic perspectives on a single ethnographic case.


Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spiro, Melford E. 1990. “On the Strange and the Familiar in Recent Anthropological Thought.” In Cultural Psychology: Essays on Comparative Human Development, edited by Gilbert Herdt, James W. Stigler, and Richard A. Schweder, 47–62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139173728.003.

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mel_spiro.txt · Last modified: 2022/07/19 17:46 by Ryan Schram (admin)