In many natural and social science disciplines, there are relatively formalized conventions for writing that make the assessment of text (including the ascertainment of the text as “scholarship”) fairly straightforward (and certainly this would be true of more social science oriented cultural anthropologists). In humanities disciplines (and cultural anthropology has always been as much linked to humanities as to social science scholarship), however, this is much less the case.
There is a long tradition in the humanities of concern with text, and related to this a long history of formal experimentation and play with text in scholarly writing, something that has been intensified since the 1980s with the influence of postmodernism and cultural studies. Below I address this long history of formal experimentation and play in ethnographic writing, as well as the specific changes or intensifications in this tradition since the 1980s.
The history of anthropological ethnography is rife with “unconventional” texts. Given that ethnography is the writing of culture, it has been natural that anthropologists explore ways in which various forms of writing or presenting culture shapes our understanding or provides new perspectives on the cultural contexts at hand. Tristes Tropiques (1955), by Claude Lévi-Strauss, is part memoir, part travelogue, is filled with novelistic detail, and is one of the classics of the ethnographic literature, shedding light on Native South American cultures and on how one anthropologist came by understanding and knowledge about those cultures.
Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1920), “by” Paul Radin, and The Children of Sanchez (1961), “by” Oscar Lewis, engaged in explorations of ethnographic form through having research subjects speak directly to the reader in their own voices. Balinese Character (1942), by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, presented the visual aspect of Balinese culture via a montage of thousands of photographs with brief caption commentaries.
The Savage and the Innocent (1965), by Daniel Maybury-Lewis was a memoir of his time researching the Sherente and Shavante, but simultaneously an important contribution to the ethnographic literature through a combination of its rich cultural descriptions and its account of the social relations between Maybury-Lewis and Sherente and Shavante individuals which constituted his ethnographic research. Certainly, the discipline of anthropology has also produced more “conventional” social science texts, many of which have been quite influential, e.g. Robert Redfield and Alfonso Villa Rojas’ Chan Kom (1934), Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors (1968), or Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) (a conventional social science text produced via unconventional ethnographic methods).
However, such conventional, highly formal, social scientific texts have never been the way of producing ethnography, and many of the most influential ethnographies have been the most unconventional, e.g. Tristes Tropiques, The Children of Sanchez, or In The Savage and the Innocent (which had far more influence in fact that its conventional companion piece Akwe-Shavante Society ), perhaps precisely because their unconventionality forced readers to think about culture from different perspectives and think about their suppositions of culture and ethnography anew.
What changed in anthropological ethnography in the 1980s or so, then, was not an introduction of unconventionality or informality. Those were already long present in ethnography. Rather, more and more there has been a concern with the relationship between culture and representations of culture, with understanding the role of the individual researcher, with their background, agenda, and potential biases; in producing understandings of a cultural context and representations of such; with understanding the dialogical relations between ethnographer and research informants which constitute the “data” of ethnography as the social relationships that they are; with understanding the role that textual form plays in shaping our reading – and hence our understanding of the cultural context being represented, and because of the importance of textual form in all that, in calling attention to ethnographic writing and reading.
In Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (1980), Vincent Crapanzano presents us not with a standard social science analysis of Morocco, but with transcripts of his interactions with Tuhami in a technique which hearkens back to Oscar Lewis or Paul Radin, but which also demonstrates the ways in which Crapanzano’s questions and presence shaped the interaction and thus the information available for interpretation.
In A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (1999), Diane Nelson presents an anecdote concerning two encounters with a torture victim. The first involved her work as applied anthropologist with a human rights organization witnessing the acid burns and scars of the man and transcribing his testimonial about his torture. The second encounter was a chance meeting with the same man on a bus where the man proceeded to make a pass at Nelson. Why does Nelson include this anecdote, especially of the second encounter – it certainly has no place in a conventional social science text. The experience jarred Nelson’s understanding of what had transpired in the first encounter which she had understood in terms of the conventions of Latin American torture testimonial (a literary genre in its own right), with herself as mute transcriber of the testifying victim – a context in which she presumed an absence of erotic desire which had in fact been part of the man’s experience. In the inclusion of the anecdote, most readers’ assumptions are similarly jarred.
One of Michael Taussig’s latest books, Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia (2003), is an ethnography – a writing of culture – in providing the sort of rich description of contemporary Colombian society characteristic of Taussig’s writing, but it also is a diary, one which ruminates on the ways in which the very personal and informal forms of the diary might shape our understandings of the world around us being written about – a critical concern for ethnographers since the primary means of data recording has long been the field diary. Such examples of interjecting the ethnographer as participant in the social scene being described, of representing the social interactions between anthropologist and informant which comprise the ethnographer’s data, of interjecting messiness (Nelson speaks of bodies and texts that are splattered if that terminology is preferred) have become in fact common and conventional in ethnographic writing.
By presenting the ways in which texts are formulated and the ways in which research was conducted in specific instances, such messiness is not sloppy, haphazard, or lazy. Instead, presenting the mode by which the text was produced provides an opportunity for readers to more objectively evaluate texts and the cultural understandings presented therein by allowing us to more critically examine the way in which they were produced and the ways in which the ethnographer’s specific actions shaped the understanding being presented.