Ethnography rests, sometimes uncomfortably, between art and science, between being a genre of writing aiming to present a unique sensuous experience evoking an other and being a genre of writing aiming to systematically pin down (a good entomological metaphor, where much effort in ethnographic science has been oriented toward what Edmund Leach, in Rethinking Anthropology (1959), termed cultural “butterfly collecting”) and explain cultural contexts.
Art presents a unique object to be experienced as an object of pleasure in itself. To the extent art is about something, it is largely through evocation. As I argued in my previous post (“Art that’s more interesting to think about than to experience”), when art becomes more concerned with explaining or being about something, the experience tends to become thin and cold. (This isn’t to deny that art can be about something. Nor is it to say that content is unimportant. This is particularly the case for literature. For example, novels that aren’t about anything tend to wear thin quickly, and poetry generally has some content. But when art is mainly about explaining or representing some idea, it’s only as interesting as the idea itself, and if your goal is to explain or communicate any set of complex information, there are far more efficient means than poetry.)
Science is about things. Science aims to systematically explore, understand, and explain things in the world. Scientific writing, like art, does present an object that is experienced, but in the case of science, that’s really not the point. Scientific reports, as a genre of writing, are typically formulated to efficiently convey complex information. The experience of reading a scientific report is generally not a memorable one in itself, nor is it intended to be.
Ethnography can work in either manner, or in a way that combines the two (something I discussed in a different way, in relation to myth and mythic thinking in an earlier post, “Ethnography, Science, Myth, and Cultural Criticism”). Of course, it can also fail in either manner, insofar as particular ethnographies might fail to be good art or good science, though I think it’s wrongheaded to fault ethnographies with more scientific intentions for failing to be good art or ethnographies with artistic intentions for failing to be good science.
The most memorable ethnographies are often those that work as art. This is so for the straightforward reason that what makes them work as literary art is that they provide a sensuous experience that evokes an other in a compelling way that is worthy of revisiting as a piece of artistic writing independent of the specific content. David Maybury-Lewis’ ethnographic memoir The Savage and the Innocent (1965) works in this way, evoking the experience of living among the Sherente and Shavante peoples, and doing so through a narrative that is an interesting experience in its own right. The “conventional” (The Savage and the Innocent is “conventional” as a memoir, or even as an ethnographic memoir, something that had an established existence as a genre by 1965) companion book, Akwe-Shavante Society (1967), is quite different, working more in the scientific mode. The Savage and the Innocent is more memorable, more evocative and even poetic at times, but that isn’t to say it’s a better book than Akwe-Shavante Society. It’s better at being art, but as a piece of science, the latter is clearly superior, being systematically arranged for the efficient communication of information about the Brazilian societies in question.