Anthropology’s guilty secret

A response to John McCreery’s OAC blog post, Theory and method in anthropology: an historical speculation:

Thanks for reposting this, John. I don’t expect us to agree on this one, but, despite or because of my training in British social anthropology, I take a rather different view of the epistemological problem. The attempt to separate fact and fiction, society and self, object and subject is indeed being undermined by a blurring of the boundaries between the paired opposites. Our task is not to restore the separation, but to combine the poles effectively without collapsing the distinctions on which they are founded. As Tocqueville pointed out, the goal is to devise societies conducive to individual self-expression rather than maintain that personal and collective purposes are inevitably in conflict. In anthropology, the best version of this is Mauss on the unity of individual and society.

I believe that Writing Culture did open up a real possibility to begin again by rethinking the poetics and politics of ethnography, but (and here we may be in agreement) American anthropology’s focus on the fuzzy concept of culture rather than Durkheim’s on society and the individual led directly to the present impasse that you rightly deplore, at least there.

To exaggerate, I would claim that what Ernest Gellner called “the Malinowski fieldwork clique” has long been a cult formed around a guilty secret. Ethnography had to be represented as a science in order to gain admission to the universities, but there is nothing scientific about how anthropologists gain their knowledge. If we tend to get it right more often than other disciplines, the scientific parts are peripheral to how we do it. The principle of long-term immersion ensures that we internalise local society at quite a deep level. We may have our fieldnotes and learn the language (to the level of a 9 year old), even tape interviews or count households. Our secret, however, is that this is not the source of our knowledge, but rather a surface manifestation of it. We excavate our social experience much later through the religious act of writing. The discipline of this writing is that we cannot claim anything that our inner sense rejects, even if we don’t know why.

So we hide our fieldnotes away from the public eye, even after death in many cases, and tend to talk only to other members of the cult who share the guilty secret, if only implicitly. Just imagine the feeling of liberation if we could openly acknowledge the truth. There is nothing to be ashamed of. It is after all the method reached by Durkheim at the end in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, unlike his positivist manifestos of the 1890s. Anthropologists of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but our chains built on scientific pretension.

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Category: Anthropology