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Marcus Ethnographies as Texts

Marcus Ethnographies as Texts

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Published by: Michael Kaplan on Oct 16, 2012
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ETHNOGRAPHIES
AS
TEXTS
George
E.
Marcus
and Dick
Cushman
Department of Anthropology, Rice University, Houston,
Tc>
••
77251
Introductioll
Anthropologists have
finally
begun to give explicit attention to the writing
of
etllJlllgmphie texts, a subject long ignored either by conceiving
of
ethnography primarily
as
an activity that
OCC
I
JrS
in the
field
or
by
treating it asn method,rather than product,
of
research. Although a
few
articles haveappeared which consider some
of
the rltetorical and narrative dimensions
of
ethnographic writing
(13,
17,20,24,
2S,
31,
32,
7 I,
101,
102, 105,), themajor issues have been directly explored within several recent ethnographiesthemselves
(e.g.
I,
12,
14,
16,26, 29,
30,35
,50,61,
62.
73,
74,
78,
80\
-
86,
90,
92, 93,
103.
1l0).These collectively represent a growing trend
of
experimentation
in
ethnographic writing, largely as a philoscphicallyinformed reaction to the gcnre convcntions
of
ethnographic realism aboutwhich there has been a tlicit and artificial consensusin Anglo-Americananthropology during approximately the past 60 years.Such er-perimentation
m~y
not just
be
altering the traditional nature
of
the ethnography;
it
may also mark the beginning
of
a profound reshaping
of
the theoreticalambitions and research practices
of
a discipline which has increasinglydepended
on
ethnographic texts for both data and the development
of
theoretical perspectives.In the absence
of
a substantial historical and crili
cal
literature on the
ethnographi~
genre, this paper will review as
et
of
topicsabout which there
is
considerable self-oonsciousness on the
part
of
rece.ltwriters. These topics pertain
to
how ethnographies achieve their effect
as
knowledge of "others."The major characteristic shared by experimental ethnographies
is
thatthcy integrate, within their interpretations, all explicit epistemological concern for how they have constructed such interpretations and how they arerepresenting them
te>tuaUy
as objective discourse abollt subjects amongwhom research
was
conducted.In n scnse, contempomry ethnographicwriting attcmpts'to
synthcc.ize
the
el~ssic
debate on hermencutics
(75)
between philosophical
reilc'Ction
nbounhe
nature
of
interpretation. which
2~
 
26
MARCUS
&
CUSHMAN
emphasizes the open-endedness of interpretive activity, and the methodologicalattempt tocreatea science
of
interpretation, which emphasizes thepossibility ofsystematic,self-contained interpretations. Whetherethnogra phies can,
as
a matter
of
convention, balance both
reflection
on
understanding and
an
understanding itself
in
a single text
is
still largelyunresolved
by
these experiments. Nevertheless, the'goal
of
exploring epistemological issues
as
anintegral,vital part
of
cultural analysis distinguishesthese texts, and, in addition,
is
making their authors, as well as their readers,increasingly conscious of their narrative structures and
~hetoric.
It
needs, perhaps, to be emphasized that what
is
at issue
in
the selfrcOectiveness of recent ethnographies
is
not merely a methodologicallyoricntedretellingof
field
conditions and experiences, sllch as
is
to
be
iound
in
thc confessional fieldwork literature which has appeared over the last
15
years. Whilesuchworks have certainly helped to stimulate the kind
of
questioning of the tacit assumptions of research practice that
now
has ledto a more trenchantcriticalperspective on ethnographicwritingitself, their mainaimhas been to demystify the process
of
anthropologicalfieldworkwhose
veil
ofpublicsccrecyhas been increasingly embarrassing toa"scien tific" discipline. Such accounts, because they are typically conceivedandpublishedas ends in
themselves-as
separate books
orarticles-arcat
bestseldommore than tenuously related to their authors' ethnographic enterprises.
The
writersofexperimental ethnographers; incontr
.
, often represent fieldwork experiences as a vital technique for structuring theirnarratives of description and analysis.In'these experiments, reporting fieldwork experience
is
just one aspect
of
wide-ranging personal reflections which manifest themselves in strongerand weakerforms. These range from very explicit, focused discussionwithinthe text itself about the relationship between the form
of
the text andthe nature of the interpretation (e.g.
4,
35,
62,
86,
92), to occasional referencesto problems
of
interpretation (e.g.
1,50,61,85,90,
103, 110),
to morediffuseepistemologicalconcerns, largely implicii
in
the novel
ways
materialalld interpretations are presented
(e
.
g.
26,
84,93)
.Such diversity existsbecausecreativity
is
not only required but also encouraged in historiccircumstanceswhereconventionalforms do not suit the wayethnographic problems arcposed.Whilestandard'ethnographiesare still being produced continually, considerablerewardsareoffered, both
in
degree
of
publisherinterestandpositive critical response, to ethnographers whocouchtheir work in more personal and novelly structured ways.In this emergentsituation,ethnographers read widely among
new
works for modcls, beinginterested
as
much, if not more, in styles of text construction
as
in
theirculturalanalys
is,
bothof whicharcdillicult to separate in any case. Thus, thecurrenttrend
is
characterized
by
texts that are very personally written,
\"
.'
ETHNOGRAPHIES
AS
TEXTS
27
and are nonetheless emulative in search
of
new
conventions, quite like theclassic pattern
of
development
in
literary genres.Although the topic
of
ethnographic writing can, andideally,should,
be
construed
in
a broad fashion, the following discussions have been bracketed
by
a number of exclusions and distinctions to define a manageable subjectmatter. First, a broader perspective on ethnographic writing than thatattempted here would not only look
at the
full history
of
the ethnographywithin Anglo-American anthropology, including pre-Malinowskian formswhich arose from
very
different projects
of
research, but would also encompass ethnographic work outside the Anglo-American tradition and outsidethe discipline of anthropology: for example, travelaccounts,
the
work
of
missionaries,andcolonial administrators' reports, which overlapped withthecarlydevelopmentofethnography
in
anthropology; French, Gernlan,llnd Itnlianethnographictraditions; and the interest
in
cultural interpretation and the exotic
in
Continental literary traditions (see
21
in particular).A fullaeconntwould also relate ethnographic writing to filmmaking
(2, 51.
66) andto its piecemeal
use
in
more problem-focused, theoretical works thatarcnot directly presented as the simple outcome
of
field
research(e.g.
36,
99,
100).
In this paper, however,
we
limit ourselves to anexamination
of
thecurrenttrend of experimentation (some
of
which
is
inspired
by
therevival
of
earlierethnographic styles) against the background
of
the last
60
years
of
Anglo-American ethnographic realism.Second,
we
define an ethnographysimply as an account resulting from having done fieldwork, a relatively undisciplined activity, the folkloreofwhich has given identity to an academic discipline. Doing fieldwork
is
quitedifferent from representing it within an ethnography, but justascertainconventionsofdocumentation mark a work
as
history,
so
evidenceoffieldwork, however written into a text, marks a work as ethnography. Wemust, therefore,
be
concerned with the representation of fieldworkintexts,but it
is
valid to exclude what actually happens in the
field
fromconsideration here. Further, for simplicity, we
do
not consider the very interesting'relationship between the production of a published ethnographic text andits intermediate written versions in the
form
of
field
notes, dissertations, orarticles.In the pioneer stage of ethnographic realism, the work of ethnographywas conceived to encompass several projected volumes(aswith Malinowski,Firth, and
Evans-Pritchard)-a
conception
of
format whichcarriedover from the earlier prefieldwork context
of
ethnography.In contrast,the contemporary fashion, dominated
by
more problem-focused research,
is
thesinglevolume tied'to
it
period
of
fieldwork and combiningsevera! complexdescriptive and interpretive tasks.
The
multi text ethnographic projectmight, de facto, be making a comeback(e.g.
29,30,
78,79),
but
the
pcrspec-
 
28
MARCUS
&;
CUSHMAN
tive here is limited to the single volume account symmetrical with one
or
two periods
of
fieldwork.
Third,
our
point of view in presenting this topic is
that
of
the
practicinganthropologist who writes
and
reads ethnography with an overriding empirical interest in the production
of
cultural knowledge about
other
forms
of
life.
The
perspective
of
the
intellectual historian
of
anthropology,
or ofthe
social
or
cultural theorist interested in ethnographic writing, mightoverlap considerably with
that of
the practitioner,
but
their pre.cise handling
of
the topic would be different.
Our
underlying concern
Is
the
utility
of
acritical perspective on ethnographic writing
at
this
moment
in the develop
ment of the
discipline for the community
of
anthropologists who viewthemselves as ethnographers..Fourth,
and
last, among
the current
exper\ments it is important, althoughnot necessarily easy, to distinguish two subtrends.
Most
experimental ethnographies attempt to change genre conventions, in line with a shift intheoretical orientations toward problems
of
meaning,
but
without changing
the
fundamental ethnographic goals
of
description
and
interpretation. Asyet, fewer
but
more extreme'ethnographic experiments change genre conventions
with
a basic open-endedness
about
what
the
purposes and concerns
of
ethnographic writing, still 'based
on
fieldwork, should
be
.As FredricJameson
has
said (55, p.106),
"Genres are
essentially literary institutions,
or
social contracts between a writer
and
a spccific public, whose functionisto spccify the proper use
of
a cultural artifact."
The
foimer ethnographies,
in
pursuing theoretically modified but traditional goals
of
a discipline, stilloperate according to the concept
of
genre, however richer it has become.In their
app
arent disregard for any kind
of
"policing" function, inherent in
the
notion
of
genre, the lattcr ethnographies secm to let a writing projectexplore its own rather
than
disciplinary goals.
The
fact
that
the whole field
of
experimentation
is
emergent
andthat
both trends
of
writing share common characteristics, noted above,
make
distinguishing
them
difficult insome cases. Nonetheless,
our
primary attention in this paper is directed
to
the majority
of
experiments which are self-restrained by genre
and
disciplinary considerations, but which pose considerable difficulty for anthropologists in classifying and critically evaluating ethnographic works,
n~w
so
heavily dependent on their varied rhetorics for their effect [e.g. compare
the
critiques by Mangarella (70) and Crapanzano (27)
of
a reccnt ethnographyby
Ge
e
rtz
and colleagues, based on
the
hedges in its rhetoric].
I
An
an
:
I
o
gy within
re
c
ent
fi
c
tion
to
the distinction
of
subtrends
1
have
mnd
e
here
is
John
Fowle
s'
The
Fr
e
nch
Lie
utenant's
Woman.
as
anunusual,
creative
exp
e
riment
well
within
the
tradition
of
Iitemry
reali
s
m,
and Alain Robbe-Grilld'S
La
Jalousie,
as
an
equally unusual,
cr~liye
experiment
tha
t
self-con
sciously
assaults
realist
c h a r ~ c t e r i s t i ( ; s
,
especinlly
in
itstempo-
raj
dimen
s
ion
s.
ETHNOGRAPHIES
AS
TEXTS
29
The
remainder
of
this paper will address each
of
the
following topics: thehistoric development
of
ethnographic realism as a set
of
genre conventions
and ofthe
reaction to it in the contemporary trend
of
ethnographic writing;
the
challenge to realist conventions
through the
key related issues in
current
experiments concerning how authority is established in ethnographies, how
the
plausibility and authenticity
of
their interpretations are achieved, andhow they arc variably received by differing readerships; sources
in
literarycriticism
that
might inform a perspective
on
ethnographic texts;
the
relationship between the current trend in ethnographic writing,
the
doing
of
fieldwork, and changing theoretical interests in cultural
and
social anthropology; a consideration
of
experiments in ethnographic writing outsidethe predominant trend; and finally, a concluding assessment
of
the
importance
of
the experimental realist ethnography
and
of
the utility
of
a criticalperspective on ethnographic writing
in
anthropology.
Ethnographic Realism
Ethnographic
realism-to
borrow from
the
literary conception
of
nineteenth ccntury fiction (3,
97)-is
a
mode of
writing
that
seeks
to
repres
entthe
reality
of
a whole world
or
form
of
life. As Stern says
of
a descriptivediversion in a Dickens novel (97, p.2),
"The
fullest purpose
of the
diversion·is to add and superadd to that sense
of
~ssurance
and
abundance
and
reality
that
speaksto us from every page
and
every episode
of
the
novel
..
."Similarly, realist ethnographies are written to allude to a whole by means
of
parts
or
foci
of
analytical attention which constantly evoke a social
and
cultural totality. Close attention to detail
and
redundant demonstrations
that
the writer shared and experienced this world are
further
aspects
of
realist writing.
In
fact, what gives the
ethnographer
authority
and
the texta pervasive sense
of
concrete reality is
the
writer's claim to represent a worldas only one who has known it first-hand can, which thus forges
an
intimatelink between ethnographic writing
and
fieldwork. Ethnographic descriptionis
by
no means
the
straightforward, unproblematic task it is
thought
to bein the social sciences, but. a complex effect, achieved through writing
and
dependent upon the strategic choice
and
construction
of
available detail.
The
presentation
of
interpretation
and
analysis is inseparably
bound
upwith the systematic and vivid representation
of
a world
that
seems total
and
real to
the
reader..
The
emergence
of the
realist ethnography as
the
approved
genre
withinanthropology clearly depended upon
the
fusion
to
two historical develop
ments-the
establishment
of
anthropology as
an
academic discipline
andthe
elaboration
of
professional fieldwork as
the
essential prerequisite forethnographic accounts:Interestingly enough, these two developments occurred
in
opposite order within the American
and
British traditions.
In

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