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Theoretical Sociology

Writing culture Lecture 10

Lecture Plan
Part 1: Writing culture debates Part 2: Feminist critique Part 3: Between a Melanesanist and a feminist

Writing culture: new ethnographies (1980s / 1990s)


The new ethnography grounded in the aims of anthropology to challenge western knowledge as the norm through exploration of non-western forms of understanding Inspired by Edward Said aim is to challenge the way in which anthropology has represented non-western others

Traditionally anthropologists in classical texts positioned themselves as authorities and the sole authors of their text (Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Linhart etc..) They are the observing Western eye writing about the non-Western other Anthropologist has authority to write a coherent seamless narrative about others The experience and process of writing about people who different to themselves rarely reflected upon in the 1980s

Clifford writes: The subjectivity of the author is separated from the objective referent of the text. At best, the authors personal voice is seen as a style in the weak sense: a tone, or embellishment of the facts. Moreover, the actual field experience of the ethnographer is presented only in very stylised ways (i.e. the arrival stories) (1986: 13)

Challenging this representation of difference


Key authors James Clifford & George Marcus challenge this representation of difference Key text Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (focus on here) edited book based on a seminar at Santa Fe This represents what called the reflexive and literary turn in anthropology A challenge to the way in which anthropologists represent difference otherness non-Western peoples in globalised world

The context of the critique in the 1980s / 1990s


This in a world in which of indigenous anthropologists insiders studying their own cultures Anthropologist appear in legal proceedings for example indigenous land claims, in advertising campaigns etc A global world whereby cultural hybridity and people not isolated: McDonaldisation; Cocacolaisation A postcolonial world whereby Edward Saids critique of imperial knowledge influential

The context of the critique continue


No longer study non-Western post-colonial people without examining power relation with west and non-west Production of Western knowledge about the other is about the self

The focus on the text: writing culture


Focus here - the end of textual authority of the anthropologist in the writing of ethnography No longer the objective social scientists reporting the world of the other through the detached process of participant observation Emphasis is upon the complexities in the production of the ethnographic text and that means self-reflexivity about the process of doing fieldwork Who speaks, who writes, when and where, with or to whom, under what institutional and historical constraints Key break through here publication of Malinowskis private diaries complex and intricate relations with the people he studies that screened out in his ethnographic account

The literary turn


Language and its meaning is open to multiple interpretations Language is about power and politics The authority of the ethnographer as fieldwork is contested Knowledge and representation of so-called others is about power relations between the western anthropologist and the non-western people studied

Language and the text


Emphasis upon new styles of writing to include the other in the text and expose power relations of difference Multiple voices in the text an interplay of voices Polyvocality dialogue of voices in the context of fieldwork informants as co-authors Ethnographer as scribe, archivist as well as interpreting observer This dialogue involves power necessity to be reflexive of the power relations between the observer and the observed rendered transparent Taking seriously that any representation of difference is about the self

New writing styles


Thus anthropologists implored to use new writing styles to produce text that challenge traditional representations of non-Western difference and otherness by the Western anthropologist rooted in a colonial past

E.g. Nisa: the life of a !Kung Woman: Marjorie Shostak juxtaposes her voice with that of a !kung woman to show two different interpretations Kevin Dwyer in Moroccan Dialogues shows the text to be a production between himself and a Moroccan farmer

Postmodern politics: partial truths


Even the best ethnographic texts serious, true fictions are systems, or economies, of truth. Power and history work through them, in ways their authors cannot fully control Ethnographic truths are thus inherently partial committed and incomplete (Clifford 1986: 7)

Here we have the idea looked at last week from feminist (point return to below) That there is no gods eye view For the anthropologist: in ethnographic fieldwork can not capture the whole no such standpoint in reality Writing the text anthropologists leave out irrelevant personal and historical circumstances that do not fit the narrative/ argument

External and self-imposed limits to all research what makes it good research Informants will leave out information of talking to the ethnographer Key is to be reflexive on what left out, what not included and the power dynamics involved in the politics of representation

Ethnographers are more and more like the Cree hunter who (the story goes) came to Montreal to testify in court concerning the fate of his hunting lands. He would describe his way of life. But when administered the oath he hesitated: Im not sure I can tell the truth I can only tell what I know. (Clifford 1986: 8)

The feminist critique


Clifford in his introduction to writing culture claims: Feminist theorizing is obviously of great potential significance for rethinking ethnographic writing. It debates the historical, political construction of identities and self/other relations, and it probes the gendered positions that make all accounts of, or by other people inescapably partial (1986: 19)

So why is a feminist perspective missing from this important book on writing culture: Clifford writes: Feminism has not contributed much to the theoretical analysis of ethnographies as texts (1986: 20).

Feminist critique of writing culture (see Mascia-Lees, Sharpe & Cohen)


Feminist perspectives crucial to the central ideas that inform writing culture and the reflexive turn the authority of the author central to feminist critique of hegemonic forms of theorising power involved in the construction of difference (gender, class, ethnic, sexual differences) central to feminist theory The construction of the female as other central to feminist theory from its conception The use of literary and experimental styles to counter hegemonic representations of women (i.e. as seductress / subordinate to men and so on) central to feminism

Feminist argue why then do those involved in writing culture LOOK TO postmodernism for their inspiration and NOT TO feminism Why because Clifford, Marcus et al misunderstand the complexities of feminist theory Irony Clifford draws on Nisa: a !Kung woman in his essay in the writing culture volume (key feminist ethnography) To show polyvocality and engagement with the other in the production of the text Therefore shows his desire not to include feminists a political agenda of exclusion

Argument is that Clifford and his co-writers want to give the impression that their approach is unique like colonial explorers when in reality they are covering old ground trodden by feminists Emphasis upon postmodernism is also critiqued Postmodernism critiques the idea of an objective truth reality to favour multiple perspectives, meanings and interpretations Feminist find it ironic that postmodernism popular in the 1980s when postcolonial people and women gaining a voice They contend the emphasis on contested truth in postmodernism shared by feminist but they grounded in politics (equality for women) in the way postmodernism not grounded in political standpoint

Also argued that this whole writing culture and reflexive turn about jobs for the boys who has tenure who part of the establishment and so about institutional power in the academy

Strathern: between a Melanesianist and a feminist


For Strathern there is a disjunction/ awkward relationship between feminist knowledge and anthropological knowledge Feminism travels between disciplines empowering those who align with it Strathern draws upon feminist knowledge in her work (unlike Clifford et al) It is Stratherns engagement with this knowledge as an anthropologist that concerns her

I can not substitute feminism for anthropology or vice-versa, listen to one and forget the other. At the same time, each constitutes a position from which to regard a counter position each side affords a position from which to see the other (1991: 35 Partial Connections)

The relationship between feminism & anthropology becomes: A single perspective seen twice (1991: 113) In this way feminism becomes an aid or tool for Strathern as an anthropologist it introduces thoughts she might never wise have had But there remains a disjunction between what she learns about the world of Melanesian people as an anthropologist and what she learns about the world from Western feminists these knowledges like the duck and the rabbit figure and ground (explore in more detail now)

Deconstruction and displacement


Feminist place emphasis on deconstruction That is showing the social construction of social truths and texts Revealing the socio-historical nature of their construction to illuminate alternative practices Taking things apart Bringing to the surface what is not said and so on

Feminist notion of deconstruction


This practice of deconstruction underpinned by a particular cultural conception of the world From this view: culture and language learnt in the process of socialisation As the body grows so ones knowledge of culture and language develops This the process of socialisation

So feminists can argue that culture is incomplete when womens body processes do not correspond to dominant ideologies learnt in the process of socialisation For example - womens bodily waste should be constrained to the private sphere, pregnancy is about the private sphere and menopause is a private issue (hegemonic view) But this view of world is negotiated by women while engaging the public sphere In this way women make an absence a kind of presence Our experiences of pregnancy, menopause etc.. Challenge a notion that all of this is about the private sphere we complicate that division in our lived experiences of our bodies

And the challenging of a kind of absence through our experience reflects the way in which you might take a text apart to reveal hidden meanings And so un-do certain social values in order to find reasons for constructing alternative ones And find that as feminist we continue this practice multi-layers of text and also culture are taken apart

Mekeo perspective on deconstruction


Mekeo people from central province of Papua New Guinea Do not conceive the relation between culture, body and language in this way Do not look inside culture, language and the body to find hidden meanings to reveal absences rather have a process of displacement Not understand culture as learnt in the process of socialisation so not something whereby layers and meaning can be peeled away later Child is born complete with sociality immanent (1992 : 74)

Mekeo conceives a foetus on the outside of her body to be displaced to the inside Look inside a bush not to find more inside more bush but becomes displaced to reveal what it is not the outside the village So no infinite regression no hidden meaning but displacement In this way, the feminist notion of deconstruction does not capture and explain Melanesian peoples understandings of the world and social life

To summarise
She has a feminist understanding of deconstruction which relates to the reading of texts, the body and socialisation We learn things and can take them apart to find hidden meanings As we can a text this a feminist perspective However Mekeo people dont see the world in that way as something to be taken apart rather displacement no hidden meanings

In her writing then she conceives her relationship between a feminist and a Melanesianist as awkward, figure: ground, a single perspective seen twice she can only think of a Melanesian perspective in this way because she has the contrast to a feminist perspective

She writes: figure and ground work as two dimensions. They are self scaling not two perspectives as it were, but one perspective seen twice, ground as another figure, figure as another ground. Since each behaves as an invariant in relation to the other, the dimensions are not constituted in any totalising way (Strathern 1991L 113)

To end with paraphrasing Donna Haraway - a feminist who ideas Strathern believes are good to think with:

one (perspective) is too few and two is too many (Haraway 1991: 117)

Questions
What do the debates about writing culture tell us about the experience of writing social research? What issues does this debate raise about the position of the sociologist / anthropologist in relation to the people with who they research? Why were feminist angry with this critique? Why does Strathern find the relationship between feminists and anthropologists awkward?