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Introduction: Experience and Inquietude

Sarah S. Willen
Don Seeman

Abstract In recent decades, human experience has become focus or frame for a wide variety of projects in
psychological anthropology and beyond. Like culture, which it arguably seeks to either qualify or displace,
the concept of experience has generated its own interpretive literature, competing schools of analysis, and
internal resistances. We propose that the anthropology of experience has achieved a degree of recognition
and maturity that renders genealogical reflection, stocktaking, and agenda setting both possible and necessary.
Although the anthropology of experience, like experience itself, does not (and perhaps should not) lend itself to
easy definition as a singular or unified theoretical paradigm, it does involve a fluid constellation of themes shared
by what are traditionally regarded as parallel or divergent lines of inquiry: what might be glossed imperfectly
as the phenomenological and psychoanalytic schools within sociocultural anthropology. Here we aim neither for
nave synthesis nor a mathematical sum of parts, but for more adequate ways of depicting and making sense
of what Dewey calls the inclusive integrity of experience. This will require more concerted attention to the
sources of ethnographic inquietudethe gaps, silences, limits, and opacitiesthat either preoccupy or remain
overlooked within both traditions. [experience, subjectivity, intersubjectivity, phenomenological anthropology,
psychoanalytic anthropology, inquietude]

In recent decades, human experience has come to serve as either focus or frame for a wide
variety of descriptive and theoretical projects within anthropology. Like culture, which
it arguably seeks to qualify or displace as the central underlying theme of anthropological
research, experience has by now generated its own interpretive literature within anthropology, complete with competing schools of analysis and various internal resistances. At
times, the term experience has proven controversial because of the complicated relationship
between its vernacular and theoretical uses, which can be difficult to disentangle. Many
anthropologists have resisted or critiqued the presumptions of deep subjectivity, bounded
interiority, purposefulness, and ineffability that tend to inhere in the term experience in its
vernacular (esp. American) usage, a usage that evokes deeply rooted psychological and religious models (Desjarlais 1997; Proudfoot 1985). Yet subjectivity, interiority, and purposeful
agency are also among the very themes that draw many anthropologists and allied scholars to conclude that one cannot offer an adequate account of human being-in-the-world
without some form of robust engagement with experience in its embodied, sociocultural,
political, andcruciallyinterpersonal dimensions. In part, it is precisely the interpersonal
nature of the ethnographic project that undergirds these developments, for ethnography
is not simply a methodological common denominator that binds anthropologists myriad
tasks together in a common disciplinary rubric. It is also the empiricalwe are tempted

C 2012 by the American Anthropological

ETHOS, Vol. 40, Issue 1, pp. 123, ISSN 0091-2131 online ISSN 1548-1352. 
Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2011.01228.x


to say moralleavening that continually interrupts and provokes scholars to improve their
capacity to apprehend and describe human affairs in all their depth and complexity. The
interpersonal, intersubjective nature of ethnographic practice lends immediacy to anthropological research. Ethnographers are almost never mere observers; rather, they are engaged
actors who become socially and intersubjectively linked, whether fleetingly or over years or
even decades, to those whose lives they hope to understand. At the same time, the insights
ethnography yields are always and inevitably partial and incomplete. However deep or longstanding anthropologists connection with their interlocutors, and however confident their
interpretations, the thoroughness, validity, and coherence of anthropological interventions
will always be limited by the analytic tools and research methods at their disposal and by
epistemological limits on intersubjective understanding.
Both the immediacy of ethnographic engagement and the uncertainty or, to borrow from
Ellen Corin (this issue), the inquietude it often engenders continually impel anthropologists to
seek models bearing the analytic power and descriptive agility to do justice to the tremendous
variety of ethnographic settings in which they are engaged. This search has pulled anthropologists in divergent directions, two of whichphenomenology and psychoanalysiswe
have chosen to juxtapose in this special issue of Ethos. In this collection, we explore points
of intersection among these traditions, each of which involves its own internal divisions and
disputes, and strive to reach beyond preexisting theoretical commitments in search of more
adequate ways of depicting and making sense of human experienceincluding both the
intersubjective lifeworlds that humans inhabit and the uniquely individual life trajectories
that ethnographers encounter and seek to understand.
Like other intersubjective engagements, ethnography is limited by the fact that any window
onto the experience of another person, whether construed in terms of the Jamesian blooming
and buzzing of the lifeworld or the psychodynamically forged individual ego, will inevitably
prove deficientand not only in details like scope, temporal span, or perceptual depth, but
also in more essential ways. Other constraints include the vicissitudes of circumstance, the
complexity and inconstancy of moral commitments, the unpredictability of interpersonal
dynamics (with their transferential and countertransferential potential), and the partial yet
inevitable hiddenness of self to oneself, all of which lend structure and substance to human
interactions in ways that are no less significant for their unpredictability.
For ethnographers of experience, these factors pose serious and substantive constraints on
the capacity to describeor as Desjarlais (this issue) suggests, following Rorty (1989), to
redescribecomplex local worlds (Kleinman and Kleinman 1991) and the individuals who
inhabit them. Yet they do not, of course, indicate wholesale abandonment of the project itself.
To the contrary, we believe that ethnographic forays into the various realms and modes of
experience can only be strengthened, not weakened, by forthright acknowledgment of these
and other forms of contingency, uncertainty, and limit. To fully explore the implications
of these impediments to ethnographic insight is to collect and give voice to the lingering
disquiet that has long hovered around the ethnographic enterprise. It is precisely this anxiety
or inquietude, conceptualized here at the juncture of two substantially different scholarly


traditions, that provides the central challenge as well as the unifying thread among the
articles collected here.
It is also this disquiet, familiar from our own encounters with the simultaneous ephemerality and obduracy of human experience, its promise of intimacy but concomitant opacity
(Seeman 1999, 2004, 2009), and its perpetual resistance to totalizing ethnographic encapsulation, that drew the guest editors of this collection into conversation over a decade ago
and, over time, helped catalyze a broader conversation of which the present collection is one
intellectual fruit. A key moment in this unfolding dialogue took place at an SPA-sponsored
session we organized at the 2007 American Anthropological Association meetings with the
goal of taking stock of phenomenological approaches in anthropology. On that memorable
occasion, medical anthropologist Byron Good surprised many by disclosing not only his
mounting dissatisfaction with the cultural phenomenology he had helped pioneer (Good
1994), but also his growing sense that psychoanalytic paradigms might offer a more useful
set of tools for capturing and making sense of the ethnographic challenges most central to his
current work in Indonesia. In particular and most provocatively, he argued that working with
informants who had survived trauma, either in childhood or as a result of political repression
and violence, had engendered in him a sense, both analytic and moral, that anthropologists of experience need better ways of talking about subjectivity and innerness, including
the conflicted or injured self whose ongoing engagements with the suffered past require a
more robust psychology than phenomenological anthropology can provide. This apparent
turn of heartor, perhaps, shift in attentionsparked heated and ongoing debate among
panelists and attendees about the dilemmas, the limitations, and the promise of current
efforts to engage experience ethnographically. By suggesting, in effect, that phenomenological approaches to experience may be inadequate in many ethnographic settings precisely
because they lack a full-blown psychology or theory of psychic causality, Goods comments
revealed at once a profound sense of personal and professional disquiet and, more generally, a
pressing need to revisit the fraught intersection of these approaches to human experience. Although initially expressed as an internal critique of phenomenological anthropology among
like-minded scholars by one of its own, the need to frame a broader conversation among
anthropologists with both phenomenological and psychoanalytic leanings was immediately
The creation of the Society for Psychological Anthropologys Lemelson Conference Fund
inspired us to broaden and expand this conversation in the context of a small international conference that brought together a number of people working on these or related
themes. With generous support from the Lemelson Conference Fund, the Emory University
Provosts Conference Subvention Fund, and various academic departments and programs,
we held the conference in the fall of 2008 at Emory University in Atlanta, where one of
us [SSW] had trained as a graduate student and the other [DS] was a member of faculty.
Our title, Whats At Stake in the Ethnography of Human Experience? Phenomenological and Psychoanalytic Perspectives, reflected our intention to stimulate conversation and
debate about the current and potential relationship between two of the most articulate and
well-defined theoretical trends contributing to todays anthropology of human experience.1


Far from proposing any sort of scripted dialogue between discrete camps, our goal instead
was to convene a diverse group of anthropologists whose interests span these theoretical
traditions, along with interested local scholars in related fields such as sociology, religion,
ethics, and disability studies, for two days of intensive consideration of how phenomenological and psychoanalytic approaches to experience have been given form and content. We
organized the event around three broad lines of inquiry: (1) the role of interpretation and
hermeneutic frameworks in the anthropology of lived experience; (2) the question of moral
praxis, or what is at stake in the ethnographic encounter for research participants as well
as ethnographers; and (3) questions of clinical or therapeutic relevance. The gathering included two round-table discussions (Depths and Surfaces: Bridging the Phenomenological
and the Psychoanalytic in the Anthropology of Human Experience, and Culture and Experience: Genealogies and Debates) and three thematically framed panels (Subjectivity and
Experience in a Disordered World; Suffering, Healing, and Therapeutic Dynamics; and
Religious Experience: A Special Case?), as well as a keynote lecture delivered by Michael
Jackson (Existential Anthropology: An Itinerary of a Thought) and a screening of Rob
Lemelsons film, Forty Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy. We did not encourage
participants to reach consensus or assume any particular stance with respect to the commensurability of phenomenological and psychoanalytic perspectives. Rather, by exploring points
of intersection among these traditions, broadly construed, our intent was and is to strive for
more adequate ways of depicting and making sense of what it means to be human.
If increasingly more adequate accounts of human life are our lodestone, then we need an anthropology that is open to approaches highlighting different aspects of human experience
including, for instance, not only Diltheys (1976) Erfahrung, or the quotidian unfolding of
lifes routines, but also his Erlebnis, or the singular, discrete moments that stand out from
Erfahrungs cumulative progression. To this we must add the immense interest in recent
decades in the intersubjectively situated body and its habitus as an emergent locus of human
experience that is no more reducible to the language of Erfahrung and Erlebnis than it is
to the language of culture and symbolic forms. The burgeoning existential tradition within
anthropology points elsewhere, toward universal human questions and predicaments as well
as the human capacity to shape engagement with, and hence experience of, the realities we
humans inhabit. Psychoanalytic scholarship, furthermore, demands attention to the internal
complexity and deep layering of human experience in which personal history, including
quotidian social experience as well as trauma, is sedimented and only partially accessible.
It seems unlikely that any single ethnographic modality could consistently do justice to all
of these and other possible approaches. Although their original architects may or may not
agree, we perceive an important kind of family affinity among these various anthropologies
of experiencerecognizing of course that family relationships imply genealogy, resemblance, and solidarity as well as conflict. Rather than cleaving to old categorizations, which
are likely to close off possibilities for representation and analysis, we argue instead that it is
time, now more than ever, for classificatory doors to be flung open.
Taking up this challenge, we contend, demands more concerted attention than has often
been paid to the gaps, silences, and opacities that either preoccupy or remain overlooked


within both of these traditions and, as we elaborate below, to the resulting inquietudes anthropology is left to confront. Although these pursuits are of particular concern to psychological
anthropology and readers of Ethos, they touch upon many of the foremost epistemological
and ethical dilemmas in contemporary ethnography at large, including not only the urgent
need to account for individual and collective forms of experience in complex social, political, and economic contexts, but also the fraught relationship between text and observer,
the debate over depth vs. surface accounts of human agency, and the perduring role of
uncertainty, contingency, inaccessibility, anxiety, and other forms of limit in shaping what
ethnographers might access, know, or write.
To launch this multilogue, which introduces a few of the fruits of our Atlanta meeting, we
begin by reflecting briefly on experience as a term bearing a degree (but only a degree) of shared
analytic significance among participants, followed by a necessarily condensed discussion
of psychoanalytic and phenomenological approaches and their influence on experienceoriented research and scholarship in anthropology. An overview of the collections central
themes, as well as its four articles and three commentaries, follows. In closing, we reflect
briefly on the broader implications of this conversation for the anthropology of experience
in particular and for anthropology in general.

Experience and Inquietude

How does experience figure as a theme in contemporary anthropology? Working definitions of experience have been assayed by a variety of scholars (see, e.g., Crapanzano 1980;
Csordas 1994b; Desjarlais 1997; Good 1994; James 1905; Kleinman 1997, 1998; Kleinman
and Kleinman 1997; Scott 1991; Throop 2002a; Turner and Bruner 1986; Wikan 1991),
but we approach experience in this collection ecumenically, as an open-ended point of departure for robust ethnographic inquiry into the fullness, complexity, and indeterminacy of
human life, both individual and collective, as it unfolds in space, over time, across moods
and modes, and within multidimensional local worlds that are defined as much by their biographical and embodied particularity as by their intersubjective grounding. This implicitly
pluralistic ethnographic stance makes no attempt to assert any orthodoxy of anthropological
practice, still less to insist on any particular theoretical innovation that might be considered
definitive. Indeed, one motivation for this collection is a sense that we need more, and better,
opportunities for conversation across and between the often insular and overly specialized
moieties that shape todays scholarly landscape, especially those sometimes glossedinternal
diversity notwithstandingas phenomenological and psychoanalytic anthropologies.2
Not only have ethnographic approaches to experience contributed to a reevaluation of
culture as a fundamental orienting frame, but they also have turned a spotlight on the
formation of both subjectivity and intersubjectivity in social and political context and raised
complex questions about the methodological challenges, the interpretive dilemmas, and the
ethical stakes of exploring, responding to, and writing about the lived intimacies that animate
ethnographic encounters. Anthropological engagement with experience has opened up new
lines of inquiry in sociocultural anthropology writ large and in a range of anthropological


subfields, among them medical and psychological anthropology, the anthropology of religion, and anthropological studies of power, politics, and social membership and exclusion.
Contrary to the fears of its critics, the turn to experience in contemporary anthropology
has not, for the most part, involved a collapse of concern for the whole gamut of social
and cultural features of human life. Rather, it has more typically provided a conceptual
bridge between individual lifeworlds and the much broader political-economic trends and
cultural-symbolic systems that constrain and inform them. Such projects increasingly are
embedded within strong accounts of political economy, structural inequality, and the lived
experience of persons caught up in complex, threatening, and uncertain conditions of the
contemporary world (Good et al. 2008a:11). At the same time, many of the conceptual
hallmarks and heuristics of todays anthropology of experienceincluding contemporary
understandings of embodiment, experience-nearness, social suffering, and the question of
whats at stakehave become part and parcel of the broader anthropological lexicon.
This area of inquiry has thus achieved a degree of recognition and maturity that makes
it both possible and necessary to ask a number of broad, reflexive questions. Does the
anthropology of experience have a center and a peripheryor, alternatively, might it be
organized around multiple centers and peripheries? How do ethnographers of experience
understand the genealogy of their field, its current contours and fissures, its most pressing
challenges, and its future directions? Is it reasonable to speak of an experiential turn in
psychological anthropology, or in sociocultural anthropology more broadly? If so, what
areor ought to beits hallmarks?
In this collection we consider several possible hallmarks including, most centrally, an enduring undercurrent of the ethnographic project that might even be described as a kind
of epistemological third rail: the inevitably constrained nature of ethnographic apperception and the incertitude, inquietude, and anxiety that can result. For some ethnographers
of experience, this disquiet stems from a Foucauldian impulse to continually problematize
assumptions and unmarked categories that otherwise appear self-evident (Corin this issue).
For others it is prompted by a Levinasian ethics of intersubjective obligation to the other
who must be allowed to remain other and, as such, outside the totalitarian impulses of meaning and control (Seeman 2004). Freudian disquiet gestures still elsewhere, toward hidden
interiors, vestigial pasts, and the lurking immanence of dung and death (Obeyesekere
1990:288). Whether individual ethnographers are most troubled by the limited representational capacities of language, by the divided nature of the subject, by the idiosyncrasy of
autopoesis, or by unconscious processes of transference and countertransference, there are
ample reasons to feel unsettled.

Phenomenological and Psychoanalytic Anthropologies: Contexts and

As we grapple with these varied sources of inquietude and think toward the future, it is
worthwhile to reconsider the deep-rootedness of these concerns within the whole anthropological project. For more than half a century, experience has been central to what might


be characterized, however imperfectly, as the psychoanalytic and phenomenological schools

within sociocultural anthropology. Both stem from early 20th century expressions of discontent with tradition (in psychology and philosophy respectively), and in anthropology
they have struggled, at times amicably and on other occasions competitively, to stake out
territory and mark key distinctions. Significantly, each of these broad schools exhibits considerable internal diversity; for example, relational and Lacanian psychoanalytic inclinations
differ substantially, as do approaches that draw primarily on Merleau-Pontys concern for
embodiment as compared with Arendts engagement with universal existential imperatives.
These internal variations notwithstanding, we find it altogether too easy, and not analytically
helpful, to either overemphasize the differences between psychoanalytic and phenomenological approaches within anthropology or presume that they are necessarily incommensurable.
Despite their important differences, each of these flourishing branches of anthropological scholarship has paid more consistent attention than others to questions of experience,
subjectivity, and intersubjectivity in social and cultural settings and, at the same time, to
the various reasons for, and sources of, ethnographic inquietude that concern us here. Indeed, some anthropologists already view them as elements of a common toolkit (Corin
1998b; Mimica 2007:3; Parish 2008; see also Csordas, Hollan, and Jackson in this issue). If
the ultimate interest lies in finding more descriptively adequate, theoretically precise, and
humane approaches to the ethnographic complexities of experience, subjectivity, and intersubjective engagement, then fresh consideration of the intersection of phenomenology and
psychoanalysis within anthropology is long overdue.
The conversation between anthropology and psychoanalysis follows no simple or straightforward path (Corin this issue; LeVine and Sharma 1997; Paul 1989; see also Heald and
Deluz 1994; Seeman 2005). Successive generations of anthropologists have looked to psychoanalysis for method, theory, or inspiration in examining divergent facets of human existence, among them putative relationships between culture and personality (Benedict 1934;
Boyer 1979; Kardiner 1945; Spiro 1951) as well as patterns of child rearing and development (Kakar 1978; Spiro 1987; Whiting 1963; Whiting and Child 1962), ethnopsychology
(Briggs 1970; Devereux 1961; Levy 1973), cultural and personal symbols (Corin 2008; Hollan
1989; 1994, 1995; Obeyesekere 1981, 1990; Paul 1980, 1982, 1987, 1996), dreaming (Devereux 1969; Groark 2009; Hollan 1989, 1995; Kracke 1979; Mittermaier 2011), ritual
(Corin 1998a; Devisch 1998; Obeyesekere 1990), dissociation (Bilu 1980, 1985; Chapin 2008;
Hollan 2000; Obeyesekere 1981, 1990; Rahimi 2007; Spiro 1997), ethnopsychiatric practice
(Corin 1997; Giordano 2008; Sturm et al. 2011; Zajde 2011), and the psychodynamics of the
ethnographic encounter (Corin 2007; Crapanzano 1980; Devereux 1967; Ewing 1987, 2006;
LeVine 1982). Significantly, psychoanalytic approaches within anthropology have spanned
the full spectrum of psychoanalytic theories, with some scholars engaged primarily with
Freud, others looking to Lacan, Klein, or Winnicott, and still others inclined toward the
American tradition of relational psychoanalysis.
Fruitful as the intersection of psychoanalysis and anthropology may be, it is also beset
with tension between what can be called, not pejoratively, [the] theological structure of


psychoanalytic theory and practice and anthropologys tendencies toward looseness, even
chaos (Crapanzano 1992a:138). As Crapanzano observes, a key turning point in this relationship involved the intersection of anthropologys interpretive turn with the florescence
of psychoanalytic orientations that encouraged a relaxation of Freudian orthodoxies and the
recognition, and acceptance, of an inescapable interpretive gap within both psychoanalytic
and ethnographic encounters (cf. Kracke and Herdt 1987).
The intersection of phenomenology with anthropology has been no less fruitful or complex
(Desjarlais and Throop 2011; Fischer 2007; Jackson 1996; Throop 2002a, 2002b). Since
the middle of the 20th century, two variants of Continental phenomenologySchutzs social phenomenology (1967, 1970) and Merleau-Pontys attention to the body as a setting
in relation to the world (1962:303)have been especially influential. Another influence
is Heideggers (1962) concern with temporality, thrownness, being, and becoming. Key
American influences include the pragmatism of James (1905) and Dewey (1925, 1934), as
well as Hallowells (1955) attention to the relationship among culture, self, and experience. For the LemelsonEmory conference, two paths of inquiry were especially significant.
Beginning in the 1980s, medical anthropologists including Arthur Kleinman (e.g., 1988,
1997, 1998, 2006) and Byron Good (e.g., 1977, 1994; Good et al. 1994, 2008b) sought to
make room for the suffering of individuals, and later the shared suffering of social groups,
within the largely experience-distant worlds of both biomedical and professional social science discourse. Concurrently, Michael Jackson (e.g., 1989, 1996, 2005) began crafting an
existential-phenomenological approach that pivots on the ethnographic challenge to explore human being-in-the-world through our ever changing capacity to create the conditions
of viable existence and coexistence in relation to the given potentialities of our environment
(2005: xv; see also Hage 2003, 2009).
In the intervening decades, phenomenological questions have become increasingly mainstream, for instance among psychological and medical anthropologists who frame their work
in existentialphenomenological terms, or as exercises in cultural phenomenology (Csordas
1994a; Geurts 2002; Throop 2010) or critical phenomenology (Biehl 2005; Desjarlais 1997,
2003; Good 1994; Willen 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). Key considerations include embodiment
(Csordas 1990, 1993, 1994b, 2002), experience-nearness (Kleinman 1988; Kleinman and
Kleinman 1991; Linger 2001; Seeman 1999, 2008, 2009; Wikan 1991, 1996), subjectivity
and selfhood (Biehl 2005, Biehl et al. 2007; Csordas 1994a; Desjarlais 1997; Linger 2010),
empathy (Throop and Hollan 2008), healing (Csordas 1994a; Desjarlais 1992; Kleinman and
Seeman 1998, 2000; Mattingly 1998, 2010; Mattingly and Garro 2000), the senses (Desjarlais 2003; Geurts 2002; Howes 2005; Stoller 1989, 1997), morality and ethics (Benson and
ONeill 2007; Kleinman 2006; Seeman 2004; Zigon 2007, 2008), marginalization and social
exclusion (Biehl 2005; Das 1995, 2007; Pinto 2008; Seeman 2009; Willen 2007c, 2010),
political disorder and state insecurity (Good et al. 2008bb; James 2010), and suffering in its
many forms (Garcia 2009, 2010; Kleinman et al. 1997; Ozawa-de Silva 2006; Parish 2008;
Seeman 2008; Throop 2010).


As these telegraphic summaries suggest, questions of experience have provoked intense

theoretical and ethnographic interest among scholars from a variety of perspectives and
subfields. Curiously, however, the most prominent effort to announce and delineate an
Anthropology of Experience, the title of Victor Turner and Edward Bruners (1986) edited
collection, proved intellectually rich but ultimately short lived. Although the books central
concernspractice, pragmatics, performance, hermeneutics, and ethnographic reflexivity
only flourished and grew in the decades that followed, the books motivating concept gained
little traction. Interestingly, Hallowells (1955) early anthropological phenomenology and
Lienhardts (1961) classic work on the phenomenology of religious experience among the
Dinka decades earlier similarly failed to generate sustained conversation around these issues.
One wonders whether this represented some scholars inability to cultivate institutional
expressions of their theoretical concerns or, alternatively, whether it was due to the absence
of the supportive zeitgeist that emerged in later decades.

Defining Insights
Todays flourishing discussion about anthropological approaches to human experience
emerges as all the more striking in light of these earlier fits and starts. A few defining
moments deserve particular attention. One early and pivotal contribution was Kleinmans
(1973) distinction between disease in the biomedical sense and the illness of persons,
families, or small social groups, which provided a vital corrective to an anthropology that
was swinging boldly toward a largely Geertzian interpretation of culture that emphasized
the suppression or transformation of individual suffering through the collective shoring up
of cultural forms (Seeman 2004). Kleinman, Good, and others then went on to limn the
complex relationships among culturally valorized metaphors like heart distress, nervios, and
neurasthenia; the social conditions that supported them; and the imponderables of individual
experience to which they give rise. Even when insufficiently conceptualized in itself, experience became for many ethnographers the mediating lens through which otherwise opaque
relationshipsfor instance, between disease and political economy (Farmer 1992) or personal suffering and cultural category (Good et al. 1992; Young 1995)could be described
and analyzed. Most of this research was nonpsychological in the sense of lacking (or, in
some cases, actively refusing on theoretical or empirical grounds) an articulate psychology,
by which we mean a systematic account of inner psychic processes or structures. Instead, the
second and third generations of this anthropological approach to experience have tended to
focus on the political and, to a certain extent, existential contexts of suffering and healing.
In 1991, Arthur and Joan Kleinman published their influential essay, Suffering and Its
Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience. The
disquieting impact of this work at the time of its publication has not always been appreciated. Medical anthropology had already developed a strong critique of how biomedical and
psychiatric discourses tend to not only reduce lived experience to a set of narrow professional categories serving diagnostic or bureaucratic needs, but also shut down possibilities
for broader understanding of human suffering and its sources. Provocatively, Kleinman and


Kleinman contended that anthropology is vulnerable to the same critique and, moreover,
that the categories of professional anthropological analysis can be just as dehumanizing and
experience-distant as those of biomedicineperhaps even with less justification. Their response, on both a theoretical and also a methodological level, was to reorient ethnography
around the question of what is at stake for research subjects in the lived contexts that
ethnographers seek to analyze and describe.
In effect, this disarmingly simple intervention amounted to a reinvention of the anthropological project, moving it away from interpretations of culture and toward the interpretation
of fraught social engagements. From this perspective, culture emerges as but one among
many interdependent forces at playand frequently not the most dominant. In terms of
both choice of research topic and analytic disposition, this reorientation brought the subject position of the ethnographer into closer contact with the existential position of the
subjects of ethnographies. It also foregrounded ethnographys role in analyzing lifeworlds,
including the intersections among different lifeworlds, in lieu of the distanced abstraction
that culture represents (Good 1994). This reorientation influenced many subsequent anthropological projects and, not incidentally, our choice of title for the LemelsonEmory
conference (What is at Stake in the Ethnography of Human Experience?).
Here we must pause to recognize that the reorientation of anthropology around the high
stakes of living and dying, suffering and healing, and everything else we now gloss using
the term lived experience puts anthropology in direct engagement with the full panoply
of uncertainties and indeterminacies inherent in everyday life. This is true in the positive
sense that life is open ended and largely underdetermined by what we might imagine to be
its structural constraintsincluding culture, which only shapes the grammar and horizons
of lived experience but never determines social life in any simplistic way. Yet anthropologys
direct confrontation with unknowability also holds a more sobering set of implications.
As social beings, humans struggle continuously to intuit the motivations and choices of
those around them, knowing that failure may have humorous, disastrous, or unforeseen
consequences. This can lend an unsettling opacity even to interactions with ones most
intimate others; at times, even ones own choices and motivations can seem opaque upon
reflection. Rarely do individuals know fully what is in store for them, what real costs their
choices will incur, or whether their cherished life projects will succeed. Indeterminacy is thus
the stuff not only of enthusiasm, creativity, and freedom but also, sometimes simultaneously,
of anxiety, unease, even terror.
Humans weather these indeterminacies on an everyday basis, typically without much reflection. Why should ethnography be any different? A strong argument can be made that
disciplined attention to the ellipses in knowledge and interpretive uncertainties inherent in
ethnographic work helps to distinguish good ethnography from mere anecdotalism. Reflection on these forms of inquietude may also help dispel allegations of what Ernst Gellner
once dismissively characterized as ventriloquist anthropology, or the ever-present temptation to allow theory to overdetermine ethnography or, more bluntly, to allow our own
theoretical, political, or personal commitments to overpower the subtle resistances offered


by other peoples understandingswhether explicit or implicit, articulated or repressedof

what is at stake in their lives and local worlds.

Reinvigorating the Dialogue

The anthropology of experience does not, and probably should not, lend itself to easy definition as a singular or unified theoretical paradigm. Complex understandings of experience,
subjectivity, and intersubjectivity now animate a diverse array of intellectual projects
including some of the most exciting and provocative areas of contemporary ethnographic
research. These projects do not, however, cluster around any single set of empirical questions
or analytic paradigms; rather, they reflect a looser set of themes and questions and highlight
the need for reinvigorated dialogue between what are traditionally regarded as parallel or
divergent lines of inquiry. The energy generated by the LemelsonEmory conference and by
recent standing-room-only SPA sponsored panels on phenomenological anthropology (in
2007), moral experience (in 2010), and similar concerns suggest that these themes resonate
with many contemporary scholars. Several such themes thread through the articles collected
here, three of which we highlight below.

Confronting Inquietude

What forms of inquietude are engendered by phenomenological and psychoanalytic approaches to experience? How might these forms of inquietudeand the gaps and opacities
to which they call attentionprompt us to rethink the possibilities and limits of ethnographic
Engaging ethnographically with the immediacy of the here and now, or with the horizons,
fringes, or edges of experience, as both of these approaches do, involves risk. With a limited
set of tools and resourceslanguage, attention, curiosity, careresearchers grasp at escaping objects: perceptions, motivations, selves, relationships. Obstacles and opacities abound,
beginning with alterity itself. When must the scholar be resigned to opacity, or to the inaccessibility of other minds, as opposed to experimenting with an alternative optics or a
recalibration of attention? What is well captured and what is left out in choosing to foreground either lifeworlds or egos, intentions or drives, illusio or trauma? What can be made
ethnographically of that which is unspeakable, unknowable, hidden, or repressed? What is
at stake when the ethnographer shifts methodological gears to seek greater depth of insight,
or a more panoramic understanding of lifeworld and circumstance, and how do these stakes
vary from one ethnographic circumstance to the next?

Unsettling Categories
How might dissatisfaction with such basic categories as subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and
culture spur new ways of understanding and depicting human experience?


Analytic categories emerge from within particular cultural lifeworlds; like lights waves and
particles, they capture certain dimensions of human experience while failing to account
for others. Energizing as current debates about subjectivity and intersubjectivity may be,
it seems worth asking whether these concepts might still be held captive by their contexts
of origin. In the wake of the LemelsonEmory conference, for instance, Michael M. J.
Fischer facilitated an illuminating participatory discussion at a session of Harvards Friday
Morning Seminar that explored how the American English notion of experience is signaled,
subdivided, recast, socialized, theologized, and lived in the lifeworlds limned by a diversity
of other languages, among them German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Persian, Turkish,
Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, Hindi, Chinese, and Cambodian. Beyond Diltheys Erfahrung and
Erlebnis, what might an ethnographer of experience make of the sense of experimentation
implicit in the approximations of Romance languages, the emotional traces in the Persian
imtihan, the inflections of mood and personality invoked by the Sanskrit-derived Hindi term
bhav, or the sense of perpetual return to the senses, the body, and the here and now inherent
in the Pali (Cambodian Buddhist) satdi?3 Rather than building toward closure, this sort of
free-ranging discussion can instead illuminate the risk of hasty translational moves as well
as the value of recasting philosophical questions using ethnographys empirical tools.
Where might parallel conversations about subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and culture lead
or, even before opening the door to the Whorfian hypothesis, what do the languages of
phenomenology and psychoanalysis have to say? Does phenomenological anthropology
truly lack a theory of subjectivity, as Good asserts in his contribution, or a psychic motor,
as Desjarlais wonders in his? If so, then might Jacksons notion of existential imperatives
(Jackson 2005), for instance, provide a useful analogue to the energetics suggested by psychoanalytic conceptions of drive or instinct (Willen n.d.)? And what about culture itself?
Would culture as noun seem less objectionable if reimagined as a kind of malleable capacity,
for instance, in terms of Freuds Kulturarbeit (Corin this issue), Winnicotts transitional
phenomena (Jackson this issue), or Hollans subjectivity potential (2000, this issue)? At
times, the search for more precise conceptual categories may best be bracketed in favor of
open-ended, associative reflection on the conceptual categories we otherwise risk reifying.

Ethnographic Intimacy as Ethical Challenge

What are the ethical stakes of seeking out, encountering, and writing about peoples lives
through the intimate frame of experience?
Anthropologists pursue their metier by the grace of their research participants; unlike psychotherapists, no one has sought them out from a place of pain, or with therapeutic hopes
or at least that is what anthropologists typically tell themselves. What, if anything, ought
ethnographers make of the cryptotherapeutic dimensions (Willen n.d.) of ethnographic
engagement, the hidden motives and meaningspossibly but not necessarily traceable to
relations of transference and counter-transferencethat affect why a particular person is
having a particular conversation with a particular ethnographer at a particular moment in
time (Crapanzano 1992b; Hollan this issue)? What are the ethics of disclosure, of probing,


of revealing achieved insights to our interlocutors, and how do these ethical guidelines vary
either across sociocultural settings or between methodological approaches? How might the
nature of an ethnographic relationship, its duration, or its level of intimacy influence these
guidelines? What forms of risk and obligation do different ethnographic strategies entail,
and when, if ever, does one risk doing violence by striving to access or interpret the unspeakable, unknowable, or otherwise inaccessible (Good this volume; Throop this volume)?
When might the ethically or politically appropriate course of action involve interpretive
restraint (Seeman 2009)? Ethnography as ethical practice raises myriad theoretical, methodological, and pragmatic dilemmas that extend far beyond earlier debates about the politics
of representation and that generate still more reasons for incertitude and disquiet.

The Multilogue: An Overview

This trio of themes threads through the four articles and three commentaries assembled in
the present collection. In the first article, Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis, and Postcolonial
Subjectivities in Indonesia, Byron Good revisits the initial provocationin Levinas terms,
the moment of rupturethat sparked the present conversation about the relationship between phenomenological and psychoanalytic approaches to the ethnography of experience.
Elaborating upon the 2007 AAA presentation mentioned above, Good notes his dissatisfaction with phenomenology as a theory of subjectivity because of its failure to account for
two key concerns: complex psychological experience and political subjectivity. He traces the
trajectory of his own work from a cultural phenomenological engagement with individual
lifeworlds shaped by illness, injury, and chronic pain, to a psychoanalytic focus on that which
is repressed, unknown, and unspeakable (or perhaps unspoken) in complex cultural and political contexts. Drawing upon a decade of fieldwork on mental health and social suffering
in Indonesia, he explains his disappointment with phenomenological approaches to subjectivity, particularly in postcolonial settings like this one. In Indonesia and more generally, he
contends, disordered subjectivity is best approachedand, in fact, may only be accessible
through a psychodynamic entree that attends both to biographical experience and to that
which is repressed or unspeakable. Goods contribution raises important questions not only
about the adequacy and the limits of psychoanalytic and phenomenological approaches but
also, and more fundamentally, about the deeper need in anthropology for a robust theory of
subjectivity. So, too, does it offer an intimate window onto the potentially game-changing
implications of one scholars personal struggle with ethnographic inquietude.
In the second article, On the Varieties and Particularities of Cultural Experience, Douglas
Hollan offers an appreciative outsiders critique of phenomenological approaches to the
ethnography of experience and a productive counterpoint to the intellectual frustration
that has pulled Good away from phenomenology and toward psychoanalysis. Writing as
a relational psychoanalyst and anthropologist who remains untethered to psychoanalytic
orthodoxies, Hollan suggests that what we call experience is ever hovering between poles of
situatedness and particularity, and that a robust and satisfying approach to the ethnography
of experience must account simultaneously for both. Without losing sight of the diversity


of positions assembled under the psychoanalytic and phenomenological umbrellas, he notes

that phenomenological approaches excel in elucidating the first of these polesthe human
condition of situatedness, or being-in-the-worldwhile often floundering in relation to the
latter. Psychoanalytic approaches, in contrast, may masterfully portray the particular, but
tend to neglect the complex contextual fabric of individual lifeworlds. Hollan thus calls for
an approach to the ethnography of experience that can account simultaneously for individual
and group modes of situatedness as well as the crises, exceptions, and other particularities
that comprise what William James identifies as every individuals unique pinch of destiny.
In his view, complementary attention to both might provide a bulwark against the disquiet
engendered when each is deployed alone.
In Psychoanalysis and Phenomenology, Thomas Csordas borrows Walter Benjamins
arcade metaphor as inspiration for a comparative portrait of phenomenology and psychoanalysis as traditions that stand not in antagonistic but rather symmetrical, and dialogical,
relation to one another. The first half of his article explores this thesis by experimenting
with a series of conceptual correspondences, among them existence and unconscious, intentionality and drive, being-in-the-world and human nature. In the second half of his work,
Csordas examines one largely forgotten attempt to develop a negotiable route across this
arcade in parallel: the tradition of phenomenological or existential psychiatry advanced in
the early 20th century by Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger. In revisiting Binswangers
provocative alternative to psychoanalytic psychiatry, Csordas uses a fascinating but, he admits, ultimately unsatisfying historical precedent to invite reconsideration of the relationship
between these two intellectual projects. Beyond its consideration of potentially negotiable
routes, Csordas also interrogates a core metaphor that has long irked some ethnographers
of experience: the notion that phenomenological approaches can only engage the surface
of experience, whereas their psychoanalytic counterparts plumb depth. For Csordas, the
appropriate juxtaposition warps time and space; rather than contrasting depth and surface,
he instead contrasts depth and immediacy.
Like Hollan and Csordas, C. Jason Throop is intrigued by the possibility of rediscovering
missed opportunities for conceptual cross-fertilization. His contribution, On Inaccessibility and Vulnerability: Horizons of Compatibility between Phenomenological and Psychodynamic Accounts of Lived Experience, pivots on the collections central concern: the
question of what can and cannot be known about anothers experience and, implicitly, the
anxiety that emerges at the limits of ethnographic apperception. Throop acknowledges that
these two traditions espouse substantially different views of both subjectivity and intersubjectivity and, furthermore, divergent understandings of two key obstacles to any satisfactory
ethnography of experience: mutual inaccessibility and vulnerability. He regards psychoanalytic and phenomenological anthropology as contrapuntal approaches involving either
a (psychoanalytic) hermeneutics of suspicion, which listens against the grain for gaps and
aporias that destabilize knowledge of self and other, or a (phenomenological) hermeneutics
of reclamation that brackets the critical impulse in order to return, in Husserlian fashion,
to lucid description of things in themselves. For Throop, each stance entails a substantially
different mode of inquiry, different presumed points of access to experience, and different


interpretive strategies. Methodologically, each points toward a different kind of epoche, suggesting distinct ways of bracketing what appears as self-evident. Throops exploration of
how forms of attention, bracketing, and rupture can affect the knowability of both self and
ethnographic other raises important questions not only of epistemology and method, but
also of the ethical obligations and risks inherent in what Levinas (1998) calls interhuman
The final contributions reflect critically on the relative merits and limitations of the four
preceding articles, and on the collection at large, through the respective lenses of critical
phenomenology, French psychoanalysis, and existentialphenomenological anthropology.
First, Robert Desjarlais ponders the rupture provoked by Goods shift from phenomenology
toward psychoanalysis and poses several provocative questions in response. The ethnography of experience, as understood in the present context, can be traced to the late 1980s
and early 1990s, when a number of psychological, medical, and cultural anthropologists
sought alternatives to their disciplines core concerns: meaning, structural relations, discourse, psychodynamics. As Desjarlais notes, most of these pioneering efforts were largely
nonpsychologicalat least in light of then-prevailing notions of the psychological. Why,
we must ask, did certain anthropologists turn away from psychological models in the first
place? Desjarlais reads Goods intellectual shift less as a unilateral break than a pendulum
swing within a longer debate about how anthropology can best capture the intricacies and
indeterminacies of human life. He further characterizes phenomenology as less a theory
than a method which, used in conjunction with other approaches, can exert an effervescent force on the ethnographic project. An anthropological formulary might therefore
include amalgams of phenomenology and various ethnographic and theoretical schools
for instance, those focusing on political economy, discursive pragmatics, performance, or
For Ellen Corin, whose innovations at this intellectual juncture long precede the present
conversation, and whose psychoanalytic leanings are more classical than Hollans, this collection opens up worthwhile questions but offers no final verdict on how best to frame
cross-disciplinary dialogue. Indeed, she is less interested in the dialogue between phenomenological and psychoanalytic anthropologies than between anthropology and psychoanalysis. Drawing from the Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition with which she identifies,
Corin proposes several alternative models, beginning with psychoanalyst Andre Greens
(1999) proposal that anthropologists cultivate self-estrangement by stepping out of the
flow of familiar discourse, then reentering it with fresh attentionperhaps as one might
plunge into, and strive to comprehend, a foreign language. Another model (also invoked
in the final commentary by Jackson) stems from psychoanalytic anthropologist George Devereuxs (1978) notion of complementarist ethnopsychoanalysis. Yet psychoanalysis has
much more to offer, Corin contends, than just models for cross-disciplinary dialogue. She
finds in the Lacanian tradition several especially productive sources of destabilizing potential for ethnographers of experience: emphasis on an essential discontinuity between the
conscious and the unconscious; attention to the energetic dynamics of unconscious motivation; and a deliberate channeling of inquietude involving active redirection of ethnographic


attention to fissures, silences, and paradoxes as well as unexpected recurrences across seemingly unconnected domains of human activity. Ultimately, Corin suggests, anthropology and
psychoanalysis are reciprocally linked by a common focus on the destabilizing power associated with Othernessa disposition she finds especially timely in a world where opacifying
the others Otherness parallels a difficulty making room for otherness within ourselves.
In the final commentary, Michael Jackson reads this collection of works as a contemporary
incarnation of a century-old struggle to overcome the chasm between the psychological and
social sciences of the psychenotwithstanding the fact that a long list of luminaries has
deemed this dichotomy a false one. Jackson recalls, for example, William James proposition that the intrapsychic and the intersubjective are dialectically interrelated, and George
Devereuxs (1967) methodological observation that sociologistic and psychologistic models
cannot be employed simultaneously, only in sequence. While celebrating the underlying
impulse to broaden anthropologys horizons beyond reifications of subject and culture to
consider the enactment and expression of human potentialities, he nonetheless cautions
against overinvestment in epistemological struggles that can become overburdened with
the weight of what he has elsewhere described as intellectual lumber.4 As counterpoint,
Jackson renders a plea for the judicious deployment of methodological orientations with
attention to the particular therapeutic, analytic, or intellectual aims at hand.

Whatever else an anthropology of experience might be, it is clear that it is, like experience
as such, abundant, multiform, and a bit out-of-hand. Wherever we are, it is not at the
gates of paradigm-land.
Clifford Geertz, 1986, p. 375

If one undercurrent of the present dialogue involves the relative adequacy of phenomenology
and psychoanalysis as theories of subjectivity, then another involves the broader challenge of
doing justice to the inclusive integrity of experience (Dewey 1925:9), which can never be
represented by a single pattern of research. Nearly a century ago, Dewey issued a trenchant
critique of the philosophers of his day, suggesting that
Gross experience is loaded with the tangled and complex; hence philosophy hurries away
from it to search out something so simple that the mind can rest trustfully in it, knowing
that it has no surprises in store, that it will not spring anything to make trouble, that it
will stay put, having no potentialities in reserve. [Dewey 1925:26]

In its day, Deweys critique would likely have applied to anthropologists as much as the
philosophers to whom it was addressed. Todays anthropologists of experience, in contrast,
are less likely to hurry away from such tangles, complexities, potentialities, and surprises.
Their aim is not to rein in chaos, model it, or capture it like a fly in amber. They are
more likely to confront the unruliness of human experience head on, including the everyday circumstances into which people are thrown as well as their efforts to inhabit, resist,
and transform the palpable realities they inhabit. Arguably, this emerging anthropological


tradition is well positioned to provide an innovative, if belated, response to Deweys critique:

a robust open-air laboratory for empirically grounded exploration of substantive philosophical questions (see, e.g., Csordas this issue; Jackson 2009; Mattingly 2010).
The best exemplars of this tradition to date depict experience not only with patience and
imagination, but also with attention to the kinds of uncertainty and anxiety that ethnographic
fieldwork readily engenders. Ethnographic engagement with other peopleespecially in
times as turbulent as ourspushes anthropologists continually to revise, rethink, and reconsider nearly every aspect of our scholarly practice. Ethnography is, among other things, a
deeply interpersonal affair that can place steep demands on ethnographic subject and inquirer
alike. As a result, the stakes of such encounters are not only analytic and theoretical, but
also moral and psychological. As Jackson puts it, Understanding others requires more than
an intellectual movement from ones own position to theirs; it involves physical upheaval,
psychological turmoil, and moral confusion (2009:239).
A handful of ethnographers, like Jackson, have been able to return to the same field settings
at multiple stages of a professional lifetime. For more of us, however, communities of meaning and friendship that were developed during fieldwork disappear as people move on, find
themselves displaced or deported, or meet lifes end. In other instances, ethnographers and
the communities they study simply grow apart once the original impetus for ethnographic
research has been qualified or removed. But to the extent that anthropologies of experience call attention to whole experiential settings in which researchers and informants both
participate, scholars need to pay closer attention to the relationship between the contexts
in which ethnographic knowledge is generated and the theoretical dispositions that emerge
from its practice. This is more than the now well-accepted call for a degree of reflexivity in
ethnographic writing; essentially, it involves a reorientation of the whole practice of ethnography around consequential relationships that include the anthropologist and his or her
intended readers as well as the ostensible subjects of ethnographic research. Psychoanalytic
approaches may be especially attuned to these dimensions of understanding, which have
parallels in the analytic encounter, but they also hold much broader significance for the field
of anthropology as scholars confront the epistemic contingency and indeterminacythe
inquietudesgenerated by the ethnographic project as they have come to know it.
Under these conditions, it would be foolhardy to declare that psychoanalysis, phenomenology, or any amalgamation of the two might definitively settle questions of adequate representation or analysis of ethnographic phenomena. What emerges, instead, are multiple compelling reasons to seek renewed and reinvigorated dialogue between these two traditions for
which experience, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity hold pride of place. As the articles in this
issue attest, the tensions between themand among the various orientations aligned within
eachare at least as important as their convergences and complementarities. Bringing them
into sustained dialogue, as we attempt to do in these pages, will arguably strengthen both
and resonate more widely among anthropologistsnot only through cross-fertilization of
insight but also by calling attention to pivotal gaps and presumptions in methodology and
analytic frame like those highlighted here. Having laid the groundwork for more robust


consideration of what it means to approach experience ethnographically, we are hopeful that

other, equally provocative conversations may follow. For experience is like an itch anthropology will always struggle to scratch5 ; or, perhaps, like the tiny grain of sand that irritates
its way into a thing of luminous fascination, at times even beauty.
SARAH S. WILLEN is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut.
DON SEEMAN is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Institute for
Jewish Studies, Emory University.

1. The 2008 conference Whats At Stake in the Ethnography of Human Experience? Phenomenological and
Psychoanalytic Perspectives was supported by the Lemelson/Society for Psychological Anthropology Conference
Fund, made possible by a generous donation from The Robert Lemelson Foundation and additional funding from
the Emory University Provosts Conference Subvention Fund. Other sponsors at Emory included the Graduate Division of Religion; the Department of Religion; the Psychoanalytic Studies Program; the Tam Institute
for Jewish Studies; the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program; the Center for Health, Culture, and Society;
and the Department of Anthropology. The full conference program and participant list are available online at
2. We recognize that our own intellectual genealogy tilts disproportionately toward the tradition of phenomenological anthropology. One reason we began this project was to more deeply explore how this tradition, with its
own internal variety, might be brought into more fruitful conversation with the psychoanalytic anthropological
tradition. We did not attempt, and cannot claim, to have adequately accounted for the full range of diversity in
either tradition, especially the psychoanalytic.
3. For insight into these terms, thanks are due respectively to Michael M. J. Fischer, Orkideh Behrouzan, and
Sadeq Rahimi (Persian), Sarah Pinto (Hindi), and Devon Hinton (Pali).
4. Jackson employed this felicitous phrase in responding, impromptu, to a 2008 AAA panel designed to explore
how anthropologists have engaged the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.
5. We thank Robert Desjarlais (personal communication) for this apt metaphor.

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Correction added after online publication [April 3, 2012]:

The acknowledgments in the Special Issue introduction note the generous support from
the Lemelson Conference Fund of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. We offer
additional details with new wording for the first sentence of the acknowledgments as follows:
The 2008 conference Whats At Stake in the Ethnography of Human Experience? Phenomenological and Psychoanalytic Perspectives was supported by the Lemelson/Society
for Psychological Anthropology Conference Fund, made possible by a generous donation
from The Robert Lemelson Foundation and additional funding from the Emory University
Provosts Conference Subvention Fund.