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Against Ethnography

Author(s): Nicholas Thomas


Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), pp. 306-322
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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Against Ethnography
Nicholas Thomas
Australian National University

In March 1803 Lord Valentia was traveling through Awadh, a part of north
India which, as he observed, had not yet been liberated by the East India Company
from Muslim oppression. At Lucknow he was surprised to find in the Nawab's
palace an extensive collection of curiosities, including "several thousand English
prints framed and glazed . . and innumerable other articles of European manufacture."
The dinnerwas French, with plenty of wine ... the Mussulmaunsdranknone, [although]the forbiddenliquorwas served in abundanceon the table, and they had two
glasses of differentsizes standingbefore them. The room was very well lighted up,
and a bandof music (which the Nawaubhad purchasedfrom Colonel Morris)played
English tunes duringthe whole time. The scene was so singular, and so contraryto
all my ideas of Asiatic manners,that I could hardlypersuademyself that the whole
was not a masquerade.[Valentia 1809 1:143-144]
This aristocratic colonial traveler's confusion could be taken to be emblematic of one of the predicaments of late 20th-century anthropology. The problem
of interpretation arises not from an ethnocentric expectation that other peoples are
the same, from a failure to predict the local singularity of their manners and customs, but from an assumption that others must be different, that their behavior
will be recognizable on the basis of what is known about another culture. The
visitor encounters not a stable array of "Asiatic manners" but what appears to be
an unintelligible inauthenticity.
This essay is concerned with anthropology's enduring exoticism, and how
processes such as borrowing, creolization, and the reifications of local culture
through colonial contact are to be reckoned with. Can anthropology simply extend
itself to talk about transposition, syncretism, nationalism, and oppositional fabrications of custom, as it may have been extended to cover history and gender, or
is there a sense in which the discipline's underlying concepts need to be mutilated
or distorted, before we can deal satisfactorily with these areas that were once excluded?
The current wave of collective autocritique within anthropology' has a paradoxical character in the sense that while reference is made to crisis, experimentation, and even radical transformation in the discipline, one conclusion of most
efforts seems to be an affirmation of what has always been central. Clifford, for
306

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AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 307

instance, affirms that "ethnographicfieldwork remains an unusually sensitive


method" for cross-culturalrepresentation(1988:23-24) and Borofsky's relativizing explorationof anthropologicalconstructionsof knowledge concludes with
ratherblandreflectionson the importanceof ethnography(1987:152-156).2 In a
very differentgenre, a recent guide to method in economic anthropologyclaims
thatthe "great future" of the subject arises from its "direct observationmethod
of ethnographicanalysis" (Gregoryand Altman 1989:ix). There seems therefore
to be one point about which we are all convinced, one stable term in a highly
eclectic and contesteddiscipline.
The second featureof currentdebate relevant here is that while "writing"
and "writing-up" have been increasinglyproblematized(in a mannerwhich is
essentially necessary and constructive), distinctions are constantly effaced between fieldwork,ethnographicanalysis, andthe writingof ethnography.3 Gregory
and Altmanlike many conflate methodsof observationand analysis, and assume
presentationin the standardform of the monograph (cf. Marcus and Fisher
1986:18-19). Of course, if the claims of culturalhistorians(e.g., Darnton 1984;
Dening 1988) to write "ethnographichistory" are recognized, it might need to
be acknowledgedthatethnographycan be writtenin the absenceof fieldwork(setting aside the metaphoricalextension of that term to encompassthe archives).
This article, in contrast, sustains a harddistinctionbetween practicesof researchand the particularkinds of writingthat we recognize as "ethnographic."4
The purposeof such an assertionis not, of course, to permitnaive empiricistseparationsbetween observationand representation,since both researchand writing
are clearlypolitical, discursivepractices. While methodsand researchtechniques
such as inquiry through conversation and sociological questionnaires may
strongly influence the form in which informationis presented, and the kinds of
questions asked of it, the relationshipsbetween practicalresearchtechnologies
andformsof writingshouldbe evoked in a notion of mutualentanglement,rather
than some kind of determinism:it is obviously possible to generate similar analytic discoursesfrom very differentresearchprocedures,and equally to use similar researchprocedurestowarddivergenttheoreticalgenres. The survey, for instance, may be mainly associatedwith positivistic enumerationand claims about
correlations,but Bourdieu'sDistinction (1984) absorbsthose styles to a limited
extent in a work of "social critique" that seems closer generically to an 18thcentury philosophical and empirical dissertationthan it is to either the theory
books or case studies of postwarsociology. My argumentis thus that while ways
of observing and ways of representingare often tangled up, and while methods
admittedlyconstrainand influence forms of presentation,fieldworkand ethnographyare separable,and that at present it helps to situatethe enduringproblems
of anthropologicalvision in the constitutionof the ethnographicgenre, while leaving open the potentialfor anotherkind of writing energized by the experience of
the field.
While most comments on what has been variously called reflexive or postmodernistanthropologyhave been reactive and negative (e.g., Spencer 1989), I
take the overall perspective, if not the specific arguments,of works such as Writ-

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308 CULTURALANTHROPOLOGY

ing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and The Predicament of Culture (Clifford

1988) for granted.This articlehowever attemptsto move beyond the currentdebate by situatingproblematicfeaturesof anthropology,such as the tendency to
exoticism, in the constitutionof ethnographicdiscourse. One obstacle here is the
commonsense epistemology of the discipline-which no doubt accords with a
broadercultural model-that understandsknowledge primarilyin quantitative
terms. Defects are absences that can be rectifiedthroughthe additionof further
information,andmorecan be known abouta particulartopic by addingotherways
of perceiving it. "Bias" is thus associated with a lack and can be rectified or
balanced out by the addition of furtherperspectives. My preferredmetaphor
would situate the causes of an arrayof moments of blindness and insight in the
constitutionof a discipline's analytictechnology:particularkinds of overlooking
arise from researchmethods, ways of understandingconcepts, and genres of representation.This is essentially a model borrowedfrom feminist anthropology:as
those critiques developed, it became apparentthat the essentially imbalanced
characterof anthropologicalaccounts of society could not be correctedwithout
complex scrutinyof methods and analysis, that "academic fields could not be
curedby sexism simply by accretion" (C. Boxer quoted in Moore 1987:2-3). It
is not clear, however, that the problemsI discuss are analogousto illnesses; the
fabricationof alterityis not so much a blight or distortionto be excised or exorcised, but a projectcentralto ethnography'srenderingof the properstudyof man.
Exoticism
Although EdwardSaid's work has arousedconsiderableinterest in anthropology, the responsehas often been qualifiedor critical(e.g., Marcusand Fisher
1986:1-2; Clifford 1988:255-276).5 It is sometimesassertedthatbecause anthropologists have engaged in many studies of Europeanor Americansocieties, and
are concernedwith universalhumanityas well as culturaldifference, the charge
of exoticism is only partlyjustified. Withoutdisputingeitherthatworkcarriedout
underthe name of anthropologyhas been extraordinarilydiverse, or that a misleading stereotypeof the discipline has wide currency, it must be said that this
overlooks the fact that the presentationof other culturesretainscanonical status
within the discipline. That is, despite a plethoraof topics and approaches,there
are still strong prescriptionsthat certain anthropologicalprojects (such as those
dealingwith tribalreligions) aremoreanthropologicalthanothers. The arguments
heredeploy this stereotypicconstruct,even thoughtit is partlya misunderstanding
prevalentoutside the discipline, and partlysomethingthat practitionerscontinue
to impose uponthemselves and most particularlytheirgraduatestudents.The object of my critique is thus an "analytical fiction" in Marilyn Strathern'ssense
(1988:10),6 and this reified idea of a diverse discipline can only be unfair and
unrepresentativeof a variety of innovative approaches.But if what is said here
applies only in a partialway to work remote from canonical types, the converse
also applies, and the critiqueis valid insofar as anthropologicaltexts actuallydo
take the form of ethnographicdepictions of other cultures.

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AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 309

Anthropology'smost enduringrhetoricalformuses a richpresentationof one


stableand distantcultureto relativizecherishedand unexaminednotions imputed
to cultureat home. MargaretMead's Samoa destabilizedcertainideas about sex
roles, while the Balinese polities of Geertz's Negara (1980) confound and deny
the centraltenetsof Westernpolitical thought.7A strandin feminist anthropology
establishesthatculturaloppositionselsewhere set up as universalsare peculiarto
the West; in contrast Hagen people have "no nature, no culture" (Strathern
1980). Morerecently, the centraltheme of Borofsky'sMakingHistory was "how
Pukapukansand anthropologistscome to possess different 'ways of knowing' "
(1987:xvii). And the machineof relativistdisplacementcan work very effectively
upon its own products:while Mead exposed the cultural specificity of certain
Americanpersonalitytypes, Gewertz (1984; Erringtonand Gewertz 1987) has
takenMeadto task for her own unreflectivedeploymentof Westernconstructions
of the individual.
This operationclearly gives the discipline enormousscope andpotential,because it can proceedfromtopic to topic exposing previouslyunrecognizedcultural
differences:the Samoanshave a differentconcept of the person, the Balinese differentconceptsof time, the AustralianAboriginesdifferentconstructionsof space
and geography, the Tahitiansdifferent ideas of growth and age, while the Japanese presumablyhave a differentconceptualmodel of a restaurantmenu. And no
doubtthey do. Withoutwishing to deprivethe disciplineof a thousanddissertation
topics, it must be recognized that there is great scope for slippage from the appropriaterecognitionof difference, and the reasonablereaction against the impositionof Europeancategoriesupon practicesand ideas which, obviously, often
aredifferent,to an idea thatotherpeople mustbe different. Insofaras this is stipulated by this form of anthropologicalrhetoric, the discipline is a discourse of
alteritythatmagnifiesthe distancebetween "others" and "ourselves" while suppressingmutualentanglementand the perspectivaland political fracturingof the
culturesof both observersand observed. As Keesing has recentlyobserved, "because of the rewardstructures,criteriaof publishability,andtheoreticalprinciples
of our discipline, papersthat might show how un-exotic and un-alienother people's worlds are never getting written or read" (1989:460, cf. 469). Although
gesturesaremadetowardthe idea of common humanityand sometimesto cultural
universals,the postulateoperatesat such an abstractlevel thatit does not override
the radicaldifference imputed to such people as the Balinese (and those works
that actually are concerned with universals, for instance in cognition and language, are generallyvery marginalto a discipline dominatedby the sensitivity of
the local case study). Accurateethnographicrepresentationof stable and unitary
culturesthus conveys the radical difference of other peoples' original practices
and beliefs. It does not depict a succession of meanings and transpositionsthat
make culturespartlyderivativeand mutuallyentangled.
For instance, while caste in modem India has clearly been profoundlyinfluenced by Britishcodificationand the transformationof warriorkings into bearers
of hollow crowns(Dirks 1987) the most famousanthropologicalaccount(Dumont
1980) is concernedabove all with the opposition between Indianhierarchyand

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310 CULTURALANTHROPOLOGY

the individualismof the West (and ironically also with the alleged superiorityof
purityover power). While the power-claims of culturalethnographyhave been
basedon rigorin culturaltranslation,in a more faithful, less ethnocentricaccount
of local belief, that facilitates a professionalpotlatchof sophisticatedinterpretations, thereis clearly a certainselectivity; it is notablethat matterto be translated
must come from somewheredifferent. For instance, while informantsin the societies of the "kula ring" frequentlymake analogies between the famous shell
valuables(thatthey sometimes call "Papuanmoney") and Europeancash,8 that
strandof local discourse is not conspicuous in the culturalethnographyof the
Massim. Beliefs and notions that are not differenttake on the appearanceof difference throughthe process of apparenttranslation,througha discourse of the
translationof culture. Although there are sceptics within anthropology(Keesing
1989), those in otherdisciplines appearto have had a more balancedview of the
problemsof translationand exoticism. In justifying the use of English categories
such as "class" and "capitalist" in the analysis of Indianhistory, Bayly recently
suggested that although there are "dangers in glib comparison . . . excessive

Orientalistpurismhas done little except make India seem peculiarto the outside
world" (1988:x).
The claim that anthropologyis concernedwith difference within as well as
between culturesis excessively charitable.There are, of course, works that deal
with conflict, disagreementabout beliefs, and perspectivaldifferences between
men andwomen, but these themescould hardlybe said to have the same centrality
for the discipline as the operationof imputingdifference between cultures. This
is in fact more accuratelydescribed as contrast, since the most persuasive and
theoreticallyconsequentialethnographicrhetoricrepresentsthe other essentially
as an inversionof whateverWesterninstitution,practice, or set of notions is the
realobjectof interest.Hence Balinese theaterand aestheticsstandagainstthe mechanicaland narrowlypolitical Westernunderstandingof the state; and, without
endorsingFreeman'sstyle of critiqueor ethological non sequiturs,it must similarlybe acknowledgedthatMead's theoreticalorientationand literaryflairled her
to renderSamoanfreedomas the mirrorof Americanconstraint.The proposition
thatthe gift is only intelligible as an inversionof the category of the commodity
hardlyrequiresextendeddiscussion here (but cf. Parry1986:466-467).
Many works of the relativizing style were or are intendedto be critical, at
least in the minimalsense thatthey aimed to affirmthe value of otherculturesand
express a certainscepticism about "Western" ideas that were takento be natural
and eternal. But the culturalcritiquedepended upon the fabricationof alterity,9
upon a showcase approachto other culturesthat is now politically unacceptable,
in its homogenizationof others and implicit denial of the significanceof migrant
cultureswithin the West. After so many decades of "economic development"
and conflict in tribal and third world societies, it is ludicrousif anthropological
commentarycontinues primarilyto place such peoples in anotherdomain, in a
space thatestablishesthe differenceand contingencyof our own practice(cf. Fabian 1983). I am not saying that people are all the same, and that culturaldifferences areinconsequential;the challenge is not to do away with culturaldifference,

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AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 311

and with what is locally distinctive, but to integratethis more effectively with
historicalperceptionsand a sense of the unstableand politically contested characterof culture. Hence, as Moore has noted, "understandingculturaldifference
is essential, but the concept itself can no longer stand as the ruling concept of a
modem anthropology,because it addressesonly one form of difference among
many" (1987:9).
The tendencyto exoticize otherscould be regardedas a quirkof the individuals who become anthropologists,or an inevitableconsequence of the encounter
of fieldwork.The second suggestion might seem compelling, given the pervasive
notionof fieldworkas the experienceof an individualfromone culturein another.
Though elaboratedfor the purposes of collective professional self approbation,
this notion of inquiryand interpretationfrom a liminal perspectiveclearly cannot
be dismissed. But the point that is profoundlymystifiedin contemporaryanthropological consciousness concernsthe forms and diversityof the differences at issue. If one is seeking out contexts in which a sense of "not fitting" or "being
elsewhere" facilitatesheightenedawarenessof the singularityandcontingencyof
both the cultureof the situationand one's own assumptions, then it is clear that
therearemanycircumstancesin which these conditionsexist. Therearenumerous
contexts in "Western" culturesin which alienationor foreignness facilitate culturalcritique (a south London black woman in an Oxbridge college), and it is
obvious also thatthe crucialdifferencesrelateto age, sex, class, andvariousother
criteria, as well as the implicit ethnic categories that separate different "cultures." Or, to express the point differently,the notionof whatconstitutescultural
differenceseems to be restrictedto distinctionbetween an undefined"West" and
anotherdomain of experience and meaning;the separationbetween these terms
energizes the interpretiveprojectof ethnography,while difference might also be
situatedbetween the sortof self-conscious exposition of local culturethatis often
offered by senior men, and the voices of those without authority;between those
who stay in the countrysideand those who have left; between those who hold fast
to whatis valorizedas local identityandthose who appearto abandonit to become
Christians,Mormons,or communists. It could also, of course, be situatedin difference among anthropologists,given that one of the reasons for engaging in researchis to gathermaterialthat serves a particularargument.
Fromthis perspective, the notion that fieldworkentails partakingof alterity
and thus requiresan accountof culturaldifference is manifestly insufficient. All
the crucialquestionsare passed over because a multiplicityof culturaldifferences
are condensed. The contrastiveoperationdiscussed is almost inherentin any text
that explicates, or purportsto explicate, the distinctiveness of a "culture." A
monographis not about "other cultures" but ratheranotherculture, and the fact
thatthis must at some level be treatedas a boundedand stable system makes implicit contrastwith a home-pointalmost inevitableeven where thereis no explicit
one-to-onejuxtaposition.However, the numberof cases in which showcase counterpositioningovertly animates analysis is considerable. Insofar as this is what
ethnographicwritingis about, exoticism can only be disposed of by disposing of
ethnography,by breakingfrom one-to-one presentationinto modes that disclose

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312 CULTURALANTHROPOLOGY

otherregistersof culturaldifferenceandthatreplace "culturalsystems" with less


stable and more derivativediscourses and practices. These have a systemic character, but a dialectical account must do justice to the transpositionof meanings,
theirlocal incorporation.10
It might be added that the theme of the difference of the other has been as
overplayedin anthropologyas has the body in the libraryin detective fiction;even
ironic renderings(the body in the video library)seem merely to reproducean establishedstyle thatis notjust unoriginalbut seems rapidlyto be becoming sterile.
It might thus be argued merely on literarygrounds that it is about time for the
rhetoricalform to be disfigured.
The Subsumption of Theory
The status of ethnographymight also be problematizedfrom an epistemological perspective. This is to open up a second line of criticism seemingly less
motivatedby a political consideration(the objectionableaspect of inventing alterity)thana theoreticalone: the view thatthe ethnographicgenre localizes questions and thus refractsratherthan generates any wider theoreticalresolution or
culturalcritique.However, this epistemologicalargumentis also groundedpolitically: exoticism conveys a false view of historicalentanglementand the transpositionof meaning, while the particularizingeffect of ethnographicdiscourse is
not merely unproductivetheoreticallybut also associated with professional introversionand a failureto engage in wider discussion.
An enormous amountof anthropologyis motivated by questions at a high
level of generality. Anthropologicaltexts legitimize the specificity of their case
materialsand the localized and particularcharacterof analysis by their bearing
upon problemsthat are taken to be theoreticallyconsequential-the efficacy of
ritual,the natureof gift exchange, the intersectionof statusand power, the ritual
structuresof divine kingship, the basis of gender asymmetries, and so on. But
what operationdoes the analytic technology of ethnographyperformupon these
questions?
The argumenthere presupposesthatour genre is a discourseof ethnography
and not a discourse upon it. " The question here is of the extent to which writing
is or is not containedby the process of representingits object; the second type
makes strongclaims to externalauthorityand supposes an analyticapparatusthat
is not subsumedby the matterwith which it deals. A discourseof something, on
the otherhand, may attemptto depict or analyze somethingthat is externalto it,
butconstantlycreatesdiscursiveandanalyticaleffects thatcan only be understood
in termsof categories that are alreadyinternalto the discourse. There is, for instance, an obvious difference between the ostensibly apolitical theoreticaldiscourse upon politics in the academic discipline of political science, and the discourseof politics manifestedin the speech of a professionalpoliticianor activist.
The authoritativeclaims of the latter are highly self-referential;there can be no
externalvalidationof statementsbecause the object, interpretativeagency, and
theoreticalcategoriesareconflatedin the very processof revealingandrendering.

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AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 313

The mode of representationrecursivelyintertwinesthe momentsof transcription,


explicationof the terms for transcription,and the explanatorydevices that position the productsof transcription.Of course, it is clear that these binary categories, like all similar analytic fictions, cannot ultimately be sustained as polar
types, but the distinctioncan have theoreticaleffect if it is associatedparticularly
with the discourse of ethnography.I take Strathernto endorse Runciman's suggestion that the conventionalunderstandingof the relationshipbetween explanation and descriptionbe inverted:"Good descriptionsin turnhave to be grounded
in theory . . . the synthetic aims of adequate description . . . must deploy delib-

erate fictions to that end" (1988:10). Strathern'sclaims about her own methods
may not reflectviews aboutthe generalconditionof ethnographicwriting, but the
propositionput forwardhere is in fact thatdepiction, theoryand analysisarecharacterizedby a high degree of mutualdependence.
This is very obvious in some recentculturalethnographies.For example, in
The Fame of Gawa (Munn 1986) there is a strong sense that no operationtakes
place outside the elaborationof indigenouscategories in theoreticalterms, or the
reverse-that the elaborationof theoreticalvocabularyis merely illustratedby indigenous counterparts.In this case, the analysis is brilliantlyeffective, but there
are few spaces for adjudicatingplausibilityor implausibilityindependentlyof internalcoherence, and thereis little scope for rereadingethnographicmaterialthat
is separablefrom the analysis from the perspectiveof a differentkind of inquiry.
Ethnographythus establishes things in an empirically isolated and strictly illustrativemanner;cases stand by themselves, and their adequacydepends more on
the effects createdthroughinternalanalyticalnarrationthan either externaltheoretical validationor an interest in the replicabilityof findings (setting aside the
naive positivistic claims associated, for instance, with Freeman's"falsification"
of Mead). The assessmentof a useful ethnographicbook depends above all upon
the persuasivefictions of its analysis.
Munn'sbook mightbe regardedas an extremecase, but fromthe perspective
of this argument,it would be incorrectto consider this state of textual self-referentialityas a quantitypresentin some works to a greaterdegree thanothers. Such
an impressioninsteadderives merely from distinct subjectivereactionsto different theoreticalparadigmsand devices such as Munn's neologisms. What for one
readerappearas clear tools are highly contrived for another. The view adopted
here, which may be counterintuitive,is thatwritingethnographyinto the premises
of analysis is a basic condition of the genre.
I am not saying thatpriorassumptionsplay too substantiala role in the productionof accountsof other cultures. The premise here is that any scholarlydiscourse is an illustrativeoutcome of a conjunctureof theoreticalinterests, disciplinaryprocedures,and case materials;questions of interestdo not relate to the
relative proportionsof these terms-that quantitativeepistemological metaphor
having been eschewed-but instead concern the particularways of seeing permittedor disabledby availabledisciplinaryforms.
The most conspicuous featureof the discourse of ethnographyis a disjunction betweengeneralquestionsin social andculturaltheoryof the kind mentioned

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314 CULTURALANTHROPOLOGY

above and a way of writingthatby its naturecannotresolve them. The dominant


process thattakes place as issues of theoreticalconsequence are workedthrough
ethnographicallyis subsumption.The illustrativematerialcan be seen in a singularway, but any revelationsare ethnographicallycontained.
This may be briefly illustratedthrough reference to the ethnographiccritiques of Ortner'simportantargumentthatuniversalgender asymmetrycould be
explainedon the basis of pervasiveassociationsbetweenthe male/femaleand culture/naturecontrasts(Ortner1974). This was transposedto the registerof ethnographyin an influentialcollection of critiques(Strathernand MacCormack1980)
that argued that the nature/cultureopposition was a singular form in Western
thought, could not be seen as a culturaluniversal, and was not necessarily articulated with gender. While similar contrastssometimes were present, and were
associatedwith genderin indigenoussymbolic systems, the effect of the critique
was to expose a form of difference between these societies and Westernthought
thathad passed unrecognizedin Ortner'sanalysis. Ethnographythus disposed of
a general argumentand affirmedthe difference and specificity of other cultures.
The point here is not simply that the particularthesis advanced by Ortnerwas
ethnographicallydisfigured,but thattherewas no way of moving back from these
critiquesto any similarargumentat the same level of generality.Nature, Culture
and Gender offers no basis for any theory comparableto Ortner's, and it is not
surprisingat all thatthe equally significantand generalizedargumentsof Rosaldo
and Chodorow, which epitomized the scope and force of Woman, Culture and
Society (Rosaldoand Lamphere1974) have been criticizedon analogousgrounds
(Moore 1987:22-24; see also Gewertz 1988 on Bamberger 1974). I am not, of
course, arguingthatthe variouscriticismswere not reasonable,but am concerned
with the epistemologicalpoint thatthe disciplineis supposedto tackbetweengeneral questionsand ethnography,but appearsto be capableof moving only in one
direction,into shallowerwater.
Departures
At this point I wish to establish a certaindistance from the argumentthat I
have developed, by stressing that analogous propositions could be developed
aboutany academicdiscoursethat is tightly connected with a particularmethodology or form of writing. Insofaras prehistoryis a discourseof archaeology, it is
a prisonerof a certainkindof historical,social, andbehavioralreconstructionthat
is at once partialand inevitablycircular.Some similarpoints mightbe madeabout
the inevitabilityof denying the worth of oral traditionsfrom the perspective of
archive-boundconventionalhistory;such devaluationarises necessarily in a discipline thatdefines itself aroundrigorouswork on a certainkind of material.Althoughthereis a directparallelwith the dismissal of travelers'reportsin anthropology, it should be stressed that the discipline's investment in the practice of
fieldworkis less disablingthanthe dominanceof a narrowrangeof ways in which
fieldworkis "written up." Hence the narrativeand biographicalgenres of conventionalhistorywere ultimatelymore importantthan the fact that certainkinds

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AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 315

of "primary"researchmight be privileged. The point here, though, is that while


this is a critiqueof ethnography'santhropology,it is not one that supposes that
some otherscholarlydiscipline providesa model for a relationshipbetween initial
general questions and the analytic form of the genre where the latter sustains
ratherthan subvertsthe former;if the hegemonic genres of anthropologicalwriting now presentthemselves mainly as styles to be disfigured, the positive alternativesare not to be constitutedthroughthe old game of interdisciplinaryborrowing, throughthe claim to fix up one line of inquiryby addingfrom another.
The associationbetweenexoticism andthe markedtendencyfor ethnography
to rendertheoreticalquestions internalto local analyses is thus not entirely contingent. Both of these features of contemporaryanthropologyhave a strong associationwith the dominanceof ethnographicwriting, which presentsculturesas
unitarytotalities.A book absorbedby a cultureabsorbedin a book cannotproduce
a discourse upon ethnography,a discourse that uses ethnographyto generate a
widerargument.At the same time the one-to-onejuxtapositionthatthis form normally entails can only establish stabilityat a certaindistancefrom the cultureimputed to the reader;the truthof the ethnographiccase depends upon its original
and nonderivativerelationwith the "us" to which it is opposed. It follows from
this, of course, that ethnographiesthat turn upon local comparison (e.g., Fox
1977;Leach 1954; White 1981) arelikely to be less enmeshedin this orientalizing
and particularizinglogic to the extent thatdimensionsof differencedisconnected
from the us/them fiction are analyticallyconsequential.The aim of this article is
not to condemn anything like the whole discipline, but to suggest that crucial
flaws are associated with the canonical model, ratherthan some superficialsubjective interestin culturalauthenticity.If there was merely a problemof self-deception, this would presumablyhave been expungedlong ago. The persistenceof
exoticism arises from the fact that it is precisely what ethnographyis directedto
produce.
It is perhapsnecessaryto reiteratethe earlierpoint thatthese argumentshave
nothingto do with fieldwork, which is obviously a crucial way of learning. The
argumentis ratherthat fieldworkshould be drawninto otherkinds of writingthat
move into the space between the theoreticaland universaland the local and ethnographic,and thatare energizedby forms of difference not containedwithin the
us/themfiction.
The potentialresponses are diverse. Montage clearly refractsand displaces
the pursuitof stable culturesthrougha succession of historical and experiential
contexts (as in Taussig 1987) and offers the most effective and radical assault
upon anthropology'stendency to fix a unitarysymbolic system at a distance.'2
Here, however, I argue for an approachthat in a sense is more groundedin conventionalinterestsin an interpretativeproject, in analysis that works upon larger
problemstowarda wider generativeaccountof social and culturalphenomena.
From this perspective the reinvigorationof comparativeanthropologyappears to be crucial. The value of a method not containedby ethnographyis apparentfrom its use from some feminist perspectives(Collier and Rosaldo 1981):
there is still a sense of political urgency about clarifying the broadernatureof

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316 CULTURALANTHROPOLOGY

sexual asymmetries, which has resisted the tendency for these questions to be
subsumedwithin a localized ethnographyof genderrelations. The importanceof
comparisonemerges also from the fact that some kind of explicit discussion of
regional relationshipsand histories is necessary if older ethnological categories
and adjudicationsare not to be implicitly perpetuated.Many areal categories,
such as "Melanesia" and "Polynesia" live on in contemporaryanthropological
parlanceas thoughthey had linguistic or prehistoricalvalidity, while misleading
typificationsof regional social structuresand culturalforms provide silent contexts for ethnographiccase studies (cf. Thomas 1989b).
At this point it might seem desirable to present an example of the kind of
projectenvisaged here, but this would partlymisrepresentthe claims and intentions of the presentarticle.3 I do not appeal in a messianic mannerto a style of
workthat is unprecedented,which would be supposedto magically transcendthe
orientalizingcontrivanceandparticularismcharacteristicof the disciplineat present. Since this critiqueis directedat a kind of canonical work, it is obvious that
much anthropologicalwriting is not to be subsumedwithin that canon, and that
examplesof comparativeanalysis alreadyexist. The interestis thus in alteringthe
marginalstatusof thatgenre, and elaboratingupon it in certaindirections.
This is not to say, though, that there is an established style of comparison
that should simply be adopted and generalized. To the contrary,it appearsthat
much comparativework is inadequatebecause it is set up as a project secondary
to ethnography;one thatperhapsoperatesat a higherlevel of generality,and with
moretheoreticalambitions,but neverthelessone that is essentially parasiticupon
the richnessof what can be describedas "primarysources" (Strathern1988:10).
This is why it seems importantto establish an intermediatelevel of writing
betweenproblematicuniversalismand ethnographicillustration,a kind of writing
that incorporatesethnographybut is not subordinatedto it. At a theoreticallevel
this should be able to displace discourses of alterity by representingdifference
within culturesand difference among a plurality(as opposed to one-to-one contrast). It should be able to combine nuanced firsthandknowledge of particular
localities with the interpretationof a broaderrangeof "secondary" ethnographic
or "primary"historicaldescriptions.This type of groundingthus depends upon
a model of knowledge ratherdifferentto that implicit in various academicdisciplines, where there is a strong if generally implicit idea that writing ought generally to be based on one's own specialized and originalresearch.Otherwork is
often consignedto a secondaryor residualcategory, such as thatof the "literature
review" or textbook; even though it is obvious that many theoreticallycrucial
workshave not derivedfrom work thatwas primaryin an empiricalsense. A new
kindof post-ethnographicanthropologicalwritingwould presumethe sortof local
knowledge that has always been critical for representingcircumstancesboth at
home and abroad, but would refuse the bounds of conveniently sized localities
throughventuringto speak aboutregionalrelationsand histories. If case material
from a range of associated places cannot expose the historical contingency and
particulardeterminationof social and culturalforms that might otherwise be up-

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AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 317

held as relativizingethnologicalexhibits, it is difficult to see any other approach


thatcould sever anthropology'sroots in the colonial imagination.
WhatI'm suggesting, then, is not the old kind of positivist comparisonthat
seeks to establish general theories, but a form of analysis that uses a regional
frame to argue about processes of social change and diversity, that is critically
consciousof its own situationin a succession of Europeanrepresentationsof such
places, thatdevelops its argumentsstrategicallyandprovisionallyratherthanuniversally. The significance of regional comparisonarises from the fact that it is
concernedwith a pluralityof others, a field in which differenceemerges between
one context and the next, and does not take the radical form of alterityin a gulf
betweenobserversandobserved. Differenceis thushistoricallyconstituted,rather
than a fact of culturalstability. The contexts that can be explored are not necessarily fenced around as "other cultures" but include historical processes and
formsof exchange and communicationthathave permittedculturalappropriation
and transposition.The second strandof this conclusion is thus that while anthropology has dealt effectively with implicit meanings that can be situated in the
coherenceof one culture, contemporaryglobal processes of culturalcirculation
and reificationdemand an interest in meanings that are explicit and derivative.
Otherwisethe risk is thatour expectationsaboutothercultures, like those of Lord
Valentia, will preventus from seeing anythingin local mimicryor copying other
thanan inauthenticmasquerade.It's not clear that the unitarysocial system ever
was a good model for anthropologicaltheory, but the shortcomingsare now more
conspicuousthanever. We cannotunderstandculturalborrowings,accretions,or
locally distinctive variantsof cosmopolitan movements, while we privilege the
richnessof localized conversationandthe stableethnographythatcapturesit. The
nuances of village dialogues are unending, and their plays of tense and person
beguiling, but if we are to recover an intelligible debate beyond the multiplicity
of isolatedtongues we must surrendersomethingto the corruptionsof pidgins and
creoles, tradingothers' grammarsfor our own lexicons. Derivativelingua franca
have always offended those preoccupied with boundariesand authenticity, but
they offer a resonantmodel for the uncontainedtranspositionsand transcultural
meaningswhich culturalinquirymust now deal with.
Notes
Acknowledgments.The encouragementand commentsof HenriettaMoore, Pascal Boyer,
and MargaretJolly made it possible for me to write this article;but it should not be presumedthatany of these people agree with the positions advanced.
'Thediscursiveentity is obviously diverse, and the reificationrequiredby any disciplinary
critiquemustbe inaccuratewith respectto a varietyof idiosyncraticand innovativeworks.
My interesthere is not in establishingthat what is said applies to any single work (which
would prove nothingaboutthe genre) or the statisticalextent to which the claims apply to
the rangeof work.
2Theargumentshere should not be read to denigratethe work of writerssuch as Clifford
and Marcus, upon which they obviously depend. While I take much of what they have

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318 CULTURALANTHROPOLOGY

advancedto be essential to any novel and critical anthropology,my complaintis that the
questionof exoticism in contemporaryanthropologyhas been passedover-as thoughsuch
works as Anthropologyand the Colonial Encounter(Asad 1974) had expunged the problem.
3Thisperhapsaccountsfor the curiouslyprevalentmisconceptionthatthe authorsof Writing Culture(Cliffordand Marcus 1986) were puttingreflection, criticismor some kind of
theoreticalself-consciousnessin the place of primaryresearch;"it seems more than likely
thatthe book will provokea trendaway from doing anthropology,and towardsever more
barrencriticismand meta-criticism"(Spencer 1989:161). It was quite clear from Anthropology as CulturalCritique(Marcusand Fisher 1986) that at least two of the writerssaw
a kindof criticalethnography,ratherthanany criticismdetachedfrom ethnography,as the
centralprojectof the discipline;it might also be pointedout thatsince WritingCulturewas
publishedsome contributorsat least have producedother substantivestudies (e.g., Rabinow 1989) and not works of "metacriticism." The notion that the 1986 collection and
associated publicationsrepresentedan assault on ethnographyis thus clearly false; this
article departsfrom both WritingCulture and its aggrieved detractorsby insisting on a
fieldwork/ethnography
distinction and using that as a basis for doing what the reflexive
theoristshave been unjustifiablyaccused of doing-arguing that ethnography'stime has
passed.
4Thiswas intended,but not made properlyexplicit, in Out of Time (Thomas 1989a). The
presentarticleis intendedto some extent to be an amendmentto thatcritique,even though
it does not take up the questionof ethnography'slack of history, which was centralto my
book.
'This formof wordsmay suggest thatI do not regardcriticismsof Said's projectas justified;
I hope to explorethe topic of the receptionof Said's work in a separatearticle, butcan note
briefly here that I agree with some of the points made by Clifford, but believe that most
anthropologicalcritics have neglected the sense in which Orientalismis a work of specifically literaryscholarshipand secondly that it is but a partof a series of works thatoperate
at distinct levels of generalityand with distinct purposes (Said 1978, 1979, 1981, 1984,
1986; Said and Hitchins 1988). Some of these works are referredto by Clifford, but most
authorscite nothingotherthanOrientalism;I am not, of course, complainingaboutincomplete bibliographies,but draw attentionto the fact that Orientalismhas been criticizedfor
not doing things thatSaid actuallyhas done elsewhere.
6Strathern
however implies thatherpropositionsare simply intendedto generatenovel theoretical effects, as if the epistemological status of analytical fictions excludes both substantiveclaims, anddisputationbasedon the noncorrespondenceof a fictionwith evidence.
If this is in fact the position of the prefaceto The Genderof the Gift, it would seem at odds
with what are in fact substantivepropositionsin the body of the text, and also a stance that
ratherdisables one's own analysis. My view, which may or may not diverge from a position thatStratherndid not succeed in expressing unambiguously,is that analyticalfictions
are, like other forms of knowledge, partial(in the sense of being both interestedand incomplete), and because of this condition (ratherthan in spite of it), may offer an account
of thingsin the worldthatis adequatefor the purposesof a historicallysituatedcommunity
or arrayof people. Insofaras a fiction is seen to be representative,its substantiveclaims
are as trueas any of the otherthings we believe.
7My use of Negara as a model of the one-to-one contrastthat is fundamentalto ethnographicwriting is quite deliberate, since the historicalcharacterof the work makes it ob-

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AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 319

vious that ethnographycan and must be understoodat a separatelevel from fieldwork.


However, as Marcusand Fisherhave noted with respectto thatbook, the form of "cultural
criticism [offered] as epistemological critique . . . is also characteristicof many other
such works in anthropology"(1986:145).
8MarthaMacintyre,personalcommunication.
9Thispoint thatthese varietiesof culturalcritiquehave a darkside is generallypassed over
in Marcus and Fisher's discussion of various "techniques of culturalcritique in anthropology" (1986:137-164). It is still possible to take argumentsproceedingthroughphrases
such as "By contrast,Balinese conceptions of the state . . ." (p. 145) as thoughthey operatedonly upon the "Western" ideas thatare displaced. It shouldbe noted, however, that
they do discuss some of the shortcomingsof the "static, us-themjuxtaposition"(pp. 160162) and the ways in which consciousness has moved "to locate [an other culture] in a
time and space contemporaneouswith our own, and thus to see it as part of our world,
ratherthan as a mirroror alternative"(p. 134). However, their suggestions that cultural
critiquewould revolve aroundanythingotherthanjuxtapositionor the repatriationof methods employed to study the exotic are weakly developed. It is notable that what is loosely
called reflexive anthropologyhas not engaged much with feminism, while the perspective
advancedhere takes the feminist critique of perspectivaland political difference within
culturesas a model for breakingfrom a discourse preoccupiedwith difference between.
'0Accordingto Sahlins, world systems theoristsargue "that since the hinterlandsocieties
anthropologistshabituallystudyareopen to radicalchange, externallyimposedby Western
capitalistexpansion, the assumptionthat these societies work on some autonomouscultural-logiccannot be entertained.This is a confusion between an open system and a lack
of system" (1985:viii). The question that is not addressed, however, is quite what this
openness generates:in Sahlins' view, events and external intrusionsare creatively turned
to the purposesof a local culturalorder. This is to save structuralanthropology'sset of
originalmeaningsfrom historicaltransposition,and is an apt approach(irrespectiveof the
plausibilityof realizations)for historiesof early contact. The problemarises from the fact
thatthese hardlyexemplify global processes or even laterphases of colonial contact;here
the culturalramificationsareanalogousto linguisticcreolization.I do, however, agreewith
Sahlinsthat global systems theory is not up to the task of accountingfor "the diversityof
local responsesto the world-system-persisting, moreover, in its wake" (1985:viii).
"This distinction is abductedfrom the work of Peter De Bolla (1989:34 andpassim). It
will be obvious to anyonewho consults this book thatI have distortedandrecontextualized
the contrastfor my own purposes.
'2Thereare, however, arguablyrisks that authorialencompassmentis relocated covertly
throughthe refusalto enunciateprecise argumentsandmethodologicalclaims (cf. Kapferer
1988).
'3Acomparativestudy of exchange, transculturalmovementsof materialculture, and colonial historyin the Pacific (Thomasin press) does however attemptto exemplify the style
of comparativeand historicalanalysis advocatedhere.

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