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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but from an assumption that others must be different. . The problem of interpretation arises not from an ethnocentric expectation that other peoples are the same. as it may have been extended to cover history and gender. The room was very well lighted up.Against Ethnography Nicholas Thomas Australian National University In March 1803 Lord Valentia was traveling through Awadh. nationalism. " The dinner was French. syncretism. that their behavior will be recognizable on the basis of what is known about another culture. and a band of music (which the Nawaub had purchased from Colonel Morris) played English tunes during the whole time. the Mussulmauns drank none. and so contrary to all my ideas of Asiatic manners. from a failure to predict the local singularity of their manners and customs.. and even radical transformation in the discipline. and how processes such as borrowing. Can anthropology simply extend itself to talk about transposition. . with plenty of wine . for 306 . had not yet been liberated by the East India Company from Muslim oppression. experimentation. and they had two glasses of different sizes standing before them. or is there a sense in which the discipline's underlying concepts need to be mutilated or distorted.. This essay is concerned with anthropology's enduring exoticism. At Lucknow he was surprised to find in the Nawab's palace an extensive collection of curiosities. 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. The scene was so singular. as he observed. [although] the forbidden liquor was served in abundance on the table. that I could hardly persuade myself that the whole was not a masquerade. one conclusion of most efforts seems to be an affirmation of what has always been central. creolization. including' 'several thousand English prints framed and glazed . Clifford. and the reifications of local culture through colonial contact are to be reckoned with. and oppositional fabrications of custom. The visitor encounters not a stable array of "Asiatic manners" but what appears to be an unintelligible inauthenticity. [Valentia 1809 I: 143-144] This aristocratic colonial traveler's confusion could be taken to be emblematic of one of the predicaments of late 20th-century anthropology. and innumerable other articles of European manufacture. a part of north India which.

may be mainly associated with positivistic enumeration and claims about correlations. but Bourdieu' s Distinction (1984) absorbs those styles to a limited extent in a work of "social critique" that seems closer generically to an 18thcentury philosophical and empirical dissertation than it is to either the theory books or case studies of postwar sociology. a recent guide to method in economic anthropology claims that the "great future" of the subject arises from its "direct observation method of ethnographic analysis" (Gregory and Altman 1989:ix). to permit naive empiricist separations between observation and representation. The survey. sustains a hard distinction between practices of research and the particular kinds of writing that we recognize as "ethnographic. it might need to be acknowledged that ethnography can be written in the absence of fieldwork (setting aside the metaphorical extension of that term to encompass the archives). if not the specific arguments. fieldwork and ethnography are separable. and the writing of ethnography. since both research and writing are clearly political.. while leaving open the potential for another kind of writing energized by the experience of the field. Marcus and Fisher 1986: 18-19). of course. and equally to use similar research procedures toward divergent theoretical genres. and while methods admittedly constrain and influence forms of presentation. for instance."4 The purpose of such an assertion is not. distinctions are constantly effaced between fieldwork. and assume presentation in the standard form of the monograph (cf. Darnton 1984. rather than some kind of determinism: it is obviously possible to generate similar analytic discourses from very different research procedures. affirms that "ethnographic fieldwork remains an unusually sensitive method" for cross-cultural representation (1988:23-24) and Borofsky's relativizing exploration of anthropological constructions of knowledge concludes with rather bland reflections on the importance of ethnography (1987: 152-156). and the kinds of questions asked of it. one stable term in a highly eclectic and contested discipline. While methods and research techniques such as inquiry through conversation and sociological questionnaires may strongly influence the form in which information is presented. I take the overall perspective.AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 307 instance.g. This article.g. There seems therefore to be one point about which we are all convinced. Of course. 3 Gregory' and Altman like many conflate methods of observation and analysis.. in contrast. discursive practices. Spencer 1989). ethnographic analysis. Dening 1988) to write "ethnographic history" are recognized. The second feature of current debate relevant here is that while' 'writing" and "writing-up" have been increasingly problematized (in a manner which is essentially necessary and constructive). if the claims of cultural historians (e. While most comments on what has been variously called reflexive or postmodernist anthropology have been reactive and negative (e.2 In a very different genre. the relationships between practical research technologies and forms of writing should be evoked in a notion of mutual entanglement. My argument is thus that while ways of observing and ways of representing are often tangled up. of works such as Writ- . and that at present it helps to situate the enduring problems of anthropological vision in the constitution of the ethnographic genre.

One obstacle here is the commonsense epistemology of the discipline-which no doubt accords with a broader cultural model-that understands knowledge primarily in quantitative terms. despite a plethora of topics and approaches. the response has often been qualified or critical (e. that the problems I discuss are analogous to illnesses. and more can be known about a particular topic by adding other ways of perceiving it. the charge of exoticism is only partly justified. in the constitution of ethnographic discourse. This is essentially a model borrowed from feminist anthropology: as those critiques developed. Boxer quoted in Moore 1987:2-3). This article however attempts to move beyond the current debate by situating problematic features of anthropology. Exoticism Although Edward Said's work has aroused considerable interest in anthropology. it must be said that this overlooks the fact that the presentation of other cultures retains canonical status within the discipline. My preferred metaphor would situate the causes of an array of moments of blindness and insight in the constitution of a discipline's analytic technology: particular kinds of overlooking arise from research methods. there are still strong prescriptions that certain anthropological projects (such as those dealing with tribal religions) are more anthropological than others. even thought it is partly a misunderstanding prevalent outside the discipline. that "academic fields could not be cured by sexism simply by accretion" (C. Defects are absences that can be rectified through the addition of further information. "Bias" is thus associated with a lack and can be rectified or balanced out by the addition of further perspectives. the converse also applies. such as the tendency to exoticism. The object of my critique is thus an "analytical fiction" in Marilyn Strathern's sense (1988: 10). It is not clear. and are concerned with universal humanity as well as cultural difference.g.. however. That is.5 It is sometimes asserted that because anthropologists have engaged in many studies of European or American societies. Marcus and Fisher 1986: 1-2~ Clifford 1988:255-276). and partly something that practitioners continue to impose upon themselves and most particularly their graduate students. But if what is said here applies only in a partial way to work remote from canonical types. the fabrication of alterity is not so much a blight or distortion to be excised or exorcised. and genres of representation.6 and this reified idea of a diverse discipline can only be unfair and unrepresentati ve of a variety of innovative approaches.308 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY ing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and The Predicament of Culture (Clifford 1988) for granted. but a project central to ethnography's rendering of the proper study of man. The arguments here deploy this stereotypic construct. . Without disputing either that work carried out under the name of anthropology has been extraordinarily diverse. ways of understanding concepts. it became apparent that the essentially imbalanced character of anthropological accounts of society could not be corrected without complex scrutiny of methods and analysis. or that a misleading stereotype of the discipline has wide currency. and the critique is valid insofar as anthropological texts actually do take the form of ethnographic depictions of other cultures.

Although gestures are made toward the idea of common humanity and sometimes to cultural universals. And no doubt they do. the Balinese different concepts of time. This operation clearly gives the discipline enormous scope and potential. in contrast Hagen people have "no nature. Gewertz (1984. 7 A strand in feminist anthropology establishes that cultural oppositions elsewhere set up as universals are peculiar to the West. obviously. no culture" (Strathem 1980). and the reasonable reaction against the imposition of European categories upon practices and ideas which. papers that might show how un-exotic and un-alien other people's worlds are never getting written or read" (1989:460. Insofar as this is stipulated by this form of anthropological rhetoric. Accurate ethnographic representation of stable and unitary cultures thus conveys the radical difference of other peoples' original practices and beliefs. It does not depict a succession of meanings and transpositions that make cultures partly derivative and mutually entangled. while caste in modem India has clearly been profoundly influenced by British codification and the transformation of warrior kings into bearers of hollow crowns (Dirks 1987) the most famous anthropological account (Dumont 1980) is concerned above all with the opposition between Indian hierarchy and . cf. And the machine of relativist displacement can work very effectively upon its own products: while Mead exposed the cultural specificity of certain American personality types. are generally very marginal to a discipline dominated by the sensitivity of the local case study). More recently. because it can proceed from topic to topic exposing previously unrecognized cultural differences: the Samoans have a different concept of the person. criteria of publishability. 469). the Australian Aborigines different constructions of space and geography. the central theme of Borofsky's Making History was' 'how Pukapukans and anthropologists come to possess different 'ways of knowing' " (l987:xvii). the Tahitians different ideas of growth and age. and theoretical principles of our discipline. Margaret Mead's Samoa destabilized certain ideas about sex roles. For instance. "because of the reward structures. while the Balinese polities of Geertz's Negara (1980) confound and deny the central tenets of Western political thought. Errington and Gewertz 1987) has taken Mead to task for her own unreflective deployment of Western constructions of the individual. the postulate operates at such an abstract level that it does not override the radical difference imputed to such people as the Balinese (and those works that actually are concerned with universals. Without wishing to deprive the discipline of a thousand dissertation topics. it must be recognized that there is great scope for slippage from the appropriate recognition of difference. the discipline is a discourse of alterity that magnifies the distance between "others" and "ourselves" while suppressing mutual entanglement and the perspectival and political fracturing of the cultures of both observers and observed. while the Japanese presumably have a different conceptual model of a restaurant menu. for instance in cognition and language. As Keesing has recently observed.AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 309 Anthropology's most enduring rhetorical form uses a rich presentation of one stable and distant culture to relativize cherished and unexamined notions imputed to culture at home. often are different. to an idea that other people must be different.

and that cultural differences are inconsequential. In justifying the use of English categories such as "class" and "capitalist" in the analysis of Indian history. while informants in the societies of the "kula ring" frequently make analogies between the famous shell valuables (that they sometimes call "Papuan money") and European cash. I am not saying that people are all the same. it is ludicrous if anthropological commentary continues primarily to place such peoples in another domain.. it must similarl y be acknowledged that Mead's theoretical orientation and literary flair led her to render Samoan freedom as the mirror of American constraint. The proposition that the gift is only intelligible as an inversion of the category of the commodity hardly requires extended discussion here (but cf. There are. or set of notions is the real object of interest. While the power-claims of cultural ethnography have been based on rigor in cultural translation. since the most persuasive and theoretically consequential ethnographic rhetoric represents the other essentially as an inversion of whatever Western institution.? upon a showcase approach to other cultures that is now politically unacceptable. This is in fact more accurately described as contrast. but these themes could hardly be said to have the same centrality for the discipline as the operation of imputing difference between cultures. Beliefs and notions that are not different take on the appearance of difference through the process of apparent translation. Bayly recently suggested that although there are "dangers in glib comparison . and perspectival differences between men and women. Fabian 1983). in a space that establishes the difference and contingency of our own practice (cf. disagreement about beliefs. Hence Balinese theater and aesthetics stand against the mechanical and narrowly political Western understanding of the state. those in other disciplines appear to have had a more balanced view of the problems of translation and exoticism. the challenge is not to do away with cultural difference. through a discourse of the translation of culture. For instance. at least in the minimal sense that they aimed to affirm the value of other cultures and express a certain scepticism about "Western" ideas that were taken to be natural and eternal. less ethnocentric account of local belief." that strand of local discourse is not conspicuous in the cultural ethnography of the Massim. it is notable that matter to be translated must come from somewhere different. Many works of the relativizing style were or are intended to be critical. The claim that anthropology is concerned with difference within as well as between cultures is excessively charitable. in its homogenization of others and implicit denial of the significance of migrant cultures within the West. practice. But the cultural critique depended upon the fabrication of alterity.. excessive Orientalist purism has done little except make India seem peculiar to the outside world" (l988:x). Although there are sceptics within anthropology (Keesing 1989). . of course. works that deal with conflict.310 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY the individualism of the West (and ironically also with the alleged superiority of purity over power). without endorsing Freeman's style of critique or ethological non sequiturs. and. Parry 1986:466---467). in a more faithful. there is clearly a certain selectivity. that facilitates a professional potlatch of sophisticated interpretations. After so many decades of "economic development" and conflict in tribal and third world societies.

between those who hold fast to what is valorized as local identity and those who appear to abandon it to become Christians. then it is clear that there are many circumstances in which these conditions exist. the number of cases in which showcase counterpositioning overtly animates analysis is considerable. From this perspective. the distinctiveness of a "culture. of course. the notion of what constitutes cultural difference seems to be restricted to distinction between an undefined "West" and another domain of experience and meaning. as well as the implicit ethnic categories that separate different "cultures. class. the separation between these terms energizes the interpretive project of ethnography. The tendency to exoticize others could be regarded as a quirk of the individuals who become anthropologists. to express the point differently. However. The contrastive operation discussed is almost inherent in any text that explicates." A monograph is not about "other cultures" but rather another culture. but the concept itself can no longer stand as the ruling concept of a modem anthropology. given that one of the reasons for engaging in research is to gather material that serves a particular argument. between those who stay in the countryside and those who have left." Or. Mormons. because it addresses only one form of difference among many" (1987:9). the notion that fieldwork entails partaking of alterity and thus requires an account of cultural difference is manifestly insufficient. or communists. and various other criteria. be situated in difference among anthropologists. But the point that is profoundly mystified in contemporary anthropological consciousness concerns the forms and diversity of the differences at issue. It could also. Though elaborated for the purposes of collective professional self approbation. exoticism can only be disposed of by disposing of ethnography. If one is seeking out contexts in which a sense of "not fitting" or "being elsewhere" facilitates heightened awareness of the singularity and contingency of both the culture of the situation and one's own assumptions. The second suggestion might seem compelling. sex. Insofar as this is what ethnographic writing is about. Hence. this notion of inquiry and interpretation from a liminal perspective clearly cannot be dismissed. "understanding cultural difference is essential. All the crucial questions are passed over because a multiplicity of cultural differences are condensed. as Moore has noted. and the fact that this must at some level be treated as a bounded and stable system makes implicit contrast with a home-point almost inevitable even where there is no explicit one-to-one juxtaposition. and the voices of those without authority. and it is obvious also that the crucial differences relate to age. or purports to explicate. There are numerous contexts in "Western" cultures in which alienation or foreignness facilitate cultural critique (a south London black woman in an Ox bridge college). but to integrate this more effectively with historical perceptions and a sense of the unstable and politically contested character of culture.AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 311 and with what is locally distinctive. by breaking from one-to-one presentation into modes that disclose . or an inevitable consequence of the encounter of fieldwork. while difference might also be situated between the sort of self-conscious exposition of local culture that is often offered by senior men. given the pervasive notion of fieldwork as the experience of an individual from one culture in another.

A discourse of something. The authoritative claims of the latter are highly self-referential. It might thus be argued merely on literary grounds that it is about time for the rhetorical form to be disfigured. However. but constantly creates discursive and analytical effects that can only be understood in terms of categories that are already internal to the discourse. for instance. 10 It might be added that the theme of the difference of the other has been as overplayed in anthropology as has the body in the library in detective fiction. and theoretical categories are conftated in the very process of revealing and rendering. the second type makes strong claims to external authority and supposes an analytic apparatus that is not subsumed by the matter with which it deals. Anthropological texts legitimize the specificity of their case materials and the localized and particular character of analysis by their bearing upon problems that are taken to be theoretically consequential-the efficacy of ritual. and so on. there can be no external validation of statements because the object. while the particularizing effect of ethnographic discourse is not merely unproductive theoretically but also associated with professional introversion and a failure to engage in wider discussion. But what operation does the analytic technology of ethnography perform upon these questions? The argument here presupposes that our genre is a discourse of ethnography and not a discourse upon it. the intersection of status and power. The Subsumption of Theory The status of ethnography might also be problematized from an epistemological perspective.312 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY other registers of cultural difference and that replace' 'cultural systems" with less stable and more derivative discourses and practices. their local incorporation. These have a systemic character. interpretative agency. on the other hand. may attempt to depict or analyze something that is external to it. There is. but a dialectical account must do justice to the transposition of meanings. the basis of gender asymmetries. the ritual structures of divine kingship. this epistemological argument is also grounded politically: exoticism conveys a false view of historical entanglement and the transposition of meaning. This is to open up a second line of criticism seemingly less motivated by a political consideration (the objectionable aspect of inventing alterity) than a theoretical one: the view that the ethnographic genre localizes questions and thus refracts rather than generates any wider theoretical resolution or cultural critique. and the discourse of politics manifested in the speech of a professional politician or activist. An enormous amount of anthropology is motivated by questions at a high level of generality. even ironic renderings (the body in the video library) seem merely to reproduce an established style that is not just unoriginal but seems rapidly to be becoming sterile. the nature of gift exchange. I I The question here is of the extent to which writing is or is not contained by the process of representing its object. an obvious difference between the ostensibly apolitical theoretical discourse upon politics in the academic discipline of political science. .

What for one reader appear as clear tools are highly contrived for another. the synthetic aims of adequate description . This is very obvious in some recent cultural ethnographies. . the analysis is brilliantly effective. or the reverse-that the elaboration of theoretical vocabulary is merely illustrated by indigenous counterparts. must deploy deliberate fictions to that end" (1988: 10). like all similar analytic fictions. Such an impression instead derives merely from distinct subjective reactions to different theoretical paradigms and devices such as Munn's neologisms. The view adopted here. For example. but the proposition put forward here is in fact that depiction. Ethnography thus establishes things in an empirically isolated and strictly illustrative manner. . . and case materials. . The premise here is that any scholarly discourse is an illustrative outcome of a conjuncture of theoretical interests. In this case.AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 313 The mode of representation recursively intertwines the moments of transcription. it is clear that these binary categories. for instance. questions of interest do not relate to the relative proportions of these terms-that quantitative epistemological metaphor having been eschewed-but instead concern the particular ways of seeing permitted or disabled by available disciplinary forms. but there are few spaces for adjudicating plausibility or implausibility independently of internal coherence. theory and analysis are characterized by a high degree of mutual dependence. The most conspicuous feature of the discourse of ethnography is a disjunction between general questions in social and cultural theory of the kind mentioned . but the distinction can have theoretical effect if it is associated particularly with the discourse of ethnography. Of course. cases stand by themselves. cannot ultimately be sustained as polar types. it would be incorrect to consider this state of textual self-referentiality as a quantity present in some works to a greater degree than others. which may be counterintuitive. and there is little scope for rereading ethnographic material that is separable from the analysis from the perspective of a different kind of inquiry. The assessment of a useful ethnographic book depends above all upon the persuasive fictions of its analysis. Strathern's claims about her own methods may not reflect views about the general condition of ethnographic writing. but from the perspective of this argument. disciplinary procedures. I am not saying that prior assumptions play too substantial a role in the production of accounts of other cultures. with Freeman's' 'falsification" of Mead). explication of the terms for transcription. and their adequacy depends more on the effects created through internal analytical narration than either external theoretical validation or an interest in the replicability of findings (setting aside the naive positivistic claims associated. Munn's book might be regarded as an extreme case. and the explanatory devices that position the products of transcription. is that writing ethnography into the premises of analysis is a basic condition of the genre. I take Strathern to endorse Runciman's suggestion that the conventional understanding of the relationship between explanation and description be inverted: "Good descriptions in tum have to be grounded in theory . in The F arne of Gawa (Munn 1986) there is a strong sense that no operation takes place outside the elaboration of indigenous categories in theoretical terms.

and was not necessarily articulated with gender. which epitomized the scope and force of Woman. Ethnography thus disposed of a general argument and affirmed the difference and specificity of other cultures. into shallower water. could not be seen as a cultural universal. but that there was no way of moving back from these critiques to any similar argument at the same level of generality. arguing that the various criticisms were not reasonable." Hence the narrative and biographical genres of conventional history were ultimately more important than the fact that certain kinds . Although there is a direct parallel with the dismissal of travelers' reports in anthropology. but any revelations are ethnographically contained. While similar contrasts sometimes were present. The illustrative material can be seen in a singular way. Insofar as prehistory is a discourse of archaeology. This was transposed to the register of ethnography in an influential collection of critiques (Strathern and MacCormack 1980) that argued that the nature/culture opposition was a singular form in Western thought. and it is not surprising at all that the equally significant and generalized arguments of Rosaldo and Chodorow. the effect of the critique was to expose a form of difference between these societies and Western thought that had passed unrecognized in Ortner's analysis. social. but appears to be capable of moving only in one direction. and behavioral reconstruction that is at once partial and inevitably circular. I am not. Departures At this point I wish to establish a certain distance from the argument that I have developed. Nature.314 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY above and a way of writing that by its nature cannot resolve them.practice of fieldwork is less disabling than the dominance of a narrow range of ways in which fieldwork is "written up. see also Gewertz 1988 on Bamberger 1974). Culture and Society (Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974) have been criticized on analogous grounds (Moore 1987:22-24. by stressing that analogous propositions could be developed about any academic discourse that is tightly connected with a particular methodology or form of writing. it should be stressed that the discipline's investment in the . Culture and Gender offers no basis for any theory comparable to Ortner's. and were associated with gender in indigenous symbolic systems. of course. The dominant process that takes place as issues of theoretical consequence are worked through ethnographically is subsumption. such devaluation arises necessarily in a discipline that defines itself around rigorous work on a certain kind of material. The point here is not simply that the particular thesis advanced by Ortner was ethnographically disfigured. it is a prisoner of a certain kind of historical. Some similar points might be made about the inevitability of denying the worth of oral traditions from the perspective of archive-bound conventional history. but am concerned with the epistemological point that the discipline is supposed to tack between general questions and ethnography. This may be briefly illustrated through reference to the ethnographic critiques of Ortner's important argument that universal gender asymmetry could be explained on the basis of pervasive associations between the male/female and culture/nature contrasts (Ortner 1974).

though. g.AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 315 of "primary" research might be privileged. but to suggest that crucial flaws are associated with the canonical model. which is obviously a crucial way of learning. A book absorbed by a culture absorbed in a book cannot produce a discourse upon ethnography. At the same time the one-to-one juxtaposition that this form normally entails can only establish stability at a certain distance from the culture imputed to the reader. and that are energized by forms of difference not contained within the us/them fiction. through the claim to fix up one line of inquiry by adding from another. the truth of the ethnographic case depends upon its original and nonderivative relation with the "us" to which it is opposed. it is not one that supposes that some other scholarly discipline provides a model for a relationship between initial general questions and the analytic form of the genre where the latter sustains rather than subverts the former. that ethnographies that turn upon local comparison (e. The point here. It follows from this. of course. Montage clearly refracts and displaces the pursuit of stable cultures through a succession of historical and experiential contexts (as in Taussig 1987) and offers the most effective and radical assault upon anthropology's tendency to fix a unitary symbolic system at a distance. Both of these features of contemporary anthropology have a strong association with the dominance of ethnographic writing. 12 Here. If there was merely a problem of self-deception. a discourse that uses ethnography to generate a wider argument. however. if the hegemonic genres of anthropological writing now present themselves mainly as styles to be disfigured. I argue for an approach that in a sense is more grounded in conventional interests in an interpretative project. The association between exoticism and the marked tendency for ethnography to render theoretical questions internal to local analyses is thus not entirely contingent. The aim of this article is not to condemn anything like the whole discipline. in analysis that works upon larger problems toward a wider generative account of social and cultural phenomena. rather than some superficial subjective interest in cultural authenticity. Fox 1977. The value of a method not contained by ethnography is apparent from its use from some feminist perspectives (Collier and Rosaldo 1981): there is still a sense of political urgency about clarifying the broader nature of . Leach 1954. which presents cultures as unitary totalities. this would presumably have been expunged long ago.. the positive alternatives are not to be constituted through the old game of interdisciplinary borrowing. From this perspective the reinvigoration of comparative anthropology appears to be crucial. White 1981) are likely to be less enmeshed in this orientalizing and particularizing logic to the extent that dimensions of difference disconnected from the us/them fiction are analytically consequential. is that while this is a critique of ethnography's anthropology. The potential responses are diverse. The persistence of exoticism arises from the fact that it is precisely what ethnography is directed to produce. It is perhaps necessary to reiterate the earlier point that these arguments have nothing to do with fieldwork. The argument is rather that fieldwork should be drawn into other kinds of writing that move into the space between the theoretical and universal and the local and ethnographic.

it is obvious that much anthropological writing is not to be subsumed within that canon. To the contrary. such as "Melanesia" and "Polynesia" live on in contemporary anthropological parlance as though they had linguistic or prehistorical validity. but would refuse the bounds of conveniently sized localities through venturing to speak about regional relations and histories. that there is an established style of comparison that should simply be adopted and generalized. If case material from a range of associated places cannot expose the historical contingency and particular determination of social and cultural forms that might otherwise be up- . Thomas 1989b). At a theoretical level this should be able to displace discourses of alterity by representing difference within cultures and difference among a plurality (as opposed to one-to-one contrast). where there is a strong if generally implicit idea that writing ought generally to be based on one's own specialized and original research. but nevertheless one that is essentially parasitic upon the richness of what can be described as "primary sources" (Strathem 1988: 10). one that perhaps operates at a higher level of generality. but this would partly misrepresent the claims and intentions of the present article. This is why it seems important to establish an intermediate level of writing between problematic universalism and ethnographic illustration.316 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY sexual asymmetries. At this point it might seem desirable to present an example of the kind of project envisaged here. and elaborating upon it in certain directions. 13 I do not appeal in a messianic manner to a style of work that is unprecedented. though. It should be able to combine nuanced firsthand knowledge of particular localities with the interpretation of a broader range of "secondary" ethnographic or "primary" historical descriptions. it appears that much comparative work is inadequate because it is set up as a project secondary to ethnography. a kind of writing that incorporates ethnography but is not subordinated to it. which would be supposed to magically transcend the orientalizing contrivance and particularism characteristic of the discipline at present. This type of grounding thus depends upon a model of knowledge rather different to that implicit in various academic disciplines. while misleading typifications of regional social structures and cultural forms provide silent contexts for ethnographic case studies (cf. This is not to say. which has resisted the tendency for these questions to be subsumed within a localized ethnography of gender relations. Many areal categories. and with more theoretical ambitions. The interest is thus in altering the marginal status of that genre. The importance of comparison emerges also from the fact that some kind of explicit discussion of regional relationships and histories is necessary if older ethnological categories and adjudications are not to be implicitly perpetuated. A new kind of post-ethnographic anthropological writing would presume the sort of local knowledge that has always been critical for representing circumstances both at home and abroad. and that examples of comparative analysis already exist. Other work is often consigned to a secondary or residual category. even though it is obvious that many theoretically crucial works have not derived from work that was primary in an empirical sense. Since this critique is directed at a kind of canonical work. such as that of the' 'literature review" or textbook.

will prevent us from seeing anything in local mimicry or copying other than an inauthentic masquerade. Otherwise the risk is that our expectations about other cultures. a field in which difference emerges between one context and the next. and the reification required by any disciplinary critique must be inaccurate with respect to a variety of idiosyncratic and innovative works. or locally distinctive variants of cosmopolitan movements. It's not clear that the unitary social system ever was a good model for anthropological theory. Notes Acknowledgments. Difference is thus historically constituted. While I take much of what they have . but it should not be presumed that any of these people agree with the positions advanced. The encouragement and comments of Henrietta Moore. The nuances of village dialogues are unending. while we privilege the richness of localized conversation and the stable ethnography that captures it. "Ihe arguments here should not be read to denigrate the work of writers such as Clifford and Marcus. and does not take the radical form of alterity in a gulf between observers and observed. is not the old kind of positivist comparison that seeks to establish general theories. We cannot understand cultural borrowings. trading others' grammars for our own lexicons. but the shortcomings are now more conspicuous than ever . that is critically conscious of its own situation in a succession of European representations of such places. upon which they obviously depend. Derivative lingua franca have always offended those preoccupied with boundaries and authenticity. The contexts that can be explored are not necessarily fenced around as "other cultures" but include historical processes and forms of exchange and communication that have permitted cultural appropriation and transposition. 'The discursive entity is obviously diverse. Pascal Boyer. What I'm suggesting. but a form of analysis that uses a regional frame to argue about processes of social change and diversity. then. it is difficult to see any other approach that could sever anthropology's roots in the colonial imagination. like those of Lord Valentia. The significance of regional comparison arises from the fact that it is concerned with a plurality of others. My interest here is not in establishing that what is said applies to any single work (which would prove nothing about the genre) or the statistical extent to which the claims apply to the range of work. accretions. contemporary global processes of cultural circulation and reification demand an interest in meanings that are explicit and derivative. and their plays of tense and person beguiling. rather than a fact of cultural stability.AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 317 held as relativizing ethnological exhibits. and Margaret Jolly made it possible for me to write this article. but if we are to recover an intelligible debate beyond the multiplicity of isolated tongues we must surrender something to the corruptions of pidgins and creoles. that develops its arguments strategically and provisionally rather than universally. but they offer a resonant model for the uncontained transpositions and transcultural meanings which cultural inquiry must now deal with. The second strand of this conclusion is thus that while anthropology has dealt effectively with implicit meanings that can be situated in the coherence of one culture.

my complaint is that the question of exoticism in contemporary anthropology has been passed over-as though such works as Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (Asad 1974) had expunged the problem. "This form of words may suggest that I do not regard criticisms of Said's project as justified. criticism or some kind of theoretical self-consciousness in the place of primary research. it would seem at odds with what are in fact substantive propositions in the body of the text. "This was intended." The notion that the 1986 collection and associated publications represented an assault on ethnography is thus clearly false. which was central to my book. I am not. "Srrathern however implies that her propositions are simply intended to generate novel theoretical effects. but not made properly explicit. "This perhaps accounts for the curiously prevalent misconception that the authors of Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) were putting reflection. complaining about incomplete bibliographies. this article departs from both Writing Culture and its aggrieved detractors by insisting on a fieldwork/ethnography distinction and using that as a basis for doing what the reflexive theorists have been unjustifiably accused of doing-arguing that ethnography's time has passed. but draw attention to the fact that Orientalism has been criticized for not doing things that Said actually has done elsewhere. partial (in the sense of being both interested and incomplete). 7My use of Negara as a model of the one-to-one contrast that is fundamental to ethnographic writing is quite deliberate. since the historical character of the work makes it ob- . but most authors cite nothing other than Orientalism. but can note briefly here that I agree with some of the points made by Clifford. its substantive claims are as true as any of the other things we believe. may offer an account of things in the world that is adequate for the purposes of a historically situated community or array of people. 1979. 1984. which mayor may not diverge from a position that Strathern did not succeed in expressing unambiguously. The present article is intended to some extent to be an amendment to that critique.318 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY advanced to be essential to any novel and critical anthropology. It was quite clear from Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Marcus and Fisher 1986) that at least two of the writers saw a kind of critical ethnography. is that analytical fictions are. If this is in fact the position of the preface to The Gender of the Gift. My view. as if the epistemological status of analytical fictions excludes both substantive claims. in Out of Time (Thomas 1989a). Some of these works are referred to by Clifford. but believe that most anthropological critics have neglected the sense in which Orientalism is a work of specifically literary scholarship and secondly that it is but a part of a series of works that operate at distinct levels of generality and with distinct purposes (Said 1978. and disputation based on the noncorrespondence of a fiction with evidence. I hope to explore the topic of the reception of Said's work in a separate article. even though it does not take up the question of ethnography's lack of history. 1986~ Said and Hitchins 1988). like other forms of knowledge. and towards ever more barren criticism and meta-criticism" (Spencer 1989: 161).. and also a stance that rather disables one's own analysis. "it seems more than likely that the book will provoke a trend away from doing anthropology. it might also be pointed out that since Writing Culture was published some contributors at least have produced other substantive studies (e. Rabinow 1989) and not works of "metacriticism. Insofar as a fiction is seen to be representative.g. as the central project of the discipline. rather than any criticism detached from ethnography. 1981. and because of this condition (rather than in spite of it). of course.

However. arguably risks that authorial encompassment is relocated covertly through the refusal to enunciate precise arguments and methodological claims (cf. "Martha Macintyre. while the perspective advanced here takes the feminist critique of perspectival and political difference within cultures as a model for breaking from a discourse preoccupied with difference between. "This distinction is abducted from the work of Peter De Bolla (1989:34 and passim).AGAINST ETHNOGRAPHY 319 vious that ethnography can and must be understood at a separate level from fieldwork. is quite what this openness generates: in Sahlins' view. however. Kapferer 1988). Talal. 13 A comparative study of exchange. It is still possible to take arguments proceeding through phrases such as "By contrast.. References Cited Asad. It will be obvious to anyone who consults this book that I have distorted and recontextualized the contrast for my own purposes. ed. I do. is also characteristic of many other such works in anthropology" (1986: 145). and thus to see it as part of our world. "This point that these varieties of cultural critique have a dark side is generally passed over in Marcus and Fisher's discussion of various "techniques of cultural critique in anthropology" (1986:137-164). The problem arises from the fact that these hardly exemplify global processes or even later phases of colonial contact. rather than as a mirror or alternative" (p. 10According to Sahlins. . events and external intrusions are creatively turned to the purposes of a local cultural order. moreover. However. It should be noted. that they do discuss some of the shortcomings of the" static. as Marcus and Fisher have noted with respect to that book.. The question that is not addressed. us-them juxtaposition" (pp. 1974 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. the form of "cultural criticism [offered] as epistemological critique . " (p. 134). . the assumption that these societies work on some autonomous cultural-logic cannot be entertained. in its wake" (1985:viii). and is an apt approach (irrespective of the plausibility of realizations) for histories of early contact. This is a confusion between an open system and a lack of system" (1985:viii). world systems theorists argue "that since the hinterland societies anthropologists habitually study are open to radical change. however. Balinese conceptions of the state . here the cultural ramifications are analogous to linguistic creolization. however. personal communication. London: Ithaca. . This is to save structural anthropology's set of original meanings from historical transposition. externally imposed by Western capitalist expansion. 160162) and the ways in which consciousness has moved "to locate [an other culture] in a time and space contemporaneous with our own. 145) as though they operated only upon the "Western" ideas that are displaced. It is notable that what is loosely called reflexive anthropology has not engaged much with feminism. agree with Sahlins that global systems theory is not up to the task of accounting for' 'the diversity of local responses to the world-system-persisting. their suggestions that cultural critique would revolve around anything other than juxtaposition or the repatriation of methods employed to study the exotic are weakly developed. "There are. transcultural movements of material culture. however. and colonial history in the Pacific (Thomas in press) does however attempt to exemplify the style of comparative and historical analysis advocated here.

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