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43 Writing Against Culture

Lila Abu-Lughod

Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986), the depends. I will argue that "culture" operates in an-
collection that marked a major new form of critique thropological discourse to enforce separations that
of cultural anthropology's premises, more or less inevitably carry a sense of hierarchy. Therefore, an-
excluded two critical groups whose situations neatly thropologists should now pursue, without exagger-
expose and challenge the most basic of those prem- ated hopes for the power of their texts to change the
ises: feminists and "halfies" - people whose national world, a variety of strategies for writing against
or cultural identity is mixed by virtue of migration, culture. For those interested in textual strategies,
overseas education, or parentage.I In his introduc- I explore the advantages of what I call "ethnograph-
tion, Clifford (1986a) apologizes for the feminist ies of the particular" as instruments of a tactical
absence; no one mentions halfies or the indigenous humanism.
anthropologists to whom they are related. Perhaps
they are not yet numerous enough or sufficiently
self-defined as a group.2 The importance of these
two groups lies not in any superior moral claim or Selves and Others
advantage they might have in doing anthropology,
but in the special dilemmas they face,dilemmas that
reveal starkly the problems with cultural anthropol- The notion of culture (especiallyas it functions to
ogy's assumption of a fundamental distinction be- distinguish "cultures"), despite a long usefulness,
tween self and other. may now have become something anthropologists
In this essay I explore how feminists and halfies, would want to work against in their theories, their
by the way their anthropological practice unsettles ethnographic practice, and their ethnographic writ-
the boundary between self and other, enable us to ing. A helpful way to begin to grasp why is to
reflect on the conventional nature and political ef- consider what the shared elements of feminist and
fects of this distinction and ultimately to reconsider halfie anthropology clarify about the self/other dis-
the value of the concept of culture on which it tinction central to the paradigm of anthropology.

From Richard G. Fox, Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press,
1991), pp. 137-54, 161-2. Copyright @ 1991 by the School of American Research, Santa Fe, USA. Reprinted by
permission.
WRITING AGAINST CULTURE 467

WarilynStrathern (1985, 1987) raises some of the West, at least since the birth of anthropology,
8Ale5regarding feminism in essays that both Clif- has been constituted by Western domination. This
Ud and Rabinow cited in Writing Culture. Her suggests that the awkwardness Strathern senses in
~is is that the relationship between anthropology the relationship between feminism and anthropol-
md feminism is awkward.This thesis leadsher to try ogy might better be understood as the result of
-- understandwhyfeministscholarship,in spiteof diametrically opposed processesof self-construction
~ rhetoric of radicalism, has failed to fundamen- through opposition to others - processes that begin
Dllv alter anthropology, and why feminism has from different sides of a power divide.
~ed even less from anthropology than vice versa. The enduring strength of what Morsy (1988: 70)
The awkwardness,she argues, arises from the fact has called "the hegemony of the distinctive-other
;::at despite a common interest in differences, the tradition" in anthropology is betrayed by the defen-
-.dIolarlypractices of feminists and anthropologists sivenessof partial exceptions.Anthropologists [ . . . ]
Je "differently structured in the way they organize conducting fieldwork in the United States or Europe
mowledge and draw boundaries" (Strathern 1987: wonder whether they have not blurred the discip-
:39) and especially in "the nature of the investiga- linary boundaries between anthropology and other
~ors' relationship to their subject matter" (1987: fields such as sociologyor history. One wayto retain
:M). Feminist scholars, united by their common their identities as anthropologists is to make the
JPposition to men or to patriarchy, produce a dis- communities they study seem "other." Studying eth-
.:oursecomposed of many voices;they "discoverthe nic communities and the powerless assures this.3So
idf by becoming conscious of oppression from the does concentrating on "culture" [...], for reasons I
Other" (1987: 289). Anthropologists, whose goal is will discuss later. There are two issues here. One is
"w make sense of differences" (1987: 286), also the conviction that one cannot be objective about
constitute their "selves" in relation to an other, but one's own society,something that affectsindigenous
do not view this other as "under attack" (1987:289). anthropologists (Westernor non-Western). The sec-
In higWighting the self/other relationship, ond is a tacit understanding that anthropologists
5ttathern takes us to the heart of the problem. Yet study the non-West; halfies who study their own
ihe retreats from the problematic of power (granted or related non-Western communities are still more
~ formative in feminism) in her strangely uncritical easily recognizable as anthropologists than Ameri-
~iction of anthropology. When she defines an- cans who study Americans.
auopology as a discipline that "continues to know If anthropology continues to be practiced as the
;LSelfas the study of social behavior or society in study by an unproblematic and unmarked Western
:erms of systems and collective representations" self of found "others" out there, feminist theory, an
1987:281), she underplays the self/other distinc- academic practice that also traffics in selves and
non. In characterizing the relationship between an- others, has in its relatively short history come to
duopological self and other as nonadversarial, she realize the danger of treating selves and others as
ignores its most fundamental aspect. Anthropol- givens. It is instructive for the development of a
ogy'savowed goal may be "the study of man [sic]," critique of anthropology to consider the trajectory
out it is a discipline built on the historically con- that has led, within two decades, to what some
structed divide between the West and the non-West. might call a crisis in feminist theory, and others,
:t has been and continues to be primarily the study the development of postfeminism.
of the non-Western other by the Western self,even if From Simone de Beauvoir on, it has been
in its new guise it seeksexplicitlyto givevoice to the accepted that, at least in the modern West, women
Other or to present a dialogue between the self and havebeen the other to men's self.Feminism has been
other, either textually or through an explication of a movement devoted to helping women become
:he fieldwork encounter (as in such works as Cra- selves and subjects rather than objects and men's
panzano 1980,Dumont 1978,Dwyer 1982,Rabinow others.4 The crisis in feminist theory (related to a
1977,Riesman 1977,Tedlock 1983,and Tyler 1986). crisis in the women's movement) that followed on
And the relationship between the Westand the non- the heelsof feminist attempts to turn those who had
468 LILA ABU-LUGHOD

been constituted as other into selves- or, to use the pologist is studying is simultaneously constructed
popular metaphor, to let women speak - was the as, at least partially, a self?
problem of "difference." For whom did feminists Feminists and halfie anthropologists cannot eas-
speak? Within the women's movement, the objec- ily avoid the issue of positionality. Standing on
tions of lesbians, African-American women, and shifting ground makes it clear that every view is a
other "women of color" that their experiences as view from somewhere and every act of speaking a
women were different from those of white, middle- speaking from somewhere. Cultural anthropologists
class, heterosexual women problematized the iden- have never been fully convinced of the ideology of
tity of women as selves. Cross-cultural work on science and have long questioned the value, possi-
women also made it clear that masculine and femi- bility, and definition of objectivity.6 But they still
nine did not have, as we say,the same meanings in seem reluctant to examine the implications of the
other cultures, nor did Third World women's lives actual situatedness of their knowledge?
resemble Western women's lives. As Harding (1986: Two common, intertwined objections to the work
246) puts it, the problem is that "once 'woman' is of feminist or native or semi-native anthropologists,
deconstructed into 'women' and 'gender' is recog- both related to partiality, betray the persistence of
nized to have no fixed referents, feminism itself ideals of objectivity. The first has to do with the
dissolves as a theory that can reflect the voice of a partiality (as bias or position) of the observer. The
naturalized or essentializedspeaker."s second has to do with the partial (incomplete) nature
From its experiencewith this crisis of selfhood or of the picture presented. Halfies are more associated
subjecthood, feminist theory can offeranthropology with the first problem, feminists the second. The
two useful reminders. First, the self is alwaysa con- problem with studying one's own society is alleged
struction, never a natural or found entity, even if it to be the problem of gaining enough distance. Since
has that appearance. Second, the process of creating for halfies, the Other is in certain ways the self, there is
a self through opposition to an other alwaysentails said to be the danger shared with indigenous anthro-
the violenceof repressing or ignoring other forms of pologists of identification and the easy slide into
difference. Feminist theorists have been forced to subjectivity.s These worries suggest that the anthro-
explore the implications for the formation of iden- pologist is still defined as a being who must stand
tity and the possibilities for political action of the apart from the Other, even when he or she seeks
ways in which gender as a system of difference is explicitly to bridge the gap. Even Bourdieu (1977:
intersected by other systemsof difference,including, 1-2), who perceptively analyzed the effects this out-
in the modern capitalist world, race and class. sider stance has on the anthropologist's (mis)under-
Where does this leave the feminist anthropolo- standing of social life, fails to break with this doxa. The
gist? Strathern (1987: 286) characterizes her as ex- obvious point he misses is that the outsider self never
periencing a tension - "caught between structures simply stands outside. He or she stands in a definite
. .. facedwith two different waysof relating to her or relation with the Other of the study, not just as a
his subject matter." The more interesting aspect of Westerner, but as a Frenchman in Algeria during the
the feminist's situation, though, is what she shares war of independence, an American in Morocco dur-
with the halfie: a blocked ability to comfortably ing the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, or an Englishwoman in
assume the self of anthropology. For both, although postcolonial India. What we call the outside is a pos-
in different ways, the self is split, caught at the ition within a larger political-historical complex. No
intersection of systems of difference. I am less con- less than the halfie, the "who lie" is in a specific pos-
cerned with the existential consequences of this split ition vis-a-vis the community being studied.
(these have been eloquently explored elsewhere The debates about feminist anthropologists suggest
[e.g., Joseph 1988, Kondo 1986, Narayan 1989]) a second source of uneasiness about positionality.
than with the awareness such splits generate about Even when they present themselves as studying gen-
three crucial issues:positionality, audience, and the der, feminist anthropologists are dismissed as present-
power inherent in distinctions of self and other. ing only a partial picture of the societies they study
What happens when the "other" that the anthro- because they are assumed to be studying only women.
WRITING AGAINST CULTURE 469

Anthropologists study society, the unmarked form. The third issue that feminist and halfie anthropo-
The study of women is the marked form, too readily logists, unlike anthropologists who work in Western
sectioned off, as Strathern (1985) notes.9 Yet it could societies (another group for whom selfand other are
easily be argued that most studies of society have been somewhat tangled), force us to confront is the du-
equally partial. As restudies like Weiner's (1976) of biousness of maintaining that relationships between
Malinowski's Trobriand Islanders or Bell's (1983) of self and other are innocent of power. Because of
the well-studied Australian aborigines indicate, they sexism and racial or ethnic discrimination, they
have been the study of men.lO This does not make may have experienced - as women, as individuals
such studies any less valuable; it merely reminds us of mixed parentage, or as foreigners - being other to
that we must constantly attend to the positionality of a dominant self,whether in everydaylife in the U.S.,
the anthropological self and its representations of Britain, or France,or in the Western academy.This is
others. James Clifford (1986a: 6), among others, has not simply an experience of difference, but of in-
convincingly argued that ethnographic representa- equality. My argument, however, is structural, not
tions are always "partial truths." What is needed is a experiential. Women, blacks, and people of most of
recognition that they are also positioned truths. the non-West have been historically constituted as
Split selfhood creates for the two groups being others in the major political systemsof differenceon
discussed a second problem that is illuminating for which the unequal world of modern capitalism has
anthropology generally: multiple audiences. Al- depended. Feminist studies and black studies have
though all anthropologists are beginning to feel made sufficient progress within the academy to have
what might be called the Rushdie effect - the effects exposed the way that being studied by "white men"
of living in a global age when the subjects of their (to use a shorthand for a complex and historically
studies begin to read their works and the govern- constituted subject-position) turns into being
ments of the countries they work in ban books and spoken for by them. It becomes a sign and instru-
deny visas - feminist and halfie anthropologists ment of their power.
struggle in poignant ways with multiple account- Within anthropology, despite a long history of
ability. Rather than having one primary audience, self-conscious opposition to racism, a fast-growing,
that of other anthropologists, feminist anthropolo- self-criticalliterature on anthropology's links to co-
gists write for anthropologists and for feminists, two lonialism (for example, Asad 1973, Clifford 1983,
groups whose relationship to their subject matter is Fabian 1983,Hymes 1969,Kuper 1988),and experi-
at odds and who hold ethnographers accountable in mentation with techniques of ethnography to relieve
different ways.11 Furthermore, feminist circles in- a discomfort with the power of anthropologist over
clude non-Western feminists, often from the soci- anthropological subject, the fundamental issues of
eties feminist anthropologists have studied, who call domination keep being skirted. Even attempts to
them to account in new ways. 12 refigure informants as consultants and to "let the
Halfies' dilemmas are even more extreme. As an- other speak" in dialogic (Tedlock 1987)or polyvocal
thropologists, they write for other anthropologists, texts - decolonizations on the levelof the text -leave
mostly Western. Identified also with communities intact the basic configuration of global power on
outside the West, or subcultures within it, they are which anthropology, as linked to other institutions
calledto account by educated members of those com- of the world, is based. To see the strangeness of this
munities. More importantly, not just because they enterprise, all that is needed is to consider an analo-
position themselveswith referenceto two communi- gous case. What would our reaction be if male
ties but becausewhen they present the Other they are scholars stated their desire to "let women speak" in
presenting themselves, they speak with a complex their texts while they continued to dominate all
awarenessof and investmentin reception. Both halfie knowledge about them by controlling writing and
and feminist anthropologists are forced to confront other academic practices, supported in their posi-
squarely the politics and ethics of their representa- tions by a particular organization of economic, so-
tions. There are no easysolutions to their dilemmas. cial, and political life?
470 LILA ABU-LUG HOD

Because of their split selves, feminist and halfie Despite its anti-essentialist intent, however, ~
anthropologists travel uneasily between speaking culture concept retains some of the tendencies tG
"for" and speaking "from." Their situation enables freeze difference possessed by concepts like rare.
us to see more clearly that dividing practices, This is easier to see if we consider a field in which
whether they naturalize differences, as in gender or there has been a shift from one to the other. Orien-
race, or simply elaborate them, as I will argue the talism as a scholarly discourse (among other things
concept of culture does, are fundamental methods is, according to Said (1978: 2), "a style of thought
of enforcing inequality. based upon an ontological and epistemological dis-
tinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of ~
time) 'the Occident'." What he shows is that in
mapping geography, race, and culture onto one
Culture and Difference another, Orientalism fixes differences between
people of "the West" and people of "the East" in
ways so rigid that they might as well be considered
The concept of culture is the hidden term in all that innate. In the twentieth century, cultural difference,
has just been said about anthropology. Most Ameri- not race, has been the basic subject of Orientalist
can anthropologists believe or act as if "culture;' scholarship devoted now to interpreting the "cul-
notoriously resistant to definition and ambiguous ture" phenomena (primarily religion and language
of referent, is nevertheless the true object of anthro- to which basic differences in development, eco-
pological inquiry. Yet it could also be argued that nomic performance, government, character, and so
culture is important to anthropology because the forth are attributed.
anthropological distinction between self and other Some anticolonial movements and present-day
rests on it. Culture is the essential tool for making struggles have worked by what could be labelled
other. As a professional discourse that elaborates on reverse Orientalism, where attempts to reverse the
the meaning of culture in order to account for, power relationship proceed by seeking to valorize
explain, and understand cultural difference,anthro- for the self what in the former system had been
pology also helps construct, produce, and maintain devalued as other. A Gandhian appeal to the greater
it. Anthropological discourse gives cultural differ- spirituality of a Hindu India, compared with the
ence (and the separation between groups of people it materialism and violence of the West, and an Isla-
implies) the air of the self-evident. micist appeal to a greater faith in God, compared
In this regard, the concept of culture operates with the immorality and corruption of the West,
much like its predecessor - race - even though in both accept the essentialist terms of Orientalist con-
its twentieth-century form it has some important structions. While turning them on their heads, they
political advantages. Unlike race, and unlike even preserve the rigid sense of difference based on cul-
the nineteenth-century sense of culture as a syno- ture.
nym for civilization (contrasted to barbarism), the A parallel can be drawn with feminism. It is a
current concept allows for multiple rather than basic tenet of feminism that "women are made,
binary differences. This immediately checks the not born." It has been important for most feminists
easy move to hierarchizing; the shift to "culture" to locate sex differences in culture, not biology or
("lower case c with the possibility of a final 5;' as nature. While this has inspired some feminist the-
Clifford [1988a: 234] puts it) has a relativizing ef- orists to attend to the social and personal effects of
fect. The most important of culture's advantages, gender as a system of difference, for many others it
however, is that it removes difference from the has led to explorations of and strategies built on the
realm of the natural and the innate. Whether notion of a women's culture. Cultural feminism (cf.
conceived of as a set of behaviors, customs, tradi- Echols 1984) takes many forms, but it has many of
tions, rules, plans, recipes, instructions, or programs the qualities of reverse Orientalism just discussed.
(to list the range of definitions Geertz [1973: 44] For French feminists like lrigaray (1985a, 1985b),
furnishes), culture is learned and can change. Cixous (1983), and Kristeva (1981), masculine and
WRITING AGAINST CULTURE 471

feminine, if not actually male and female, represent tend to rely on notions of authenticity and the
essentiallydifferent modes of being. Anglo-Ameri- return to positive values not represented by the
can feminists take a different tack. Some attempt to dominant other. As becomes obvious in the most
"describe" the cultural differencesbetween men and extreme cases, these moves erase history. Invoca-
women - Gilligan (1982) and her followers (e.g., tions of Cretan goddesses in some cultural-feminist
Belenkyet al. 1986) who elaborate the notion of "a circles and, in a more complex and serious way, the
different voice" are popular examples. Others try to powerful invocation of the seventh-century com-
"explain" the differences,whether through a socially munity of the Prophet in some Islamic movements
informed psychoanalytic theory (e.g., Chodorow are good examples.
1978), a Marxist-derived theory of the effects of The point is that the notion of culture which both
the division of labor and women's role in social types of movements use does not seem to guarantee
reproduction (Hartsock 1985), an analysis of ma- an escape from the tendency toward essentialism.It
ternal practice (Ruddick 1980), or even a theory of could be argued that anthropologists use "culture" in
sexual exploitation (MacKinnon 1982).Much femi- more sophisticatedand consistentwaysand that their
nist theorizing and practice seeksto build or reform commitment to it as an analytical tool is firmer. Yet
social life in line with this "women's culture."13 even many of them are now concerned about the
There have been proposals for a woman-centered ways it tends to freeze differences. Appadurai
university (Rich 1979),a feminist science,a feminist (1988), for example, in his compelling argument
methodology in the sciences and social sciences that "natives" are a figment of the anthropological
(Meis 1983; Reinhan 1983; Smith 1987; Stanley imagination, shows the complicity of the anthropo-
and Wise 1983; see Harding 1987 for a sensible logical concept of culture in a continuing "incarcer-
critique), and even a feminist spirituality and ecol- ation" of non-Western peoples in time and place.
ogy. These proposals nearly always build on values Denied the same capacity for movement, travel, and
traditionally associated in the Westwith women - a geographical interaction that Westerners take for
sense of care and connectedness, maternal nurtur- granted, the cultures studied by anthropologists
ing, immediacy of experience, involvement in the have tended to be denied history as well.
bodily (versus the abstract), and so forth. Others, including myself (1990b), have argued
This valorization by cultural feminists, like re- that cultural theories also tend to overemphasize
verse Orientalists, of the previously devalued qual- coherence. Clifford notes both that "the discipline
ities attributed to them may be provisionally useful of fieldwork-based anthropology, in constituting
in forging a sense of unity and in wagingstruggles of its authority, constructs and reconstructs coherent
empowerment. Yet because it leaves in place the cultural others and interpreting selves" (Clifford
divide that structured the experiences of selthood 1988b: 112) and that ethnography is a form of
and oppression on which it builds, it perpetuates culture collecting (like art collecting) in which
some dangerous tendencies. First, cultural feminists "diverse experiencesand facts are selected, gathered,
overlook the connections between those on each detached from their original temporal occasions,
side of the divide, and the waysin which they define and given enduring value in a new arrangement"
each other. Second, they overlook differenceswithin (Clifford 1988a:231). Organic metaphors of whole-
each category constructed by the dividing practices, ness and the methodology of holism that character-
differenceslike those of class,race, and sexuality (to izes anthropology both favor coherence, which in
repeat the feminist litany of problematically abstract turn contributes to the perception of communities
categories), but also ethnic origin, personal experi- as bounded and discrete.
ence, age, mode of livelihood, health, living situ- Certainly discreteness does not have to imply
ation (rural or urban), and historical experience. value; the hallmark of twentieth-century anthropol-
Third, and perhaps most important, they ignore ogy has been its promotion of cultural relativismover
the ways in which experiences have been con- evaluation and judgment. If anthropology has always
structed historically and have changed over time. to some extent been a form of cultural (self-)critique
Both cultural feminism and revivalist movements (Marcus and Fischer,1986),that too wasan aspect of
472 LILA ABU-LUGHOD

a refusalto hierarchizedifference.Yetneither position provides an important site for contesting "culture."


would be possible without difference. It would be It seems to me that current discussions and deploy-
worth thinking about the implications of the high ments of two increasingly popular terms - practice
stakesanthropology has in sustaining and perpetuat- and discourse - do signal a shift away from culture.
ing a beliefin the existenceof cultures that are iden- Although there is alwaysthe danger that these terms
tifiable as discrete, different, and separate from our willcome to be used simply as synonyms for culture,
own.14Does differencealwayssmugglein hierarchy? they were intended to enable us to analyzesocial life
In Orientalism,Said (1978: 28) argues for the eli- without presuming the degree of coherence that the
mination of "the Orient" and "the Occident" al- culture concept has come to carry.
together. By this he means not the erasure of all Practice is associated, in anthropology, with
differencesbut the recognition of more of them and Bourdieu (1977; also see Ortner 1984), whose the-
of the complex ways in which they crosscut. More oretical approach is built around problems of con-
important, his analysisof one fieldseeksto show how tradiction, misunderstanding, and misrecognition,
and when certain differences,in this case of places and favors strategies, interests, and improvisations
and the people attached to them, become implicated over the more static and homogenizing cultural
in the domination of one by the other. Should an- tropes of rules, models, and texts. Discourse
thropologists treat with similar suspicion "culture" (whose uses I discuss in L. Abu-Lughod 1989 and
and "cultures" as the key terms in a discourse in Abu-Lughod and Lutz 1990) has more diverse
which otherness and difference have come to have, sources and meanings in anthropology. In its Fou-
as Said (1989:213) points out, "talismanicqualities"? cauldian derivation, as it relates to notions of dis-
cursive formations, apparatuses, and technologies,
it is meant to refuse the distinction between ideas
and practices or text and world that the culture
concept too readily encourages. In its more socio-
Three Modes of Writing
linguistic sense, it draws attention to the social uses
Against Culture
by individuals of verbal resources. In either case, it
allows for the possibility of recognizing within a
If "culture," shadowed by coherence, timelessness, social group the play of multiple, shifting, and com-
and discreteness, is the prime anthropological tool peting statements with practical effects. Both prac-
for making "other," and difference, as feminists and tice and discourse are useful because they work
halfies reveal, tends to be a relationship of power, against the assumption of boundedness, not to
then perhaps anthropologists should consider strat- mention the idealism (Asad 1983), of the culture
egies for writing against culture. I will discuss three concept. 15
that I find promising. Although they by no means
exhaust the possibilities, the sorts of projects I will
describe - theoretical, substantive, and textual - Connections
make sense for anthropologists sensitive to issues
of positionality and accountability and interested Another strategy of writing against culture is to
in making anthropological practice something that reorient the problems or subject matter anthropo-
does not simply shore up global inequalities. I will logists address. An important focus should be the
conclude, however,by considering the limitations of various connections and interconnections, histor-
all anthropological reform. ical and contemporary, between a community and
the anthropologist working there and writing about
it, not to mention the world to which he or she
Discourse and practice belongs and which enables him or her to be in that
particular place studying that group. This is more of
Theoretical discussion, because it is one of the a political project than an existential one, although
modes in which anthropologists engage each other, the reflexiveanthropologists who have taught us to
WRITING AGAINST CULTURE 473

focus on the fieldwork encounter as a site for the inadequacies of the concept of culture and the elu-
construction of the ethnographic "facts" have siveness of the entities designated by the term cul-
alerted us to one important dimension of the con- tures. Although there may be a tendency in the new
nection. Other significant sorts of connections have work merely to widen the object, shifting from cul-
received less attention. Pratt (1986: 42) notes a ture to nation as locus, ideally there would be atten-
regular mystification in ethnographic writing of tion to the shifting groupings, identities, and
"the larger agenda of European expansion in which interactions within and across such borders as well.
the ethnographer, regardless of his or her own atti- If there was ever a time when anthropologists could
tudes to it, is caught up, and that determines the consider without too much violence at least some
ethnographer's own material relationship to the communities as isolated units, certainly the nature
group under study." We need to ask questions of global interactions in the present makes that now
about the historical processes by which it came to impossible. 17
pass that people like ourselves could be engaged in
anthropological studies of people like those, about
the current world situation that enablesus to engage Ethnographies of the particular
in this sort of work in this particular place, and
about who has preceded us and is even now there The third strategy for writing against culture de-
with us (tourists, travelers, missionaries, AID con- pends on accepting the one insight of Geertz's
sultants, PeaceCorps workers). We need to ask what about anthropology that has been built upon by
this "will to knowledge" about the Other is con- everyone in this "experimental moment" (Marcus
nected to in the world. and Fischer 1986) who takes textuality seriously.
These questions cannot be asked in general; they Geertz (1975, 1988) has argued that one of the
should be asked about and answered by tracing main things anthropologists do is write, and what
through specificsituations, configurations, and his- they write are fictions (which does not mean they
tories. Even though they do not address directly the are fictitious).18 Certainly the practice of ethno-
place of the ethnographer, and even though they graphic writing has received an inordinate amount
engage in an oversystemization that threatens to of attention from those involved in Writing Culture
erase local interactions, studies like those of Wolf and an increasing number of others who were not
(1982) on the long history of interaction between involved. Much of the hostility toward their project
particular Western societies and communities in arises from the suspicion that in their literary lean-
what is now called the Third World represent im- ings they have too readily collapsed the politics of
portant means of answering such questions. So do ethnography into its poetics. And yet they have
studies like Mintz's (1985) that trace the complex raised an issue that cannot be ignored. Insofar as
processes of transformation and exploitation in anthropologists are in the business of representing
which, in Europe and other parts of the world, others through their ethnographic writing, then
sugar was involved. The anthropological turn to surely the degree to which people in the communi-
history, tracing connections between the present ties they study appear "other" must also be partly a
and the past of particular communities, is also an function of how anthropologists write about them.
important development. Are there waysto write about livesso as to constitute
Not all projects about connections need be his- others as less other?
torical. Anthropologists are increasingly concerned I would argue that one powerful tool for unset-
with national and transnational connections of tling the culture concept and subverting the process
people, cultural forms, media, techniques, and com- of"othering" it entails is to write "ethnographies of
modities.16 They study the articulation of world the particular." Generalization, the characteristic
capitalism and international politics with the mode of operation and style of writing of the social
situations of people living in particular communi- sciences, can no longer be regarded as neutral de-
ties. All these projects, which involvea shift in gaze scription (Foucault 1978; Said 1978; Smith 1987).
to include phenomena of connection, expose the It has two unfortunate effects in anthropology that
474 LILA ABU-LUGHOD

make it worth eschewing. I will explore these before stand apart from and outside of what they are de-
presenting some examples from my own work of scribing. Again, Smith's critique of sociologicaldis-
what one could hope to accomplish through eth- course is relevant. She has argued (1987: 62) that
nographies of the particular. this seeminglydetached mode of reflectingon social
I will not be concerned with several issues fre- life is actually located: it represents the perspective
quently raised about generalization. For example, it of those involved in professional, managerial, and
has often been pointed out that the generalizing administrative structures and is thus part of "the
mode of social scientific discourse facilitates ruling apparatus of this society." This critique ap-
abstraction and reification. Feminist sociologist plies as well to anthropology with its inter- rather
Dorothy Smith (1987: 130) put the problem vividly than intrasocietal perspective and its origins in the
in her critique of sociological discourse by noting exploration and colonization of the non-European
that world rather than the management of internal social
groups like workers, women, blacks, the poor, or
the complex organization of activities of actual indi- prisoners.
viduals and their actual relations is entered into the
On the other hand, even if we withhold judgment
discourse through concepts such as class, moderniza-
on how closely the social sciencescan be associated
tion, formal organization. A realm of theoretically
with the apparatuses of management, we have to
constituted objects is created, freeing the discursive
realm from its ground in the lives and work of actual
recognize how all professionalized discourses by na-
individuals and liberating sociological inquiry to graze ture assert hierarchy. The very gap between the
on a field of conceptual entities. professional and authoritative discourses of gener-
alization and the languagesof everydaylife (our own
Other critics have fixedon different flaws.Interpret- and others') establishes a fundamental separation
ive anthropology, for example, in its critique of the between the anthropologist and the people being
search for general laws in positivistic social science, written about that facilitates the construction of
notes a failure to take account of the centrality of anthropological objects as simultaneously different
meaning to human experience. Yet the result has and inferior.
been to substitute generalization about meanings Thus, to the degree that anthropologists can bring
for generalizations about behavior. closer the language of everydaylife and the language
I also want to make clear what the argument for of the text, this mode of making other is reversed.
particularity is not: it is not to be mistaken for argu- The problem is, as a reflection on the situation of
ments for privileging micro over macro processes. feminist anthropologists suggest, that there may
Ethnomethodologists [...] and other students of be professional risks for ethnographers who want
everydaylife seekways to generalizeabout microin- to pursue this strategy. I have argued elsewhere
teractions,whilehistorians might be saidto be tracing (1990a) that Rabinow's refreshingly sensible obser-
the particularsof macroprocesses.
Nor need a con- vation about the politics of ethnographic writing -
cern with the particulars of individuals' lives imply that they are to be found closer to home, in
disregard for forcesand dynamics that are not locally academia, than in the colonial and neocolonial
based. On the contrary, the effectsof extralocal and world - helps us understand a few things about
long-term processesare only manifested locally and feminist anthropology and the uneasiness about it
specifically,produced in the actions of individuals that even someone like Clifford betrays in his intro-
living their particular lives,inscribed in their bodies ductory essay for Writing Culture.19His excuse for
and their words. What I am arguing for is a form of excluding feminist anthropologists was that they
writing that might better conveythat. were not involved in textual innovation. If we were
There are two reasons for anthropologists to be to grant the dubious distinction he presumes be-
wary of generalization. The first is that, as part of a tween textual innovation and transformations of
professional discourse of "objectivity" and exper- content and theory, we might concede that feminist
tise, it is inevitably a language of power. On the anthropologists have contributed little to the new
one hand, it is the language of those who seem to wave of experimentation in form.
WRITING AGAINST CULTURE 475

But then a moment's thought would provide us ance of an absence of internal differentiation makes
with clues about why.Without even asking the basic it easier to conceive of a group of people as a dis-
questions about individuals, institutions, patrons, crete, bounded entity, likethe "the Nuer;' "the Bali-
and tenure, we can turn to the politics of the femi- nese," and "the Awlad'AliBedouin' " who do this or
nist project itself. Dedicated to making sure that that and believe such-and-such. The effort to pro-
women's lives are represented in descriptions of duce general ethnographic descriptions of people's
societies and women's experiences and gender itself beliefs or actions tends to smooth over contradic-
theorized in accounts of how societies work, femi- tions, conflicts of interest, and doubts and argu-
nist scholars have been interested in the old political ments, not to mention changing motivations and
sense of representation. Conservatism of form may circumstances. The erasure of time and conflict
have been helpful because the goal was to persuade make what is inside the boundary set up by homo-
colleaguesthat an anthropology taking gender into genization something essential and fixed. These ef-
account was not just good anthropology but better fects are of special moment to anthropologists
anthropology. because they contribute to the fiction of essentially
The second pressure on feminist anthropology is different and discrete others who can be separated
the need to assert professionalism. Contrary to what from some sort of equally essential self. Insofar as
Clifford writes (1986a: 21), women have produced difference is, as I have argued, hierarchical, and
"unconventional forms of writing." He just ignored assertions of separation a way of denying responsi-
them, neglecting a few professional anthropologists bility, generalization itself must be treated with sus-
like Bowen (Bohannon) (1954), Briggs (1970), and picion.
Cesara (Poewe) (1982) who have experimented with For these reasons I propose that we experiment
form.20More significantly,there is also what might with narrative ethnographies of the particular in a
be considered a separate "woman's tradition" within continuing tradition of fieldwork-based writing.21
ethnographic writing. Becauseit is not professional, In telling stories about particular individuals in time
however, it might only reluctantly be claimed and and place,such ethnographies would share elements
explored by feminist anthropologists uncertain of with the alternative "women's tradition" discussed
their standing. I am referring to the often excellent above. I would expect them to complement rather
and popular ethnographies written by the "un- than replace a range of other types of anthropo-
trained" wives of anthropologists, books like Eliza- logical projects, from theoretical discussions to the
beth Fernea's Guests of the Sheik (1965), Marjorie exploration of new topics within anthropology
Shostak's Nisa (1981), Edith Turner's The Spirit of [ . .. ]
the Drum (1987), and Margery Wolf's The House of Anthropologists commonly generalize about
Lim (1968). Directing their works to audiences communities by saying that they are characterized
slightly different from those of the professional by certain institutions, rules, or ways of doing
writers of standard ethnographies, they have also things. For example, we can and often do say things
followed different conventions: they are more open like "The Bongo-Bongo are polygynous." Yet one
about their positionality, less assertive of their sci- could refuse to generalizein this way,instead asking
entific authority, and more focused on particular how a particular set of individuals - for instance, a
individuals and families. man and his three wivesin a Bedouin community in
[ .. . ] Egypt whom I have known for a decade - live the
The second problem with generalization derives "institution" that we call polygyny. Stressing the
not from its participation in the authoritative dis- particularity of this marriage and building a picture
courses of professionalism but from the effects of of it through the participants' discussions, recollec-
homogeneity, coherence, and timelessness it tends tions, disagreements, and actions would make sev-
to produce. When one generalizesfrom experiences eral theoretical points.
and conversations with a number of specificpeople First, refusing to generalize would highlight the
in a community, one tends to flatten out differences constructed quality of that typicality so regularly
among them and to homogenize them. The appear- produced in conventional social scientific accounts.
476 LILA ABU-LUGHOD

Second, showing the actual circumstances and 5 It does not, Harding adds, dissolve feminism as a
detailed histories of individuals and their relation- political identity, but the most pressing issue in femi-
ships would suggestthat such particulars, which are nist circles now is how to develop a politics of soli-
darity, coalition, or affinity built on the recognition
always present (as we know from our own personal
of difference rather than the solidarity of a unitary
experiences), are also alwayscrucial to the constitu-
self defined by its opposition to an other which had
tion of experience. Third, reconstructing people's
formerly defined it as other. The most interesting
arguments about, justifications for, and interpret- thinking on this subject has been Haraway's (1985).
ations of what they and others are doing would 6 For a discussion of the convergence of anthropo-
explain how social life proceeds. It would show logical and feminist critiques of objectivity, see
that although the terms of their discourses may be Abu-Lughod (l990a).
set (and, as in any society,include severalsometimes 7 In his 1988 address to the American Anthropological
contradictory and often historically changing dis- Association, Edward Said's central point was that
courses), within these limits, people contest inter- anthropologists had to attend not just to "the an-
thropological site" but to the "cultural situation in
pretations of what is happening, strategize,feelpain,
and live their lives. In one sense this is not so new. which anthropological work is in fact done" (1989:
212).
Bourdieu (1977), for example,theorizes about social
8 Much of the literature on indigenous anthropology is
practice in a similar way. But the difference here taken up with the advantages and disadvantages of
would be that one would be seeking textual means this identification. See Fahim (1982) and Altorki and
of representing how this happens rather than simply El-Solh (1988).
making theoretical assertions that it does. 9 See also my discussion of the study of gender in
By focusing closely on particular individuals Middle East anthropology (L. Abu-Lughod 1989).
and their changing relationships, one would neces- 10 In parallel fashion, those who study the black experi-
sarily subvert the most problematic connotations of ence are thought of as studying a marked form of
culture: homogeneity, coherence, and timelessness. experience. It could be pointed out, and has been by
[.. . ] such figures as Adrienne Rich, that the universal
unmarked form of experience from which it differs
is itself partial. It is the experience of whiteness.
NOTES
11 Crapanzano (1977) has written insightfully about
the regular process of distancing from the fieldwork
Halfies is a tenn I borrowed from Kirin Narayan experience and building identifications with the
(personal communication). anthropological audience that all anthropologists go
2 Likewise, Marcus and Clifford (1985) and Marcus and through when they return from the field.
Fischer (1986) gesture toward feminists as important 12 This is happening, for example, in heated debates in
sources of cultural and anthropological critique but do the field of Middle East women's studies about who
not discuss their work. Fischer (1984, 1986, 1988), how- has the right to speak for Middle Eastern women.
ever, has long been interested in the phenomenon of 13 Some would like to make distinctions between
biculturality. "womanism" and "feminism;' but in much of litera-
3 It is still rare for anthropologists in this society or ture they blur together.
others to do what Laura Nader (1969) advocated 14 Arens (1979), for example, has asked the provocative
many years ago - to "study up." question of why anthropologists cling so tenaciously
4 Its various strategies are based on this division and the to the belief that in some cultures cannibalism is an
series of oppositions (culture/nature, public/private, accepted ritual practice, when the evidence (in the
work/home, transcendence/immediacies, abstract/par- form of eye witness accounts) is so meager (if not, as
ticular, objectivity/subjectivity, autonomy/connected- he argues, absent).
ness, etc.) associated with it: (a) women should be 15 In my own work on an Egyptian Bedouin commu-
allowed to join the valued men's world, to become like nity I began to think in tenns of discourses rather
men or have their privileges, (b) women's values and than culture simply because I had to find ways to
work, even if different, should be as valued as men's, or make sense of the fact that there seemed to be two
(c) women and men should both change and enter each contradictory discourses on interpersonal relations -
other's spheres so that gender differences are erased. the discourse of honor and modesty and the poetic
WRITING AGAINST CULTURE 477

discourse of vulnerability and attachment - which Appadurai, Arjun 1988 Putting hierarchy in its place.
informed and were used by the same individuals in Cultural Anthropology 3: 36-49.
differing contexts (Abu-Lughod 1986). In a recent Arens, William 1979 The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology
reflection on Bedouin responses to death (Abu- and Anthropology. New York OUF.
Lughod n.d.), I also had to make sense of the fact Asad, Talal1973 Anthropologyand the Colonial Encounter.
that there were multiple discourses on death in this London: Ithaca Press.
community. Not only did people play with contra- - 1983 Anthropological conceptions of religion: re-
dictory explanations of particular deaths (invoking, flections on Geertz. Man 18: 237-59.
in one case of an accidental killing, stupidity, certain Belenky, Mary, Blithe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill
actions on the part of family members, the [evil] eye, Tarule 1986 Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic
fate, and God's will), but the two primary discourses Books.
- ritual funerary laments and the Islamic discourse of Bell, Diane 1983 Daughters of the Dreaming. Melbourne:
God's will- were attached to different social groups, McPhee Gribble/N. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.
men and women, and worked to sustain and justify Bowen, Elenore S. 1954 Return to Laughter. Reprint edi-
the power differences between them. tion, 1964. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
16 Two new journals, Public Culture: Bulletin of the Bourdieu, Pierre 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice.
Center for Transnational Cultural Studies and Dias- Trans. R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University
pora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, provide Press.
forums for discussion of these transnational issues. Briggs, Jean 1970 Never in Anger. Cambridge, MA: Har-
17 For evidence of a "world system" in the thirteenth vard University Press.
century, see J. Abu-Lughod (1989). Cesara, Manda 1982 Reflections of a Woman Anthropolo-
18 Dumont (1986) has recently reiterated this, declaring gist: No Hiding Place. London and New York:Academic
changes in social theory to be merely methodological Press.
changes. Chodorow, Nancy 1978 The Reproduction of Mothering.
19 For a more detailed and interesting discussion of Berkeley: University of California Press.
Clifford's unease with feminism, see Gordon (1988). Cixous, Helene 1983 The laugh of the Medusa. In The
20 To this list could be added many others, including Signs Reader. K. Cohen and P. Cohen, trans., E. Abel
most recently Friedl (1989). and E. Abe, eds., pp. 279-97. Chicago: University of
21 My own experiment in this sort of narrative ethnog- Chicago Press.
raphy is forthcoming (Abu-Lughod, in press). Clifford, James 1983 Power in dialogue in ethnography. In
ObserversObserved:Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork.
G. W. Stocking, Jr., ed., pp. 121-56. Madison: Univer-
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