ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P07)

Reason and passion: the parallel worlds of ethnography and biography

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 5
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Janet Carsten (University of Edinburgh) email
Sophie Day (Goldsmiths College, University of London) email
Charles Stafford (London School of Economics) email
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Summary

This panel places ethnography at its centre, and considers the role of biography and biographical work for anthropologists and their interlocutors, in the ethnography they produce and in the sympathy and moral judgements that makes it possible.

Long Abstract

This panel, entered under the theme, 'Moral Sentiments', takes inspiration from David Hume's insights about rational thought: 'Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them'. If (reasoned) ethnography is, among other things, the outcome of the desires of the anthropologist, how do the worlds of the anthropologist and those they study come together, and over what time span? What is the role of biography, or of biographical work, for anthropologists and their interlocutors, in the ethnography they produce and the sympathy that makes it possible? How do such biographical connections make a difference? How do they shape the moral judgments that (inevitably) pervade the everyday experience of fieldwork? This panel places ethnography at its centre, and considers what the anthropologist brings to it, and how this might matter. It seeks to analyse the relation between ethnographic work and the anthropologist's sensibility - both through an examination of research that is obviously associated with, and motivated by, the anthropologist's own background, as well as through probing the more unexpected connections which sometimes arise between these parallel worlds.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The ethnographer's magic as sympathetic magic

Author: Kath Weston (University of Virginia)  email

Summary

A reconsideration of the role of sympathy in ethnographic practice, using biography and Enlightenment texts. "The ethnographer's magic" can take the form of a sympathetic magic whose efficacy depends on sentimental "action at a distance" rather than culturally inscribed forms of closeness.

Long Abstract

Many of the reforms in ethnographic practice tendered in the wake of the post-colonial and reflexive critiques that rocked anthropology in the late 20th century centered on moral passions, if not moral sentiments per se. Discussions of research ethics underlined the importance of "respect" and "sympathy" or "empathy" for informants (duly reincarnated as participants or collaborators). Ethnographers often looked to biographical context, tethered to wider forms of sensibility, to provide a wellspring for such ethically reconfigured, emotionally animated fieldwork engagements. If sympathy was understood to make fieldwork possible, it was through a bridging effect of identification that brought researcher and researched into a more intimate and presumably less exploitive relationship, so long as fieldworkers critically acknowledged the power differentials that marked ethnographic encounters. By taking a closer look at 17th and 18th century texts on sympathy--both medical and sentimental--this essay calls into question the assumption that sympathy arises from, even as it generates, culturally inscribed forms of closeness. I argue that what Malinowski called "the ethnographer's magic" is (or can be) a sympathetic magic that depends for its efficacy on concealment and "action at a distance" rather than emotional appeals or unmediated contiguities. Sympathy, in this sense, is not reducible to empathy. Nor need such distance, in its 18th century formulation, usher in an alienated objectivism. Discussion of brief biographical passages from my ethnographic work on political ecology and kinship will serve to illustrate the argument.

Time, biography, memory, and the evasive vessel of place

Author: Mitchell W Sedgwick (London School of Economics)  email

Summary

This paper considers two decades of ethnography, on three continents, among members of a large corporation, as the collecting together of biographies. Time enhances the scope of research while allowing us to understand place, made evasive by time's passages, as temporary configurations of social relations.

Long Abstract

This paper considers the evolving biographies and ethnographic outcomes of fieldwork across the long term and, perhaps somewhat unusually, in widely dispersed places, based on two decades of research at a multinational corporation, at sites - factories, offices and their surrounding communities - on three continents. (Each site (in Japan, Thailand, France, and on the Tex-Mex border) was initially engaged through extended fieldwork, and has been multiply visited.) The paper reflects on the intersections between an anthropologist and his interlocutors as de facto alignments of our respective (life and career) pathways. With fieldwork punctuated by often-considerable time gaps, the production, diminishment, and reclamation (sometimes in entirely different places) of social relations collect together our biographies as special relationships deepened by intertwined experience.

Meanwhile, shared and unshared time carves its own routes, enhancing the possibilities for research. The facts of life across time - changes in informants' relations to the corporation itself, from promotions to retirement, the closing of factories, natural disasters - turn both experience and, often, place itself into (mere?) memory. Reflections on shared pasts seem to sweeten the irretrievable, and biography itself. They also throw the fact of the fiction of 'the corporation' - or any institutional configuration, if not the meaning of 'place', tout court - into stark relief. With time, the ethnographer is reminded that the prospects for an 'anthropology of the corporation' have nothing to do with relations with the corporation, but only to do with the social relations constituting such a placement, and its anthropology.

Socialist biography and post-socialist ethnography: doing anthropology at home

Author: Grit Wesser (University of Edinburgh)  email

Summary

This paper explores the strengths and limitations of ethnography on a contemporary secular coming-of-age ritual that is closely associated with the former German Democratic Republic (GDR/East Germany) and also part of my own biography.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the strengths and limitations of ethnography on a contemporary secular coming-of-age ritual that is closely associated with the former German Democratic Republic (GDR/East Germany) and also part of my own biography. Through my socialisation and participation in the ritual in the GDR I can draw on my experiences, leading to a heightened awareness of continuities and changes, their contextualisation and a more thorough reflection on socio-cultural norms. However, as historical subject I also experience doubts and anxieties that arise through doing fieldwork at home and in a society that has formerly become infamous as 'Stasiland'. To what extent then is the research limited by emotional bonds to my 'own people' and my desire to portray them as likeable; but also by ethical implications emerging from the parallels of the anthropological project with that of an unofficial member of the former state security?

Rapport and impersonality in engagements with Yoruba lives

Author: Karin Barber (University of Birmingham)  email

Summary

What is “rapport” in ethnographic engagements, and what are its sources? How does it relate to impersonality in the evocation of lives and life experiences in different performance/textual genres? I explore these questions through the lens of my own life of research in the Yoruba region of Nigeria.

Long Abstract

In this paper I reflect on an engagement with Yoruba people in southwest Nigeria over a period of forty years. Telling each other about our lives - and gossiping about other people's lives - is such an important part of everyday social interaction that it isn't surprising that in ethnographic work exchanging biographical narratives can be a means of creating rapport as well as a tool for eliciting 'data'. But I'm interested in exploring this idea of rapport and its sources. It might be thought that 'Passion' is an expression of the personal, which 'Reason' attempts to transcend in the interests of disinterested objectivity. Rapport then would arise only in the domain of passion, of the personal. But clearly this bifurcation doesn't hold. I want to compare my experience of working with a popular theatre company, where actors and audience members continually told personal life-stories, both on and off stage, in order to convince and exemplify; and that of working on oral praise poetry, which though wholly person-focused and vocative - an "I" intensely addressing a "you" and in so doing promoting the self-realisation of both - nonetheless involves a fragmented, multivocal text that is deliberately created to escape and float above any personal voice, experience or identity, including gender identity. It is not only Enlightenment thought that seeks to transcend the immediacy of personal interest and viewpoint. I found that the task of de-riddling these opaque and elusive texts brought moments of rapport with my interlocutors perhaps more memorable than any other.

Some problems with my people

Author: Charles Stafford (London School of Economics)  email

Summary

This paper explores emotional aspects of moral judgments in relation to field research in China and America. Moral judgments pervade everyday life in both settings, and yet the ethnographer's emotional engagement with them may vary dramatically, in part as a function of their relevance for his own biography.

Long Abstract

This paper builds on Westermarck's insight that moral judgments are intrinsically emotional, along with the insight of social psychologists that moral judgments are intrinsically "positional". These insights - which should hold true across cultural boundaries - are explored in relation to field research the author has conducted in rural China and rural America. Moral judgments pervade everyday life in both settings, of course, and yet the ethnographer's emotional engagement with such judgments (whether his own or those of others) may vary quite dramatically, in part as a function of their relevance for his own biographical trajectory. This raises significant methodological questions for the anthropology of morality and ethics.

Biographical desires

Author: Sharika Thiranagama (Stanford)  email

Summary

This paper takes the Sri Lankan civil war and the desires of ordinary people to stage their biographies in particular frames. It reflects on these desires as they emerged in two settings, filming a war film on site in 2004, and, the 2011 post war reconciliation commission.

Long Abstract

Six months after 2004 fieldwork on Sri Lanka's civil war with minority Tamils and Muslims, I returned to my fieldwork sites as an actor accompanying a Canadian and Sinhalese film crew for a biographical film about my family. The film crew informed the crowds watching the shoots that we were filming a wildlife or travel documentary. Despite this misinformation, the crowds conducted running commentaries in Tamil accurately reconstructing the films narratives, the scenes immediately recognizable to them as those from a war they were living through. "This is a film about Jaffna isn't it" two young Muslim men asked me after one shot of the Palmyra tree the archetypal symbol of northern Jaffna, "why don't you make a film about our story? What about what happened to us?" I had already spent months of my fieldwork documenting precisely that, but I realized that my desire to capture these biographies anthropologically was matched by the greater desires by my interlocutors to tell their stories in stagings that mattered more to them. After the war ended, the state-sponsored Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission held countrywide hearings in 2011. The hearings and process was farcical, yet hundreds of Tamils and Muslims turned up. Rather than reconciliation between ethnic communities, minorities imagined these hearings as the possibility to communicate with the state that had also violated their rights. This paper reflects on these biographical desires and the frames by which stories can be made meaningful, frames which ethnography can often only provide commentaries on.

Discomforting ethnography and contentious biographies: the case of Argentina

Author: Victoria Goddard (Goldsmiths College, University of London)  email

Summary

This paper considers ethnographic encounters that produce experiences of discovery and discomfort where biography and ethnography do not run parallel to each other. To reconnect biography and ethnography, the paper discusses a single case that sits uneasily with the politics of memory in Argentina.

Long Abstract

This paper will explore the ways in which ethnographic encounters produce experiences of discovery and discomfort where biography and ethnography do not mirror or run parallel to each other. The paper explores the entanglement of emotion and reflection as a condition of research where temporal and spatial dislocations separate the native ethnographer from the subjects of the research. In the case of Argentina, historical violence, death and survival mark the interactions between different political and generational cohort. In these circumstances, the exiled and returned native researcher is never perceived as neutral, is neither an insider nor an outsider. To explore how memory defines and redefines gender, generation and politics, and to attempt to reconnect the links between biography and ethnography, the paper focuses on the case of a single victim of violence, one that does not easily fit into the commemorative and politicized delineation of a 'lost' - sometimes heroic and sometimes problematic - generation.

Authors in search of a character: ethnography and life writing

Author: Andrew Beatty (Brunel University)  email

Summary

Biography and ethnography are conceptual and methodological opposites; but without biographical depth ethnography risks being untrue to life. Using the examples of Nias and Java, two contrasting Indonesian societies, I argue the case for a rapprochement with biography.

Long Abstract

Not parallel but tangential: biography fits awkwardly with ethnography, doing well what ethnography does well to avoid. It cuts history to human shape, insinuates author into subject, reads cause in sequence, and turns the world into background. As 'life writing', biography rarely captures life: ethnography - immersed, immediate - does the job better. Participant observation opens up dimensions of behaviour and experience that the biographer, usually working second-hand, can only dream of. Yet ethnography can benefit from a more concerted biographical approach. Without a grasp of character, history, and circumstance any account of human behaviour is stillborn. The constituents of meaning, the dynamic of emotions, and the unfolding of action are all biographical in shape and import. Without them we have only frames, scripts and abstract forces. The question is how far to mine the biographical seam. Does a mismatch between individuating narrative and self-effacing folk theory disqualify? If the native disclaims a point of view, should the ethnographer construct one on his or her behalf?

This paper considers the options in two contrasting Indonesian societies.

What is before our eyes: the passions of ethnography

Author: Veena Das (Johns Hopkins University)  email

Summary

This paper describes ethnography as disclosing that which is not noticed because it lies before our eyes. Instead of privileging the moment of rational explanation it looks at care as an ethics of life i against the “letting die” of the biopolitical state.

Long Abstract

I propose that the passion of ethnography lies not so much in disclosing what is invisible but that rather showing that which is before your eyes - not noticed because so unremarkable. I want to explore how a particular picture of ethics that privileges the moment when a person stands out of the flux of life to offer explanations that can be framed as rational deliberations on a particular choice obscures the ordinary forms of the ethics of care through which one acknowledges and responds to the concrete other. I argue that the very ordinariness of care and attentiveness within the scene of habit might lead us to assume a dangerous givenness to the labor of caring. Corresponding to this understanding of what it is to ethnographically render the everyday as not only a scene of habit and routine but to also see in this very habit and routine an affirmation of life that contests the "letting die" that happens within families, communities, and the logic of the biopolitical state - I argue. lies the parallel life that anthropologists and their respondents create for each other.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.