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IUAES 2013: Evolving Humanity, Emerging Worlds. 5-10 August 2013.

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Evolving humanity, emerging worlds

Manchester, UK; 5th-10th August 2013

(WMW08)

Cultures of ignorance

Location Roscoe 4.3
Date and Start Time 08 Aug, 2013 at 09:00

Convenors

Jennifer Diggins (University of Sussex) email
Jonathan Mair (University of Kent) email
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Short Abstract

This panel will contribute to a growing discussion which aims to take ignorance seriously - not simply as the absence of knowledge, but as an ethnographic object in its own right.

Long Abstract

It is nothing new for anthropologists to be curious about things that for us, as outsiders, are hidden from view. In Melanesia and West Africa, where concealed ritual practices are central in customary politics, "secrecy" has long been an ethnographic preoccupation. With elaborate systems of esoteric knowledge, these regions have proved particularly fertile ground for western scholars with a poetic preference for the other-worldly. However anthropologists have rarely paid attention to an indispensable condition of secret knowledge: the experience of ignorance.

When faced with culturally produced forms of not-knowing, the assumption has often been that we should set out to pierce that ignorance. According to this logic, it is only "by peering behind the facade that we see things as an insider rather than as outsiders and thereby discover the truth" (Gable 1997: 215). But does uncovering 'hidden truth' risk distorting the way in which our interlocutors experience (not)knowing in their daily lives?

This panel invites contributions which explore the question of ignorance from exactly the opposite direction; beginning with the recognition that ethnographers are often far from being the only people on the "wrong" side of this knowledge façade. The discussion will contribute to a small but growing body of work (reviews in Mair, Kelly and High 2012; McGoey 2012) that aims to take ignorance seriously - not simply as the absence of knowledge, but as an ethnographic object in its own right.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

"Worldviews" and (partially obscured) views of the world, from the coast of Sierra Leone.

Author: Jennifer Diggins (University of Sussex)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the implications - for residents of a West Afican fishing town -- of managing stretched livelihoods in a social landscape experienced as half-hidden.

Long Abstract

One thread in anthropology's recent 'turn' to ontology, has been the criticism that, whenever we re-tell our informants' accounts through the perceptual idiom of "worldviews", we effectively reduce their statements of fact into "mere 'cultural perspectives'" (Henare et al, 2007: 10). However, my own experience in coastal Sierra Leone is that, here, people describe their relationship to the world through similar tropes of perspective and differentially-obscured vision.

In the vibrant rumour-mill which animates conversation throughout Tissana each day, the one anxiety shared by everybody I knew - every trader, fish-processor, boat-owner and chief -- is that they were forced to navigate their tight livelihoods though a landscape of which they were largely ignorant. For, quite aside from the high fences which shield the town's 'secret' societies from uninitiated eyes, this coastal landscape is riddled with other screens, no less opaque. It is known, for example, that a large minority of individuals - amongst them twins, witches and diviners - possess an extra set of eyes ; and that this special vision enables them privileged access to another level of the social world, behind the visible surfaces of the town. Meanwhile, fishermen and traders also move unpredictably, across spaces palpably unknowable to their anxious business-partners in town. As my neighbours constantly speculated as to the elaborate array of covert betrayals enacted beyond their sight each day, this paper explores the lived implications of managing stretched livelihoods and negotiating relationships of half-trust, in a social world so permeated with felt-ignorance.

Only a little knowledge? The construction of medical ignorance in north India

Author: Helen Lambert (Bristol University)  email
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Short Abstract

In rural north India therapeutic knowledge is widely regarded as possessed by others, elsewhere, with ethnographic attempts to document local medical expertise resulting in mutual declarations of ignorance. Reflecting on the conditions of 'not knowing', this paper considers the production of local knowledge configurations through reflexive expectations of ignorance. 

Long Abstract

In Rajasthan, villagers with limited formal education regard themselves and are represented by others as ignorant. Medical expertise is distributed patchily across a variety of specialist practitioners, who are assumed by their clients to possess esoteric and often secret knowledge of particular kinds. Therapeutic knowledge is widely regarded as something that is possessed by others, elsewhere, so that ethnographic attempts to document local medical expertise sometimes resulted in mutual insistence on its absence; in other words, in declarations of ignorance. Starting from and reformulating Last's characterisation of the importance of 'not knowing', this paper reflects on the extent to which local configurations of esoteric and exoteric forms of medical knowledge are produced through reflexive expectations of ignorance. 

Embodied Ignorance: Mapping HIV and AIDS Biomedicine in the Body

Author: Elizabeth Mills (University of Sussex)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores ignorance through the lens of the body, conceptualising skin as a permeable membrane between the knowable surface and the embodied uncertainty hidden beneath. It draws on body-maps to explore the analytical potential of visual metaphor and methodology for illuminating ignorance linked to HIV and biomedicine within the body.

Long Abstract

South African activists established a large-scale HIV treatment literacy program between 1998 and 2008 to promote the science of HIV and to dispel pseudo-scientific myths that HIV was not linked to AIDS and that antiretroviral (ARV) medicines were toxic. When ARVs were finally provided in the public health sector from 2004, a new set of challenges emerged as people struggled to negotiate the embodied uncertainty linked to ARV side-effects and viral resistance. Drawing on Haraway's conception of material-semiotics and Latour's actor-network theory, this paper articulates levels of 'knowing' and 'unknowing' as viruses and medicines enter and become animated as nonhuman actants within the human body. It draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between October 2010 and September 2011 in South Africa and engages with a series of body-maps developed by a group of HIV-positive activists to explore the disjuncture between conceptual knowledge and embodied uncertainty and ignorance. It explores discourses of 'knowing' generated through the science-based treatment literacy program and embodied uncertainty as the artists expressed dismay at the 'unknowability' of the virus as it surrendered to or resisted ARVs. The 'unknowability' of ARVs also surfaced as side-effects, like lipodystrophy, thus challenging scientific assertions of biomedical efficacy. The paper argues that ignorance emerges at the disjuncture of conceptual knowledge and embodied uncertainty. By visualising the hidden aspects of HIV and medicine, the body-maps bring to light a series of hidden interactions between human and nonhuman actants that are simultaneously embodied and, at times, conceptually indecipherable.

Revealing by Concealing: How Obscured Expertise Accounts for Itself

Author: Brian Rappert (University of Exeter)  email
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Short Abstract

How is disclosure dependent on the withholding of information? In what ways are absences bound up with the production of authority and expertise? How can overt incompleteness in accounts ensure definitiveness? This presentation addresses these questions through an examination of the movements between the seen and the hidden in attempts scientifically ground expertise. In doing so, this presentation seeks to identify novel types of intervention for ethnographic research and innovative writing formats for devising present absences.

Long Abstract

How is disclosure dependent on the withholding of information? In what ways are absences bound up with the production of authority and expertise? How can overt incompleteness in accounts ensure definitiveness? This presentation addresses these questions through an examination of the movements between the seen and the hidden in attempts scientifically ground expertise. This will involve addressing how professionals, commentators, and social researchers labour to render absences present as well as how this is bound up the production of relations of ignorance. Empirical cases for examination will include recounting transcendental experience, validating the worth of art, as well as anonymizing and de-placing in social inquiry. In doing so, this presentation seeks to identify novel types of intervention for ethnographic research and innovative writing formats for devising present absences.

Comparative ignorance: dealing with the unknown in anthropology, biology and wildlife documentary

Author: Matei Candea (University of Cambridge)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper draws on an ethnographic study of a South African field-site in which scientists and film-makers observe meerkats. It contrasts the place of ignorance in the practices of both types of observers, and in those of a third: the anthropologist himself. It uses these contrasts to reflect on recent calls to move away from epistemology in anthropology.

Long Abstract

This paper draws on an ethnographic study of a South African field-site in which scientists and film-makers observe meerkats. It contrasts the place of ignorance in the practices of both types of observers, and in those of a third: the anthropologist himself. While the first explicitly highlight their ignorance of particular aspects of meerkats' lives and motivations as part of a practice of scientific accountability, the second tend to elide it as something which gets in the way of viewers' sense of connection with the animals on the screen.

This ethnographic contrast between the explicit recognition of ignorance and its implicit elision is used to reflect on the recent turn away from epistemology and towards ontology, in anthropology and the social studies of science. Here too, it seems, the creation of new substantive connections requires the question of ignorance to be backgrounded or eliminated altogether. The paper examines some limits of this strategy.

"Have other people told you this?": Cultural awareness and Understandings of knowledge Transmission among the Navajo.

Author: Dimitra Varvarezou  email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines the discourse(s) of “ignorance”-or rather partial awareness- as used by Navajo individuals when discussing aspects which shape their cultural knowledge.

Long Abstract

Anthropological analyses has long focused on "ignorance" throughout the period of fieldwork and data collection; namely, there has been a -well founded- focus on "ignorance" of the researcher which can generate knowledge through the reflexive awareness of difficulties and biases in the field. Much less work has been done on looking at "ignorance" as a social phenomenon that may extend to (certain) research participants and on how this can be approached as a tool for analyzing shifts in conceptualization(s) of culture and tradition(s). Drawing from my ongoing fieldwork on disability perceptions among the Navajo, I present some of the factors that have produced and sustained cultural unawareness. In addition, I place particular emphasis on partial cultural awareness as a signifier of cultural appropriateness: language and knowledge carry with them very real power and not everyone can-or should- be privy to specialized cultural knowledge (as with some healing practices, for example). This (conscious) unawareness of particular aspects of knowledge extends not only to those who do not share common tribal affiliation, but may also be true for persons within Navajo culture. Acquisition of specialized cultural knowledge, or the lack of it, can be attributed not only to social roles and functions (healing practitioners/patients), but also to personal, family, religious background. "Not knowing", therefore, not only safeguards individuals against unwelcome consequences, for example imbalance, that can manifest in illness of the self or others; it also frames and ensures the continuation of particular social roles and cultural performances.

The witty exploiting the ignorant, the powerful tricking the weak. Practical jokes and the games of power and knowledge in a Romanian village society

Author: Radu Gabriel Umbres (National School for Political and Administrative Sciences)  email
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Short Abstract

The paper discusses the relationship between power and knowledge in the ethnography of Romanian practical jokes. Pranks are social games played according to ethical competitive individualism in a culture permeated by secrecy and distrust where knowledge creates power, and power implies knowledge.

Long Abstract

Young men in Sateni enjoy playing elaborate jokes on the expense of hapless co-villagers. A practical joke involves a group of pranksters spontaneously conspiring to fool a gullible "victim" into performing an absurd action based on a patently absurd pretence. This paper makes two arguments about how these jokes relate to a particular way of perceiving and acting in the social world of Sateni. First, I will show that practical jokes are legitimated by and played according to an ethic of self-responsibility which characterises general social relations between unrelated villagers. The humiliation experienced by victims is seen as stemming from their fault at being unable to guard against the perils of social life, as expected from competent social actors. On the opposite, pranksters emerge as winners in a battle of wit and dramaturgical performance which echoes "real" social confrontations in arenas of economy and politics. I will a;so argue that practical jokes reflect a wider preoccupation of villagers with power and knowledge. The artful manipulation of uncertainty, trust and information present in practical jokes mirrors the widespread culture of secrecy in a "limited good" society. Pranks serve, for actors as well as for audiences, as lessons in social pedagogy about the value of true knowledge in a competitive society and the perils of gullibility and misplaced trust when facing a potentially maleficent world. The paper ends with a discussion on the study of jokes and pranks as ethnographic contexts for understanding the relationship between communication, knowledge, and power.

Learning ignorance: not knowing as knowledge amongst conservation stone masons

Author: Thomas Yarrow (Durham University)  email
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Short Abstract

Focusing on stone masons at Glasgow cathedral the paper examines their notion that awareness of ignorance is a necessary precondition for the positive virtues of discipline, patience, tradition, and correct technique to be instilled

Long Abstract

According to the stonemasons working at Glasgow cathedral, masonry entails a paradox: while the principles are simple, their practical application is complex and acquiring the capacities to successfully enact these takes a lifetime to learn. Experienced masons thus deride apprentices for what they take to be a misplaced confidence in their own abilities, and see the task of instilling knowledge of their own ignorance as the pre-requisite to learning. Specifically this is achieved through joking or 'slanging' that takes place in the yard and mess-hut. Over time this is intended to turn the apprentice into a tabula rasa, a necessary pre-requisite for the positive virtues of discipline, patience and tradition, and correct technique to be instilled. Taking a conceptual lead from recent work in anthropology, this paper seeks to draw out the specific ways in which ignorance thus emerges not as the inverse of knowledge but as an explicit and cultivated virtue, and as a form of knowledge in its own right.

Secrecy and Ignorance: Guerrilla Modes of Knowledge, Relation and Connection in Guatemala

Author: Silvia Posocco (Birkbeck, University of London)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper focuses on a theorization of the relations between secrecy and ignorance for an ethnographically informed analysis of sociality and knowledge practices in post-conflict Guatemala.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on a theorization of the relations between secrecy and ignorance for an ethnographically informed analysis of sociality and knowledge practices in post-conflict Guatemala. Drawing on ethnographic research with ex-combatants of the guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes which began in 1999 and has continued, intermittently, to the present, the paper aims to put into conversation anthropological approaches to the study of secrecy (e.g. Crook 2007, Barth 1975, De Jong et al. 2008, Ferme 2001, Herdt 2003, Lattas 1998, Taussig 1999) and recent work on the anthropology of ignorance (Dilley 2010, High 2012 et al). Whilst both secrecy and ignorance may be said to foreground issues of epistemology, the paper combines a re-alignment of epistemological reflection with the proposition that secrecy and ignorance be understood as a set of relations and connections, in the context of an ethnography of an insurgent movement at the point of dissolution. The paper reflects on how secrecy and ignorance may emerge through 'ethnographic refusal' (Ortner 1999) but also reference a range of guerrilla modes of knowledge, sociality and action that in turn raise fundamental questions regarding the possibilities and limits of anthropology's interpretative and representational practices.

"We will end up knowing later": the role of ignorance in the practice of Umbanda in Paris

Author: Viola Teisenhoffer (LESC (CNRS) / Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the place of ignorance in the experience of French practitioners of Umbanda. It argues that unknowing depends here on specific interactions and it is constitutive of this practice.

Long Abstract

French persons engage in the practice of Umbanda looking for unique spiritual experiences and personal growth. A synthesis of African religions, Christianity, European Spiritualism and elements drawn from Amerindian religious practices, Umbanda is, at least in theory, foreign to European culture. Accordingly, most French persons who eventually chose to develop their mediumistic abilities in the Temple Guaracy, one of the two shrine houses that exist in Paris, had no knowledge about Afro-Brazilian religions before engaging in this practice. However, these particularities do not account in themselves for the recurrence of ignorance in French devotees' experience. Indeed, their unknowing is not necessarily lessened as mediums evolve in the Temple and become more qualified to perform determined ritual actions.

Through the pragmatic analysis of ethnographic vignettes concerning appropriate ritual behavior, cosmological teachings, and the interpretation of spiritual entities' utterances, this paper argues, on the one hand, that it is not so much because French devotees are initially unfamiliar with Umbanda that ignorance is pervasive in their experience. Rather, the ritual interactions they engage in, but also some less formal interactions, alternatively compel them to act as someone who knows or someone who ignores, independently of their position in the Temple's organization or their actual competences. On the other hand, this paper aims to show that ignorance is generative of meaningful spiritual experiences in the Temple and is thus constitutive of this particular spiritual practice.

Subjects, Objects & Secrets: 'Misrecognizing' (same-sex) sexualities in West Bengal

Author: Paul Boyce (University of Sussex)  email
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Short Abstract

Based on fieldwork in India his paper explores ignorance as an ethnographic standpoint in research on sexualities.

Long Abstract

This paper considers viewpoints on secrecy among men who have sex with men in India. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the north of West Bengal, research explored ways in which same-sex desires and practices did not necessarily correlate to an explicit sense of (same-sex) sexual subjectivity. For men who took part in the research same-sex sexual affection and affect were typically most meaningful 'intersectionally', in respect of other aspects of their life-worlds, such as kinship, ethnicity and work, all of which resonated with wider social tensions in West Bengal at the time of fieldwork. Same-sex sexuality was commonly salient to people through experiences of indirection and absence, as opposed to explicitly articulated facts about sexual subjectivities. This was not simply a matter of well-kept sexual secrets, but also an attribute of a socio-cultural milieu within which sexual practices and relationships (between men) were most often possible and palpable because of social misrecognition (as non-sexual). This raises wider questions about the relationship between sexual object-choice and subjectification (in contexts such as India) and the usefulness of sexuality as a domain term in ethnographic enquiry. In many ways ignorance was an especially useful ethnographic viewpoint during fieldwork, in that accenting the acquisition of explicitly knowledge about same-sex sexual lives (as if characterized by clearly objective properties) was in many ways dissonant from the social worlds being explored.

Cultures of Ignorance as Metacognition

Author: Jonathan Mair (University of Kent)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the potential of applying or adapting the concept of metacognition as developed by psychologists in order to understand ethnographic cases of cultures of ignorance, such as those discussed by other members of this panel.

Long Abstract

The idea of 'cultures of ignorance' depends on a recognition of the importance of people's reflection about their own relationship to bodies of knowledge, and the fact that there can be traditions, or cultures, of such reflection. For a long time, anthropologists and other social scientists attributed to culture a primacy that meant that cultural symbols and structures of categorisation have usually been taken to provide the wherewithal for reflection, rather than being objects of it. Where reflexivity was recognised, it was seen as a distinctive feature of modern societies or practices that have somehow transcended culture, as in the work of Bourdieu and Giddens. The focus on reflexivity about relations to cultural knowledge—including, as in the context of this panel, reflexivity about ignorance—is therefore something of a departure for anthropology. In psychology, by contrast, a large body of work has developed in the wake of developmental psychologist John Flavell's work on the subject of 'metacognition', that is, a subject's knowledge of his or her own thought, and the efforts the subject takes to evaluate, monitor and regulate that thought. This paper explores the potential and limitations of putting the psychological concept of metacognition to work in order to understand 'cultures of ignorance' of the kind presented in recent ethnographic work on the topic, including work presented in this panel.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

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