EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(IW004)

Towards an anthropology of misunderstanding (EN)

Location Theatre S3
Date and Start Time 11 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Guido Sprenger (Heidelberg University) email
Thomas G. Kirsch (University of Konstanz) email
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Short Abstract

Misunderstandings, often considered as problems to overcome, are in fact sources for analyzing the very conditions of communication. This panel invites theoretical and ethnographic reflections on misunderstanding as a means to (re)conceptualize cultural difference and transcultural communication.

Long Abstract

The idea of 'cultural misunderstanding' is at the very root of anthropology's concept of difference. By acknowledging 'misunderstanding' we recognize that no system of communication can be fully translated into another system. However, 'misunderstanding' has hitherto been treated mostly as a source of disquieting uncertainty and as a problem to overcome instead of as a source of knowledge and innovation. Condemning or attempting to improve upon 'misunderstanding' implies a normative view of communication as consensus-driven. In addition, this view is often based on simplistic ideas of what means 'to understand', in doing so leaving unanswered important questions concerning the nature and substance of 'cultural understanding', for example, whether it refers to the propositional contents of acts of communication or merely to the symbols employed in them. In contrast to this, a view of communication as being driven by difference turns 'misunderstanding' into a fertile source for analyzing the very conditions of communication. Seen from this perspective, 'misunderstanding' appears as a necessary and constitutive aspect of communication. The panel invites both theoretical and ethnography-based reflections on the question of how misunderstanding can be explored in its practical, heuristic and epistemological dimensions as a means to (re)conceptualize cultural difference and transcultural communication.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Against Identity: hermeneutical and ethical aspects of anthropological misunderstanding

Author: Annette Hornbacher (University of Heidelberg)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper reflects the problem of ethnographic representation and cross cultural understanding in light of a philosophical hermeneutics and its idea of 'productive misunderstanding' as opposed to 'value free' identification.

Long Abstract

During the last decades, epistemological discussions in the field of anthropology have emphasized that anthropological attempts to analyze and to understand different cultures and thus to overcome the intellectual dominance of western thought and culture, inevitably lead to contradictions because power and knowledge are interrelated. Thus, the very task of anthropology: to provide an objectice understanding of foreign cultures vis-a-vis the normative claims of Western society and knowledge, seems to be self-contradictory. This paper deals with this epistemological crisis of anthropological representation by reassessing its idea of understanding as objective or neutral identification of cultural difference. Thereby I will relocate theoretical and ethical problems of cross-cultural understanding within the framework of philosophical hermeneutics and its idea of ‚productive misunderstanding' as opposed to neutral or 'value free' identification.

Learning not to be a master - or the necessity of misunderstanding in fieldwork among the thầy cúng of Vietnam

Author: Paul Sorrentino (Université Paris Descartes)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper will question my research as a disciple of a thầy cúng (master of ritual) in Vietnam, where misunderstanding appears as a necessary condition of possibility of fieldwork and a revelator of specific issues related to the activities of these specialists in contemporary Vietnam.

Long Abstract

Learning not to be a master - or the necessity of misunderstanding in fieldwork among the thầy cúng of Vietnam

Based on fieldwork conducted during the last four years for my Masters and doctoral research in Hanoi and the Red River delta (Vietnam), this paper will question the modalities of my presence in the field and the role of misunderstanding in the negociation of these modalities.

A part of my research consisting in studying the activities of thầy cúng (masters of ritual), I became the disciple of one of these specialists. Thus, I got involved in a long (and still ongoing) process of learning whereas I lacked several of the necessary conditions expected from a novice.

The paper will focus on this master-disciple relationship and will attempt to show how an initial misunderstanding extended throughout time and actually appeared to make the relationship viable in spite of deep contradictions.

Misunderstanding will then turn out to be a condition of possibility of fieldwork itself, but also a revelator of specific issues related to the transmission of the skills of the thầy cúng in contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the misunderstanding surrounding (founding ?) this master-disciple relationship can be seen as an expression of a tension between two necessary but contradictory attitudes (openness and secrecy), both appearing to have a new meaning in the context of vietnamese « ritual revival. »

Misunderstanding in the ethnographic politics of hearing

Author: Spela Drnovsek Zorko (SOAS)  email
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Short Abstract

Moments of misunderstanding are crucial for resisting simplified frameworks of approaching narrative and memory. Misalignments in ethnographers’ and informants’ perceptions of a subject can highlight unexamined assumptions, and are inseparable from the intersection of private and public narrative.

Long Abstract

What are the implicit expectations that frame ethnographic encounters on the part of the anthropologist and on the part of the informant? How does the fieldwork conversation intersect with other genres of communication? And what happens when people realise they have been misunderstood? While the phrase "cultural misunderstanding" tends to evoke either phenomenal flaws in shared cosmologies or amusing social gaffes from the anthropologist's notebook, I am more interested in how the expectations of hearing and saying shape the way that research topics change and mutate. With reference to a small-scale study on family narratives among young British-Yugoslav immigrants, I discuss the ways in which the concept of narrative came to be inextricably bound up in my personal framing of the project as well as that of my participants. Asking how children of ex-Yugoslav refugees receive, interpret, and discuss parental narratives of Yugoslavia, its break-up, and the family's migration, I found that even soliciting stories-as-stories defied any simple division into public or private narrative.

I want to suggest that moments of misunderstanding are crucial for resisting overly simplified frameworks of studying narrative and memory, which have implications for the cultural, political, and personal aspects of the family story. More than just tools in the ethnographer's self-reflexive toolbox, misunderstandings and misalignments between the ways in which ethnographers and informants perceive the subject at hand cannot be predicted - which is what makes them so useful in highlighting unexamined assumptions and implicit claims to knowledge.

Uncertain communication: managing intersubjectivity between children with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers

Authors: Laura Sterponi (University of California, Berkeley)  email
Alessandra Fasulo (University of Portsmouth)  email
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Short Abstract

Through the lens of fine-grained analysis of interaction between children with intellectual disabilities and their family members, this paper offers a reflection on the psychological and epistemological underpinnings of human communication.

We unearth the inherent precariousness and unpredictability of communication, and discuss its ethical dimension.

Long Abstract

Through the lens of fine-grained analysis of spontaneous verbal interaction between children with intellectual disabilities (specifically autism and Down syndrome) and their family members, this paper offers a reflection on the psychological and epistemological underpinnings of human communication.

Much research on human communication has grounded itself on a model of information processing in which the minimization or eradication of uncertainty are desirable pursuits and attainable interactional goals. The effectiveness and success of communicative acts are warranted by a set of felicity conditions, notably verbal explicitness, a clear-cut context, and a transparency of intention. Within such framework, ellipsis, overlap and turn fragmentation are seen as communication defects that threaten mutual understanding.

Drawing on Derrida's perspective on communication and ethnometodological insights on mutual understanding, we unearth the inherent precariousness and unpredictability of communication. No actual act of communication takes place in the security that it will work. This intrinsic risk of breakdown in intersubjectivity cannot, however, be conceived of as an anomaly, as a threat to successful communication.

The uncertainty of the other is precisely what mobilizes communication (Derrida, 1998; Levinas 1991). The possibility of a lapse in mutual understanding is thus an essential component of communication as encounter with the other. As such, communication emerges as not solely grounded on epistemic bases but also on ethical premises.

The study of communication with individuals with intellectual disabilities is particularly conducive to exploring the ethical dimension of encounters with the other, and of intersubjectivity as exceeding epistemological calculations.

Occupying Wall Street: misunderstandings, authentic and disingenuous

Author: David Hicks (Stony Brook University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper demonstrates how the concept of misunderstanding can be a rich analytical tool for understanding how the media and politics manipulate socio-political movements to advance ideological notions, ambitions, and agendas.

Long Abstract

On 17 September 2011 protesters marched on the New York Stock Exchange. Prevented from doing so by the New York Police Department, they diverted to nearby Zucotti Park where they set up a tent community. Justifying his tolerance by evoking "the right of free speech", the mayor of the city, Michael Bloomberg, made no attempt to eject them. After the disruption they wrought over the next two months, however, the mayor changed his mind and now evoked concerns about noise, unsanitary conditions, drug use, and so forth. The police removed their tents, whereupon the protesters repeated their attempt to enter the Stock Exchange, an act that provoked serious violence. Meanwhile "Occupy Wall Street" imitators had founded their own groups in other United States urban centres. This paper argues for two propositions. (a) That the protesters' rhetoric and the various exegeses offered by outsiders - politicians, unions, editorial writers, and academics -- not only reveal a certain understanding of what the protestors, mayor, and police were doing, but also reveal certain misunderstandings. (b) These misunderstandings can be shown to fall into two categories: authentic and disingenuous. By scrutinizing both, but more particularly disingenuous misunderstanding, the application of the concept of misunderstanding as an tool of analysis is demonstrated to be rich in possibilities for rendering intelligible the processes by which influential individuals in the media and politics manipulate socio-political movements to advance ideological notions, ambitions, and agendas.

Constructing and conceptualizing a contested space: knowledge and cosmology among the Gitanos of El Rastro

Author: Marianne Blom Brodersen (Norwegian University of science and technology)  email
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Short Abstract

With this paper I seek to explore the construction and conceptualization of Gitano (Gypsy) cosmology. I focus on how cosmology, as ‘knowledge’, is being produced, reproduced, distributed and used within the context and rise of Gitano Pentecostalism on the one hand, and Roma activism on the other.

Long Abstract

This paper must be seen as a 'work in progress' where I examine how Lo Gitano ('Gypsyness') is being formed and framed within the context of 21st century Europe. I do this by looking at Gitano cosmology as 'knowledge', and by investigating the production, re-production, distribution and use of this knowledge. I will further focus on the emergence of new 'bodies' or 'branches of knowledge' (Barth 2002) accompanying the rise of Gitano Pentecostalism on the one hand, and Roma activism on the other. I will look at how these different 'branches of knowledge' co-exist, conflict and compete with each other. My empirical 'point of departure' is El Rastro, a specific Gitano barrio (quarter) in Madrid. Following these new tendencies I am interested in how Gitano cosmology, identity and knowledge tradition are subject to change. Against this background I seek to look at El Rastro as a 'zone of awkward engagement' (Tsing 2005) wherein the various cultural entrepreneurs negotiate, conceptualize and form discourse and practice connected to prosperity, knowledge and freedom in relation to Gitanos in particular, and Gypsies or Roma, in general. Following Anna Tsing (2005), we must put 'distress' center stage for our research; it is in the 'friction' of different encounters and horizons, that the symbolic and social boundaries, the categorizations and labels, are constructed and reconstructed. As argued by Tsing (2005), the formation of cultural continuity and coherence are often accompanied by conflict and misunderstanding and it is precisely the potential for misinterpretation and struggle that interests me in this case.

Mis-understanding otherness: a relational approach to ontological and symbolic readings of sacred sites in Mapuche land negotiations

Author: Piergiorgio Di Giminiani ( Universidad Catolica de Chile)  email
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Short Abstract

This article explores the implications of misunderstandings in land negotiations between Mapuche claimants and state functionaries in Chile. Misunderstandings originate in the tendency to rely on analogies and symbols in their interpretations of sacred sites involved in land disputes.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on the process of land negotiations between state functionaries and Mapuche claimants in Southern Chile. This process, which began in 1993, aimed at the resolution of disputes originated as a consequence of indigenous land dispossession in the last 150 years. As a form of cultural translation, land negotiations centres on the interpretation of the cultural significance of land for indigenous people. In particular, Mapuche sacred sites are the most compelling forms of symbolically expressing the relation between a human group and their land. The local ethnography focuses on one land dispute to illustrate how land negotiations are riddled with misunderstandings by state officials on the role of rewe altars in Mapuche land claims.

Misinterpretations by state officials originate as a form of equivocation, a concept introduced by Viveiros de Castro and referring to the predicament of cultural translation of homonymic concepts, such sacred sites in this case. Equivocation is further complicated by the tendency of state officials to treat sacred sites as symbolic capital and symbols of indigenous identity. By drawing upon the recent anthropological exploration of difference at the ontological level, this articles suggests that symbolic and strategic interpretations of sacred sites involved in land claims ultimately obscure those ontological properties upon which the sacredness of these sites is predicated in Mapuche society. The political implications of the forcing of symbolic interpretations are evident as they can lead to accusations of inauthenticity of sacred sites and, ultimately, to the deligitimisation of indigenous claims over ancestral land.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.