Thursday, October 19, 2006

a methodology reflection

Hi Everybody,

So I'm writing right now on my laptop as I'm sitting in the hammock in
the patio of my rented house. The power is out, AGAIN, so I'm running
on battery. I never thought, when I bought an extra battery for my
laptop, that I would be using it in the city where there is, in
theory, electrical power. Rather, I thought I would be typing up my
fieldnotes in the campo where there is no electricity. However, as it
turns out, I'm too chicken to bring my computer to the campo because
of the huge amount of attention I know it would generate—my motorcycle
is bad enough. I just write by hand in notebooks out there to avoid
being the center of a huge group of staring kids. And I use my extra
computer battery to be able to work through the really annoying daily
rolling blackouts here in the city. Some say there's some political
dispute between the power distributor and the government, but others
say the power generating infrastructure in the country is outdated and
hasn't gotten any investment for years due to business-unfriendly
laws. Whatever, I don't know, I'm sick of speculating, I just wish
they would stop turning off the lights in the middle of my chats and
telephone conversations with Tom.

So I've been thinking about my methodology, partly because I have some
grant applications due. (What ridiculous system makes you turn in
these crazy elaborate grant proposals from the field? It's really
logistically complicated, and I want to publicly thank Tom for all the
work he has, and is about to, put into assembling and mailing my

I have realized that a lot of what I do is look for cultural
differences between myself and the people I'm working with.
Anthropologists have been self-critical of this very tendency for a
while now. We have told ourselves that it produces exoticized
accounts of people's lives—when we write up these things, we tend to
leave out the things that are the same about "us" and "them". And in
fact, the whole notion of "us" vs. "them", which is a fairly central
concept to the whole original idea of anthropology, has been pretty
extensively criticized as well. But that is an issue for a different
blog entry.

I think that there is, indeed, a problem with the type of anthropology
which, presenting itself as a way to generate abstract knowledge,
creates accounts of a "culture" in which only the ways it differs from
United States (or European) intelligentsia culture is emphasized. On
the other hand, I want to offer a defense here for one underlying
reason-for-being (is that raison de etre, or something, any French
speakers?) of Anthropology.

Have you heard of Margaret Mead? She was one of the first-ever female
anthropologists, and she was also one of the most popularly famous
anthropologists ever. She was a Unitedstatesean and worked in the
1920s through 1950s(ish) in the South Pacific. Her books, including
"Coming of Age in Samoa" and "Sex and Temperament", were popularly
read, and were used as a basis for challenging some pretty basic
assumptions about gender roles and family structure in the U.S..
These challenges were very important to second-wave feminism, in the
1960s and 70s—in addition, of course, she was a pioneer in her
individual life, too, as a female university professor and world
traveller. My undergraduate advisor knew her at Columbia University,
and described her as a short but formidable old lady who clumped
around with a heavy walking stick.

My point about Margaret Mead is that she very explicitly wrote her
books not as contributions to a corpus of abstract knowledge, but as a
contribution to an internal dialogue within the society she came from.
It was not a dialogue, perhaps, because there was not an attempt to
talk back to the people she described, but she was explicitly making
contrasts, not describing an entire culture from a fictitious unbiased
perspective. She shared this goal with some of her United States and
European contemporaries—Marcel Mauss comes to mind, for example—but
many others went off onto the much more dubious path of trying to
construct scientific theories of human society. This might
conceivably be possible in the far future, (by psycho-historians?),
but with the current state of the art, the attempt usually results in
unintentionally ethnocentric and harmful work. (In case Katy's
reading, I want to make clear here that I'm not referring to
large-scale statistical studies, or all of social science necessarily,
but rather to anthropological evolutionist typologies and similar
things in other disciplines.)

I think that Margaret Mead's project is very worthwhile, and is one of
the best arguments I can come up with for why people should do
anthropology. A contrast with other societies can be a very
productive way to reflect on who we are as a society and to reveal
that our own assumptions are not necessarily universal. The problem
comes when we forget about the contrast part of this project, and
present our descriptions of other societies as wholes-unto-themselves,
as stand-alone abstract knowledge. Anthropology is and should remain
part of a conversation engaged in by people—not unbiased observers—who
always act from within their own sets of relationships. We should
also never forget that neither our own society nor any human society
ever is homogenous. There are always debates and different positions
on important matters. So we should not fall into the trap of talking
about "what Nicaraguans believe" or "what Unitedstateseans
believe"—instead we should remember to say things like "many male
Nicaraguan war veterans who are currently small scale coffee farmers
often speak with the assumption that…" or "mainstream political
discourse in the United States often contains assumptions that…". Or
maybe even better: "there is disagreement among Nicaraguan
participants in development aid programs around the question of…".

This brings me, however, to my methodological issue. I have been
comparing Nicaraguan points of view with, not a well-analyzed
discourse among people in the United States, but my own conscious and
unconscious assumptions. Is this legitimate? Am I, as one person,
with an admittedly non-mainstream political orientation and overly
introspective tendencies, a good representative sample of
Unitedstatesean thought?

I guess what I will answer to myself, in this blog/echo-chamber
format, is that maybe what I'm doing is a good starting point, but in
order to do a good job with the dialogue-anthropology that I've been
advocating here, I need to do some rigorous testing of my intuitions
about Unitedstatesean assumptions before publishing anything
explicitly contrasting them with Nicaraguan assumptions. Ho hum,
another chapter in my dissertation, perhaps. Fortunately, it's one
that I should be able to research from the comfort of my own home.


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