Friday, 13 November 2015

Anthropology != Ethnography

      I was talking in the pub about the fundamental nature of anthropology with one of my classmates during my master's course a few years ago after a departmental seminar. I said that I didn't think ethnography could be the only method employed in anthropology because a) part of the subject matter of anthropology is human cultural diversity and b) people's activities were significantly more diverse in the past than they are today.

      And she said that people do all kinds of stuff now - just look at Japan (a place she studied and is still studying). Look at kawaii culture, all of the sub-cultures, all the responses to American movies and animation and so on. The world is full of people, and it's bound to be diverse because they're all exposed to different things.

    And then we were interrupted, as far as I can remember. But what I wanted to say was that while Japanese people (and people in general) are certainly creative these days, and while they respond to all kinds of events in novel ways, and while we have the internet now, indisputably changing our lives at a fundamental level, it seems pretty unlikely that human sacrifice will ever come back.
Not coming back.
       In a socially-sanctioned sense, human sacrifice ended a long time ago - about five hundred years ago in the Andes and Mesoamerica, about 120 years ago in what is now Nigeria, about a hundred years ago in eastern Indonesia. In some communities in eastern Indonesia, a child would once have been placed in the right-front house-post hole and crushed by the pole in a ceremonial act to provide the house with stability and a supernatural foundation. That doesn't happen anymore.

        The death penalty as practiced in some countries is arguably a form of human sacrifice, so I don't know if the entire concept has gone away, but it has certainly receded. And I hope/expect that the death penalty will disappear completely within a few decades, at least outside of Saudi Arabia.

       Either way, people don't seem to want to kill one another as much as they used to, and that's a relatively new thing. It means we can't investigate human sacrifice ethnographically. In order to get some handle on why people used to cut out hearts and crush their children, we have to use historical documents, excavations, and comparative ethnography from around the time of such events or soon after (among other methods, if there are any). Human sacrifice is documented ethnographically, by the way - Fay-Cooper Cole witnessed and described such a killing in Mindanao in the early twentieth century, and Bernardino de Sahagun's descriptions of Aztec practices (post hoc and post-conquest), including human sacrifice, arguably constitute the first proper ethnography of a non-Eurasian society. Or maybe any society.

       Headhunting isn't coming back either, but it went on for at least four or five thousand years in island Southeast Asia. It was an absolutely crucial practice in the societies in which it was undertaken: men usually needed heads in order to get married; they often took slaves and stole food alongside the heads that they took; and marriage alliances came to be of central importance in a world in which enemies might come to cut off your head at the end of the dry season if you didn't have make them your relatives. It's also interesting academically in that it seems to have spread with Austronesian language and to have changed in character in the different environments in which Austronesian speakers found themselves. 

       Ethnographic fieldwork can no longer answer questions about this fundamental aspect of human life in that area, and I think the lesson from that should be that ethnography is just one tool that anthropologists can use.

      We've also got to take into account the obvious fact that 'ethnography' in New York City is completely different to ethnography in a village in New Guinea (to take the most stereotypical example of anthropological fieldwork), and that a lot of what counts as anthropological fieldwork is sociological fieldwork under another guise. Yes, in both cases you meet people and, yes, you interview them - but in New Guinea you'd live with them, wake up in their presence, eat breakfast with them, rely on them for food (paying for it, of course). You'd spend almost your entire time in that environment, surrounded by people. And you can find out some extremely valuable things about how people in smaller-scale societies go about their day, even if they are increasingly being incorporated into the post-industrial world.

      Doing fieldwork in NYC, you'd be able to buy your food from people who have no idea that you're doing 'ethnographic' fieldwork and from people you have no other business with. You'd almost certainly wake up alone and eat breakfast away from your informants. Your research questions will be different, too: less marriage alliance, less inheritance, more stresses of the 9-to-5, more homelessness. It's a totally different thing, whether anthropologists today like to admit it or not. They're different kinds of societies, and I think the idea that anthropologists can do ethnographic fieldwork with businessmen in the modern USA is a little odd. They can do some useful kind of research with them, but it's not really the same thing - and this elision of 'ethnography' and 'any qualitative study' is just to pretend that a word like 'ethnography' can be made to mean whatever you want it to mean.

      Obviously, though, there's a problem with what I'm saying here: most anthropologists just don't care about these topics anymore (by which I mean: human sacrifice, headhunting, marriage alliance, inheritance), at least not in the same way, and the discipline is being torn in several different directions by people with fundamentally incommensurate views on what anthropology is supposed to be. I get the impression sometimes that the only thing holding anthropology together is a shared misapprehension about the meaning of the word 'ontology'.


      I went to Turkey a couple of years ago, and while it was a really lovely trip, and while Istanbul as a whole was magical, I was a little perturbed that on an after-dinner stroll in Gülhane Park one of the first people I saw was singing Gangnam Style and dancing like he was riding a horse. Is it really diversity (in the really interesting sense) if people are responding in slightly different ways to exactly the same media? And should studies of this Turkish Gangnam dancer be placed in the same academic department as studies of human sacrifice? I have to say that I don't think so, and I find anthropologists' justifications for this elision extremely weak.

       Not that it affects me directly: I only have one short degree in the discipline, not a career in it. But I still read plenty of ethnographies, and ultimately I want to do linguistic fieldwork, which isn't wholly dissimilar to classic ethnography. And I'd also like students today to be able to study a total human science that takes into account a wide variety of findings, not just those acquired using one method. Oh well: I'm happy enough to shout into the wind about it.


  1. "...anthropologists just don't care about these topics anymore (by which I mean: human sacrifice, headhunting, marriage alliance, inheritance), at least not in the same way, and the discipline is being torn in several different directions by people with fundamentally incommensurate views on what anthropology is supposed to be. I get the impression sometimes that the only thing holding anthropology together is a shared misapprehension about the meaning of the word 'ontology'.

    This is true!

    I favor and practice a more traditional approach to anthropology because I'm convinced that antecedents matter when it comes to understanding the world today.

    1. I don't favour a 'more traditional approach' to the discipline, but I do want to refocus it on what used to be the 'traditional' subject matter. That doesn't mean endorsing some old paradigms or theoretical approaches (like structural-functionalism, as my view is often caricatured as saying). I'm just interested in what life is like in small-scale societies and what life was like for everybody before urbanisation, industry, computing, etc, really took hold. I think that's a perfectly valid thing for a discipline to be devoted to, and especially so given the fragmentation within anthropology (e.g., fields like 'medical anthropology', 'visual anthropology', and so forth).

  2. Karen Ho worked on Wall Street for a year to do her ethnographic research there.

    1. I'm familiar with the work and I think it's very valuable - but I don't think it's really accurate to call it 'ethnographic'. That's not what it is. It's qualitative, sociological, participant-observation, all of that, but does that = ethnographic or anthropological fieldwork? I don't think it does. Wall Street is a different beast to anything you'd find in a small-scale, village-based, non-industrial society, and it's embedded in a series of much larger institutions that feed into or depend on it in a way that would be impossible to study purely ethnographically. Industrial and post-industrial societies are simply qualitatively different to non-industrial ones, especially if those societies are also non-literate, non-urban, and non-state. They need different skills and different sets of knowledge to study them well, and I don't think it's in any way a criticism of Ho's work to say that it isn't ethnographic per se.

    2. I can't believe you have anthropological training. Ethnography is the written account of an anthropologist's research about a group of people or human activity that the anthropologist has studied/researched. It is usually an account gained from doing long terms participant observation amongst a group of people who for some reason are of interest to the anthropologist. From researching child birth oractices in remote northern Laos to the maternity wards of of an industrialised city or kinship in the Congo to kinship in Texan oil corporations Or female circumcision in Africa and labia plasty in the west, you name it anthropology can study it and whatbis written upmis an ethnographic account of what was studied. The unfortunate ideas you have that 1. The planet lacks diversity and two that you draw on notions of diversity that are redolent of the racism of an early anthropology that saw human culture as being discrete and external cultural influences as pollutng of pure cultures etc eg western culture polluting/changing "traditional ". It is quite astounding that you buy into "the exotic" as being what anthropology is about aslo as the fundamental principle of anthropology of questioning taken for granteds is all about making the exotc familiar and the familiar exotic. It is also quite extraordinary that confronted with such obvious signs of the reality of culture exchange, such as the Korean dance in Istanbul you don't even stop to think to question the taken for granteds you obviously need to The idea that anthropology only works in small scale premodern communities is really quite bizarre. When did you people study 1930's? Have you read anything about ethnography, like "writing culture" or "Anthropology off the shelf?" Or "In a different light"? As far as taking on issues of human sacrifice I think you need to get across the issue of questioning your taken for granteds as you really are arguing in a particularly non-anyhropological way. If you are really interested in the topic you might like to read Tal Alasad's book on suicide bombing just to see how to see past your presuppositions etc. Sacrificng one's self is human sacrifice, even if it doesn't look likemthe exotic one you're choosing to look at.

    3. "Ethnography is the written account of an anthropologist's research about a group of people or human activity that the anthropologist has studied/researched."

      If you say so. So: if someone does purely statistical research but calls themselves an anthropologist, they've written an ethnography?

      Can we please get a more specific definition? The fact is that the concept of ethnography you're talking about is based on precisely the change I find disturbing.

      I don't think anthropology and sociology should be the same thing. That's not because the modern world isn't interesting, and it certainly isn't based on the idea of 'the exotic', and it certainly isn't because I believe in discrete individual cultures. You've misunderstood the point completely.

      Even if we accept that Talal Asad is right and suicide bombing constitutes a certain kind of human sacrifice, it's still radically different from human sacrifice in Tenochtitlan and needs to be studied separately, as an independent and equally interesting phenomenon. You're putting these activities into neat categories so you can pretend that anthropologists are still studying humans in an all-encompassing way, when actually most anthropologists are just doing qualitative sociology under a different brand. And actually, putting these totally different things in the same box is redolent of an earlier kind of anthropology that ignored people and looked at function in society. Whoops.

      I'm not talking about studying existing groups of people today with a view to extracting from them their traditions and exoticising them. What I'm saying is that we should be interested in people whose lives *aren't* like ours. We live in an urbanised, industrialised, literate society with a state. For something like two hundred thousand years, humans lived in societies without cities, industry, writing, or states. We need a discipline that incorporates all of our knowledge about that and teaches it to students, partly because it's simply interesting and partly because those people are, well, people - they're like us, except that they live(d) under different conditions. That can tell us a lot about what humans are like. If we looked only at societies around today, we'd say that men cry less than women, end of. But that doesn't seem to be true when you look into the past and at smaller-scale societies as well.

    4. If you're thinking that I'm saying that we should study gruesome exotic things and subtly imply that the people who did them were/are less than us - weird, exotic, bizarre, pulse-pounding, King-Kong, ooga-booga - then you've got it totally, frustratingly, unsurprisingly wrong. And I think it says something more about your prejudices than mine. Anthropology's recent desire to move away from studying life in non-state and smaller-scale societies has been a tragic thing: it means almost no one continues to study life in those places, and that means that prejudice can run free. It also means that anyone who takes an interest in life in tribal societies is branded a racist or imperialist. Some anthropologists - viz, people like you - can't imagine that someone might be an interested humanist rather than a brutal imperial exploiter.

      And again, as you can read in the actual post you seem so keen to ignore, I'm not saying that planet isn't diverse. It's just differently diverse today. Some things are totally new and spread across the planet like wildfire, like smartphones and Gummy Bears and Gangnam Style. We've got more styles of music than ever before, more kinds of ceramics, more kinds of notebooks and curtain railings and every other bloody thing.

      But our diversity is rather constrained. Smaller-scale societies in which men openly weep, or in which girls are confined to menstrual huts when they have their first period, or in which trade is only seen to be conducted as an adjunct to creating a social relationship, or in which a family, unrestricted by a state, would place one of their children into a house-post hole to be sacrificed - those societies are on the way out, and they used to be *all of us*. They're probably going to disappear - not the people, not like that racist Jimmy Nelson photography project, but that kind of life. Cities and large towns are cropping up everywhere and I expect we'll have good 3G coverage in the middle of New Guinea within a few years. What I'm saying isn't that the planet lacks diversity: it's that it lacks a certain kind of very interesting diversity that someone needs to be studying even if it doesn't seem as cutting-edge, relevant, and politically-valuable as looking at the effects of social media on Turkey.

      We already have disciplines that study the modern world. Public health, international relations, political science, modern history, sociology, cultural studies, e-learning, you name it. We don't really need another. Anthropology used to have the subject matter of non-industrial (etc) life, where sociology has always been wholly devoted to industrial and post-industrial life. We only have one other discipline mostly dedicated to non-industrial life, archaeology, and that's a) about material evidence of the human past and b) also includes industrial archaeology as a prominent part. We need a discipline that tell us how people live(d) in societies unlike our own, unlike the market societies we live in.

      Can you tell me what's racist or imperialist about maintaining that division of labour? Can you tell me why you think it's progressive and good to ignore most people who have ever lived and how they lived?

  3. Wrt to your comment on Fay Cooper Cole witnessing a human sacrifice, can I get a citation for that? I ask for this in regards to argument with a friend.

    Also, excellent post. Couldn't agree more. Intellectual trends in social sciences and humanities are generally quite depressingly sophistic (I guess that's the nature of the subject and of humans... no doubt what is now seen as old-fashioned will be seen as vital and important again once the passions of the present past).

    1. The book you want is Cole's 1913 work, Wild Tribes of the Davao District, Mindanao. You can also read about it in Laura Lee Junker's brilliant Raiding, Trading, and Feasting, (1999, Hawai'i). To sum up the bit about human sacrifice, Junker says: "Cole includes a unique and astoundingly candid description of a human sacrifice that occurred in 1907 on the occasion of a Bagabo datu's installation as the regional paramount, an event that has multiple layers of meaning in the political, economic, and ritual spheres." (p.39)

      You can find Cole's work on kindle for very little money, and that's the edition I've got (so if you're looking at a paper one it's a bit useless to give you a reference).

      I'm a bit concerned that everyone thinks I want to go back in time or something, to take anthropology back to something, but actually all I want to see is the space in an academic department to teach students how to deal with ethnographic, archaeological, linguistic, genetic (etc) data in arguments about human history and society before literacy, urbanisation, and so on. I don't think that's a regressive step. It's just an obvious hole in the academy, from my perspective. We've got lots of people researching these things, but they do so somewhat independently and not in their own departments. That seems odd to me.

  4. What's your view of the fairly new Institute of Human Sciences at Oxford? It seems like the sort of thing you're calling for, to a degree.

  5. It's not exactly what I'm calling for, but I think it's also a good idea. It's not that new, AFAIK - I think it was founded in the 1960s, and considering the anthropology department was founded in the 1880s...
    It seems to focus more on the psychology, genetics, and human universals end of things, which is very interesting and important. You can do a lot with that, and cognitive science in general is right up my alley. But it's not exactly what I'm talking about. I'd like to see a course for students to learn about non-industrial societies specifically, which human sciences doesn't tend to do.


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