I haven’t followed the case so I don’t know its outcome — perhaps some UK commentators can update us? — but an anthropological essay I find I have on the brain a lot these days is one written in 1999 by British anthropologist Alison Spedding. The full reference is at the end of this post; it was in Anthropology Today and I am not sure how to provide a universally accessible link.
At any rate, Spedding was writing from a Bolivian prison where she had been incarcerated (for 6 months at that point) on drug charges. Somehow under the conditions she managed to produce an amazingly thoughtful piece on the peculiarities of fieldwork. She writes of the “screen personality” we tend to adopt in the field — eating lamb flaps we don’t like, going to religious services we don’t believe in, nodding sympathetically to accounts of gender relations we’d condemn if they came from friends back home — and how impossible it was for her to maintain such a screen while in prison.
From there, she goes on to discuss the standard modality of ethnographic explanation: that “the apparent superstition is a reasonable way to understand the world, that what seems irrational is in fact entirely rational when one comprehends its context”. At the time of her writing, this mode wasn’t really working for her — when her fellow prisoners spent money on llama sacrifices and the like to influence the outcomes of their trials instead of using whatever funds they possessed to hire lawyers, she couldn’t help feeling it was basically counter-productive. And when women prisoners eagerly participated in the gender regimes of the prison routine she couldn’t help finding it, well, upsetting. The article ends on a rather despairing note (understandably). I can’t recreate its whole arc in this space but I highly recommend it.
So anyway — I thought about this article occasionally when I was writing my thesis, especially the bits on witchcraft. For all the structural rationales I could tease out about witchcraft discourse in the Bolivian community in which I carried out fieldwork, part of what motivated it seemed to be a kind of malicious glee. But mostly I ended up in the standard anthropological mode of explaining its relationship to social structure and so forth. Whatever, right? In the end I didn’t live in Isoso and neither I nor my loved ones would ever face witchcraft accusation.
However, living in the States the past few years I’ve started to get a bit of that ol’ Bolivian prison feeling. Of course my existence is quite cushy. But I mean in terms of hearing and being forced to live with rhetorics, discourses, regimes, practices — the lot — that I don’t want merely to understand/explain/analytically dissect. I don’t have a “screen personality” here — I’m me, and a lot of what is around me looks like flat-out meanness and stupidity. Are anthropologists allowed to say that? and having said it, then what?
article ref: Dreams of Leaving: Life in the Feminine Penitentiary Centre, Miraflores, La Paz, Bolivia, by A. L. Spedding
Anthropology Today (1999)