Look on the bright side of life?

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)

10 thoughts on “Look on the bright side of life?

  1. Pingback: anthronaut
  2. Well, drat: My brown belt in Google is to no avail; I’ve been unable to find the Spedding article reproduced on-line. If anyone does find it, please do toss up a URL.

    Way back in the mid-90’s, when I was a God-fearing, girl-loving Boy Scout, I had a great scoutmaster who was wise in the ways of this world. (To this day, the Boy Scouts of America still get my vote for awesomest. homophobic institution. evar.) Scoutmaster Swift pretty much never got angry at any of the Scouts, no matter what they did. Play tug of war with an axe? Get a mild rebuke. Pee right outside the tent in the middle of the night? Have a calm discussion about why this might not be such a good idea. I asked him, once, how he kept such a cool head. His answer: Everything a person does makes sense to them at the time; when you understand why a person behaves the way they do, it’s impossible to be angry.

    I think a similar attitude applies in anthro work: Cultural relativism isn’t an anything-goes moral relativism; neither is it some sort of mythical po-mo/quantum theory rejection of the idea of objective truth. It’s just the admission that we humans all have pretty darned similar brains, and as such, we can understand one another, but only if we recognise this equivalence. Like my old Scoutmaster, once we understand, we can definitely disagree with and fight against acts and practices (to fail to do so would be to deny our commonality by refusing to operate on the level of other human beings), but we aren’t in a position to condemn people or peoples.

    Traditional ethnography, as an attempt to understand, usually omits moral commentary as this isn’t particularly pertinent (or so the old theory goes). But this doesn’t mean that anthropologists have necessarily had a bland, value-free outlook on the world: Malinowski’s diary; Boas’ and Mead’s outspoken activism; Benedict’s service to the US military.

    So, yeah: I think anthropologists can say that. (Though, I’d say that an anthropological attitude would go beyond ‘This is stupid and mean.’ to ‘This is stupid and mean… I wonder why they do it.’) Heck, I think they should. (Full disclosure helps us greatly in evaluating the ways in which ethnographers’ attitudes may have biased their work.)

    But as for what then? I think that’s more your job as an anthropos than as an anthropologist.

    By the way… What’s a lamb flap?

  3. Not an anthropologist, but a mere law student who dabbles in other fields, but it seems to me that there isn’t so much of a contradiction there. Pettiness, meanness, and willful ignorance may in fact be rational ways of reacting to the world, in the sense that the petty, mean, willfully ignorant person gets a payout from being that way that may exceed the payout from being a “better human being,” so to speak.

  4. Patrick; thanks for coming by and “dabbling”. What you say may be true in some cultural contexts but I’m not convinced that it’s universal. I think it would have a lot to do with particular conceptions of what are the likely consequences of one’s actions, of the people one interacts with, and so forth. We are also, I guess, dealing with short-term vs long-term “payouts” and the value placed on the various potential consequences. Understanding “why” people do stupid, mean things, as Bob says, can help us understand those intricacies from both a societal and individual point of view.

  5. I don’t know what a lamb flap is, but Rex does — see his “two anthropologists and one piece of meat” post of several days ago. I appreciate what Bob says about our role as anthropos(es) [anthropi?] versus our role as anthropologists, but I still find myself smacking up sometimes against the lack of fit between the generous spirit of anthropological scholarship and the spirit of this particular historical hour. As for always tracking qui bono, it’s a good rule of thumb but seems less applicable in circumstances where some motivations seem, well, perverse. Maybe one could design a course on contemporary U.S. culture and call it “abnormal anthropology”

  6. If we are to study as participants, actors, individuals in a society and not as external observers, as has been tried in the past, then i think these things MUST be said, at least in one’s personal journals if not sometimes aload in the immediate setting. By taking so much from the people being studied; emotions, opinions, ideas and cosmology, we owe it to them, in a sense, to at least return our own personal thoughts and ideas. If knowledge really is the result of experience and always encorporates all actors involved, then how are we to provide a true representation of any situation without admitting, and then discussing and analyzing, the anthropologist’s emotional response to his/her study?

    Maybe our “screen personality” is a convenient way to mask our inner reactions which would make our research seem ethnocentric if it was admitted. We are only doing ourselves a disservice by trying to suppress thoughts and feelings, however intellectually distasteful we may find them, that we are experiencing.

    If one wants to study a community as an external observer, so be it. But a more resourceful subject of study, in my opinion, is the interaction between cultures that takes place, the hierarchy implicit in the researchers presence, the emotional reactions, on both sides, between researcher and researched. Let’s study the personal experiences of people’s interactions, as people in a global context, without separation between researcher and subject, and see what they have to offer us.

    Malinowski’s journals are fascinating because they offer a deeper view into the whole experience of the time and place where they were written. If anthropologists want to really practice cultural-relativism let’s stop acting like we’ll somehow disrupt a fragile culture with our advanced ideas of human rights and individual freedom and start acting like we’re people too, as ignorant as anyone else, with different ideas that are no more valid than those we’re studying. We’re full of emotional reactions, which are often the result of the same processes we are trying to study, and by protecting people from them we’re only implying that our thoughts are somehow superior.

  7. I agree with John to an extent; I think that we need to distinguish between the reactions that we have as individuals living in a particular place at a given time and the process of analysis that we undertake as anthros. While the former may, more often than not, influence the latter, an acknowledgement of these initial reactions informs a potential reader of a wider background and emotional context within which an “ethnographic event” may have taken place.

    That being said, I felt OK telling a Cree friend that I felt he was being a hypocrite when he expressed prejudicial attitudes toward Inuit residents. While an analysis of Cree-Inuit tensions has to go beyond that, I freely admitted to my disappointment at learning this in my ethnographic description, specifically how I spent 2 weeks locked away in my room after finding this out, angry with my Cree hosts and not wanting to talk to anyone. When this obviously didn’t lead to anything, I came out and tried to understand “why”.

  8. Nancy said “I think that we need to distinguish between the reactions that we have as individuals living in a particular place at a given time and the process of analysis that we undertake as anthros…”

    Thank you Nancy, this is almost what I was trying to articulate and corresponds with my ´individual` understanding of objectivity and with my reading of Weberian terms of objectivity.
    Just, having a look at term ´individual perception`, ain`t this a mirror for the larger context ´culture`, which is represented in individual perceptions at certain locality at certain place in time?
    Did you make your reflection on your individual perception explicit in the anthropological analysis/describtion you wrote afterwards?
    In regards of anthropology`s inherent morality,
    it is possible to make it explicit, you see she did it. This is not about relativism, which I consider an illusion, a construction, but about ´reflexivity`, that is tied to ´objectivity` in anthropology.

  9. Yes, reflexivity . . . I’m a strong believer in it. To answer your question as to whether I made my reflections explicit, my M.A. thesis is at least half pure descriptive ethnography where I include myself as a full participant in the events and where I include discussion of reflections, both on-the-spot and “in hindsight”. I’m also a strong adherent to experiential anthropology as described by Jean-Guy Goulet and others; this methodology allows for the incorporation of one’s reflections as a learning process in the field and as a reaction to one’s interactions with others. It also allows for full reflection on particular contexts within which interactions take place, thereby exposing the positionality of all participants, including the “researcher/learner”.
    I’m not sure that I agree that relativity is an illusion though; I think that it is still a valuable exercise to place things in their cultural contexts in an attempt to alleviate people’s all-too-frequent push to judge things out of context according to the norms and mores of their own cultural backgrounds.

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