Screw culture shock

I am just about ready to give up on the idea that culture shock is an important part of anthropology’s method. What is the point of this concept? For some anthropologists, experiencing ‘a different culture’ or, to put it another way, ‘cultural difference’ is key to being an anthropologist. Why I’m not sure. I think a lot of it has to do with anthropology’s surge of babyboom growth, which accentuated some aspects of the discipline over others. It also rests on the insight — important, I’ll argue — that anthropology is valuable because fieldwork transforms the person who undertakes it in a valuable way. But to argue that it is culture shock that triggers this transformation is to focus on the bathwater and not the baby.

The downsides of making anthropology necessarily a culture-crossing encounter are legion. It reifies the notion of cultural boundaries, for instance, driving us further away from the Boasian recognition of culture’s fluid nature. It makes people who study themselves a tremendous problem, rather than recognizing that such a thing is perfectly natural — whether it be ethnographies of white urban first worlders, or Native anthropologists who are Taking The Theory Back. In so narrowly imagining the field as rich whites visiting poor browns, it reduces an ethics of connectivity (thanks for this phrase James Faubion) to an impoverished series of debates about how best activist anthropologist can help those poor, poor people. And, of course, saying that it is the culture shock rather than  fieldwork and participant-observation that gives anthropologist insights is, implicitly, a vote of no confidence in our methods. Our discipline is worse off, I believe, when we claim that our method amounts to ‘hanging out’ but that’s ok because we hang out in ‘really strange places’.

How different this is from the ethnographic tradition in sociology. A standard textbook in that discipline (‘Analyzing Social Situations’) begins its first chapter with the exhortation to ‘start where you are’, and provides a list of a dozen sociologists who turned their careers as truckers or pet enthusiasts into monographs. For them, the issue of ‘studying your own culture’ is simply nonexistent. Neither is the notion of culture shock. Ethnographic sociologists have faith in their method (this comes from having to defend it from the quants they share their department with), and are willing to say that ethnography is a unique way of seeing and knowing, such that it is the method and not the location that makes knowledge. And as people who are attuned to issues of race and class, they recognize that there are lots of different lifeworlds to be explored, all of which are finely textured, unique, and deserving of description.

Now, I have to admit that one of the most valuable things about my own fieldwork in graduate school was living in a place where people reproduced their lives: building their own houses, growing their own food. The difference between that and my upper-middle class American childhood was staggering. And I also recognize that I am not the first person to criticize anthropology for constructing a ‘field’ or taking as its object of study ‘the natives’. But in posing the issue in terms of physical location or object of study, rather than culture shock, these critcisms create imaginary problems which they bend over backwards to solve.

If we believe fieldwork to have some sort of methodology which produces a unique and valuable form of knowledge, and we think anthropology is some sort of distinctive analytic les (or, dare we even say it, have some unique theories of the world), then issues of “what is fieldwork if not about ‘a village'” “can one study one’s own culture” and so forth become not fascinating theoretical issues, but simply contradictions caused by the wreckage of anthropology’s own self-induced aporias. So rather than giving up on fieldwork as a method, or giving up on single-site research, or giving up on the culture concept, what I think we really need to give up on is the underlying notion of grounding our discipline in the phenemonology of culture shock. If we did so I think we’d find much of the gunk cleared away, and several areas of ethics and so forth, connected in ways we hadn’t seen previously.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

33 thoughts on “Screw culture shock

  1. Gil Herdt took a different approach to this problem in the 1980s, proposing that there was no such thing as “culture shock.” Instead, the anxieties the fieldworker experiences, that we have learned to label culture shock, are the results of individual neuroses, projections, and transferences. It’s a useful insight, in part because it reminds us of Malinowski’s “personal equation of the ethnographer.” But if Boas recognized culture’s fluid nature, he also recognized that the reactions of the ethnographer to particular cultures are patterned, structured both by personal background and by nationality (and by extension, gender, and class, and. . . .) The German-speaking linguist will mishear the phonetics of Kwakiutl in systematically different ways from the Russian or English-speaking linguist.
    Clifford Barnett has pointed out that what is often labelled culture shock is really “life shock” (the first time a sheltered middle-class American sees an animal being slaughtered, a baby being born, or a dead body, all universal kinds of human experiences, but more often experienced in places where these activities are not hidden from view). And then there’s “reverse culture shock,” which is often experienced more powerfully (the nausea one feels upon walking into a supermarket or a Target store after months on the Navajo reservation).
    The key, I think, is to understand what one’s own definition of “culture” is in the first place. As an undergraduate, I was trained in ethnoscience, whose definition of culture was very, very intimate (similar to the perspective of ethnomethodology from the sociological tradition). Culture consisted of practices and ideas developed in the interaction of human beings at multiple levels, from the dyad on up. It was thus a nested series of taken-for-granted assumptions and judgments of appropriateness extending from the immediate sphere of social interaction, potentially on up to the global. On this definition, culture shock (with some healthy dose of individual psychodynamic processes) might be experienced anywhere practices are unfamiliar, even if some people might define such experieces as being “within” some imaginary bounded culture. My favorite example was a mini-fieldwork assignment given to students in my anthropology of religion class. A young African-American woman who had grown up in a Pentacostal church went to observe a Roman Catholic mass, and came to class the next day, visibly still shaken by the experience. “That was the wierdest thing I’ve ever seen!” she said. “People were like robots, all doing everything at the same time, and nobody had any expression on their faces! That’s not church!”
    So should we “screw culture shock,” or think about using it in more sophisticated ways?

  2. I’ve know academics who weren’t anthropologists whom have experienced culture shock but your post makes me wonder if they experience it differently since, as you say, their disciplines are not grounded in it. I assume geologists must experience culture shock, too, but I assume that the experience is probably qualitatively different since they’re not conditioned to fixate on it in the same way as anthropologists are. Interesting.

  3. Interesting discussion. Both what Rex says and what Gregory Starrett says resonate with me. I wonder, could it be that culture shock is like culture; we run into trouble when we reify the topic and treat it as what Dan Foss used to call a “thingie” on Anthro-L? After all, _a nested series of taken-for-granted assumptions and judgments of appropriateness extending from the immediate sphere of social interaction, potentially on up to the global_ can, at every level, include assumptions and judgments that are weighted differently.

    The young woman with a Pentacostal background encountered not only a difference but a difference that was, clearly, very important to her. Had she gone to an Indian restaurant and encountered tandoori instead of fried chicken, she might or might not have enjoyed the experience, but, I am only speculating, it seems unlikely that she would have been shaken to the core of her being.

  4. As an African American grad student, I’m shocked and saddened by the lack of social exposure the average graduate student has and has had with African Americans. The Seinfeld and Friends generation has reproduced itself in the academy. To suggest further social and intellectual isolation and inbreeding is rather wrong headed, in my opinion.

    I vote for more culture shock – beginning right here at home.
    BTW, spare me your photos with smiling and dancing Africans.

    Signed,

    Alien but not Exotic

  5. yes, the premise that if you aren’t a “native” anthropologist you are a member of the undifferentiated middle-class-whitie-maybejewish-whatever is really what bothers me about a lot of the discourse. I work in Russia and Mongolia but am from Wyoming, slaughtering animals and the cold aren’t that big of a deal. The phonetics are a much bigger concern a lot of the time. And the academy is like a another realm of culture shock fieldwork sometimes.

    both my undergrad and grad programs had pretty intense methods components, and I can at least say that people in the latest generation seem to be familiar with the debates and using the “culture shock as method” ideas critically… but then again there is the study-abroad craze run by “international education” folks that seem to not question it at all

  6. Has anyone ever examined the relation of culture shock to the desire to the desire to escape the straitjacket of the culture we grew up in that brought me, for example, to anthropology? Do anthropologists, given our motives for studying the other and our training in anthropology, experience culture shock in the same way as those involved in transcultural encounters by other circumstances?

  7. John, perhaps part of whatever experiential difference there may be is that we are told that we must “participant-observe” in that intercultural encounter, while others don’t necessarily feel they have that duty. There’s a perfect recipe for all kinds of anxiety, personal, cultural, and otherwise. So, going back to the original post, is the personal transformation–whatever that looks like–really supposed to be due to the purported culture shock, or to other kinds of learning? (e.g., Karen Ho learning how to be a management consultant at investment banks in Manhattan) Rex, from where are you drawing the idea that anthropology holds “that it is culture shock that triggers this transformation”?

  8. Gregory, I imagine a continuum of possibilities. At one extreme is something analogous to being kidnapped by aliens and carried off in a UFO to a place inhumanly strange. Near the other is an increasingly familiar case. Graduate training in anthropology is added to previous experience, a Peace Corps or military tour or year abroad program. The fieldworker returns to a place already in many respects familiar. The limiting case is the native anthropologist, for whom anthropology is a new context in which to try to understand home. At this extreme, the issue may be what is commonly called reverse culture shock.

    Suppose that our project were to theorize this range of possibilities. What would we be looking for, ethnographically speaking?

  9. Greg, I hear you and feel keenly what you are saying. I graduated from a segregated high school and, totally self-absorbed as I was when I went off to college, graduate school and fieldwork and then a life in East Asia, I never made African-American friends. The closest I came to black culture was jazz, and that was only the music. Now, I listen to NPR jazz profiles and realize how little I knew about the context in which that music was created. I can still recall being repeatedly asked if I didn’t feel alien living in Japan, to which my reply was, “Not as alien as I felt living in New Haven, CT, in married student housing on the edge of the ghetto.”

    Marissa, I hear you, too. My reading of that fine old description, “running around like a chicken with its head chopped off” is shaped by having seen the real thing when my family’s chickens stopped laying and were ready for the pot.

    Can we turn observations like these into deeper understandings of ethnographic encounters? Or the lives anthropologists lead? How should we proceed?

  10. Isn’t the point of “Culture Shock” as a methodological conceit that one should incorporate some awareness of what “culture surprise” is, and the kinds of effects it might have on an observer? Isn’t it the anticipation of confusion at the level of value (personal and cultural), and the thought this confusion should not retard our ability to understand others. If we assume we cannot be surprised to some deleterious effect, in our values, is this not just asking ourselves to be “shocked” (unconsciously), or worse, nullifying the ability for different values to upend us, and inform us?

  11. _If we assume we cannot be surprised to some deleterious effect, in our values, is this not just asking ourselves to be “shocked” (unconsciously), or worse, nullifying the ability for different values to upend us, and inform us?_

    Of course it is. And arguably one of the flaws in classic arguments for anthropological knowledge, along with similar arguments for TV and the Internet, is that the filters we develop to cope with too much information reduce what we “know” to a superficial familiarity, a barrier to the revelations that serious shocks can produce. We may long to be Saul on the road to Damascus, transformed into Paul the apostle. Instead, we wind up like bored consumers noting the appearance of yet another sugar-coated cereal on supermarket shelves.

    That said, this line diverts us from what I take to be the anthropologist’s proper task, looking more closely at this phenomenon we call “culture shock,” unpacking its variations, mapping their distributions and relating them to the circumstances in which they occur. To my mind, a good place to begin is with the kinds of observations that Gregory, greg and marissa have offered.

  12. Something I’ve been thinking about is that there has been a general loss of faith in “transcendence” over the last century: whether it is Freudian breakthroughs, or Communist revolutions, it seems to me that we now live in the age of “nudging” rather than transforming. Even Piaget style stage-development models are no longer in vogue. I sometimes think that this is what people actually mean when they say the era of the “grand narrative” is over, because it seems we have no shortage of grand narratives – we just don’t think that they have the same transformative power…

    So, sure, people might have breakdowns in the field. In fact, I think breakdowns are a common, although by no means ubiquitous, part of graduate school, whether in the field or while still in classes. We just no longer think of these as transformative in the same way.

  13. I can’t help but think the culture shock is an important part of the reflexive process. In a re-reading of the original post, I think that Rex is getting at that its positioning should be altered not that culture shock is an enemy – something to be moved out of the limelight if you will. The motivated process of culture shock, serving as an individualized “experience” necessitated in research of many graduate students, is vital to overcoming that individual tendency to continuously compare their experience to something they find unfamiliar. In a sense, culture shock (once it fades) can serve as a way for people to get over themselves. It just should not be the focus. Is it about us, about them, or about both.

    Speaking of reflexivity: (To meld the last comments from Kerim and McCreery) I just had a Mel Brooks moment in which a “Native” was grocery shopping for “grandnarratives” – they were hidden beneath these obscenely brightly-colored boxes that said “sugar-coated cereal”, needless to say he didn’t buy any.

    @McCreey- you are spot on.

  14. Kerim’s observation about a general loss of faith in transcendence touches on something real — but only, I suggest, in certain social, largely academic, circles. I recall the opening paragraph of Terry Eagleton’s _Ideology, An Introduction_. The book was published in 1991. Ronald Reagan had left office in 1989, Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Recent circumstances shaped what Eagleton wrote. That said, his remarks are still worth pondering.

    bq. Consider the following paradox. The last decade has witnessed a remarkable resurgence of ideological movements throughout the world. In the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as a potent political force. In the so-called Third World, and in one region of the British Isles, revolutionary nationalism continues to join battle with imperialist power. In some of the post-capitalist states of the Eastern bloc, a still tenacious neo-Stalinism remains locked in combat with an array of oppositional forces. The most powerful capitalist nation in history has been swept from end to end by a peculiarly noxious brand of Christian Evangelicalism. Throughout this period, Britain has suffered the most ideologically aggressive and explicit regime of living political memory, in a society which traditionally prefers its ruling values to remain implicit and oblique. Meanwhile, somewhere on the left bank, it is announced that the concept of ideology is now obsolete.

    Given that all of Eagleton’s examples of ideology involve appeals to transcendent powers, whether God, the nation, or the market. It seems to me that talk about the lack of faith in transcendence is, like the announcements of the death of God or the end of ideology I first saw on magazine covers—when was it? at least several decades ago—remains premature.The exception may be people like us, who have learned just enough to imagine ourselves unshockable, and are now terribly muddled instead.

  15. Worst culture shock I’ve ever had was after serving a nine month prison sentence, going and eating dinner in a Philly diner. Sitting at a counter with strangers, I couldn’t get over the lack of need to guard my food from the strangers sitting so close they touched my shoulders. The feeling of freedom was frightening. It made me physically ill. When my neighbor to my right was distracted for a moment I ate his scrapple.

  16. @John. Yes. But we are talking about “culture shock” as an academic concept. “The idea that culture shock is an important part of anthropology’s method.” as Rex puts it. Not whether it remains a popular concept in the public sphere at large. (I imagine it still is – as is the belief in ghosts – not that I’m equating the two.)

    Nor do I find the idea of equating ideology with transcendence particularly appealing. My point was that what has changed in academia is precisely a move away from such a transcendental definition of ideology towards a more processual and performative approach. (And not just in “anthropology since the sixties” but also in other fields, like experimental economics.)

  17. Kerim, could you please say a bit more about your proposition that “we are talking about “culture shock” as an academic concept”?

    The use of popular terms/concepts in technically specialized ways can be a productive move. Thus, for example, when Newton took “force” and redefined it as f=ma (force = mass x acceleration) something very important happened. Now physics had its own, explicit definition of “force” that was, in important ways, quite different from the use of “force” in describing legal arguments, personalities, or military formations.

    So you could be saying something important. So please, what, precisely, is this “academic concept” that we are discussing here?

    I suspect that this will be difficult. I anticipate that the problem I am posing is akin to that Eagleton describes when discussing ideology. To see what I mean, simply substitute “culture shock” for “ideology” in the following passage from _Ideology, An Introduction_ (p. 1).

    bq. Nobody has yet come up with a single adequate definition of ideology, and this book will be no exception. This is not because workers in the field are remarkable for their low intelligence, but because the term ‘ideology’ has a whole range of useful meanings, not all of which are compatible with each other. To try to compress this wealth of meaning into a single comprehensive definition would thus be unhelpful even if it were possible. The word ‘ideology’, one might say, is a _text_, woven of a whole tissue of different conceptual strands; it is traced through by divergent histories, and it is probably more important to assess what is valuable or can be discarded in each of these lineages than to merge them forcibly into some Grand Global Theory.

    I could, of course, be wrong. There could be some generally accepted _academic_ definition of culture shock of particular use to anthropologists. The world is full of things of which I am totally ignorant.

    Please enlighten me.

  18. I was just referring to Rex’s post. So I’ll quote him again: “For some anthropologists, experiencing ‘a different culture’ or, to put it another way, ‘cultural difference’ is key to being an anthropologist. Why I’m not sure.”

    Perhaps “academic concept” is too strong a word; a widely circulated folk-concept within academic circles might be a better way of putting it. Part of the folk-culture of anthropology. But still, the relevant community here is anthropologists.

  19. This thread hasn’t gone (mostly) the direction I thought it would. Any takers for a more direct discussion of the question, “Is culture shock a necessary condition for the production of anthropological knowledge?” and all sub-questions thereof?

  20. _“Is culture shock a necessary condition for the production of anthropological knowledge?”_

    _“For some anthropologists, experiencing ‘a different culture’ or, to put it another way, ‘cultural difference’ is key to being an anthropologist._

    Does “culture shock” add anything to “experiencing a different culture” or noticing “cultural difference”? Seems to me that these are three related but not identical topics.

    An historian can notice cultural differences.
    A tourist can experience a different culture.
    If culture shock is a necessary condition for production of anthropological knowledge, what else is going on?

  21. @MTBradly asks “Is culture shock a necessary condition for the production of anthropological knowledge?”

    I’d rephrase the question because it presumes that there is such a thing as “culture shock” and that is one of the issues under discussion. On that issue I personally don’t deny that there is such a thing – although I think for most people it is returning to their own culture which is hardest, not adapting to an alien one. L’s story illustrates this. But I think the bigger issue is whether or not culture shock is a transformative process which can bring about a new state of consciousness. My earlier comment was intended to raise this narrow question.

    I also wanted to introduce an element of intellectual history. I think the importance given to “culture shock” in some anthropological accounts (or perhaps just in the hallways of academia) is due to the importance a previous generation of scholars gave to Freudian concepts of psychology. In psychotherapy the patient must overcome both their natural resistance to healing as well as the process of transference in order to develop the critical stance necessary to see their own illness. (Sorry if I’m a bit off, it’s been a while since I read or talked about Freud…) My point was that while some psychologists still see things in this way, today there is much more focus on behavioral modification and pharmacology. This has been paralleled in anthropology by the shift towards practice theory and away from structuralism. (viz. Ortner’s ”Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties.”)

    Rex himself often blogs about ethnography as a “craft”, so I’m not surprised to see him knocking “culture shock.” But I think it is important to highlight how this is a knock against the critical theory/cultural studies tradition within anthropology. According to that model (which is the one I was trained in as an undergraduate), we need to achieve an archimedean vantage point from which to critically examine our own bourgeois ideology, and we can only achieve that by overcoming our own natural resistance in a process very similar to Freudian psychoanalysis. What I’d like to know is if Rex rejects this entire critical theory approach, or if he just believes that “culture shock” is not an essential part. That is to say, does he believe anthropologists still need to go through a transformative process by which they achieve this critical perspective, they just don’t get there via “culture shock” or does he see the entire critical theory approach as suspect?

  22. bq. I’d rephrase the question because it presumes that there is such a thing as “culture shock” and that is one of the issues under discussion.

    It’s an umbrella term for plenty of things that aren’t very cultural at all. When people say they’ve been culture shocked they more likely have been infrastructure shocked. In any case, I was surprised the discussion took that turn because I don’t see that issue at all in Rex’s original post.

    bq. But I think the bigger issue is whether or not culture shock is a transformative process which can bring about a new state of consciousness.

    To stay with the therapy metaphor, culture shock for a certain type of rigid personality can end up like psychoanalysis for a narcissist (reinforcitive rather than transformative).

    bq. If culture shock is a necessary condition for production of anthropological knowledge, what else is going on?

    If it is then the great mass of work produced by professional anthropologists needs to be written off as non-anthropological. I think that attitude actually exists among some culture anthropologists, unfortunately.

    My understanding of ethnoarchaeology is that while culture shock certainly is common for the ethnographer it isn’t really central to the why or the how. Any working archaeologists out there who can confirm or deny?

  23. Kerim, I think you nailed this – it’s that critical distance from second nature that’s looked for, the transformation of consciousness from naive ethnocentrism through a kind of Copernican revolution of mind that enables responsible (self-) criticism.

    The problem is that like the Marxists trying to figure out how class consciousness happens, we don’t have a very good idea how these transformations actually occur, and so the tendency is to think magically. If we just throw people at the right kind of experience they will be transformed, abracadabra. ‘Education’ is the usual incantation, which makes all those Nazis with university degrees hard to swallow.

    So somehow anthropologists are uniquely positioned to decenter their own cultural presuppositions because they go where people are really, really weird. But this corporate ideology does not work for at least two reasons: one, as Rex and John point out (some) sociological ethnographers, historians and tourists somehow manage to get the point of otherness without the epistemological grandstanding; and two, Euro (and Chinese, and Japanese, etc.) colonialists lived elbow-to-elbow with the Big Blue Others and managed (mostly) not to get the point, as for that matter some anthropologists haven’t.

    For the latter reason I’m afraid Greg’s earlier gesture at the lamentable disconnect between white grad students and African Americans won’t actually get us far. No whites in history have been closer to African Americans than the slave owners and Jim Crow racists. You can rub people all over each other and it’s not going to automatically transform their consciousness (or may do so in undesirable ways).

    Yet people do wake up from their dogmatic slumbers and become more mindful, critically responsible participants in human community. What are the conditions and moments of this process?

  24. So that I’m not just asking rhetorical questions, here’s a link to one classic answer to the ‘how’ question, Jane Elliott’s blue eye/brown eye exercise.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/

    Certainly her model involved the administration of a shock, but it looks to me that the critical factor was deprivileging through the reversal of power relations, followed by a reprivileging debriefing. I suspect that if you just reverse the power without the restorative second step, what you get is resentment (Klan, Nazis).

  25. “You can rub people all over each other and it’s not going to automatically transform their consciousness”

    That’s a great quote. But I’d like to make one small point RE anthropologists or psychotherapy patients vs. colonialists and slave owners. One thing that is different about anthropologists and patients is that they are actively seeking to transform their consciousness.

    It reminds me of recent literature on the use of mind-altering substances which shows that the effects are heavily influenced by cultural expectations. If you think LSD is going to open The Doors of Perception, and that’s why you are taking it, then maybe it will…

  26. Picking up on what Carl said, I offer a bit of ethnography. I tell a story and attempt to extract a few principles from it.

    The story begins in Puli, a market town in the center of Taiwan. The year is 1969. An anthropologist and his newly married wife are starting two years of fieldwork. One of the first things they do is call on Fr. Clancy Engler, the priest in charge of the local Catholic parish. The back story here is that when mainland China became the PRC in 1949, the missionary apparatus that had once been scattered all over China converged on Taiwan. Thus, oddly enough, every small town in central Taiwan had its missionaries. The Catholic mission in central Taiwan was run by Maryknollers, an order whose priests were, we were told before we left Cornell, nice guys of a generally liberal disiposition, who took an interest in anthropology and would share their whiskey and old _Newsweeks_ with lonely anthropologists. Fr. Clancy fit the mold. So, especially during our first year, we dropped in for a visit once in a while.

    It was on one of those visits that Fr. Clancy asked me the following question, “What can an anthropologist teach somebody like me?” He was speaking as someone who had lived in Taiwan for fifteen years and was fluent in Taiwanese. He was speaking to someone, me, who had just arrived, was just starting to learn the language, and would leave once our two years were up. I mumbled something about training and theory but didn’t sound very convincing.

    A year later, though, we returned to the topic. By then I knew all sorts of things that Fr. Clancy didn’t. I asked myself why. Here is the answer I came up with (the principles I mentioned).

    1. I had the _free_ time. Fr. Clancy had been in Puli a lot longer than I would ever be, but he was a busy man, a priest with a parish to run. I had the extraordinary privilege of two years in which I had nothing to do but pursue my anthropological interests.

    2. I had _freedom_. It wasn’t just time. I could go places and spend a lot of time with people in ways that Fr. Clancy couldn’t. I could spend several hours each day hanging around with the Daoist master whose rituals became my dissertation, watching what he did, taking photographs, asking about what this or that meant. I could become my Daoist master’s disciple in a way that Fr. Clancy, constrained by his role as a Catholic priest, could not.

    3. Everything was new to me. One advantage to bringing fresh eyes to a place where you know less than the average two year old is that you notice and get to ask questions about things that for old hands have long since faded into the background, the taken for granted of everyday life.

    4. And, yes, the training and the theory pointed my eyes and ears in directions that Fr. Clancy hadn’t considered. Having, for instance, read Radcliffe-Brown’s “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa,” I looked for what mother’s brothers were up to when invited to Taiwanese weddings. Having read Victor Turner’s _The Ritual Process_, I was primed to notice how much the basic pattern of Chinese rituals isn’t a rite of passage. Having read Geertz on thick description, I was moved to ask what other layers of meaning were present besides the thin fragments provided by the usual sorts of local explanations or the bits of Daoist lore passed on by a key informant who was both very generous and also had secrets to keep.

    Time, freedom, fresh eyes, and a training that gave me all sorts of interesting questions to ask — what an incredible privilege! Transformative? Perhaps. An Archimedean point from which I became an omniscient observer? Hardly. An opportunity to learn, to pursue my own questions without a living to earn or other jobs to do, to acquire a bunch of new perspectives that opened up my head? Oh,yes. Add a credential that made me a “real” anthropologist, a vision quester who had traveled to strange places and come back with some interesting stuff. Would I do it again? Oh, yes.

    Now, if only I didn’t have a business to run, a busy life with a bunch of projects demanding attention….

  27. bq. One thing that is different about anthropologists and patients is that they are actively seeking to transform their consciousness.

    I don’t think that’s true (of anthropologists, at least). This runs head-on into the supposed Problem of the Native Ethnographer, who is often motivated by a desire for more knowledge of the facts on the ground. It also begs the Does It Have to be Ethnography to be Anthropology Problem which I mentioned in my previous post.

    Not that I’m against doing fieldwork as a means of transforming the consciousness of the ethnographer or anything. It does seem a bit Byronic (again, not necessarily a bad thing!).

  28. MT, a couple of thoughts.

    First, when Kerim writes,

    bq. According to that model (which is the one I was trained in as an undergraduate), we need to achieve an archimedean vantage point from which to critically examine our own bourgeois ideology, and we can only achieve that by overcoming our own natural resistance in a process very similar to Freudian psychoanalysis.

    we should, I believe, assume that he knows what he is talking about. The anthropological question is whether what he is talking about applies outside the circle of those trained at particular places at a particular moment in history. I found what he said interesting precisely because I was not taught that model for anthropological research and wonder still how widely diffused it is. (You will note that this is the same issue I raised in relation to “culture shock.” It is all too easy to project one’s own experience as a generalization about “we anthropologists.”)

    Second, I do wonder how often the motivation of the Native Ethnographer is a desire for more knowledge of facts on the ground — as opposed, for instance, to a deeper understanding of familiar but problematic facts, the sort of thing that qualitative sociologists do when they study drug culture or art worlds.

  29. Come on Rex—you stirred the pot, surely you’re going to let us know what you think of the taste?

  30. “You can rub people all over each other and it’s not going to automatically transform their consciousness”

    That’s a great quote. But I’d like to make one small point RE anthropologists or psychotherapy patients vs. colonialists and slave owners. One thing that is different about anthropologists and patients is that they are actively seeking to transform their consciousness.’

    Kerim, are you sure that anthropologists and patients are actively seeking to transform their consciousness?

    As for the rubbing quote, well then, what is the point if not a transformation in understanding? It also points to the colonial legacy of anthropology and the awkward stances it still maintains. Anyone familiar with the relationship between the Anthropology and Hawaiian Studies departments at the U of Hawaii are acutely aware to this.

    Rubbing elbows is one thing. Rubbing it in, is another.

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