On Ethnographic Unknowability

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Catherine Besteman as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Catherine is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. She is author of numerous books and articles, including Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), Transforming Cape Town (University of California Press, 2008), and co-edited with Hugh Gusterson, Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back (University of California Press, 2005) and The Insure American (University of California Press, 2009). Her most recent book Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine is forthcoming from Duke University Press.)

What if I told you to write what you don’t know?

I ask this because I find the oft-offered advice to “write what you know” both alarming and silencing. Isn’t ethnography at least partially about unknowability? If we acknowledge that textual recording is a form of fixing knowledge, how does one write what one doesn’t know? How can our writing play on the edge between knowing and not knowing, refusing to fix the unknown by writing it into existence? Exploring this playful and vexing tension in ethnographic writing is my current preoccupation.

A story might help illuminate my query.

A few years ago, some friends in the Somali refugee community in Maine with whom I do ethnographic work rekindled an old dispute. Tensions over leadership and representation plagued their relationship, and in the latest eruption people with knives broke through the apartment wall of my good friend Khalar. Khalar and his family fled the apartment and filed charges with the police. He and another man took out protection orders against each other. A defamation lawsuit filed by one against the other began making its way through the court system. A few days later, another friend, Ahmed, told me that this newest fighting was generated by Khalar’s first wife’s rage against his new second wife. The problems between the two women were radiating out through their respective kin groups, provoking small but violent eruptions between family members.

“Wait,” I said to Ahmed. “Khalar has a second wife?”

I was spending countless hours every week with Khalar on community projects. I understood the tensions over leadership and representation between Khalar and the other men as emanating from things that happened back in their country of origin, things that happened in the refugee camp, personality clashes, and the particular contextual politics of diasporic community building. My understanding did not extend to include marital disputes. How did I not know that Khalar had married again? A few months previously, Romana had begun attending social events with Khalar. Reading their interaction as marital, I had then asked if they were recently married but Khalar insisted they were siblings. I recalled him telling me a few weeks prior that Zeynab, a local community leader, was negotiating a payment from him to his wife, which is what usually happens when a man marries a second wife. Stunned by my conversation with Ahmed, I phoned Khalar and asked, testily, “You’re married to Romana?” I was hurt he had felt the need for obscurity with me. How had I managed to miss this?

“No!” he retorted. “She’s my cousin [cousin” and “sibling” are often used interchangeably]. She was married but never had any children. My mother [who still lived in Khalar’s natal village in Africa] arranged the marriage. She insisted on it. How could I say no? So Romana and I will have children and I will register myself with DHHS as their father.”

Despite Khalar’s attempts to define the relationship as a sort of extra-wedlock favor and filial duty, and although there was no community ceremony, and although Khalar cannot have a legal polygynous marriage to Romana in the US, it is clear that to others in the refugee community Romana is his second wife and not just a duty to Khalar’s mother. The rancor between her and Khalar’s first wife continued to animate community divides, reaching a climax when each woman took out a restraining order against the other.

I know that because polygyny is illegal in the US it is usually not announced outside the community. I know that Khalar wants to be viewed as an American-style community leader and (rightly) suspects non-Somalis are judgmental against polygyny. I know that Khalar is trying to find ways to assuage the anger of his first wife by minimizing the emotional significance of his second marriage. Is his translation of his marriage as filial duty an attempt to maintain an unknowability about his marital life not only to me, but to others in the community as well?

This incident reminded me to question what I have a right to know and what ‘knowing’ actually means. When I write about internal tensions within the refugee community, which knowledges do I include and which do I leave unrecorded? How do I claim to ‘know’ the relevance of Khalar’s marriage to intercommunity tensions if he insists otherwise? At moments like these I feel the enormity of what I don’t know, of what my interlocutors (quite reasonably) don’t want me to know, and, sometimes, of the things I don’t actually want to know. Decades ago James Clifford wrote about ethnography’s partial truths, reminding anthropologists that ethnographies, as crafted texts, are inherently incomplete efforts to impose tidy boundaries on untidy subjects. But recognizing the partiality of our accounts is something different than recognizing unknowability—those things that are never fully understood, feelings that remain untranslatable, the incommensurabilities encountered in fieldwork. How should our writing reflect respect for the things we do not know and do not have the right to know? How do we do this without domesticating the unknown?


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I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

3 thoughts on “On Ethnographic Unknowability

  1. There is that old mapmaker’s trick. Mark the boundary and write beyond it, “Here be monsters.” Or, a Far Eastern alternative, “Here be paradise.” Best be clear about your limits and be sure to include all observations, not just those that support whatever conclusions you reach. Serendipitously, I was, just this morning, adding to my Evernote collection, the following comment by Lord Peter Wimsey,

    “You can have no idea,” said Peter, irrelevantly, “how refreshing it is to talk to somebody who has a grasp of method.The police are excellent fellows, but the only principle of detection they have really grasped is that wretched phrase Cui bono? They will hare off after motive, which is a matter for psychologists. Juries are just the same. If they can see a motive they tend to convict, however often the judge may tell them that there’s no need to prove motive, and that motive by itself will never make a case. You’ve got to show how the thing was done, and then, if you like, bring in motive to back up your proof. If a thing could only have been done one way, and if only one person could have done it that way, then you’ve got your criminal, motive or no motive. There’s How, When, Where, Why and Who—and when you’ve got How you’ve got Who. Thus spake Zarathustra.”

    Dorothy Sayres (1965 [1937]) Busman’s Honeymoon. pp. 212-213.

  2. This post resonates with my current dilemma in my thesis writing. I constantly struggle in my chapters with risking acknowledgement of what I don’t know in case I am critiqued for not having done my fieldwork correctly or thoroughly enough. Though deep down I know it’s impossible to know everything about my participants lives it remains a worry to me.

  3. One possible approach is illustrated in my February 1995 American Ethnologist article “Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language.” Consists basically of acknowledging the gaps in your data and squeezing as much as you can out of the data you do have. Then, of course, you can call for further research to close the gaps.

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