Examples or Evidence?

For a couple of months there I attempted to understand my dissatisfaction with contemporary ethnography in terms of some sort of historical shift: I used to think that contemporary ethnography no longer dwelt on ethnographic specificity, but that we used to dwell on specificity and describe in detail ‘the ways of life of a people’. Today, I argued, somehow people think that the facts of what they are reporting – particularly ‘globalization’ which ‘everyone knows about’ – seemed superfluous because ‘we all experience it everyday’, and/or because claims to really know something about the world became morally and epistemologically unacceptable.

But lately I’ve been thinking that this is probably wrong. Instead I think it is probably righter to say that ethnographic reportage has always been poised between doing two separate things. For people who see anthropology as a ‘science’, then ethnography is meant to provide data previously unavailable (to other anthropologists). This data then becomes evidence which can be used to confirm or deny what an anthropologist says about a place. Anthropologists present the data, make their argument, and let the reader judge whether the data supports their argument.

On the other hand, there is what might be called ‘ethnography by example’. This is a situation where someone has done fieldwork, realized something — we might even say had a personal transformation — and is now conveying what they have learned to the reader. Given the immersive nature of fieldwork and the way that realizations dawn on one, and given the nature of ethnographies and what we can expect from readers, the result of this sort of realization is a kind of ethnography where the author convinces by providing exemplary moments which covey or demonstrate to the reader that what the author says is true.

Or perhaps the author is arguing not about an unconveyable private experience, but about experiences that are shared with the readership so widely that the examples are simply meant to illustrate what is assummed to be an already existing consensus about the state of things: “We all know globalization is changing the world,” for instance, “why just the other day I ran into a friend from India in Houston.”

In both the case of shared understanding and unconveyable experience, the ethnographier uses stories about the world as examples to drive the point home or to convince people that their diagnosis of the state of the world is correct.

I don’t think that anthropologists write in only one of these styles, but I do think that at any one point in time (and space) you can find people who tend more strongly to one of these two methods. I suspect that the occasional internecine feuds comes when people who tend towards different ends of this spectrum are suddenly confronted with this fact.


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

13 thoughts on “Examples or Evidence?

  1. .bq For people who see anthropology as a ‘science’, then ethnography is meant to provide data previously unavailable (to other anthropologists). This data then becomes evidence which can be used to confirm or deny what an anthropologist says about a place.

    “About a place” bothers me. Back in the day, what I was taught was that ethnography provides data for ethnology; the former being the description of particular places, the latter the attempt to generalize across the whole of humanity, or, if that were too ambitious, some region in relation to which the ethnographic field site is only one data point.

    In some parts of the world ethnology has become a serious possibility. I think of China, for example, where a small library of ethnographic and historical studies now provides the foundation for serious comparative research.

    Isn’t it time we had people revisiting some of the classic issues, e.g, the social organization of peasant communities, on the basis of far more fine-grained comparisons than were possible when the issues were first raised?

  2. You know I have to say that imho we have actually been doing this all along in places like PNG, where I work — which has LOTS of comparative material. Sometimes we just don’t say it loud enough, I guess.

  3. is this in some way related to discussions of etic and emic perspectives? (pardon the undergrad questions!)

  4. Hmmm… no, I don’t think this is about insider/outsider perspectives (a distinction I’ve never been very fond of), nor is it about particularizing versus generalizing approached to phenomenon (a Neokantian problematic that some of us think is not as dead and forgotten as Ingold thinks) and how it plays out in BSA.

    Instead what I am trying to get at is the role that evidence plays in anthropological argument. How can I put it? In some cases people present evidence and the purpose is to circulate that evidence. In some cases, the purpose is to circulate an argument or a conclusion, something the author sees, and they help the reader see it by providing example. Perhaps one is point-first and the other is evidence-first. This is not the same thing as a nomothetic/idiographic distinction.

    Geertz’s arguments about Balinese character are exemplary and idiographic. Componential analysis is idiographic and evidential. Islands of History is evidential and nomothetic, whereas Appadurai’s work is exemplary and nomothetic.

    Does that make ANY sense?


  5. Exemplary vs. evidential + Idiographic vs. Nomothetic generates a good-to-think preliminary sorting of the field. “Evidential,” however, deserves some more thought, since what counts as evidence and how it must be presented to support a conclusion are the questions at the heart of epistemology and philosophy of science. Properly performed experiments, statistical inference, “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a court of law, clinical inference, a plausible argument in history or literary criticism…. lots of room for debate here.

    For what it is worth, my current starting point is Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 3-3, in which the philosopher observes that it is the mark of an educated man to demand no more precision from arguments than the topic in question allows, so that, for example, it makes no sense to demand of political rhetoric the same degree of precision required by mathematical proof.

  6. Also, and further to the points noted in the previous message, the equation of etic versus emic with outsider versus insider is sloppy, albeit commonly encountered, thinking.

    The prototype of the emic versus the etic distinction is the difference between phonemic and phonetic analysis in linguistics, where the method of minimal contrasts can be used to demonstrate that every human language treats only a subset of possible phonetic distinctions as significant in that language. The phonemically significant elements are all and only the members of that set.

    Here however, emic versus etic has nothing whatsoever to do with insider versus outsider, except in relation to the language in question.

    In a broader sense emic versus etic came to be talked about as the contrast between a native-speaker’s description of language and the linguist’s account of a language, but in this case the critical difference is not native versus non-native, insider versus outsider. It is, instead, the presence or absence of rigorous application of linguistic concepts and methods. Thus, a native speaker can be a linguist, if he or she uses the same concepts and methods as any other linguist and demonstrates the presence of rules of which other native speakers may be completely unaware and about which they say nothing in their “folk models” of the language.

    The problem with Kenneth Pike’s proposal to extend the emic versus etic distinction from language to culture in general is that there is no anthropological equivalent of the linguist’s use of the method of minimal contrasts to provide the evidence required for the rigorous theorizing that distinguishes the native or non-native linguist’s account from the linguist’s account of what is going on.

    Componential analysis was an attempt to develop a method comparable to that used by the linguists, but turned out to be incompatible with the ethnographic goal of broad holistic understanding incorporating the native’s point of view. Yes, you could get somewhere with narrowly focused topics, drinking games in Subanun, color terminologies, plant or animal classifications, that sort of thing. But then everything else faded into the background, a natural result, I believe, of time constraints on fieldwork.

    Thus, at the end of the day, most invocations of emic versus etic that don’t accept these constraints turn out to be at best pious hand-waving.

  7. John, your points are well made, but I think the emic/etic distinction remains a useful heuristic. A big part of knowing a language is knowing what NOT to hear. (Take from that what you may.)

    I think the problems you point out are due to failures to recognize the unsuitability of phonological analysis as a model for cultural analysis. Phonological analysis seeks to identify distinctions and processes but not meaning; phonemes don’t mean anything, after all. Whether or not one buys Geertz’s argument that anthropology is tantamount to translation I do think almost all anthropologists would say that meaning is a central disciplinary concern.

    I feel like someone needs to mention Paul Radin here. His model of the native philosopher seems not unlike the sort of native linguist you mention. A certain subset of lifelong members of a group maintain simultaneous “L1” and analytical perspectives on said group.

  8. MT, thanks for the feedback. Allow me to note, however, that Paul Radin’s native philosopher is not at all equivalent to the native-speaker linguist. The former may articulate with great sophistication a plausible interpretation of the native world view. But unless she is trained as a linguist and uses linguistic methods to gather and analyze data in a way relevant to other linguists, a linguist she is not.

    There is nothing mysterious about this; just the sort of difference one observes in how a poet, a biologist, and a logger may look at the same tree. Or, in the case at hand, the difference between a Confucian discussion of the rectification of names and a Chinese linguist’s analysis of Hokkien tones.

  9. A recent special issue of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute is dedicated to investigating the conception, place, and use of evidence in anthropology. It is worth a look: Vol 14, issue s1, April 2008.

    If the raging herd of experimental philosophers comes back this way, this issue might be a good place to direct them.

  10. [Coming late to the party because I was preparing for the semester. Teaching a completely new course is fun but it does require focus.]

    One thing about ethnographic disciplines as a whole is that they can also lead to dialogue and collaboration, both within academia and between academia and “The Field.” What I mean is that, as ethnographers, we don’t just communicate through books. Our writing includes a very small part of what we’ve been observing and/or thinking about. Through ethnographic fieldwork, we not only conduct specific research projects but we gain expertise/experience that we can then use in a wide variety of contexts. And when we “talk among ourselves,” we do share a lot of information which helps go beyond particularism into something which isn’t universal or even comparative but does give us a rather solid basis for grokking the human condition.
    More specifically… We do learn a lot about cultural diversity by reading ethnographic monographs and research articles coming from ethnographic research. But we also gain a lot from simply being “exposed” to colleagues’ field research, especially in less formal contexts. The informal character of many of our contacts probably serves as an obstacle to scholarly discussions about this dimension of our academic lives, but I sincerely think that it can help non-ethnographers realize the deeper effects of ethnography as more than “research methods.”
    We also collaborate, converse, dialogue, and hang out with people from “The Field,” even when we’re not in “Our Field.” When a South Asian engineer we meet in Houston starts talking about Globalization, our understanding of what has been happening in East Sepik, Bergen, Oran, Shenzhen, and Oakland does inform our conversation. Whether or not we personally did ethnographic fieldwork in all of those places. In large part because of this “difficult to explain but easy to grasp” attitude to cultural awareness. In the end, members of all ethnographic disciplines (ethnohistory, folkloristics, ethnolinguistics, ethnomusicology, ethnopsychiatry…) share similar experiences in this respect and, like the “troubleshooting” attitudes of engineers, our approach to life creates an interesting bond. Not very scientific in a positivistic-reductionistic sense. But powerful and epistemologically relevant.

    As for John’s point about Kenneth Pike’s pet concepts, I’m quite glad to hear it being discussed. Ever since I learnt about phonemes and phones, I’ve remained puzzled by how kludgy the phonology:phonetics::insider:outsider model was. The simplest explanation I was able to build was that phonology:phonetics::function:measure. Sure, it sounds like an oversimplification. But it may have helped some of my anthro students grok some basic ideas in language sciences. Otherwise, I keep feeling that “emic” and “etic” are unwieldy terms to use when “insider” and “outsider” would work really well (if that’s really what is meant).

  11. bq. Our writing includes a very small part of what we’ve been observing and/or thinking about. Through ethnographic fieldwork, we not only conduct specific research projects but we gain expertise/experience that we can then use in a wide variety of contexts.

    I once wrote a short piece for the newsletter of the Asian Studies Association offering what I hoped was useful advice for people who found themselves with academic degrees and without academic employment. In it I observed that, while I hadn’t been hired as an anthropologist by the advertising agency that employed me as a copywriter, what I’d learned from Vic Turner about the sensory and conceptual poles of dominant symbols turned out to be very useful in thinking about branding and Levi-Strauss’ injunction to look for the “logic in tangible qualities” proved useful, indeed, in discussing ideas with art directors. Conversely, working with advertising creatives increased my appreciation for how the Taoist master whose rituals provided material for my dissertation elaborated ideas found in cruder forms in traditional popular culture. The on-going dialogue between anthropological observation and the practical business of making a living has become an integral part of my life.

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