Indigenous Theories of Published Informants

As anthropologists we research compact and ornate cultural practices that can scale up to something larger. Our informants usually aren’t aware of how their statements and practices reflect larger issues evident in broad social theories and histories—if they did than the world wouldn’t have anthropologists. They are often surprised to discover how meaningful their lives are upon reading our interpretations and manuscripts. That is, all subjects except those who have already done the literary and library work needed to contextualize their lives and passions within larger theoretical and historical trajectories. These informant-authors, in effect, know who they are–or at least who they would like to be. Anthropologists have studied text-makers–scientists, journalists, and governmental scribes–and their texts can be obliquely read as reflexive documents. Rarer still are anthropological accounts of living subjects constructing autobiographical, political, or social scientific texts. These well-published informants present a problem and opportunity that needs exploration.

It is wonderful to have hyper-literate informants, collaborators, and subjects who write and publish books, articles, and blogs and make films, documentaries, television programs, and online videos. In the history of anthropology, however, this is rarely the case and because of this paucity anthropologists are at pains to construct theories that are native to the informant. I do not envy the anthropologist who must contextualize their subjects’ interviews and practices in terms of theories and theorists that are not a part of the subject’s worldview. Using French literary and poststructural theory to describe nonliterate tribal practices seems profoundly unanthropological and yet such practices proliferate in academic journalis at an astounding rate. We need to interpret local actions and performances with the aid of indigenous theory somehow devised from observations and pronouncements of subjects. For instance, in The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff identifies a local indigenous theory of the self emerging from island life in Indonesia and uses it to guide the contextualization of his gay and lesbi informants. My job is certainly easier than Tom’s because self-publishing subjects provide so much more already contextualized information with which to construct a local theory of identity and community. My informant’s published social scientific work does much of the nuanced labor of theory building for me. The citations and name-drops in their texts make explicit the forbearers, influences, and heroes an anthropologist would archaeologically extract and artificially graft onto the informant in later chapters of extrapolation and upward scaling.

What are the rare opportunities and theoretical complexities associated with doing ethnographic investigation into subjects’ lives that are already reflexively situated in autobiographical texts?

The problems include the fact that the informant/authors offer autobiographical documents about their lives in richly theoretical prose that threatens to trump the work of the anthropologist. Without the reflexive published documents the anthropologist’s primary job is to proceed to first order contextualization–what was the cultural context of this practice? What is this practice like in a comparative sense to other proximal native practices? The opportunities for the anthropologist working with this citation-rich autobiographical literature is to take the level of extrapolation and abstraction one-step further. With bibliography dense self-authored accounts, the first tier theorizing is sufficiently complete–they tell you where they are coming from–leaving the second level of extrapolation open to answering questions like: within the field of all possible indigenous theories why did the subject gravitate towards these influences? How does this native epistemology compare to others in similar–or more daringly–dissimilar contexts? Anthropologists working without self-textualizing subjects surely can get to this second tier of extrapolation but it is more difficult and the conclusions made in that ethereal space are more tenuous.

All anthropologists work with edited documents. This includes interviews which are themselves performed edits of quickly self-truncated statements. These edits–oral, performative, or textual–makes for excellent granular units of data. But at the fieldwork stage, anthropologists need more data not less, we need less self-awareness and self-censorship and more roguish personalities, off-the-cuff actions, and improvisational performances. We need the backstage along with the front stage. Self-editing is a social fact of life but such highly edited texts cut out several important phases that would have been instructive if observed–the subject’s first impressions; selective shuffling, ordering, and prioritizing of issues; the gathering of supportive sources and examples–these are all in the data rich realm of practices and negotiations around which subjectivity and the social self are framed and performed. For example, a ghost writer is writing a book for one of my informants and I want to get the transcripts, edits, and feedback in this process to see how they are contextualized by themselves and the ghost writer for a perceived and corporately constituted audience. Finely edited books, combed over by agents, managers, editors, and colleagues do not furnish such raw data.

To what degree should we be critical about how these authors prefer to textually edit themselves into particular subjectivities? Contradicting or challenge author’s stated affiliations and origins is a practice in literary studies for revising the preferred automatic claims of dead authors but like stamping non-indigenous theory on indigenous data this too is quite unanthropological. The safe route is to step off from this first tier of reflexive theorizing into a higher level of abstraction. The more dangerous path is to read the authors cited by the informant and develop a still deeper sense of indigenous theory–this is going textually native–revealing where the informant glossed over contradictions and leaned on over-simplifications in arriving at their particular framing of the self. Using this critical textual reading of reflexive indigenous theory the jump into the second tier can be made along with the informant’s peers and mentors.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

10 thoughts on “Indigenous Theories of Published Informants

  1. Hmm…. what is really the central issue here? That members of the lifeworld we describe have an autobiographical awareness? I don’t think so — who doesn’t, after all? That they are written down? To a certain extent (although anthropologists who remember historical anthropology will know this is a problem that is just the normal state of affairs for historians). It seems the real issue here is that the genres of text artifacts produced are similar to anthropological genres, and thus problematize the distinction between ‘the anthropologist’ and ‘the native’, rending the epistemological comforts of ‘studying them’ problematic.

    I’m sure you’re thinking here of Ortner’s account of ‘studying sideways’ — the ‘problem’ is that you are dealing with colleagues, not ‘subjects’: people playing the same language game as you. I think this is actually a good problem to have, and that we need to take the ethical lessons from this paradigmatic field situation and reapply it to the ‘studying the natives’ paradigm. Since the world is now more than ever filled with ‘colleagues’ rather than natives.

    At the same time, the invocation of backstage and frontstage, representation and reality — where did we decide the unproblematically authentic self was located, again? I think one of the insights of recent works on the philosophy of recognition (Patchen Markell, for instance) is that we only know who we are after the fact — self-fashioning through texts is part of the negotiation of our identity with other that we tell ourselves is proleptic but is ultimately always a construal of the past (metaleptic).

    In his ethnography of role playing gamers Gary Fine remarks about the tragic nature of ethnography: you can hide the identities of the people you describe from others, but never from the people themselves. At any rate just my thoughts. Great post Adam — thanks.

  2. Great post, Adam. Great comment, Rex. Indulge me a bit and allow me to suggest that my book Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers illustrates one way to address the problems (and also opportunities) that you mention. This book is an example of what, in a lighthearted vein, I call “piggy-back” ethnography. While working for Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest advertising agency, I found on my desk, every three or four weeks or so, the latest copy of the Seikatsu Shimbun (Lifestyle Times), an internal newsletter produced by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living (HILL). The first thing that struck me about this newsletter was that each issue was individually designed, and both text and illustration were playful. If the standard format imposed on academic journals embodies the notion of knowledge accumulated like cans of soup rolling off an assembly line, the Seikatsu Shimbun embodied knowledge embodied in a far more transient and fleeting manner. It was knowledge as “being in the know,” in touch with the latest trend, instead of something, ideally at least, of permanent value. As I was about to leave the agency, I arranged a meeting with Sekizawa Hidehiko, then the director of HILL, at which I spoke about how much I liked the newsletter and how I had found it useful in making pitches to non-Japanese clients. The data the R&D division produced was, I said, like white rice, solid, nutritious; the Seikatsu Shimbun was like furikake, the toppings sprinkled on rice to add a bit of flavor. Then, when I said that someone should make a book about HILL’s research, Sekizawa smiled and said, “You will make the book?”

    That was the opportunity. The question was how to proceed. At the time the project began, HILL had already produced 247 issues of the Seikatsu Shimbun. With Sekizawa’s help, I identified two dozen that he thought were particularly interesting. I could have digested what they contained and written my interpretation of what they purported to say about changes in Japanese consumer behavior in the 1980s and 1990s. I was, however, influenced, first, by the example of Victor Turner, to envision the newsletters as artifacts that could (1) be situated in a particular material and social context and (2) used to elicit “native exegesis,”, in this case the opinions of the Japanese researchers who produced. I was also influenced by Dan Sperber’s argument in On Anthropological Knowledge that descriptions and interpretations should be clearly separated, so that one could provide the basis for assessing the value of the other. The result was a book in which each of the chapters that make up the body of the book is, in effect, a sandwich. The first layer is an introduction written by myself to provide both the necessary background for non-Japanese readers reading text produced for Japanese readers and relate what was being said to relevant academic scholarship on Japan. The second is a verbatim translation of the whole or a large part of three newsletters that addressed the same topic but described research first in the early 1980s, then in the late 80s or early 90s, and finally, in the mid-nineties, close to the time at which I was writing. The third, and arguably most interesting layer, is the transcript of interviews with one or more of the researchers involved in the work that the newsletters describe, to capture their retrospective views of what they had written then and how the trends they described had developed since the research was done.
    Each of these chapters is, in effect, a miniature of the book as a whole, which begins with a brief history of Japanese demography and political economy in the years in question (the material context) and ends with a final interview, with the then CEO of Hakuhodo, who had been instrumental in setting up HILL, in which we talk about how he saw the results of their research. This native gets the last word.

    The result, I am happy to say, is a book in which the speculations I offer are clearly juxtaposed with what the researchers whose work I was writing about had written and had to say for themselves.

  3. One strategy I have seen a number of American Indians adopt when they don’t care for publications focusing on their community privileges phenomenological experience over the written word.* Lewis Manalo’s review of Sebastian Junger’s most recent is doing something similar.

    So how is writing about someone who puts themselves out there by writing distinct than writing about someone who puts themselves out there via non-written expressive culture, a task undertaken by folklorists and art historians on a fairly regular basis?

    *I would assert that this is related to but not synonymous with argument from authenticity.

  4. Thanks for an interesting post (shame I cannot send it back a year in time to myself). Would you say that translation into anthropological theory is necessarily the same as abstraction? Can the anthropologist choose what counts as indigenous theory? What could the ‘second-tier’ solution looks like in cases where you simply believe something very different to those people you are researching?

    While I am hardly the person to make comment, I think that there will not be any one answer for all research. I just wonder if there is something almost intellectually lazy about choosing a different way of working with data when we agree with the people it comes from. Anyway, there is probably a reason why I have sought the safety of a rather generic ‘social research’ path.

  5. @Rex & @MTBradley— The depth of the historical and social scientific knowledge encoded in the books authored by my informants clearly puts them in a different category than either colleagues or purely embodied performance. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of ‘studying sideways’—I am hip to that and it doesn’t really feel that way. When I am working with a non-publishing media producer of similar age, taste, and experience that notion resonates but not with this NYT bestselling author. No these author’s are not competitive over the ‘resources’ in the ‘field’ that includes anthropology—I hope my books resonate like that but I fear its another level. It is the extent and the depth of the writing citing Mcluhan, Habermas, Teilhard de Chardin, Dewey, etc. that makes sideways analogies to PhD student me or purely performance based ‘texts’ miss the mark. And yes, I took efforts to explain that I understand that all action is self-edited, that performance and interviews are both self-filtered. The editing and production of a extremely well-thought out book takes such self-refining and refashioning to another level. That is the point. What to do from this vantage point.

    @Tracey If I only had the interviews the first tier would be to say, ‘what X says is in the tradition of [one of the above scholars]’ and go from there. But as I explained above this phase of the work is auto-completed. In the second-tier there is ample room to disagree—but I think that is the wrong way of conceptualizing criticality. The process is better articulated as developing an even deeper sense of the indigenous theory based on tracing back the subject/author’s citations—from there if mistakes or oversimplifications are recognized you can help to refine the informant’s vision. Think of it more as a constructive dialogue than an argument. By ‘abstraction’, yes, I basically reference theory building. And no, the anthropologist can’t decide what is indigenous theory—that is the point of the post—you must work with what is at hand. In my case I have some really densely packed autobiographical books—my informants state outright where they are coming from. Most anthros aren’t so fortunate and must build the first tier—think the Habermas, Dewey, etc. example above—from less material and textual resources.

    @JMcCreery Great example and what an awesome opportunity you had. And thanks for the invite to Cambridge we had to rush up to Vermont from NYC. Next time I’m in Japan we’ll meet!

  6. Hmmm… is it _really_ not the case that you’re not competing with a NYT bestseller… or simply that you are in a position to compete…. but have lost :?)

    I am also not _quite_ ready to give in to the notion that a densely-autobiographical book is somehow a privileged form, culturally, that represents a bigger better higher version of what other people do all the time. The anthropologist in me wonders whether we can so easily relegate all other cultural forms of self-construal as below the (civilizational?) level the author you discuss has achieved. I could be wrong.

    I wonder, though, if below all this is the underlying subtext that being a young scholar starting out, it is just difficult to come to grips, intellectually, with a seasoned veteran. If N = 1 for the population which this post describes, then this might be a pretty particular quandry…. just some thoughts.

  7. Rex, different people require different methods–and there are different people with widely varying assets, resources, trainings, skill sets for the task of creating self-situated knowledge. To claim that, say, audio data overheard in a work location of an illiterate individual not displaying many symptoms of reflexivity or historical knowledge, who is underpracticed–for whatever reason–in the art of objectifying ones subjectivity, who isn’t aware of how ones actions and thoughts reflect larger patterns is qualitatively not dissimilar to a highly educated person–not necessarily from the West–who has the elitist leisure and training to undergo such a reflexive exploration and put it on print loaded with references to support the subjective position, who has isolated the foundation of ones belief system through cross cultural adventures in comparative literature and philosophy is anthropologically and methodologically unsound. It might be necessary to give up one’s radical relativism to understand but such an approach flattens the world’s cultures into an undifferentiated mass of similarity and neuters the anthropological job of identifying cultural heterogeneity and deploying appropriate tools to unmask the historical underpinnings of cultural idiosyncrasy. In the examples above, the transcript of the overhead speech act and the theoretically-dense book are two different documents, from two different people. I am attempting to discern novel methods to deal with the published informant. I doubt these are typical concerns of disenfranchised junior scholars jealous of their informant’s literary success.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  8. Adam makes a good point here. Respectful, generous but critical listening may be the bottom line regardless of who the collaborator is. This should not, however, be allowed to paper over the difference between the task of piecing together an “underlying” worldview or logic that is not coherently articulated and interpreting/critiquing ideas advanced by authors who are themselves consciously striving to address the issues in which the anthropologist is interested.

  9. the difference between the task of piecing together an “underlying” worldview or logic that is not coherently articulated and interpreting/critiquing ideas advanced by authors who are themselves consciously striving to address the issues in which the anthropologist is interested.

    But apart from literacy, how much do such authors differ from Radin’s primitive philosopher?

  10. Depends on how you judge the quality of their thought. And as usual in this sort of discussion, the either/ or with which we start conceals a wide range of variation. In studies of Chinese religion, for example, our sources range from folks who respond to queries with, “It’s just the custom” to local theologians who construct their own idiosyncratic elaborations of traditional cosmology to members of spirit writing cults who compile’ edit and publish collections of revelations to…at the other extreme philosophers like Zhu Xi, who was in effect a Confucian St. Thomas Aquinas, his work revered for centuries as a body of thought equivalent to the Summa Theologica and the official orthodoxy of the imperial bureaucracy. There are also, of course, our professional colleagues, anthropologists, historians and other social scientists, whose theories range, as ours do from so me we might charitably call mediocre to some we might call brilliant insights. To give them all a fair and respectful hearing is one thing. To deny that there are differences in rigor, rhetoric and comprehensiveness that make some only grist for our own theoretical mills while others we might be compelled to acknowledge as our intellectual superiors is absurd.

Comments are closed.