Postmodernism as Rigorous Science

My field methods seminar is wrapping up today and something happened in it this semester that has happened in it before.

I usually get a substantial segment of the class from other disciplines — graduate students who want to do ethnographic work in education, business, sociology, or whatnot and want to see how The Anthros do it. Even though other fields have been doing fieldwork as long or longer than us, we somehow capture the imagination of other disciplines as doing the ‘real’ or ‘most intense’ version of ethnographic work. In fact, often we have a bit of a mystical aura around us since no one can figure out exactly what we do, they just know we do it in some extremely ineffable way. Which, too often, is anthropology’s self-understanding as well.

When we read Marcus-and-Clifford postmodernism in my fieldmethods class, non-anthropology graduate students find their ideas not only uncontroversial, but actually the most scientific of the stuff on the syllabi. While the anthropologists consider postmodern reflexivity to be narcissistic, the non-anthros consider it to be the closest thing our discipline has produced to a ‘methods section’: something in the ethnography that describes what we actually did in the field. While the anthropologists approach collaborative anthropology and the decentering of their epistemological authority with a mixture of erotic longing and dread, the non-anthros consider it to be a sensible attempt to check the validity of research results against the intuitions of research respondents.

I think there’s something deeply ironic — and also very insightful — about this take on anthropology’s now-canonized apostates. But I’m not sure what. That anthropology was so far down the rabbit hole that postmodernism looks like an attempt at answerability? That postmodernism is just common sense about the research process with an -OfTheContemporary suffix attached at the end? Or something else?

Let me know what you figure out.


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

9 thoughts on “Postmodernism as Rigorous Science

  1. postmodernism is just common sense about the research process

    You gotta love it and I do. That multiple interpretations are possible and conclusions always tentative is in the sciences common sense. Scientists know that even the best theories are like love in that old song, “If this isn’t love, it will have to do, until the real thing comes along.”

    Historically, scientific method develops as a way to achieve consensus among people with what may be strongly divergent views—thus the insistence on precise definition (we agree on what we’re looking at) and you can do it and see for yourself (replicability of experiments). The tricky thing about anthropology is that mostly neither condition holds. We don’t agree on what we’re looking at and can’t replicate experiments that consist of a fieldworker going some place that others have never been before and undergoing a personal experience that no one else will ever duplicate exactly. The best we can do by way of confirmation is to compare what we’ve heard and seen with observations by those who have worked in similar places—or conducted historical or other research in the larger spaces of which they are parts.

  2. I remember having similar thoughts reading Situated Knowledge. I mean, I knew that Haraway’s critique of science is more complicated than “knowledge is situated” (which could be read as “we all have biases”, which is high school level scientific method material), but I had trouble articulating what concrete lesson scientists should take from her work apart from that.

  3. One could color self-identified Writing culture-influenced texts as scientific insomuch as they make the point that a lot of what heretofore has passed as ethnographic authority amounts to authors’ post-fieldwork intuitions and assertions. Full disclosure and transparency is part of most definitions of the thing called science. But then a lot of those same texts go on to say, “And that’s OK.” The scope of what I personally take to be scientific is quite broad, but that sort of work falls well outside of it.

  4. That “postmodernism” brings into question the “accuracy” of the ethnographer’s observations, recordings, recollections and interpretation should, from a scientific point of view, be mute.

    Ethnographers have been both scientists, albeit “natural” scientist, observing behavior and have been the instrument of observation. As instrument, we should attempt to calibrate our observational technology, that is ourselves i.e. our hardware [physical involvement] and software [social and psychic involvement], with our subject .

    Every event is a complex cloud of information and the lone anthropologist can’t be expected to record, much less comprehend, it all. But we can attempt to make clear our point of reference and the “wavelength” we are observing.

    I once wanted to be an astronomer. I see our work as ethnographers similar to that of the observational astronomer who must chose a segment of the total spectrum through which to view the universe. What is to be learned and discovered is contingent upon that selection. Calibrating the instrument is the first step in interpreting the results. So too for the field ethnographer.

  5. This was certainly how many in the crowd present at the Writing Culture @25 conference viewed that volume’s impact on anthropology. I believe it was Danylyn Rutherford who characterized it as a call for “more, not less, empiricism”.

    I’m sitting on two more blog posts about that conference. I’ll put them up once my grades are in.

  6. The work of the ethnographer may be, in a limited respect, like that of the astronomer, in that both are observers. We need, however, to note the differences. The astronomer observes a largely unchanging and predictable sky. When unexpected changes occur, they can be observed directly by other astronomers and largely occur over spans of time that allow repeated observations. Astronomers are, moreover, able to interpret what they see in light of well-tested, widely accepted theories in chemistry and physics. A better comparison might be the naturalist or field biologist who, by traveling to exotic parts of the world, e.g., the Amazon or New Guinea, discovers new species and observes their behavior in settings that few, if any, of his peers will visit. Even so, he, too, must produce results that allow close, detailed comparison with those produced by others. His claim to discover a new species of beetle or to have found a new type of beetle behavior must be able to withstand scrutiny based on detailed understanding of the anatomy and behavior, not only of other beetles, but of thousands of insect species for which detailed taxonomies have already been developed. In comparison, the ethnographer is at best a serious hobbyist, familiar one hopes, with a limited body of literature describing people similar to those whose lives she shares, with a handful of speculations called anthropological “theory” to guide a gaze free to fall wherever personal interest directs it, in contexts that are normally unrepeatable.

    This is not to say that ethnographers cannot aspire to be scientists. It is only to observe that the conditions in which we pursue our research do not lend themselves to the precise definition and replicable experiment that are science’s proper prototype.

  7. Post-modernism as a critique of anthropological praxis. My son-in-law is a physicist. In the effort to get to know his fiancee’s parents, he asked about my field. He found that anthropologists are somewhat naive about the “hard sciences.” After all, lab and field scientists create their instruments to access their object of research, and in the process struggle with the technologies they create– difficulties with the instruments, messiness of the data. It’s not always as easy and as straightforward as it looks. Replicability in a lab setting is often not possible because it’s hard to get the process exactly to match. In short, he advised not to confuse the naive popular image of a scientist, which sometimes appears in our reflexive writings, with the messiness that characterizes all fields of enquiry.

    To say that being reflexive defines postmodern is to do ill by our forebears. I think we minimize the ways in which the discrimination experienced by those of our founders, among them Boas and Sapir, may have influenced the humanism that characterized their efforts. We also may forget the radicalism of the early claims against evolutionism, for example. Much of that effort was grounded in the development of new methods. And Boas was a pioneer in advocacy, one that sometimes upset his colleagues at the time.
    A silly thing, perhaps, to belabor the obvious about these men. That they did not see what we see today about their methods and interests, in light of their locatedness in historical process, is not to say that they were not aware of the complicated connections among power, knowledge, and representaton .

    It is this lack of perspective that troubles me about the early postmodern writings–the ironically ahistorical caricatures of those who had been “modern” linked to a naivete about “science.”

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