HAU and the opening of ethnographic theory

Ok, a little less politics on this blog and a little more anthropology. Hopefully some of you have looked at the introduction to HAU and want to start talking about it. The title of the piece is “the return of ethnographic theory” but I’ve titled my post the ‘opening of ethnographic theory’, and for good reason.

A quick look at the bios of the contributors and editors to HAU will reveal that it is in many ways a Chicago-Oxbridge production, but with a continental twist. In many ways, HAU represents what people at some of the most prestigious institutions of anthropology have been thinking for some time, but the journal ‘opens up’ that thought to the public by making their work open access. The result is something unique: a journal with a strong, almost parochial character which is also transparent to a fault.

As someone in this network (but not really involved in the production of HAU) I recognize this take on ‘ethnographic theory’ as a species of what they call in France the ‘sciences humaines’: an approach to knowing the human that is rigorous, humanistic, and often places anthropology in conversation with philosophy rather than, say, evolutionary biology. At least this is how it seems to me.

What Ethnographic Theory Is, afaik

So what is ethnographic theory? According to da Col and Graeber “a conversion of stranger-concepts [that entails]… the destruction of any firm sense of place that can only be resolved by the imaginative forumulation of novel worldviews” (vii-viii).

The goal of anthropology on this account (afaik) is to take alien concepts, understand them, and then see the way they sort of make sense from our point of view, but don’t quite. Another kind of anthropology might try to slot alien concepts into a broader conceptual system, to say “this is a variety of exchange” or “this is a kind of taboo”. Ethnographic theory, on the other hand, wants to resist this easy assimilation. It wants to find the part of a concept which is untranslatable and use it as a jumping-off point for our own theoretical innovation. Instead of asking “how can we best translate this concept into our own system” it asks “how can we change our system so that it can understand this concept which resists classification”.

That’s why the journal is called HAU — Mauss’s analysis of the Maori concept of the ‘spirit of the gift’ is the paradigmatic example of this sort of ethnographic theory. And the reason that they called the ‘HAU’ instead of ‘SPIRIT OF THE GIFT’ is that the original Maori word includes meaning and resonances that the English translation doesn’t. And those resonances and meanings are what are productive, what produce innovation in us. Or better, what elicit it or pull it out of us by their foreigness.

It’s an interesting idea, no? To me the idea is very attractive, and as a Chicago-trained anthropologist I will now do the greatest honor I can to something I appreciate and enjoy: attempt to destroy it. Sorry Giovanni — it’s what they trained me to do!

Some Questions and Concerns

Part of what is appealing about the notion of ethnographic theory is the way that it cunningly reverses what many anthropologists think our discipline is supposed to do: make the strange familiar. Instead, the goal is to make the strange as strange as possible — to honor, welcome, embrace, and perhaps even emphasize its strangeness. In America, this smacks of ‘orientalism’ which we all automatically know is ‘bad’. But here, intriguingly, othering involves moral validation.

This stance is familiar to those of us who remember the bad old days of the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate. That debate was basically about how best to honor indigenous people: Sahlins argued we should do it by emphasizing and validating their legitimate difference, while Obeyesekere argued this task was best accomplished by emphasizing our common humanity.

Both, in other words, represented the two moments of recognition that Charles Taylor talks about in his essay on “The Politics of Recognition”. Contrary to what you might expect from the subject positions of the two authors (Obeyesekere the third world elite, Sahlins the first world working-class intellectual) it is Sahlins who pursues a politics of difference and Obeyesekere who pursues a politics of universalism.

In many ways, this emphasis on recognizing otherness is akin to certain flavors of poststructural politics, such as a politics of performance a la Judith Butler, where the goal is to destablize hegemonic norms by revealing the excess which they must elide in order to make themselves taken for granted. It is for this reason that I — and probably I alone — see Butler and Sahlins as kindred spirits. But that is a topic for another day.

Many influences by Sahlins (such as Ira Bashkow and Rupert Stasch) have continued to pursue a way to recuperate a morally positive recognition of difference, and I see HAU as operating within this genealogy, even if it lacks the Yankee obsession with politics and relevance.

Looking ethnographic theory with Manoa eyes (eyes keenly focused on the politics of Pacific and Indigenous scholarship) I have my doubts as well. In an extremely obvious way, this is a project that engages indigenous ideas, not actual indigenous people (much less indigenous scholars). Some might object that the authors clearly state that they are “speaking of alien concepts, which are by no means limited to those drawn from strange and romantic places” (vii). But, to be frank, does anybody actually buy this?

I don’t see a role for indigenous anthropology (i.e. by and for indigenous anthropologists) in this program at all. Nor do I see — as one would expect if the program was committed to ethnography everywhere and not just ‘exotic’ spaces — any account of how one could do ethnography of their own first-world location. Here again HAU’s title is telling: cultural difference seems necessary, not incidental, to the program. When we see a piece on standard average european concepts made strange, maybe I will change my tune — if, that is, that piece doesn’t fall into the familiar trap of making the first-world working class ‘the other’. An essay on how the concept of ‘monster trucks’ expands our anthropological imagination will not cut it.

I feel clichéd saying this, but the concept of ethnographic theory also seems to ignore the real and enduring fact of colonialism, and the political economic processes that make the kinds of subjects like ‘ethnographers’ and ‘informants’ who in fact are commensurable with each other because of shared (colonial) world-historical experience. Just how alien are we from one another? And if the political effects of eliding the colonialism inside of white anthropologists are palatable, what do we think of an approach that, in some variations, decries Pacific islanders as inauthentic for not conforming to the lifeways described in books written a century ago?

The negative stereotype is this: ‘Ethnographic theory’ as a parlor game in which elite academic weave ever more obscurantist essays for each other inspired by their brush with ‘the exotic’ in the name of a project of getting intellectually high. I don’t think ethnographic theory does this all the time, or necessarily will do this (although frankly, sometimes at conferences I can’t help but get this feeling as people invoke white holes, quantum physics, and Papuan longhouses). Indeed, one of the best parts about HAU is that it might broaden the horizons of those who are used to doing ethnographic theory inside the ivory tower, thus opening it up not only to ‘us’ but opening ‘them’ up by exposure to ‘us’.

What Ethnographic Theory Doesn’t Do

The authors of HAU are not interested in many things that social scientists could do or aspire to do — indeed, some of their project was formulated specifically in reaction to these aspirations. For the sake of giving Michael E. Smith the opportunity to remind us once again that he has resigned from the AAA, I offer a list of some things Ethnographic theory can’t or doesn’t want to do:

Generalize in the Name of Science: This is not generalizing social science. It doesn’t seek to explain anything.

Intervene: Ethnographic theory does not aim to be ‘useful’ in either the lefty applied/emancipatory fight the power kind of way, or the right-wing Project Camelot/HTS kind of way. It doesn’t seem to be ‘good’ for anything except possibly expanding your consciousness, which some may claim has some sort of broad effect.

Be Public: Let’s face it, the style of much of this writing can be off-putting even for academics. This is not something intended for a general audience.

Collaborate: Fieldwork may involve a deep appreciation of local communities, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of cowriting with them.

Of course, few people want an anthropology that does all of these things, and there’s nothing wrong with not doing them. I include this list only to describe some of the desiderata that people might want in anthropology and how they are situated in relation to the project of ethnographic theory.

Further Reading

The foreward to HAU is very, very short and I chose it to publicize the journal as well as provide something that is a bite-sized chunk of this school of thought. Fuller treatments are abound, and many of them are open access. Tony Crook and Justin Schaffner’s article in HAU “Roy Wagner’s ‘Chess of Kinship’: An Opening Gambit” is a great overview of this school of thought (I thought about assigning it), especially if you know anything about Melanesia. Frankly, you will probably get more out of it than Roy’s article itself. Over at Tipití, another great open access journal, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation” is a great over view of VdC’s thought, which directly influenced the forward to HAU. Let’s face it — although open access anthropology can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look, some of the best and most cutting-edge stuff is out there, as HAU well demonstrates.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, I think the idea of ethnographic theory is exciting, coherent, and offers a way forward for anthropology — and when was the last time you said that about something published in American Ethnologist? But at the same time I feel a little ambivalent, and I’m not completely sold. I’d be interested in hearing your comments and feedback. I’ve tried to be critical but gracious, and I hope that I’ve been successful. So please do the same and keep the tone constructive — remember, the authors are listening, and even well-meaning criticism can come across the wrong way on Teh Internetz, so let’s try to encourage some collegiality here.

I’ll keep this post up until Wednesday, when I’ll make another reading suggestion based on how the conversation in the comments goes. Thanks for reading and thanks for discussing!


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

47 thoughts on “HAU and the opening of ethnographic theory

  1. Serious question: Where does politics end and anthropology begin? Isn’t politics always anthropological?

  2. And just to be clear about how asking the previous question relates directly to this post on ethnographic theory (as well as to the previous post from Jason Antrosio), I am wondering how the mass subject that is the ‘we’ of Rex’s post is constituted? Who is included in this ‘we’ for whom certain ethnographic concepts are being (de)familiarized? Also, isn’t wodview produced by politics (writ large), the political. So I am sincerely wondering how ethnographic theory is produced absent politics. And isn’t the determination of what is and is not ‘politics’ also a matter of viewpoint, worldview, perspective, and thus inflecting the conceptualization of ethnographic theory?

  3. Serendipitously, the link provided in the earliest version of Rex’s post starting this thread took me to David Graeber’s marvelous analysis of Shilluk Divine Kingship. I return to the introduction and to Rex’s critique of the Hau project with sensibilities tuned by that initial encounter.

    My initial response to Graeber’s essay was, “I’ve come home. This is the anthropology that got me interested in anthropology in the first place.” I was thinking of an earlier me, an undergraduate philosophy major, with minors in math and medieval history, an avid science-fiction reader, an honors student whose buddies were all thinking about graduate school. My first anthropology course, a survey of East African ethnography taught by Mark Swartz, hit a sweet spot where my interests converged: philosophical thinking, other worlds, a chance for adventure. It made anthropology irresistible — a quality, I now realize, that has long been mostly missing in most of the more recent anthropology I read. Why read anthropology (WARNING: I’m being deliberately over-the-top) for second-hand philosophy, second-rate sociology, third-rate punditry, or trite true confessions?

    Graeber’s essay showed me how anthropology once was and could be exciting again, exotic but also shockingly relevant to current affairs. Who can read the proposition that the state, stripped to its most basic elements, is a combination of utopian thinking and predatory violence, without feeling a chill up his or her spine? Who can read the meticulous description of the finding and installation of a new divine king that divides North and South and finally unites in the king a capacity for arbitrary killing (Predator drones, for example) and a sacrificial scapegoat (presidents blamed for every ill) and not think of the current U.S. presidential campaign?

    I think about Rex and what he says about the style in which Hau is written. I compare what de Col and Graeber write,

    HAU is a call to revive the theoretical potential of all ethnographic insight, wherever it is brought to bear, to bring it back to its leading role in generating new knowledge. Above all, we see ethnography as a pragmatic inquiry into conceptual disjunctures. To adopt a provocative phrase from Ardener (1987), HAU is fascinated by “remote areas,” but sees such remote areas as those singularities or pockets of any social space— jungle or city—inhabited by “event-richness,” conceptual vagueness or even unusual social boredom. Remote areas are not just awaiting stranger-kings: they are full of treacherous stranger-concepts, that need to be invited in, hosted as honored guests before they can be recognized as affines, and eventually, even ancestors.

    to how Rex describes ethnographic theory,

    The goal of anthropology on this account (afaik) is to take alien concepts, understand them, and then see the way they sort of make sense from our point of view, but don’t quite. Another kind of anthropology might try to slot alien concepts into a broader conceptual system, to say “this is a variety of exchange” or “this is a kind of taboo”. Ethnographic theory, on the other hand, wants to resist this easy assimilation. It wants to find the part of a concept which is untranslatable and use it as a jumping-off point for our own theoretical innovation. Instead of asking “how can we best translate this concept into our own system” it asks “how can we change our system so that it can understand this concept which resists classification”.

    I am instantly reminded of an essay written by my wife, then a student of Japanese literature, on the Waley and Seidensticker translations of The Tale of Genji. There was no question, she wrote, that the Seidensticker translation is, having incorporated the results of several decades of new scholarship, more accurate. But in Waley, the different registers of Japanese spoken by court aristocrats, warriors and peasants come alive. In Seidensticker everything said is reduced to the same Midwestern American idiom. In this respect the literature dies.

    In sum, I hear in Rex’s critique a voice like Seidensticker’s. It is earnest, accurate, sensible, raises many important questions. When I read the introduction to Hau and the first essay by Graeber, I find myself luxuriating in the prose. There is the spark that has instantly made me a fan of Hau. “Alien concepts”? OK. “Stranger-concepts”? Intriguing. An adventure begins.

  4. I’m still in shock. I never expected Rex to pull a Talal Asad on us:


    My own comments come from someone outside of this tradition, much more grounded in an approach closer to that of Asad. In this sense I agree with Rex and I was glad to hear such a critique from someone more grounded in the tradition under discussion.

    I just have three points I’d like to add.

    1. I’m very impressed by their plans to go beyond publishing new peer-reviewed materials, also making available older works and manuscripts in an OA format. Bravo and good luck!

    2. I agree with their critique of pseduo-theory which substitutes for an engagement with the anthropological literature, but my feeling is that we need less to rescue anthropology from postcolonial critique than we need to rescue anthropology from a lack of rigor. A call to rigor shouldn’t be an easy excuse to dismiss the important contributions coming from outside of the discipline, or even from the fringes of the discipline.

    3. It seems to me that there is an implicit and mistaken notion that for anthropology to move forward it must fight the fragmentation which has happened to the field and return to a core corpus grounded in classical ethnography. While I think there is much to be gained by a serious engagement with that literature, I think we need to be wary of valuing the reproduction of our own cultural capital above the ethnographic project itself.

    HAU is an important project, and I want to see it succeed, but (and I say this as an Apple user) I think an “open” anthropology should be more like Android than Apple. By this I mean that it should be more diverse and fragmented, with a flowering of OA journals representing different strands of the discipline, and not so much an attempt to recreate—in a new medium—the authority and position that the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society once had over the discipline (and I say this as a founder of a blog which has “notes and queries in anthropology” as its subtitle). HAU seems to want to be the flagship journal of OA anthropology – and I admire such ambition. I am rooting for HAU, but I simultaneously wonder if it makes sense to talk about flagship journals in an OA publishing environment. I would like to see an OA ecosystem emerge just as now there is (for the first time since we founded Savage Minds) a true anthropology blog ecosystem emerging with a multitude of voices and perspectives.

  5. Hi all,

    This is a good discussion and I don’t really want to weigh in in too much detail (though I do feel very happy John McCreary had that reaction to the Shilluk piece – wow!) – but thought I might provide just a bit of friendly reply to Alex’s (equally friendly) Chicago-blast. Just a couple points really:

    * launching a new journal with a specific vision is not the same as launching a program to recreate the entire discipline of anthropology in accord with that vision. It’s true we did offer a critique of the overall direction of the discipline, which might make it seem like we were suggesting we were the answer – and I suppose in some sense that’s true, but we hardly presume to suggest we’re the _only_ answer! Clearly we need lots of different answers to the doldrums we’re currently in. We like to think ethnographic theory is one pretty good one.

    (It rather reminds me of some annoying reviewer of my book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology who protested that it’s silly to expect all anthropologists to become advisors to social movements. Obviously it’s silly. Why would I possibly want something like that? I am actually a strong proponent of the idea that we should study things just because they’re interesting. I was just suggesting some of us might consider activist engagement.)

    * so I find the list of things ethnographic theory is not rather puzzling. The essay was mostly by Giovanni but I wrote some bits and went through and worked with him on it. If nothing else, my own contributions have been systematically written to be open and accessible, and politically engaged. I think my own contribution to HAU was both, despite it’s sustained engagement with what might be termed the Grand Tradition. In fact I thought of it as an experiment in how one could work in that Grand Tradition and still be accessible and politically relevant.

    * collaboration, native anthropology, anthropology of the industrial north atlantic, etc – here I would say there’s a danger, but it’s in the practice, not in the original conception. I think Giovanni put it quite nicely when he said we don’t need to look at exotic locales because ethnography makes everything exotic. The problem is living up to that promise in practice – i.e., soliciting or locating papers that try to do this, getting people interested in communities where practitioners might feel they have more pressing matters at hand. I certainly hope so! If not, it would be the most serious blow to the project – as we originally conceived it – that I could anticipate.

  6. Hello everyone,

    I’ve been an avid reader of this blog for some years now and I’ve also taken a strong interest in HAU, so I thought I would comment on Alex’s concerns. This is my first comment ever on Savage Minds, so I apologize if this is a bit long-winded. I have a lot to say. As another Chicago-trained – or at least still “in-training” – anthropologist (and a fellow student of Marshall Sahlins) it seems only natural to chime in with an old-fashioned critical critique. At the outset, I should point out that my intention isn’t to write an apology for HAU, but to offer a gracious challenge to Alex’s very serious questions and concerns. And, perhaps, to clarify what I see as HAU’s contribution to contemporary anthropology.

    One further caveat. I write from the standpoint of a young anthropologist who has never felt “at home” in the post-Writing Culture era of anthropology. It goes without saying that this is a standpoint that many other anthropologists in my generation (especially those in the mid-stages of PhD research) do not necessarily share. However, what most of us do share, I think, is a pressing urge to define how we will shape the future of the discipline, what our contributions will be, and where we will find our voices. To me, at least, HAU has come like a cool breeze. It affirms my own sympathies with certain traditions in anthropology and the human sciences. Whatever epistemological critiques we may raise against it, I agree with Alex that HAU has promise and the potential to reinvigorate our discipline. As I see it, HAU is an honest call for an anthropology of the twenty-first century – one that says “enough” to burying our intellectual ancestors and does so without the Oedipal urge of destroying what immediately came before us. It doesn’t find its validation in fashionable philosophy, but it also doesn’t seem resistant to engaging in dialogue with the vogue and the hip. One, of course, has to engage in conversations with Zizek, Deleuze, etc. – and no one can accuse Viveiros de Castro, for example, of not knowing his Deleuze. Finally, what’s not to love about the open source format? This, in itself, is a powerful political action in an age where the digital divide becomes narrower and the fight over the freedom of access to knowledge is at an all time peak.

    That being said, I want to take a look at some of Alex’s important concerns with the HAU project. I’ll comment one by one.

    “Part of what is appealing about the notion of ethnographic theory is the way that it cunningly reverses what many anthropologists think our discipline is supposed to do: make the strange familiar. Instead, the goal is to make the strange as strange as possible — to honor, welcome, embrace, and perhaps even emphasize its strangeness. In America, this smacks of ‘orientalism’ which we all automatically know is ‘bad’. But here, intriguingly, othering involves moral validation.”

    I concur to some degree. However, emphasizing strangeness need not be the same kind of action as “othering.” To recall Simmel’s definition of “strangeness” (Fremdsein) as a ‘form of interaction’ that involves a unique proportion of nearness and remoteness (a kind of “close-distance” to borrow a term from William Mazzarella), we need not think of strangeness as a mode of being entirely “other.” Rather, we may take “strangeness” itself as an invitation for serious dialogue as it presumes a kind of mutuality through the very form stranger interactions take on and unfold. The idea of strangeness, as I see it and actively write about it, may challenge our folk-understanding of ontology by eliding the “self” and “other” dichotomy we so often take for granted. Bakhtin’s term for this was sobytie bytiia (“co-being of being”) and one can immediately see sharp resonances between this very different form of phenomenology and that of Sahlins’ anthropological project. Differences and sameness, familiarity and unfamiliarity, nearness and remoteness, etc. are really two sides of the same (mutually constitutive) coin. This is precisely the value of HAU’s invitation to explore stranger-concepts. Yet, rather than (re)turning the hermeneutic circle to the “self” — as if now we could then know ourselves and others so much better!!! – the point of HAU seems to be to keep the strangeness strange enough to avoid proffering too many answers. In other words, keep the questions coming [not to say a “provisional” answer here and there isn’t necessary – rather, like Voltaire’s remark on visiting brothels, once is diversion, twice is perversion]. Moral validation for ethnography? Okay, fair enough. But, at the very minimum it is an invitation for mutual discovery.

    “Many influences by Sahlins (such as Ira Bashkow and Rupert Stasch) have continued to pursue a way to recuperate a morally positive recognition of difference, and I see HAU as operating within this genealogy, even if it lacks the Yankee obsession with politics and relevance.”

    Perhaps it lacks the obsession with a “particular” kind of politics – viz. that of representation. But, it seems to be that HAU makes up for its indifference (or rejection?) of this kind of politics by walking through a door that the critiques of Orientalism opened, but very few scholars actually went through. The general thrust of HAU seems to be to understand (in a definite Verstehen sense of the term) Non-European philosophies, concepts and cosmologies on equal ground with those of Europeans, as ways of knowing the world that are as rigorous and efficacious as those of high European thought, and to actively think with and alongside those philosophies or ideas as ways of theorizing the world. Anthropologists like V. de C., S. Feuchtwang and Tambiah have, of course, made serious strides in this direction already. Seems political enough to me – it’s keenly humanist and quite dialogical.

    “Looking ethnographic theory with Manoa eyes (eyes keenly focused on the politics of Pacific and Indigenous scholarship) I have my doubts as well. In an extremely obvious way, this is a project that engages indigenous ideas, not actual indigenous people (much less indigenous scholars). Some might object that the authors clearly state that they are “speaking of alien concepts, which are by no means limited to those drawn from strange and romantic places” (vii). But, to be frank, does anybody actually buy this?”

    Now we get to the critique. Okay, so engaging ideas or philosophies is one thing, but does ethnographic theory actually engage people (or more specifically scholars) in the same or similar ways that it treats concepts? This is a very relevant question, but the deck is somewhat stacked here – especially in the sense that it seems to need the dichotomy of self and other, of indigeneity and exogeny, to hold weight. For one, I’m not sure if the term “indigenous” is one that really does justice to what HAU is interested in. If by “indigenous” we might mean the localization/transvaluation of any idea via a cultural scheme of knowing the world – like Sahlins’ discussion of Develop-man – then I think it does apply. But, if by “indigenous” we mean truly monoglossic, truly esoteric, truly unique and local, then I think we’ve really gone off track and could end up seeing HAU as part of a salvage ethnography. It strikes me that HAU would not be so naïve to go that route.

    But to your question about engaging people and scholars on the same terms as abstractions – this is something that will have to be judged by the fruits of HAU itself. For my own part, I think the trick is to not use the philosophies, concepts and cosmologies of non-European traditions as a way to upset Western hegemony, but to think within them, alongside them and with serious regard to their own ends. This necessarily means engaging with real people and local scholars. The effect of this may indeed have the consequence of challenging Western hegemony, but the goal, as I see it, is to understand the universe dialogically. And why not? We are better suited for this kind of exercise today more than ever before. When Levinas raised his critique of Lévi-Strauss [that the “savage” has been understood in Paris, but the Parisian hasn’t been understood by the “savage”], he missed the real opportunity to see a possibility for dialogue that Lévi-Strauss’s thinking made possible. Where I work in India, ethnography allows for a chance to get in debates with the most unsuspecting scholars and people. India’s cosmopolitan intellectuals sometimes know Marx and Hegel better than I do and, ironically, sometimes I know Nagarjuna better than they do. Yet, it is the ethnographic moment of working things out in dialogue – strangers confronting strange concepts with strange critiques and debates – that gives strength to our discipline as one among many in the cosmopolitan present. HAU at least affirms this value without diving directly into self-contempt.

    “I don’t see a role for indigenous anthropology (i.e. by and for indigenous anthropologists) in this program at all. Nor do I see — as one would expect if the program was committed to ethnography everywhere and not just ‘exotic’ spaces — any account of how one could do ethnography of their own first-world location. Here again HAU’s title is telling: cultural difference seems necessary, not incidental, to the program. When we see a piece on standard average european concepts made strange, maybe I will change my tune — if, that is, that piece doesn’t fall into the familiar trap of making the first-world working class ‘the other’. An essay on how the concept of ‘monster trucks’ expands our anthropological imagination will not cut it.”

    I do think there can be a role for “indigenous anthropology” in HAU’s vision of ethnographic theory. Can’t strangeness be something that is in all of our backyards? This seems to be Giovanni’s point. The crux of this critique seems to be that HAU may risk a kind of recidivist romanticism that is really just about using the exotic to prolong the life of anthropology. I hope this is not what it becomes, but I doubt it will. What I see here is an opportunity to take something like “derivatives” and get down and dirty with how it plays out as a theory (in cultures of finance, for example). Good ethnographic theory could take something that is quite strange to the average Euro-American (like “derivatives”) and make it very familiar or it might amplify its strangeness to a degree in which we become even more puzzled as to why it plays such a vital role in shaping economic life today. Or better yet, if we should want an article that focuses on SAE concepts, why not look to Whorf’s incredible de-familiarization of SAE notions of time as a guiding light here? This is ethnographic theory at its finest: a juxtaposition (ethnologically and ethnographically) of SAE time with Hopi time-keeping.

    “I feel clichéd saying this, but the concept of ethnographic theory also seems to ignore the real and enduring fact of colonialism, and the political economic processes that make the kinds of subjects like ‘ethnographers’ and ‘informants’ who in fact are commensurable with each other because of shared (colonial) world-historical experience. Just how alien are we from one another? And if the political effects of eliding the colonialism inside of white anthropologists are palatable, what do we think of an approach that, in some variations, decries Pacific islanders as inauthentic for not conforming to the lifeways described in books written a century ago?”

    I truly hope this is not what ethnographic theory today is even in part about. Only a fool would truly ignore the perduring history of colonialism. Yet, why stop with an analysis of the facts of colonialism? Why limit our analysis to the subject positions or commensurabilities enabled by the colonial moment? There is a world of profundity beyond the colonial encounter even if the latter is a condition of possibility for anthropology. Honestly, I don’t think the editors are that naive to go down that road.

    RE: collabs, publicity, political interventionism — I agree with David’s point above. I don’t see how the project (if it really is a project) could necessarily disavow these.

  7. Hi, this is my first post here, although I’ve been reading Savage Minds for some time

    1) “the return of ethnographic theory” versus the “opening of ethnographic theory”: I’m not sure this is a fair kind of opposition.
    I rather believe there are different conceptions of anthropology or ethnography underlying many of our most precious terms.
    Is ethnographic theory equal to anthropology? I’m thinking of Tim Ingolds’ 2008 essay (Anthropology is not Etnography).

    At any rate, this shall not be a dichotomy between Closed Systems and open Minds / Open Systems and Closed Minds
    (or perhaps this is the very limit of my own naïvety)

    2) Well, as you all know strange doesn’t mean idiomatically/ contextual/ spatially different.
    In Latin America, where most of our fieldwork is ‘at home’ given the fact –partially indeed, since there is a political aspect to it as well- we have no allowance to go, let’s say, to Tikopia, we have been debating this for decades (well, not me, I’m just in my early 30). Of course, fieldwork at home doesn’t mean anthropology at ‘my house’ neither means my sister’s point of view about the notion of person. But being an anthropologist abroad I have this recurrent thought many times: what is ‘teir’ problem wit exotic and strangeness? Do they really think it does exist as a social fact à la Malinowski? (and sorry, I don’t think Malinowski was buying into this, neither Evans-Pritchard for this matter). I teach classic antropolgy, mainly British Social A., and often I have to hold my breathe when I realize how much they doubted of the self-evident power of ‘the exotic’. This is a long discussion, bien sur.

    I’d like to go back to Latin America. Some LA anthropologists have written a good deal about these issues many decades ago. Brazilians Roberto Da Matta and Gustavo Lins Ribeiro have developed the contradictory unity of familiarity and strangeness. In dialogue with them, my mentors (Mauricio Boivin and Ana Rosato) wrote about the ‘-it should be- mandatory double movement: make the strange familiar and the familiar strange no matter the context’; Rosana Guber worked extensively about the production of theory within this contexts; Esteban Krotz in Mexico has a lot of works regarding the concept of ‘alteridad’ instead of other(ness), Fernando Balbi wrote a memorable article: Ethnographies as Ethnographies!, and so forth. Well, these works are mostly in Spanish or Portuguese, and we are the subaltern anthropologist. Although I’m joking with this kind of ‘self-victimization’, I believe of the productiveness of a real dialog between the ‘most prestige institutions’ y las “Otras antropologías” (‘we’). I have a lot to say about the conditions of this dialogue, starting with its production process but I will skip it (for your sake).
    In my experience sometimes the otherness of the other is mostly a biased approach of an axiological move: This is different, has to be different. However, is not always the case, and sometimes we find the ‘savage’ in our own institutions… you know this.
    In fact, I appreciate much the idea of ‘disjunctive homonimity’

    Do you remember, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’, by Laura Bohannan?

    3) Everytime I realize some debates are conducted –only- within genealogical background (what is your affiliation?) I appreciate the kind of imaginative territory from which ‘we’ –the no prestigious affiliation- are imagining and mixing up genealogies of though.
    This may sound like a real disaster (bricoleur style) but is also very enriching. For instance, when I read Rex’s arguments they doesn’t make me think of Chicago, neither really of Sahlins (whose works I adore!) but of Levi-Strauss. [I might be utterly worng (ok?)]

    4)But let’s connect this to Rex post, and to his concerns with the aims and goals of HAU.
    On the one hand, I’m not sure if the picture is fair; seems closer to a caricature of the ethnographic theory enterprise proposed by HAU. In this respect the dilemmas sound as unreachable as to ask French anthropologists to stare all together in peace and harmony and forget about the particular/universal debate: imagine Durkheim, Clastres and Levi-Strauss arm by arm… (BTW, it is well know that French anthropology was built on the following lemma: destroy your predecessor)
    On the other hand, is impossible to read Viveiros de Castros’ quote at HAU #1 issue without taking into account his engagement with L-S structuralism, also in relation with his antropología simétrica.

    I like and –somehow- share the last ‘doubts’ advanced by Rex. However, I do ‘doubt’ of many points; for instance, the label ‘indigenous’. I don’t’ consider myself that (and this is despite my training included France, UK and Brazil). But surprisingly enough I sympathize with his claims, and at the same time I disagree with them regarding the scope of HAU.
    I loved the HAU project for its proposal of gazing at diminished places: the Grand Theory is back! Let’s start moving from X say this, Z do this, Y think that, to a more engaged (theoretically and politically) discipline.
    In sum, I believe the fact this apparent contradictions are possible tells a lot about the gaps and lack of consensus-based debates within current anthropology(ies).

    5) I’m saying all this without really entering into the debate about open access. I don’t know if you all know that in Argentina we read and do anthropology without having access to main journals. I’m deeply proud of our free education system, but have to admit Universities don’t have enough budgets for journals. I spent half of my time collecting borrowed passwords from fellow ‘1st world’ colleagues, and, afterward, translating the articles for my (grad and postgraduate) students… c’est la vie (?)
    Hau is fantastic ins this sense, not just because of being a real open accesses journal, but mainly for reflecting on this debate. And yes: we all love open journals like Mana

    one last question: Are North Atlantic powers growing less dominant?

    I might post later more comments about other interesting topics worked by Da Col & Graeber at the Intro)

    Sorry if I may sound too informal, but as you know, manners are not universal… In any case, what I’m trying to say is that my -rather asperous- thoughts also emerged thanks to all yours. Thanks a lot for opening this debate, Rex, and again, I just love HAU.

    ps: note on my joking way of using “we”: in 3rd world countries anthropologists are not a compact group at all. I have a working class /politically engaged family background, for instance. I like to think of this bigger scheme à la Bourdieu

  8. Thanks everyone for these remarkably engaging comments. I did just want to offer a few clarifications.

    First, there is the issue of the coherence of a ‘project’ or ‘movement’ called Ethnographic Theory. People are perfectly right to insist that the three-page introduction to a journal is just that and not the official dogmatic statement of the Official Society For Ethnographic Theory. At the same time I really do like the way that it names a movement or tendency or social circle doing work today, and I find that useful. At the same time, who knows — maybe if we try it on it we might like it.

    It was also for the purpose of orientation that I listed the things that ET (talk about ‘alien concepts) didn’t do. We have a lot of people on the blog with all sorts of conceptions about what the discipline is or ought to be and I was hoping to orient ET roughly in that space.

    One thing that has come out of this discussion is the internal differences within ET — for instance, David points out rightly that he writes for a general project, whereas some of the people I had in mind (Wagner, Strathern) can often write in a hermetic, almost gnostic fashion.

    Another part of that is that my own orientation to ET is as a Melanesianist, and I read it through those eyes. In the context of fieldwork in PNG, issues of collaboration, politics, ethics, etc. look very different than in the context of Latin America, so it was interesting to read comments from that part of the globe.

    There is a lot else to say but I will step back and let some more comments role in. I do have one last comment, however: because of the latest spate of OA activity I’ve spent the past couple of days reading through pretty much all the OA journals I can find and indeed, the Anglophone world is _way_ behind is going in LA. We — i.e. haole — anthropologists have a lot to learn on this account.

  9. Alex, I had the same mixed feelings when I heard the expression “ethnographic theory”. Like you- and for what it seems, other people of our Chicago generation, I always thought that I was raised to go beyond post-colonialism and cultural critique, and here I find myself today defending it (like you, I have to say that I enjoy teaching Said! And Foucault!) and being suspicious of a turn towards “ethnography” that looks conservative. On the other hand, I LOVED the first volume of HAU and, David, I am using your Shilluk paper as core reading in a class on Divine Kingship! You can’t get more Grand Tradition than that. And I think that Giovanni’s notion of “Concept- event” is very, very interesting. So how to justify my guilty pleasure and my identity crisis? I think that there is an “ethnographic” point to be made here. That is, Chicago and Oxbridge, or better Cambridge, are not the same thing. The cult of ethnography never succumbed to the iconoclastic attacks of postmodernism in the UK. The Grand Tradition, in its particular post-war forms, never really disappeared here. Which is not necessarily a good thing- perhaps it would be better if it died like it did in the US, so that we could bring it back to life in a different form. That is what made me wary of the term “Ethnographic theory”, I was afraid this was going to be yet another philistine bashing of Continental theory by the pure bearers of The Method, but David’s involvement in the project partially reassured me that this was not the case, and reading it. On the opposite, I think, this discussion shows that what we are actually talking about is how this generation is reinventing Anthropology yet again, and this is done, as usual, by rewriting its past. So perhaps this discussion on Ethnographic Theory could help us start re-thinking how we relate to the other Theory- the theory we were supposed to have reacted against. The big theme that I think perhaps is missing in this renewed insistence in ethnography is not just politics, I think, but in particular, history. But to discuss this would take a much longer contribution. Anyway Alex, David, Giovanni, thanks for offering a genuinely interesting debate! A rare thing lately.

  10. As a contributor to that first issue myself I thought I’d chip in with my two cents. First, I’d like to thank Giovanni, Stephane, Amiria, Justin, Rachel et. al. for their heroic and outstanding editorial work. Very special thanks to Stephane and Amiria: I have rarely (now that I think about it: never) before been treated with such care and attention (and patience) by a journal’s editorial team.

    On Chicago, Oxbridge, the Grand Tradition, etc. Mmm… not sure. I was trained in Oxford but actually think of myself more as a Manchester product (where I held my first tenure job for six years). And although am guilty myself of speaking sometimes of the discipline in terms of institutional locations, in practice I tend to find myself picking from different analytical resources here and there to try to solve (often self-manufactured) conceptual-events. My own piece is one such attempt: I draw on Alex’s and Biella Coleman’s work on FLOSS (and Chris Kelty’s, and James Leach’s) and shot it through a playful reading of Roy Wagner’s analysis of Daribi kinship – the effect of that I compare to 17th century trompe l’oeil Dutch paintings. Concepts that inspire concepts that inspire concepts.

    I guess this is what I like about the call for Ethnographic Theory: the liberation that comes from the realisation that one finds conceptual work pretty much every- and anywhere. That we do not need Grand Theory to tells us how conceptual analogies work. HAU’s recuperation of that intellectual agenda is reinvigorating.

  11. Just on a moment’s reflection, I thought to add something. I’m not sure about Alex’s point about ethnographic theory allowing no place for indigenous anthropology. Oddly my own experience is that this approach is often spearheaded in such contexts. Take Madagascar. The most famous work of anthropology written by Malagasy-speaker is “Le Tsiny et le tody dans la pensee malgache,” by a Protestant minister and political minister named Richard Andriamanjato. It basically consists on an extended reflection on two words, one of which sort of but doesn’t quite mean “sin” or “blame,” and the other sort of but doesn’t quite mean “karma.” I think this is not at all unique. Colonized people living simultaneously in two intellectual worlds are in fact some of the people most likely to engage in this kind of reflection.

  12. Alberto, I guess that more than about the circulation of ideas between different institutions and people, I was thinking about the incidence of the “post” moment in the US as opposed to the UK as a “lived” experience. When I was a graduate student in the US, sometimes it seemed like the main issue was to keep in touch with the last continental theorist, while when I came to work on the UK I noticed less of an emphasis on grand theory, and an unashamed continuity with the traditional big themes of anthropology- which I have to confess, I found quite liberating. But again, perhaps this situation has already changed, and these transatlantic comparisons are no longer relevant- HAU may be a good example of that.

  13. As I scan through the latest comments about the Hau/Ethnographic Theory project, my eye is caught by the phrase,

    being suspicious of a turn towards “ethnography” that looks conservative.

    Since Roger Sansi also appears to be an admirer of David Graeber’s article on Shilluk divine kingship, I find myself considering how totally misdirected that suspicion would be in the case of this article. First, of course, the instant response, “David Graeber? You’re accusing David Graeber of being conservative? What are you smoking?” But a reader might not know who Graeber is. What then?

    I recall again how reading this article in the context of the current US presidential elections instantly suggested parallels with the replacement of the Shilluk divine king. Is not POTUS also a sacred figure, an embodiment of both arbitrary violence and utopian vision and a scapegoat on which the ills of the nation are blamed?

    What I realize, however, is that had I read this article at that earlier moment when the undergraduate was considering becoming an anthropologist, I probably wouldn’t have read it that way—even though that moment was shortly after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I was still too self-centered, too used to thinking of Africa as radically other, nothing to do directly with me. I would have enjoyed the intellectual puzzle of figuring out Shilluk symbolism, but kept that safely put away in the “not in my world” category.

    Suppose, however, that a teacher had pointed to the parallels and asked me to write a paper about them. That would have truly been a whack on the side of the head, perhaps even a life-changing event.

    Why run on about this here? Because, to me at least, it suggests an important role for ethnographic theory. If properly read and taught, ethnographic theory should (1) take us to the heart of darkness, (2) shed some light, and—this is the critical bit— always (3) ask its audience, “What? You thought this wasn’t you?” There’s a lot more to be done here than the tired old cliches about making the strange familiar and then the familiar strange, all too neutrally capture. That, I now realize, is why I like the notion of stranger concepts, guests who may become affines, eventually even ancestors, so much. It is one thing to “understand” in some clean, nicely sanitized and pre-packaged way. It is quite another to think, in very literal terms, about what it would be like to be married to these strangers and what that would do to the lives of yourself, your children, your children’s children.

    Which is all a roundabout way of getting to another thing I really like about the classic tone and language, rhetoric and style of the Shilluk article. The scholarship is not only thorough and meticulous. Its presentation is blessedly free of the academic kowtows and cookie-cutter approach that, again at least to me, seems to affect so much current writing. You all know what I mean—the kind of piece that begins with the ponderous announcement that “In this essay I will apply the theory of [currently fashionable] theorist X to Y”; then goes on to spend half the paper on what this or that person-who-must-be-cited says about X; before limply ending with a couple of too often not terribly interesting anecdotes from the field cherry picked to illustrate the point at which the author is believed to be heading.

    To make a long story short, I see in the model that Graeber and HAU provide a possible return not only to an anthropology that is, as I wrote before, both exotic and shockingly relevant to contemporary concerns but also to a model for scholarship that the field has, at least as seen from my own marginal position, been sorely lacking.

  14. John, just to clarify, I explicitly said that David’s involvement in the project reassured me beforehand ( at its first stages, before publication) that this was not a “conservative” project. But the game that HAU is playing is a certain re-invention of tradition, which of course is the starting point of any “modernity”: rewriting the past.

  15. Roger, I was not intending to attribute the suspicion to you, precisely because you had noted your reassurance by David’s involvement. It was the words themselves, torn out of their particular context, that struck me as posing an interesting problem to think about.

    On reflection, I suspect that the habit of proceeding in this way is one I picked up while working in advertising. There we are notoriously free of having to worry about the sources of our information, except for being sure that what we come up with doesn’t appear to imitate something done before. There are no footnotes to worry about. I shall have to remember to be more careful in this august academic company.

  16. This is a nice discussion, thank you. I personally really liked the argumentative nature of the journal’s introduction, as I think there are undercurrents of debate and disagreement (and abiding unhappiness) in the discipline that seem mostly to be avoided in publication and only occasionally cross from the hallways of the Hilton or Haskell Hall into the bright light of the public. This has the salutary effect of doing two things, only one of which Rex notes:

    a) Making difference, otherness, or ‘strangeness’ (see Sean’s comment above) discussable. The politics of representation debates made these topics really challenging within anthropology, to the point where the very idea of being one thing and studying another began to seem outre in the discipline. Far from ‘virtual’ (cf. Kath Weston), the ‘native anthropologist’ in some ways has begun to seem almost normal (I hasten to add that it always was in resource poor settings where folks simply didn’t have the money to traipse off to BongoBongoland for a few years). But, and crucially, whereas many anthropologists have largely stopped trying to theorize and understand difference, the rest of the world has gone on being perplexed by it, meaning that anthropology has abandoned a whole set of questions that everyone else is wondering about, and that, ironically, if anthropology would recenter around would make the discipline relevant in just the ways that it wrings its hands all the time for not being anymore. This trend largely tracks the loss of ‘culture’ as the central anthropological concept following the 80s, a trend °advocated° by, say, Ferguson and Gupta in various places (but see especially the Bahskow-led Boasian response to them). Yet, Bashkow and Stasch have recently produced brilliant monographs that make otherness central to their descriptive and theoretical aims. In fact, I wonder where folks might situate the Comaroffian ‘theory from the South’ concept within this trend. At the AAA in Montreal, I got the feeling that various ‘invisible colleges’ (whether the Pacific-centric one represented in Hau, or the Afro-Marxist one led by the Comaroffs & Co) are rearriving at the theoretical utility of difference, and therefore the theoretical utility of ethnography. Rex invokes Taylor, and Taylor’s unabashed evocation of a difference between secularity and ‘the immanent frame,’ could be another place where the problem of difference has become discussable again.

    b) Correcting the insipid and insidious notion that ethnography is simply a research methodology. I find myself constantly having to remind people that ethnography is not just a research methodology that sits alongside, say, census taking or survey research. In everyday academic usage, ethnography has come to mean ‘deep hanging out,’ and this is nowhere more apparent than in the way people talk about ‘doing ethnography.’ This locution continues to bug the shit out of me. One does not ‘do ethnography,’ one WRITES ethnography. I first encountered this whilst working in a hospital/med anthro context. So and so will do survey stuff, and data analysis, and so and so will ‘do the ethnography,’ meaning the hanging out. Ack. Ethnography is a whole way of representing and knowing that is defined by the complex relational space comprehended by two fields: the field of observation (research practices) and the field of analysis (forms of writing). The tightest and most thought provoking reminder of this comes in Marilyn Strathern’s excellent piece, ‘The Ethnographic Effect,’ which forms the Introduction and the Conclusion to her book Property, Substance, and Effect. To my mind, any major project that reminds folks that ethnography is nothing if not analytical is a very good one. (I would add that Bashkow’s The Meaning of Whitemen is one of the very best recent examples we have of ethnography as analysis, since it combines rigorous analysis with intricate description).

    Ultimately, however, isn’t it too early to describe what Hau can and can’t do? We have one issue. I think we have to wait and see where it goes.

  17. I get your point, Roger. It’s just that I find interesting how much the arguments rehearsed in this thread (pre- or post the Grand Tradition, ethnographic vs. indigenous, etc.) reflects the political economy of the (Anglo Saxon) academy wherein most of us are located (and save JG’s comments, how very little effort has been put into framing them as such).

    Take the “ethnographic” vs. “indigenous” theory distinction noted above. This makes very little sense in certain Latin American contexts. People like Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui or Pablo Mamani, for example, have long been producing indigenous social theory in the Bolivian context. This also relates back to the point made by JG above. “Open access” is a procedure for unlocking an institutional academy. When knowledge is not produced in an academic environment (or when the political economy of such an environment is radically different from our Wiley-sponsored entente), then the open access game is an entirely different one – “openness” itself (now an indigenous / ethnographic category) takes a whole different meaning.

    HAU’s liberating potential, as I see it, is that it can hope to explore / experiment / produce a new political economy for academia *through the use* of the very resources of indigenous/ethnographic theory.

  18. I find myself in a similar position to Roger. When I first heard of this particular project, although excited by the prospect of moving towards open-access, I feared that the turn towards ‘ethnographic theory’, particularly in tandem with the emphasis on altereity was going to take us in tediously familiar and politically unpalatable directions. The knee-jerk postcolonial critique of any description of difference as being inherently exotic, Othering, etc is just a lazy misreading of Said, Fabian etc. But that doesn’t of course mean that there aren’t some pretty painful examples of deliberately constructed exocitism in order to perform lovely little intellectual pirouettes in the seminar room going on. We all know the kind of thing- one of the people I worked with in some suitably exotic locale once said this thing about materials or spirits or animals that sounds vaguely thought-experimenty and as a consequence I can open up a whole discussion about Heideggerian ontology and the fact that they live in a different universe from me. And indeed the fact that I choose to deliberately cut and frame to present a picture of the exotic Other in this manner demonstrates that I am in fact the only person who ‘takes them seriously’. Such an approach is one that the opening poster is not alone in finding deeply problematic both theoretically and politically.

    However, again like Roger, my fears were allayed upon actually getting hold of the first copy of Hau. It’s clear to me from Da Col and Graeber’s editorial that this kind of approach is antithetical to where they are coming from. As I understand it the approach is based upon the idea that every aspect of human life is potentially both familiar and exotic in a fruitful manner, once we learn to approach it ethnographically. That was always the intention of the best of the classical 20th century anthropology- to bring to light the fascinating strangeness of ‘our’ own mundane everyday lives as much as it was to describe the difference of the Other- however much we may feel that we can no longer use the theoretical models that they used it’s worth reminding ourselves of that. The exotic is everywhere – in middle class Manchester homes and academic seminar rooms (have you ever seen rituals as strange and weird as those by which we make our careers: ‘word jugglers of Oxbridge’ would make for a thesis as exotic as any argonauts or sorcerors). It’s of course not only to be found in Papua New Guinea or the monster-truck rally. To bastardise Spinoza, ‘Everything human is alien to me (at least potentially)’.

    That’s why I found the Opening Post to this thread a little off point. It seemed to me to be an expression of legitimate concerns that reading the opening editorial should have at least partially allayed rather than exacerbated. I had these concerns before I read the opening issue of Hau- not afterwards. Of course if the exploration of difference in first few issues of Hau turn out to be nothing more than the cyclical repetition of the usual suspects of jaguars and panthers and bears, oh my… then some of these fears might well turn out to be well founded. But I didn’t get the impression that that was what the editors wanted from the opening editorial. And given the excitement around this project and the potential is shows for us to do creative things outside of some of the deadening strictures of academic publishing as it is currently structured (something that this blog has a proud record in demonstrating too…), I am all for what I’ve seen so far.


  20. Hi everyone, again.

    Since I appreciate so much to participate into this (I believe this is also part of the open access business), and following the new-added comments, I’d like to add some more flesh.
    I will do so by advancing a #fact

    A year ago I send an article to a Spanish journal; it was rejected (to be fair, 90% rejected; but they suggested a completely different work if to be reviewed again). This is not a big deal; I could certainly send it to some other journal. But I was so shocked about the arguments used by the reviewers that I felt back in 1542.
    Now, thanks to this debate about HAU and Ethnographic theory, I’m thinking back about the underlying territory of the mentioned episode, and I’d like to share it with you.

    Inspired by David Graber’s “Possibilities”, and a few articles by Bloch and Kapferer I had the maybe-not-so-brilliant idea of developing an experimental ethnographic comparison.
    My intention was to show how certain explanations of political activity become causation theories that shape desirable and expected ways of doing politics. In order to do so, I put into dialogue my fieldwork amongst Peronistas politicians in a small city of Argentina, with the research on witchcraft, oracles and magic suggested by the tradition inaugurated by E.E. Evans Pritchard.
    I wanted to argue how explanations of the kind ‘why we lost the election’ and alike, are rooted –and not just entangled- with causation theories about ‘political work’ (what is, and what shall it be). Ultimately the article wanted to work on how much of this has deep consequences for the way we think of democracy and power dynamics.

    Of course I’m not saying the article was good per se –in fact I’d relativize some of my statements now. On the contrary, I want to reflect on what was really at issue within the evaluation process. I tend to think it was connected with the debate on ethnographic theory.
    I was basically told: your article is not scientifically relevant because is basically wrong to compare politicians with Azande. A comparison shall be made differently; this one is based on incommensurable parameters.
    Surprisingly enough, I never tried to compare in that sense (although a case could be made, regarding if and how could be possible), and certainly neither treated politics as witchcraft, oracles and magic (which perhaps was a more desirable topic since there are many works about this subject).
    No one questioned the article in itself –or yes, surprisingly that my ethnography was very rich and my ‘arguments’ well argued. (Someone even said I was being naïve and condescending with the politician’s because I took seriously their ideas and practices!)

    The point is why this happened. Was due to my lack of ability when explaining ‘the aim of this article is…”, or was something else in question here?

    I departed from the assumption that ethnography is not a mere methodology, and I was told back –patronizingly – that I wrote a fictional ‘story’ not grounded on Theory (I have twelve years on the field, and three books written on this topic… Notwithstanding this is not the point, I know).
    What is this kind of meta-critique-peer-review talking about? How an evaluation process could be carried without common parameters of the most basic assumptions (i.e. ethnography)?
    I was left with no choice: water and oil, they don’t mix. Somehow it was like a little girl at school being punished for painting the sky in green colour (Dickens style: grass is green; sky is blue!)

    Considering the arguments at stake here (Grand Tradition, Ethnographic Theory, the ‘exotic’, ‘post-colonial’ etc.), I referred to 1492 because, from a larger perspective, this type of ‘misunderstanding’ is connected with the current expressions of the colonial fact (and don’t get me wrong; is not just because it happened in Spain; I’m talking about Ivory Towers).
    I wasn’t really told I went native (remember Faye Ginsburg’s article?), but that I was not doing anthropology. I was told ‘Theory’ and ‘theories’ are different things, and I wasn’t able to understand the difference.

    Perhaps this is just a silly example, but I felt sharing it with you because reminded me why I chose to be an anthropologist, and not a sociologist for this matter.

    HAU –and others’- claims of ethnographic theory as both imaginative analytical endeavours are indeed to be defended and nurtured. This, at least, if we believe in “the theoretical potential of all ethnographic insight”

    ps: I’m saving some thoughts for myself; including why I choose that journal. It is quite boring, anyway.

  21. Quickly: John don’t worry, these threads are precisely thought to be open, you don’t need to feel constrained by etiquette or (supposed) august academic company. I wasn’t smoking anything while I was writing my post but I have to say I was feeling a little spacy. And Alberto, I take your point about the need to unlock academia.

  22. My current fieldsite situates around a street parade in Manchester. It brings me into the local council, event organisations, community groups, artists and ‘the public’ – all diverse entities with contrasting conceptualisations of the event. Working with Gell’s idea of an object mediating social relations, I can follow threads through and around this parade and make sense of people’s sense of their city and how creativity manifests in the parade.

    I live, work and study in Manchester, so I am not an other – my informants are not ‘others’, and yet their multiple understandings of the parade are alien enough to me, and to each other, for tensions and misunderstandings to arise and provide insight.

    Anthropology reminds me of that old tale of the railway network being looked after by retired railway men, who each used to walk a mile of track a day. Spread throughout the country, these men watched over the entire network, one mile at a time. Similarly in anthropology, a lifetime’s work provides just a tiny window on one tiny aspect of a social endeavour, and yet from that brief historical period, can bring insight and learning about the human condition.

    For me, anthropology is now entering its golden era (or platinum maybe) and HAU is well placed to deliver on its promise. Open access, open minded, open to fields and contexts across the world, HAU can shake off the dusty colonial image and reposition anthropology in the minds of OTHERS (i.e. those who have never or only barely heard of anthropology), as a discipline tailored made for modern times – where cultural sensitivity and a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of social change are absolutely crucial.

    Bring it on!

  23. I’m particularly excited for the possibilites of ‘ethnographic theory’ for interdisciplinary conversations. But, if the objective of Hau is to show Continental philosophers that anthropology has survived the existential crisis of the 80s and has Important Things to say to them, then where are said philosophers in the journal? Will the next issue include responses from political philosophers on kinship and kingship? Otherwise, its just more parochial postcolonial/post-Writing Culture anxiety. What is Hau doing to reach out across campus?

    (I’m going to concur with Jimmy Durian and encourage mixed-case styling of “Hau”, excepting smallcaps.)

  24. RE: comments by Strong, Keir and Jessica

    Indeed we must be emphatic that ethnography is necessarily analytical — or rather, that’s what it should be if it is to be a mode of knowing (read: understanding) the world and not just a naively Baconian method of reporting and reflecting. I’m thinking of the Sahlins bon mot that “ethnography is Anthropology, or it is nothing.” With this in mind, there are two more comments I want to add to this conversation at this point:

    1.) We’ve been casually skirting around the issue of “auto-ethnography” or “indigenous ethnography.” One of the things we have to ask ourselves, which HAU’s introduction prompts quite perceptively, is whether or not such a thing is even possible. I mean this *ideally* and I’m *not* inviting a discussion of methodological individualism. In other words, not what an auto-ethnographer studies, but how and in what sense is it “auto” or “indigenous” at all. The old sociological problem of a “standpoint” seems to be what is really at stake here. The reflexive locus of studying one’s own society (at whatever scale) always seems to find its standpoint in the self. But, the self (or even the “subject”) is perhaps one of the most over- and under-theorized concepts in current anthropology. “Over-” in the sense that it has acquired a kind of sacrality regarding the legitimacy of standpoint, but always seems to be theorized with respect to a long tradition of critically engaging Descartes. Hegel, Foucault, Butler, etc. are all part of this (largely) continental tradition. It is “under-theorized” for the same reasons [e.g. Self-as-folk-theory. What about languages which standardize the passive voice? What about Buddhist traditions that have complex philosophies of the emptiness of self and Buddhist societies that end up moralizing these esoteric traditions by having an aversion to those who talk about themselves too much? — odd examples, but I’m recalling my BA thesis from years ago]. HAU seems to beg the question (one that a lot of us have also been thinking about for quite some time): If one understands the world ethnographically and ethnography (as an analytic) necessarily unfolds from an experience of strangeness (the mutuality of intimacy and distance), then can ethnography actually (a) be a way to know the self, and perhaps more importantly, (b) be legitimatized from a standpoint of the self? We may also ask, what does ethnography look like when it doesn’t begin with the ontological assumption of “self” and “other?”

    2.) As an analytic, ethnography has to be comparative in its central thrust. It cannot simply be useful for theory via description. It should be theory-as-comparison — implicilty or explicitly. [See JG’s comment above]. So let’s say we were to come up against this problem of the “self” as a folk-concept if we were auto-ethnographers. To know this as a folk-concept would be to necessarily compare it to other folk-concepts — concepts *anywhere*, inside or outside the “society” where we were auto-ethnographers. Structuralism 101. But, then, we are confronted again with the questions from above: If ethnography allowed us to *know* the “self” as a folk concept, then from what standpoint did we come to know it? Who did the knowing — or to play off of Jessica’s (and John’s) lovely image: who is driving the train?.

    Apologies if I’m getting too meta-theoretical (and off-track) here. I’m actually in the field right now and sleeplessness keeps turning my attention to the internet.

  25. I want to come back to Sean’s observations, but wanted first to add something about Obeyesekere (I am rushing to lecture). ‘Obey,’ as we called him in seminars at Princeton, was often fond of talking about social theory constructs through the epistemological and moral practices of Buddhism. It is implicit in much of his work, but rises to the surface in a few places. A really good one is ‘Depression, Buddhism, and the Work of Culture in Sri Lanka.’ Another might be his book ‘Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth.’ His work there seems to be of precisely a radically comparativist, ‘ethnographic theory’-style nature. The Obeyesekere that is typified by the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate really doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his work in a variety of areas.

  26. How lovely John’s response: “I’ve come home. This is the anthropology that got me interested in anthropology in the first place.” I had much the same feeling and suspect many others did also. This is actually something I’ve been wondering or considering of late – why or ‘what it is’ about HAU that makes it seem so familiar, and given the current topic and thread of discussion, I thought to share a few thoughts fore-with:

    In many ways and for a long while I think Anthropology (as a discipline and part of the academy) has almost effectively ‘estranged itself’ (or estranged ‘us’ rather), from the experience and value of ethnography; from the people we research with and write about (“the natives”, “interlocutors”), to our experience and account of ethnography as a personal venture and process (the fact that the whole idea of the “I” of ethnography is still cause for disciplinary dissonance is more than telling I think), to the singularly unique body of ethnographic knowledge that we each of us learn or acquire in the field (“data”), to the diamonds in this coal mine of disciplinary repression (a little dramatic I know) – those gems of ethnographic insight that are so often lost, obfuscated or dulled by meta-theoretical frameworks that reflect our own (respective) institutional and theoretical forms.

    As the foreword to the inaugural volume makes clear, HAU encourages us to recognize and celebrate the potential of the ethnographic insight as a theoretical innovation in and of itself (- “to use it as a jumping-off point for our own theoretical innovation”- ), and further, to recognize and celebrate the potential of ethnography as a theory in and of itself (- “instead of asking how can we best translate this concept into our own system, asking how can we change our system so that it can understand this concept which resists classification”- ).

    In this sense – as a project, agenda or movement – I see HAU as broad-sweep call to recognize and celebrate ethnography as a shared or common ‘tenure’ (as in land ‘tenure’) that has always underlain Anthropology – which underlies the more familiar proprietorial landscape of the discipline as divided into institutional forms and theoretical schools and the like.

    Just as OA relieves us of certain proprietorial restrictions vis-à-vis the dialogue that anthro-publication is supposed to be or afford – so ethnographic theory promises or ‘want’ relieve us certain proprietorial restrictions associated with institutional alliances and theoretical schools or forms.

    ~ or at least that’s what I thought (while running along a mountain path with my dog)!

    Really interesting discussion and thank you to Rex for the original post that has afforded us such and as much.


  27. Thanks for these comments folks. Let me try to pull a couple of threads together:

    Indigeneity: I agree with David that in many cases indigenous intellectuals have unique perspectives out of which something (perhaps ET?) emerges, and I’d like the next reading I suggest to take up this issue. But I think my point was a little more concrete: where are these people on the board of directors and in the pages of the journal? Enrolling these scholars and intellectuals in HAU’s network is to me a very important and worthwhile goal. It’s for this reason Keir’s remark strikes me as a bit off: it is true that the editors claim that they are not advocating for a discipline of the exotic but in practice is that really the case?

    Several people have remarked on how welcome HAU’s return to ‘grand tradition’ social theory is. I understand where they’re coming from, but… are ET and the ‘grand tradition’ natural allies? Wasn’t Invention of Culture explicitly written to take these Western explanatory (meta)narratives down a peg?

    In many ways I feel that what unites David’s papers with, say, Roy’s is people’s perception that both are opposed to ‘the 90s’ and the metastastization of it and its lingering presence in the oughts. This is certainly the way I feel, but I would be interested in hearing from someone other than my close colleagues (read: Comaroffians) on this topic. A lot of what HAU is doing is (re)written the history of recent anthropology in a sort of return of the (elite) repressed.

    It seems unfair to argue that people are stretching the definition of ET too much given the thinness and provisionality of the concept, but I do feel that some of the comments here register enthusiasm for ET because it captures something very generic about the way that anthropology valuables the particular and honors people’s mundane experiences. I appreciate this, but I feel that in this conception ET loses its distinctiveness… or at least what I imagine its distinctiveness to be.

    In closing I have 2 questions:
    1. What sort of forums can we imagine to further flesh this idea out (read: conference panel, edited volume) and
    2. Can we please hear from someone outside of my immediate circle who wonders how ET is going to contribute to a four-field approach in anthropology where evolution is the ultimate paradigm? I feel like there is still a lot of different voices we haven’t heard from.

  28. Point of information. How many of us were reading “grand tradition” as a reference to theory? Personally, I was reading it as referring to ethnography itself, conceived in Malinowskian terms as requiring deep engagement with the culture in question and the social arrangements wiwhich it’s entangled. The result is a stance diametrically opposed to much I read recently, where someone is trying to “apply” theory to a thinly described case instead of working through the details of the case to challenge a theory or offer a new perspective. Thus, in a very real sense the heart of this great tradition is what Mary Douglas described as “not in Bongo-Bongo,” the observed realities that say to philosophers and other intellectual imperialists, “No, that isn’t the way it works here.”

    Is this reading wholly idiosyncratic?

  29. No that’s largely the way I meant it.

    Since I was the first to use the phrase, I think I was thinking of the Grand Tradition as detailed ethnographic description as a mode of engagement with larger questions, but also, engaging with the tradition of those who had done so before, and asking the kind of questions that have historically emerged from doing so. Like: do Shilluk really kill their kings? What does it mean that in so many African kingdoms people at least say that they do so…

  30. A very interesting comment from John McCreery, especially given the concurrent conversation (though not parallel conversation, as parallel lines never intersect)  in response to Jason’s previous post on this site. It actually seems there is a point of intersection (one, if not more; and it is interesting that more people haven’t responded to Jason’s post, which is worth thinking about relative to how ethnographic theory is being conceptualized here–the recurrent and recursive question of who and what is being left out).

    There are a few things that strike me as interesting in the previous comment which I think are relevant to this larger conversation of ET, especially relative to Rex’s comments about inluding indigenous anthropologists:

    (1) What definition of place/space is being used in defining the alien and the exotic, as well as defining indigenous anthropology? This question is occasioned by John McCreery’s reference to Mary Douglas’ “not in Bongo-Bongo” so as to identify and understand “the observed realities that say to philosophers and other intellectual imperialists, “No, that isn’t the way it works here.”

    What happens to this formulation of “not in Bongo-Bongo”–with its concomitant critique of cultural imperialism–if we consider the body and racial subject positions as ethnographic space/place? It seems that such a “not in Bongo-Bongo” critique was, implicitly, being made both in “Anthropology as White Public Space?” and in some of the responses to Jason’s post. (Including by Jason himself. But please correct me, Jason, if I am wrong). And this is why I see a direct and fundamental connection between Rex’s comments on indigenous anthropologists (and their perspectives), and Brodkin et al.’s comments about listening to anthropology’s internal others. 

    (2) In the “not in Bongo-Bongo” reference, I also see a resonance relative to Rex’s comments about the limits of translation and cultural concepts:
    “Ethnographic theory, on the other hand, wants to resist this easy assimilation. It wants to find the part of a concept which is untranslatable and use it as a jumping-off point for our own theoretical innovation. Instead of asking “how can we best translate this concept into our own system” it asks “how can we change our system so that it can understand this concept which resists classification”.

    It seems that a similar point was being made in response to Jason’s ‘Taking Anthropology’ post. While these comments were ostensibly about race and racial subjectivity, I’d say they are also relevant to this discussion of ethnographic theory, especially in relation to the limits of translation across ethnographic space/place *broadly defined*.

  31. Re “Not in Bongo-Bongo.” The point here is the stance of the anthropologist vis-a-vis the issues of the day and the theories that surround them as the research is done and the ethnography written. Here, I suggest, the exotic plays a vital role, both by attracting readers and, intellectually speaking, by unsettling the conventional assumptions in which philosophical and other theories are grounded.

    Malinowski is our great prototype when it comes to how to play an effective role in contemporary debates. Argonauts of the Western Pacific challenges the assumptions of classical economics; Sex and Repression in Savage Society challenges Freud’s patriarchal assumptions; Coral Gardens and Their Magic develops a theory that, far from being confined to the Trobriands, points directly to the role of advertising in capitalist economies. Malinowski’s assertion that advertising is the modern world’s magic and his pointer to Dorothy Sayers’ murder mystery Murder Must Advertise is a marvelous illustration of how to bring the exotic home.

    David Graeber’s piece on Shilluk Divine Kingship is very much in this great tradition. What could be more unsettling to a now conventional progressive view of the state as a tool of redistributive justice than to be reminded that states emerge from a fusion of predatory violence and utopian vision?

    In this respect, neither Sahlin’s piece on Spartan diarchy nor Wagner’s on chess and kinship succeed as well. Both are fun for connoisseurs of anthropological thinking; but the arc that brings the message home as a comment on the anthropologist’s own society and how its members think about things is missing or obscure.

    For those who worry about the exotic excluding work in the anthropologist’s own society, I would say that the art of the exotic is both the choice of subject and how it is presented. Phillippe Bourgois’ Selling Crack in the Barrio, Robert Dejarlais’ Shelter Blues and Gillian Tett’s Fools Gold all illustrate how powerful ethnography can be when Bongo-Bongo may be literally around the corner or in a nearby office building.

  32. @ John McCreery: “Robert Dejarlais’ Shelter Blues and Gillian Tett’s Fools Gold all illustrate how powerful ethnography can be when Bongo-Bongo may be literally around the corner or in a nearby office building.” Yes, I agree. Also interesting to note tha Selling Crack in El Barrio is the book’s subtitle, while it’s title is In Search of Respect.

    I see your “Bongo-Bongo” comments as a way to think this post on ethnographic theory as actually also in conversation with Jason’s “Taking Anthropology” post and some of the responses to it. Makes for an interesting synthesis.

  33. Another example of around-the-corner exoticism:

    When I was researching Debt I ended up doing a little work on the old “bride-price” versus “bride-wealth” controversy in the 1920s. It turns out the League of Nations was debating whether to ban bride-price as a form of slavery (they were buying wives after all), and anthropologists like Evans-Pritchard successfully appealed to them not to, arguing, among other things, that one is not buying a woman if one cannot subsequently sell her. It was relevant to the book because I thought I had reason to believe that in ancient Mesopotamia, this came not to be true precisely because of debt contracts, in which family members could be effectively repossessed, but in the course of it, I discovered something remarkable. There is one place where a man could actually sell his wife – or at least, still could until roughly 1926 iirc. This was England! An English husband in principle had the right to sell off his wife at auction and there were cases of it in villages well into the 20th century. (True, they didn’t practice bridewealth. But they did sell their wives literally like oxen, when you hold the auction you were supposed to be a yoke on her and everything.)

    It is facts like these which make me believe that there really are no Western Individuals, those supposedly non-exotic characters who operate by secular, liberal principles in a logico-experimental fashion (etc etc). They don’t really exist. We (and by “we” I include people in Ecuador or Siam incidentally) only become Western individuals, or the equivalent, when thinking or talking about customs and ideas we consider foreign or peculiar.

  34. The practice existed, but was not, by any means, a right: there are instances where prosecution resulted. In the main, though, it was tolerated, for it was restricted to the lower classes, for whom it was a form of divorce. In most of the cases that historians have looked at closely, it seems clear that the buyer was already known to the wife before the auction, and that the three main actors – husband, wife, and lover – were in agreement. You might look at Samuel Menefee’s ‘Wives for Sale: an Ethnographic study of English Popular Divorce’. I seem to recall that E.P. Thompson has also written about this.

  35. No I did, or thumbed through it anyway, I guess “right” was overstated if taken in the legal sense but the fact remained that they could. I also understand that it was _usually_ a consensual arrangement, with the wife’s lover understood to be the one who’d be allowed to win the auction, bidding for her in beer that was then consumed by everyone. But that doesn’t mean it was always consensual. The “Mayor of Casterbirdge” scene isn’t pure fantasy.

    And the whole ox-yoke element…

    And the fact that attempts to ban the practice seem to have been largely inspired by British embarrassment when news of the practice reached places like France…

  36. Hello everyone

    I thought about watching the discussion from the outside (feeling mildly uncomfortable to have my writings in the spotlight) but I thought should clear some dust concerning the place of “indigeneity” in HAU’s agenda. Possibly, some baffled responses arose because Rex assigned to read only the first few pages of the foreword. Here comes page xv:

    “The large Editorial Board and list of eminent names that HAU boasts has a purpose beyond mere academic recognition: the board members are our reviewers, the first pool from which we draw the talents who assess the manuscripts and certify the journal‘s credentials beyond ―impact factors.‖ All members of HAU‘s Editorial Board have committed to review at least one manuscript per year for the journal, and in line with our goals to foster community and promote intellectual diversity across different traditions, we include scholars outside the North Atlantic and Anglo- Saxon academic juggernauts: Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan. More invitations are on their way as well plans for facilitating the submissions of manuscripts in several languages.”

    The idea was that to engage in the production of an ethnographic theory we would need to include the perpective from non Euro-American anthropologies (here we were also inspired by Roy Wagner’s notion of ‘reverse anthropology’). So far we invited to HAU’s Editorial Board Hanan Sabea (American University, Cairo), Bum-Ochir Dulam (Mongolia), Katsuo Nawa (Japan), Paul Tapsell (Otago, NZ – and a native Maori), Amita Baviskar (India), Chen Bo and Wang Mingming (China), We invited all our EB members to submit their manuscripts and some of the above did or confirmed they will contribute. We also currently working to involve important actors in the production of local cultural knowledge in Melanesia, Amazonia (i.e. we have been trying to the elusive Davi Kopenawa a Yanomani Shaman co-author with Bruce Albert of La chute de chiel),

    I was personally lucky in having teachers and mentors who highly valued the indigenous voice as quintessential _conceptual_data for the development of their styles of “ethnographic theory”. Examples include Caroline Humphrey (who also held the Rausing Chair of Collaborative Anthropology at Cambridge ) and her Shamans and Elders, written in collaboration with the Mongolian shaman Urgunge Onon, Stephen Gudeman and his methodology of ‘long conversations’, Roy Wagner and his idea of Reverse Anthropology, Marilyn Strathern and her concept of ‘Negative Strategies’.

    On ethnographic theory, I haven’t much to add to the above and the clarifications given by David. I just want to convey the perspective on ethnographic theory of a very important voice and inspiring figure of HAU, Jeanne Favret-Saada (with her permission and the kind translation by Mylene Hengen).

    After she responded enthusiastically to our proposal of joining the Editorial Board, I sent Jeanne Favret-Saada a personal letter outlining a highly theoretical engagement with her work on witchcraft in the French Bocage from the point of view of “topology” (Leach, Levi-Strauss petite mythologiques, Deleuze, Lacan, etc.). Well, here’s what she replied, it was a damn wake up call, like a bucket of icy water thrown straight at my face:

    “Cher Giovanni,

    Thank you for all the nice things you say about my work. I think my main virtue, all these years, was to not cede to call of the sirens: the structuralist, psychoanalytic, hermeneutic ones, etc. I just stick with what people had told or showed me in the Bocage, and try to represent it.

    After HAU’s launch, I received another letter on the preface which I am transcribing hereunder since it provides a beautiful commentary to this discussion of the (re)opening of ethnographic theory

    “Cher Giovanni,

    I have just finished the foreword of Hau’s first issue: what a wonder! You project to tackle the entire history of anthropology without renouncing to infinite ethnographic detail, nor to what “our” favorite philosophers have brought (Deleuze, etc), in order to reflect upon and think it over, has completely seduced me. I myself proceeded in this matter in my work, but thinking that explicitly linking ethnographic themes with philosophical ones were out of my reach. Maybe it’s a question of epoch: I was a student of Deleuze, I participated to Foucalt’s book Moi, Pierre Rivière”, in other words, they were living people whose thinking moved all the time. You have the luck that they are now deceased authors, each one fixed in the little they managed to say, authorizing you to think what they had not yet said. When I speak in front of an audience of Freudians, I always maintain that my work on unwitching would surely have had Freud’s blessing, he whom we did not know and who confided, at the end of his life, that he would have liked to start it over again in order to study clairvoyance.

    Let’s get back to the Foreword. I admire it’s consistency: it gives material to think over for a long time. But also: it’s complete absence of airs ; the desire to give the reader, in the issue, all the necessary texts to think over a subject in question (the “G” factor) ; the fact that these texts contain classics (Schneider) and groundbreaking works of classic authors (Leach) as well as contemporary ones (Strathern.) In short, it’s a whole that is as much monumental (thanks to the freedom allowed by a digital publication) as it is exciting. Old authors become new again, new contemporary scholars become classics. In sum, it incites ones to consider anthropological thought as something fundamentally alive and essential.

    Giovanni, thank you to you and to your collaborators in this adventure, which I well hope will go beyond it’s fifth issue! We truly need it.

    Je vous embrasse,


    Indeed, thanks to all HAU’s Editorial Team, they’ve been really amazing. In case anyone is interested, we are launching a Call for Interns. Please do write editors@haujournal.org for more details.

  37. Thanks for these comments and the rich discussion folks. I’m posting a new reading suggestion today so hopefully the discussion will move over to that new thread on Friday.

  38. Hey JG,

    “I was basically told: your article is not scientifically relevant because is basically wrong to compare politicians with Azande. A comparison shall be made differently; this one is based on incommensurable parameters”

    I´ve been thinking about this for the past couple of days and I remembered that there is a review of Roy Wagner´s “The Invention of Culture” published in “Man” [New Series, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Dec., 1976)] that criticizes professor Wagner´s comparisons between the Daribi and America through a very interesting logic. The reviewer complains that professor Wagner “compares the cultures of diversified industrial society of over two hundred million people with a horticultural society of a few thousand in terms of contrasting systems of thought, with no reference to their different economies or historical contacts with other cultures.” The reviewer seems so concerned with these comparisons that he misses professor Wagner’s point.

    I find it rather amusing how these comparative strategies of anthropological description seem disturbing to some of my colleagues, as if it was some kind of methodological failure. On the other hand, a lot of them don’t seem to care when it comes to ignore or deform data from fieldwork so it will fit some pre-existing theory, turning everything into “a case of…”.

    So, will you try to publish your article again?

  39. @barba thanks for your encouraging post
    (I feel honoured you bring Wagner’s example to the table)
    I haven’t read the review yet, but it’s striking it is from 1976! (This is somehow telling)

    & I totally concur with: “On the other hand, a lot of them don’t seem to care when it comes to ignore or deform data from fieldwork so it will fit some pre-existing theory, turning everything into “a case of…”.

    Sure: once I overcome the sort if phobia to re-read and rearrange previous works, I will give it another try!

  40. @JG

    Are you familiar with the of Chicago sociologist Andrew Abbott? His Chaos of Disciplines examines the mechanisms by which disciplines fragment along lines defined by fractal recursive of methodological contrasts, quant versus qual, for example. In his Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, he develops a model with a three dimensional space in which he locates five currently popular approaches to research: standard causal (large n statiscal research), small n (controlled comparisons, case-based quantitative approaches), historical and ethnographic accounts, and simulation. The relevant inference here is that if you write a paper with advocates of one approach in mind but send the paper to journal controlled by advocates of another, the paper is not likely to be published. The relevant considerations are, however, a bit more complex than a simple us versus them, qual versus quant hypothesis accounts for.

    Hope this is helpful.

  41. Thanks John. I’m not familiar with “Chaos of Disciplines”, but I guess I get your point.
    On the other hand, the article needs to be reformulated due to other problems, mostly coming from considerations suggested by my colleagues (indeed appreciated). After this process, I will have to be conscious where I am going to send it for peer evaluation

    As we say here: no hay mal que por bien no venga

    One last comment: as a painter -as well as an anthropologist- I just fear that adding new layers to the painting I will destroy its very grounds (which of course works differently whether one is using acrylics or oil, white zinc or white titanium, etc.)

    End of my self-oriented postings! it’s so boring!

  42. Not boring at all. Especially given the serendipity that we are currently translating a Japanese curator’s essay on the work of the photographer Francesco Pignatelli, who has made a big deal of printing images in the reversed colors of the photographic negative. In one of his series, Reversed Renaissance, he pulls this trick on photographs of Renaissance paintings, e.g. Botticelli’s Annunciation. I can’t help wondering how, as a painter worried about adding too many layers of paint, you would feel about having this done to your work.

  43. On my analogy of ethnographers recording life as they see it, like railwayman watching over the track network, one mile at a time, Sean Dowdy asked ‘but who’s driving the train?’

    It has just come to me…

    God (and versions thereof) is driving the train.

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