In their essay “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Hollan and Throop1 cite the ambivalence that Franz Boas felt about the usefulness of the concept for ethnography:
On the one hand, Boas seemed to champion empathy when acknowledging that the ‘‘needs of anthropological research have led many investigators to adapt themselves as thoroughly as may be to the ways of thinking of foreign tribes and peoples . . .” And yet, on the other hand, Boas remained decidedly suspicious of such empathetically based approximations of other lifeworlds, given his views on . . . the problems inherent in inferring similarities based on observed likenesses in outwardly perceptible behaviors and effects.
Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case. I certainly think that studies of nonhuman animals tend to suffer from either a total lack of empathy or a surfeit of anthropologizing that refuses to recognize difference. I’m less certain how important it is to insist on recognizing difference when dealing with other humans. Talal Asad famously criticized Ernest Gellner for his insistence on difference in his article on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in the book Writing Culture. In that essay Asad points out that the refusal of empathy insisted upon by Gellner takes place in the context of a history of unequal power relationships between the two sides. But to the extent that we take “the culture concept” seriously, surely we must be wary of the potential of empathy to erase the differences we wish to explain?
(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Roxanne Varzi as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Roxanne is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Irvine. She is author of Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Duke University Press, 2006). Her ethnographic research in Iran spans multiple genres, from the ethnographic monograph to ethnographic fiction to the film Plastic Flowers Never Die (2008) and on to the sound installation Whole World Blind (2011). Her current research is on Iranian theater.)
Fiction, for me, like ethnography, has always melded with a deep desire to understand and explain the world around me. As an eight-year old in Iran I wrote stories to either escape or explain the Revolution that had turned my country into an Islamic Republic and had turned my single identity as a dorageh, or two-veined Iranian, into half-American, half-Iranian, forcing me to either choose one identity or to stay in-between. Writing helped me to make sense of the in-between, to make sense of my new life while holding on to the one that was already becoming a dream — unreal.
The past was a place where “Bombs were flying through the air, the sky was ablaze, there was no night.” My American high school teacher read this opening of one of my stories and said, “Write what you know.” She smiled at me and told me to try again. I explained that I had seen bombs and that the sky was ablaze and night or not I couldn’t sleep for days as a child because I was so scared about what was happening in the streets. At least that’s how I remembered it. I came to see early on that we cannot fully replicate reality—even and especially in ethnography—in film, text or sound (the mediums I work in), nor is fiction purely a figment of its writer’s imagination. Was I writing fiction or ethnography and did the distinction really matter? Continue reading
Anthropology may be “the worst major for a corporate tool” but that doesn’t mean that anti-corporate anthropologists shouldn’t consider incorporating. In this special pre-tax-day post I will take a break from my usual anti-capitalist blogging to talk about one particular instance where anthropologists might want to incorporate: if you are thinking of making a documentary film it may be just the thing for you.1
Many independent filmmakers register as either an S-Corporation2 or an LCC (a limited liability company) in order to protect themselves if they get sued3 by the subjects of their films. (Or from someone who claims to be harmed by the film or by the process of making the film.) Having a company helps protect your personal assets, such as your house or retirement savings, etc. from being seized if you were to loose the suit. Many independent filmmakers even set up separate LLCs for each film. Doing so, however, is a lot of work, and not without its downsides.
The filmmakers behind one of my favorite ethnographic films from last year, ManDove, are not professional anthropologists, but you’d never know that from watching this insightful, sensitive portrait of Indonesia’s National Perkutut Championship — a singing competition for doves. In fact, Kian Tjong, who made the film with his partner Jim de Sève, calls himself “a self-taught anthropologist and sociologist” and so it is only the lack of some institutional stamp of approval which prevents me from referring to him as a “professional” anthropologist…
The official synopsis for ManDove does a good job of setting up the story:
To be a real man, one must have a wife, a house, a horse, a dagger and a singing dove. – Javanese traditional wisdom
Winner of the SVA’s Jean Rouch Award in 2012, Stori Tumbuna is the only ethnographic film I can think of for which one has to watch out for “spoilers.” Indeed, what starts off as a seemingly generic ethnographic film soon turns into a Blair Witch-esque horror film. Despite the title of this post, I don’t intend to write any spoilers —I really don’t want to ruin for anyone the pleasure I felt watching this film the first time — but there really is only so much I can say about the film without giving too much away… The story is so well crafted and shifts gears so subtly from ethnography to horror that the discerning and suspicious viewer will likely find themselves caught up in the excitement without even noticing the switch.
In the first of what I hope to be several reviews of ethnographic and documentary films, I want to write about Hu Tai-li’s excellent film Returning Souls. This film will be of interest to anyone teaching about museum anthropology, repatriation, and indigenous rights. Filmed over eight years, the story it covers goes back forty years to a typhoon in 1958 which destroyed an indigenous ancestral house in the Amis village of Tafalong, about forty minutes south of where I live in Taiwan.
While Amis are generally egalitarian, the owners of this house, the Kakita’an family, had a special place in the village, and their house “is the only recorded structure with carved pillars” among the Amis (from the study guide – PDF). While aristocratic families and carved pillars are common among the Paiwan, they are not otherwise known among the Amis.