Yes Master, Ethnography is Truth

But it’s not ethnographic.

It’s not a real ethnography.

How many times have fellow anthropologists heard such statements? Don’t lie: say “dozens of times.”

Some, perhaps most anthropologists have convinced themselves that the path to truth runs through fieldwork. Any other knowledge gaining methodology is suspect, tainted, partial (i.e., surveys, reading newspaper reports, archival research, or even cross-examining “theoretical” texts).

I do not like to impart this kind of thinking to students. I know how vital personal life experiences can be in shaping how we see the world, and I know that students, like all others, can derive and gain wisdom in a great many ways. Ethnography is not indispensable to wisdom.

In actuality, most anthropologists must silently, perhaps unconsciously, concur with this last statement. They would never dream of sending students into “the field” without adequate “training.” (Yes, the language of discipline often sounds like regimentation.) And so they load students heads with stacks of theory, theory, theory, and other ethnographies, and other books, and other articles, other, other and more other of everything. “Situate yourself in the literature” they tell their students–in other words, cite us, engage in slavish recitation…consume. “Don’t reinvent the wheel”–we are back to dealing with universal science again…look at how it never went away. Ethnography is clearly a secondary sporting activity, and “the field” is where one goes to harvest some ornamental empirical illustrations for a story line that was conceived well in advance of “arrival.” (Anthropologists never “arrive”, they simply get there.) Moreover, the story line was itself conceived by people who themselves sit in armchairs, and the product is “negotiated” (read: controlled, managed, screened).

Ethnographic writing is itself thoroughly in pieces following a generation of absolutely scathing post-modern critiques: we tell stories, fictions, partial and incomplete truths; we are translators, therefore interpreters, thus we produce renditions, not accounts.

Alright then, so am I advocating that students and others completely ignore what may be dozens, even hundreds, of anthropological texts on any given subject? Not at all–that would be to advocate ignorance, to celebrate indifference, and to nourish patterns of lazy disregard for the output of many bright and devoted minds.

What I am instead talking about is a personal power relation, of actively engaging in production but with a keen regard for the fact that nothing we do is ever truly “original” and that our whole lives are lived in a thick web of social relations, and hence our ideas are just as much tangled up in that web. Knowing that, however, also repositions ethnography as by no means the best, most important, primary, or any other privileged way of accessing “the truth,” or “reality.”

One can always read “the other literature”, and sometimes it makes more sense to figure out what the relevant literature is, what is of interest, and what may be useful for building an explanation after one has had the chance to engage and reflect upon immersive personal experiences. The key activity is trying to understand why one is interested in some questions, and not others, what makes a question interesting, and what makes a problem a problem.