Two Ways of Doing Anthropology, Maybe a Third, and Still Losing

This is a fragment of a thought, admittedly jaded, but I would not say it is fictitious. The ideas listed below are thoughts that have been thought, words that have been uttered, statements expressed by students, by colleagues, in bits and pieces in passing in a wide assortment of published pieces in anthropology. These are two ways of conceiving and doing anthropology, leading to an unremarkable synthesis that seems to capture the worst of both worlds. It seems that no matter what has been done with anthropology, one cannot “win.”

SELF: I STUDY MY OWN CULTURE, and therefore some say that approach is, or shows,

  • introverted, provincial, self-absorbed, nationalistic
  • a lack of curiosity about the wider world
  • unable to recognize and criticize the taken-for-granted aspects of one’s own culture
  • not distinctively anthropological, more like sociology
  • trying to exoticize the familiar, does not escape the preeminent prejudices of a colonial discipline

OTHER: I STUDY OTHER CULTURES, and therefore some say that approach is, or shows,

  • alienation
  • a search for the exotic, the erotic
  • voyeurism
  • primitivism, romanticism
  • can never know the other


  • writing one’s self into the other, ventriloquizing the other — domination, fiction (as in “untruth”)
  • remaking one’s self in the image of the other — alienation, fiction (as in “untruth”)
  • cultures don’t translate into one another, or else they would not be different
  • self remains the subject, the author, while the other remains the object
  • still idiographic, still particularistic

Is this the double bind that will afflict any “science” that claims to study “difference”? Is the problem one of conceiving one’s research in terms of self and other, rather than in terms of specific social and political problems? Is the problem above the child of the culture concept and its flaws?

If anyone has an answer, I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, speaking of exotic and erotic, it brought to mind a poem by Suheir Hammad:

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don’t wanna be your exotic
some delicate fragile colorful bird
imprisoned caged
in a land foreign to the stretch of her wings
don’t wanna be your exotic
women everywhere are just like me
some taller darker nicer than me
but like me but just the same
women everywhere carry my nose on their faces
my name on their spirits
don’t wanna
don’t seduce yourself with
my otherness my hair
wasn’t put on top of my head to entice
you into some mysterious black voodoo
the beat of my lashes against each other
ain’t some dark desert beat
it’s just a blink
get over it
don’t wanna be your exotic
your lovin of my beauty ain’t more than
funky fornication plain pink perversion
in fact nasty necrophilia
cause my beauty is dead to you
I am dead to you
not your
harem girl geisha doll banana picker
pom pom girl pum pum shorts coffee maker
town whore belly dancer private dancer
la malinche venus hottentot laundry girl
your immaculate vessel emasculating princess
don’t wanna be
your erotic
not your exotic

4 thoughts on “Two Ways of Doing Anthropology, Maybe a Third, and Still Losing

  1. Dylan

    I know it doesnt help, and is a ethnocentric statement (we all have them from time to time), but ive always thought those anthropologists of mixed parentage, who are connected to two societies before they even study anthropology, produce the most insightful ethnographies. They are not stuck in the two modes you point to, and if they have genuinely experienced both places can gain entry to people and situations in a matter of hours and days compared to the years it takes an anthro. They are also used to comparative analysis because they’ve been aware off it since childhood.

    This isnt a line i’d necessarily teach in class, but it is a thought and observation ive made. Apologies if it sounds a little unPC

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much Dylan. I am not sure that your idea would be widely treated as either ethnocentric or unPC — basically you are pointing to the possibility of situations where dividing lines between self and other are blurred, where an individual stands outside of two cultural systems and yet has a place within both, where “home” and “away” are not fixed or easily distinguished. So I think the idea is a very interesting one, one that strikes me as plausible.

  3. Jennifer S

    I’m new at anthropology…a good way through an undergraduate major…and I’m reading Orientalism for the first time. I have a lot to catch up with, but one thing that struck me in the introduction is Said’s statement about “what I’m not doing.” He says:

    Perhaps the most important task of all would be to undertake studies in contemporary alternatives to Orientalism, to ask how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective. But then one would have to rethink the whole complex problem of knowledge and power. These are all tasks left embarassingly incomplete in this study.

    I found it sad and frustrating to read this because one reason I wanted to read this book was to look for alternatives to these problems. Coming to anthropology out of high school naively expecting I could unproblematically participate in “the study of humans,” I was originally unaware of the problems brought up in this post. Now, four years later as I try to decide what to do with the rest of my life, these problems are foremost in my mind. I’m still interested in culture, people, and myself, as well as many sub-themes of the above. But I am still looking for ways to think and write about these topics without doing them injustice.

    In his 2003 preface to my edition, Said talks about “the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow. But for that kind of wider perception we need time and patient and skeptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.”

    I am not of mixed parentage, so I don’t have the option mentioned above. Do you have any other suggestions of people who have managed to balance these problems well? Maybe in the way Said suggested in 2003, or some other way?

    This is my first visit to this blog, but I wanted to write because I’ve been thinking about these things a lot. After writing the last sentence, I looked around the blog a little more, and I realize now that this project is one answer to my question. But I’m going to leave the post as it is in hopes of getting more possible answers :)

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much Jennifer, and I am writing in awkward conditions here so I may be forced to keep this brief. You really hit on the core of some of the problems of doing anthropology with those outside of one’s immediate social and cultural milieu. Faye Harrison once argued that women anthropologists from the First World possess a kind of double consciousness for having experienced both privilege as members of a dominant society, and marginalization as women in a male-dominated society, and therefore might be able to step in and out of the kinds of constraints you mentioned. Whether that is actually the case is really open to debate. If Said says that he cannot discern clear alternatives, it may be because as some argue there really are none, just approximations, renditions, plausible fictions. It’s what some might call a pessimistic view, rooted in the idea that we can never really know the Other, and even have difficulty really knowing ourselves, or even very close partners. I think here of couples that have been together for 40 years, then split apart, and one of the partners tells the other, “you never really knew me, you never understood me.” Other approaches to the problem, looking for possible solutions, have been what are labeled “native anthropology” and collaborative anthropology. They may not be solutions as such, but the results are always interesting in my view. I have to cut this short, but I wanted to say thanks for visiting and for writing.

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