The New Armchair Anthropologist?

I usually avoid presentations and talks all together that have anything to do with methodology, simply because its’s boring to hash and rehash our hangs ups with anthropological methods.

But let’s not get crazy and completely throw ethnography out the window.

After a long day at the American Anthropological Association conference in San Francisco last week, I made my trek back to Berkeley a little discouraged, and not just because I was pulling into the West Oakland Station (check out Jeff Schonberg’s upcoming talk at UC Santa Cruz on “Seeing through Violence: Murder and Gentrification in West Oakland). I ran into some other UCB grad students on the BART ride home and gushed to them my ethnographic woes. They sympathized with me—that, and they had just come from a talk based on ethnographic data from the 1970s. Yikes.

Don’t get me wrong, these non-ethnographic panels were sophisticated and thought-provoking. They just etched out ethnography from their papers, and perhaps from their research. “Perhaps they weren’t anthropologists?” said a quizzical grad friend. Shouldn’t ethnography be a minimal personal requirement for presenting at the an anthropology conference then?

For example, if we wanted to understand why North Koreans displayed what seemed to Westerners as profound public displays of mourning for Kim Jong, hell, why not ask a North Korean?

Another example. If your object of study is spontaneous burials, it’s only a matter of stopping a person on the corner sidewalk and asking, “Hey, what’s with the flowers for Whitney?” (check out Cristina Sánchez-Carretero’s work on grassroots memorials)

Sure, these papers gave out interesting theory and food for thought BUT! their collection of data was, I hate to say this–a little more then clever googling. “Am I that old-fashioned?” I asked a grad student over Turkish food in the Tenderloin, “That my theory should come from my data?” I came to anthropology from psychology with a real life problem to explore–the politics of science at play in the recent Spanish exhumations from the civil war and repression. I had gone to the field, collected data, and now I just wanted to go home and play with my data and see what it had to say to me.

Luke Thomas 2009
The new armchair anthropologist? Loveseat in the Tenderloin. Photo: Luke Thomas 2009

This is coming off talking to other grad students in my cohort who, though thoughtfully theoretical, still did not know where their field site or field problem was stepping into their oral exams.

Thank goodness for Emily Martin.

It was refreshing to see a senior anthropologist in the ethnographer seat. In the 15 minutes it took her to present “The Erasure of Subjectivity In Psychological Experiments,” you could actually see her working through her ethnographic experience as a cognitive psychology research subject and the questions this provoked:

“How and why do researchers separate such subjective experiences from their experimental models?”

“How and why do they exclude the multitude of intersubjective relations between subjects and experimenters that permeate their collection of experimental data?”

The Refusal of Relation: Describing the Science and Politics of Isolation, AAA panel

Fresh back the field, I needed that reassurance: that some anthropologists out there still muck it out with ethnography.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *