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Objectivity And Interpretation Of Anthropological Research Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2767 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It is strictly in relation to a defined predictability in act that we perceive and describe the unique. This results in two conclusions. Firstly we need to employ words, classifications and ideas to elucidate which elements of defined acts we are studying. ‘Real life’ does not relate stories or how it should be categorised or comprehended; our theories and concepts do this . All phenomena are able to be analysed in a number of ways. Nevertheless, even the most inductive study must decide what it is to analyse, how it should classify and to what purpose. Research always restricts is focus on selected aspects of an empirical area of study. No attestation on anything being particular should be viewed in a serious light unless the researcher unambiguously defines and demarcates his concepts.

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The majority of ethnographical analyses that, in the introduction and conclusion, hold a problem to be highly complex have not focused their research question and named their concepts adequately. Research that uses vague concepts and a focus on “wholes” which are not adequately classified, usually result in weak analyses and unclear, complex conclusions. In the view of Agar (1983, p. 41), “a classic criticism of ethnographic reports [is] that they present general conclusions with a few supporting anecdotes.”, a symptom of unrefined research briefs. Second, we must be viligant boundary conditions for each pattern of behaviour exist. All relationships and patterns are transient and conditional. A contrary claim would necessitate the existence of laws similar to the natural sciences in the social sciences.

With respect to Karl Popper, this perspective is untenable (King, 2006). We can never be fully certain that relationships and patterns are facts; thus we can never be entirely objective.

In addition to analyses such as observation and interviews, ethnographers also collect and examine site documents for information related to their research questions. Most studies confine themselves to interview methods with even articles that purport to be reviews of the field equating the two (Lindholm,1995)

The Inherent Subjectivity of Anthropological Research

Entering a culture to carry out ethnographic research, whether it is familiar or strange to the ethnographer, is much like looking into a pool of water. Depending on the light and the time of day, one may see a reflection of oneself, refracted per-haps because of the ripples on the surface. At sunset the reflection of the surround-ing trees and foliage appear, and eventually one sees deeply into the water, simultaneously becoming aware ofthe underwater world, the forest, the sunlight, and one’s own reflection. We find this analogy meaningful in our postcolonial world, in which all academic research has been problematized by issues such as history and catastrophe, boundaries and power, identity and reflexivity. Questions concerning authority, legitimacy, location, and intimacy, to name only a few, have rendered the static models of folklore and anthropology obsolete.’ In a recent article, Zeiltyn (2009) states, “Discontinuity in cultural formations-their multiple and heterogeneous sites of production-has begun to force changes in the assumptions and notions that have constructed the traditional mise-en-schne of fieldwork” (2009:96). Equally significant are developments in the academy. Michael Lambek (1997) has noted that it is “our ‘discoveries’ of feminism, race, transnationalism, displacement, and diaspora; the sheer growth in the number of practitioners, and the elaboration of a hierarchy of distinction among them-that have transformed fieldwork as much as any changes in ‘the field’ itself (profound as these have been)” (1997:35). These changes have altered the topics of research, the theories that frame the enterprise, and the methods of fieldwork for folklorists and anthropologists alike. However, few features have proven to be more consequential than the identity of the researcher or, more specifically, the issue of the self. In her article on the politics of ethnography, Pat Caplan (1988) states this principle succinctly: “one of reflexivity’s basic tenets, which is that of the self, including the cultural baggage which the ethnographer brings to the field, helps shape the ethnographic encounter” (1988:83). Lambek identifies this uniqueness of person as “historicity”: “Every ethnographer brings his or her historicity to bear on the way he or she approaches the subject, conducts fieldwork, and resolves the interplay between the universal and the particular” (1997:35).A different take on the intrinsic subjectivity of anthropology was articulated in Clifford’s (1983) attack on “ethnographic authority” and Rabinow’s (1986) critique of Clifford’s critique. I do not question here Clifford’s critique of the methodological or representational apparatus that anthropologists use to affirm their objective authority-a point echoing Foucault’s argument about the disappearance of the author in scientific writing. I am questioning, instead, Clifford’s invocation of the ethnographer’s subjectivity and the polyphony of indigenous voices as necessary correctives for a new ethnography.The con- cept of positionality assumes the a priori identities of anthropologist and native as those of outsider versus insider, which in turn become the condition for reconstituting textual authority as collaborative work. I do not deny the subjective nature of the anthropological presence or the existence of indigenous voices that serve as basic reference points for an ethnography. But how is any subjectivity construed? What kind of reality is invoked by native experience?

Is it enough simply to acknowledge the facticity of these a priori conditions, as

though the process of making explicit what was previously effaced or sublimated

(which underlies the methodology of writing) will resolve the fundamental epistemological dilemma of anthropology’s construction of the other? Far from having resolved the dilemma of anthropological objectivity, insofar as it has been reflected and linked inextricably to ethnographic writing, the new ethnography exposes

in my opinion Clifford’s naive notion of anthropological subjectivity. Typical of the Flaubertian remove from which he gazes at anthropologists and anthropological texts, the authority that Clifford criticizes is a literary one that lends far too much credence to ethnography as “authorial” creation, scientific or otherwise. The anthropologist

is not just an author but in many cases also an academic and social agent whose subjectivity is literally “subject” to (bound by) forces internal and external to the epistemological project that he or she is consciously engaged in. Any account of that

subjectivity must incorporate those factors that define the system of practice within which scholarship is situated. Those factors influence the form of research and writing as peculiar genres of knowledge production (not just scientific-cum-literary creations)

that define in turn the relevant content of acceptable knowledge. In this regard, Rabinow’s critique of Clifford is to the point.

Anthropological subjectivity must be viewed not simply in reference to the authority of writings that are the end product of analytical inquiry but more importantly in relation to the institutional framework within which academic production is situated and where all knowledge is valorized and engendered at the core. In brief, no intellectual history should divorce itself from the micropractices of the academy that give rise to and sustain it. It is easy to show how micropractices of the academy influence the course of knowledge as discourse production by defining the conditions under which people are hired, compete for grants, publish, are given tenure, and gain promotion. From the perspective of the subject, it necessitates routines of everyday conduct, norms of etiquette, rites of professional performance, moral obligations, strategies of writing, and political maneuvering that cannot be gleaned from textbook knowledge. Bordieu (2003) neatly and appositely proves this point by enumerating the objective view of the anthropologist by the subject as a further subjective element.

Many researchers and an even greater number of students proclaim that their interest is empirical and not theoretical. Jacobson (1991) presents a model for analyzing and evaluating ethnographic arguments. It examines the relationships between the claims anthropologists make about human behavior and the data they use to warrant them. As a rule, this is nonsensical, and in any case it is unclear what they mean. If we are talking about abstract and formal models when thinking about theory, then the statement may make sense. But we can never study a social phenomenon without a theoretical perspective emphasizing only some aspects and ignoring others. Spencer (1989) adds to this subjectivist argument through emphasising the importance of reading anthropological texts with their historical and cultural contexts in mind.

For Asad (1986:156),the job of cultural translation remains inherent in anthropological practice and he seeks not to negate it but to’make it more coherent’.He examines Lienhardt’s uncomfortably pre-post-colonial but fundamentally solid assessment that the challenge faced by the anthropologist in describing ‘how members of a remote tribe think’ is ‘largely one of translation, of making the coherence primitive thought has in the languages it really lives in, as clear as possible in our own’ (p. 142). He also presents Leach’s stimulating suggestion that ‘social anthropologists are engaged in establishing a methodology for the translation of cultural language’ (p. 142). All of this amounts to a further acknowledgement of the subjectivity of research.

When Clifford Geertz claims that the purpose of anthropology is to provide “thick descriptions” of cultures and sort out the socially established structures of signification informing social action and interaction (1979: 24-28), he is advocating an inductive ideal which, according to this article, is not possible – or at least not productive. Geertz acknowledges that theories, concepts and past analyses have an impact on his own analysis and construction of the structures of meaning of other people. However, our understanding of cultures primarily improves and becomes more precise when the researcher delves deeper into the local culture being studied: “(T)he essential task of theory building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them. (…) In ethnography, the office of theory is to provide a vocabulary in which what symbolic action has to say about itself … can be expressed.” (1979: 26, 27). According to Geertz, the best scientific interpretations are those that are considered useful and survive intellectually. There are at least two problems with this perspective on the social sciences (anthropology). First, symbolic actions cannot state anything about themselves.

Regardless of how long we study a social phenomenon, we will only uncover certain aspects and not others. This has been more recently highlighted by as a theoretical concept of social interface theory. Social interface is defined by Long (1989). In 2001 his revised definition was: “a social interface is a critical point of intersection between different lifeworlds or levels of social organisation, where social discontinuities based upon discrepancies in values, interests, knowledges and power, are most likely to be located.”Long goes on to say that ” … the concept implies face-to-face encounters between individuals or social units representing different interests and backed by different resources.” It is by identifying these interfaces and then studying the perturbations that occur as a result of the intervention that we can understand how interventions are modified by everyday life and thus stregthen the view that anthropological research is inherently subjective. As Geertz (1979,10) articulates so poignantly; “Doing ethnography is like trying to read …a manuscript — foreign, faded,

full of ellipses, incoherent, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries,

but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of

shaped behavior” (1979, 10). Geertz articulates so poignantly the unwieldy,

unpredictable nature of writing and of choosing what to write about.

We cannot escape making theoretical and conceptual choices incessantly, and of course we should be as explicit and open about these choices as possible. The scientific debate and clarity suffer if these choices are unconscious, concealed or implicit. It is unclear what it means to delve deeper into the local culture and also what the purpose is. The perspective appears to be that the deeper we analyze, the clearer it becomes what the local culture really ‘is’. The argument has a positivist tinge – reality presents itself to the researcher if we look hard enough. What does it mean that an understanding becomes more precise if we do not measure it against some scale or standard of our own choosing? This criticism can also be directed towards a number of versions of “grounded theory”, which argue that we must avoid theoretical studies before beginning empirical analysis, as theory infects the analysis. Instead, via the coding of the material, we must discover concepts and contexts. For some, this ideal may sound commendable, but in fact it is an impossible task that masks the process that precedes and accompanies the empirical analysis. Theory is with us all the way.

Second, the view on theory as an instrument for thick description implies

that it is not possible to construct general categories and formulate broad theses,

let alone causal theses. But how can we know how much local cultures and

discourses mean without investigating them and without comparing across them?

It is one thing to have a thesis about local structures of meaning being decisive for

social interaction. Without comparative analyses and general concepts, it is not

possible to figure out whether this proposition is valid. Geertz acknowledges that

culture is one among many phenomena that can form and inform human action;

but how is it determined whether it is more important and “will stand out against

the other determinants of human behaviour” (Geertz, 1979: 27)? To analyse the

competing determinants of behaviour they have to be conceptualized: It is false to believe that, if you compile enough facts, fundamental truths will jump up and seize you. All you would produce is a long list of unconnected sentences, useful at best for memorization skills but certainly not for understanding fundamentally how things function. Facts without theories are silent, just as theories without facts are empty (King, 2006: ch. 2, p. 31).

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As a reaction against “objectivity,” and as a response to guidelines defined by those who form the research subjects, anthropologists have started to foster their own conscience and assess their professional practices, particularly the assumptions by which their research is built and the ways in which these influence their communication and integration with their hosts. Practitioners involved in ethnographic study benefit more from observing when their “self” has been immersed in the research model, appreciating its complexity and attendant cultural practices, because it is the same “self” which submits to negotiations, or not, with the people they aim to study, and it is also the “self ” that is eventually responsible for the data, the representation, and the intellectual interpretation of the ethnographic study.


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