What is Ethnographic Theory?

João de Pina-Cabral

School of Anthropology and Conservation

University of Kent

October 2018

When I was asked to help determine the meaning of the expression Ethnographic Theory (ET), I thought of the words of Samuel ibn Naghrillah, a reputed Talmudic scholar and vizir of Granada in the tenth century. He wrote in a poem that “Wisdom comes from knowing we are not here forever.” I take this to be a declaration of the rootedness of the human presence in the world—each one of us a person with a particular history. The following, then, is a brief declaration of my views on the topic. I am sure that five years ago and five years hence, were I to be asked the same question, I would provide different answers. I hope, however, that by setting down what I think today about it, I can still be useful to myself and others in five years’ time.

Academic ethnography, as it evolved over the past two centuries, is a mode of evidence gathering in the social sciences and humanities that involves a large panoply of methods and techniques, all of which are integrated ultimately by a focus on the intersubjective encounter between the student and the studied. In its broadest sense, then, ET is a conception of anthropology that sees it as fundamentally rooted in personal encounter. By “study,” here, we mean the critical analysis of evidence concerning the human world which is gathered along the principles that have evolved over time in the social scientific tradition. By “person,” we mean a member of the human species that, in early ontogeny, accessed propositional thinking, namely by the acquisition of language. This does not mean that anthropology is a study of only person’s about person’s—far from it. What it means is that the primary condition for anthropologists and ethnographers to access the knowledge that they seek is their own condition as persons.

In consequence, ET sees the social sciences and the humanities as part of the broader process of human communication, rooted in space and time and in permanent evolution. It radically disregards the possibility of any approach that believes in an ultimate truth. In turn, from a spatial point of view, this implies that the scientific enterprise merges with the very long term of the process of a human occupation of the world and, more recently, with the emergence of a global ecumene that has occurred at ever greater speeds since the mid fifteenth century. ET, therefore, is necessarily ecumenical, in the sense that it sees the possibility of achieving understanding between humans as an open process in permanent evolution. Consequently, it rejects the possibility of existence of “other sciences” (“Other anthropologies”), since it sees the scientific task as a process of growing human encompassment.

From a temporal point of view, this means that ET radically rejects chronocentrism, such as has been the dominant mode of writing anthropological history throughout the twentieth century. If we attend to ET, then we cannot believe that past thinkers were more ‘wrong’ than we are today. We cannot believe that present knowledge cancels out the validity of the knowledge gathered in the past. The standard chronocentrist form of writing anthropological history involves the setting of a parameter of relevance before which “all anthropologists were … (some term of abuse)”; whether this is “coloniality,” “patriarchality,” “structural-functionalism,” “evolutionism” … whatever.  This mode—which is so useful to the lazy and the greedy—should be fought with all our strength, as it constitutes one of the more dangerously obscurantist aspects of our discipline.

Such an approach to history is blind to the practitioner’s own rootedness in ideological constraints. It demonizes uncritically the blindness of past anthropologists and ethnographers, whilst failing to realize that, in doing so, it is contributing towards hiding the ideological constraints of present anthropologists and ethnographers. Is there anyone of us that can honestly claim to be outside and beyond human history? Has there ever been any person who has escaped the binds of hegemony—in the sense of the rooting of all human communication within processes of constitution of power? The answer must be negative.

For example, why do those who today rubbish past anthropology as “colonial” fail to see that they are instruments of an equally perverse form of imperiality? If the knowledge produced by Fortes or Gluckman is made useless due to the evils of mid-century colonialism, is ours not equally useless due to what is happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria? How can a person who teaches in Washington, London or New York feel that they can raise above the constraints of history? Scientific analytical critique is a constant, ever-evolving process. The central strength and tool of ET is its disposition to acknowledge the practitioner’s own historicity (in phylogenesis, in sociogenesis, and in ontogenesis).

If I get it right, then, the primary task of ET is the systematic examination of the conditions of possibility of the ethnographic gesture in the present and past existence of our discipline. By ‘ethnographic gesture’ we mean the movement that takes the ethnographer away from his pre-analytical everyday world, to a world which he or she queries for analytical purposes. Academic ethnography has evolved as a disciplined mode of accumulation of evidence concerning human sociality that involves the direct intersubjective participation of the researcher in the field of research. As a result, more than merely a cognitive disposition, ET is an attitude, a mode of being in the social sciences that has ethical and cognitive concerns which are rooted in an ecumenical and broadly historicist approach to the human condition.

Let me finish with a deferential bow to one of the greatest believers in ET, Marcel Mauss. In 1938, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, and as Nazism consolidated its power in Italy, Germany and France, Marcel Mauss was invited to come to London to give the Huxley Memorial Lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute. He delivered his famous essay on the person that we have all read. Allow me to extract some of the sibylline words with which he ends it:

“Who knows what progress Understanding will make on this matter? (…) Who knows even whether this ‘category’ [of person], which all of us here believe to be well grounded, will always be recognized as such? It is formulated only for us, among us. Even its moral strength—the sacred character of the human person—is questioned (…) in the very countries where this principle was uncovered. We have great possessions to defend, as the idea could disappear with us. Let us not moralize.// But let us not also speculate too much. Social anthropology, sociology, history teach us to see that human thinking ‘moves on’ (…); it does so in slow articulation along the most hazardous tracks, through time, through societies, their contacts and metamorphoses. We must then strive to achieve the best way of becoming aware of ourselves, so as to perfect our thought and express it better.” (1938: 281, my translation)

In light of the political developments that we have been witnessing of late in North and South America, in Eurasia and in the Middle-East, can any of us fail to share his sense of foreboding with an impending moral collapse?