Ethnographic theory: A product of observation, reflection … and travel

Noel B. Salazar

Cultural Mobilities Research (CuMoRe)

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

September 2019

To answer the question what ethnographic theory is and to understand how it comes about, we first need to agree on the meaning of the constituent parts, namely ‘ethnography’ and ‘theory’. Within the discipline of anthropology, the former concept is used in multiple ways. While etymologically ethnography refers to the written report of an ethnic group studied, nowadays the notion indicates both the methodology involved—a loose assemblage of fieldwork-based methods such as participant observation and interviews—and the produced end result, which can range from various forms of texts to audio-visual output and beyond (Salazar In Press).

Theory, on the other hand, refers to a structured set of ideas intended to explain something. Interesting to note here is that theory etymologically stems from the Greek words theoros (spectator) and theoria (contemplation, speculation). The more an observer ‘watches’ a phenomenon—bearing witness to it—the more he or she is invited to think profoundly about it. In other words, many theories derive from sustained observational processes, a practice that anthropologists have come to associate with ethnography (as fieldwork methodology). The dominant thinking within anthropology is that ethnographic fieldwork ideally should produce new (or corroborate existing) anthropological theory.

Apart from the observation and the reflection, there is another aspect of theory that is equally important but often overseen. James Clifford reminded us of it when he wrote: ‘“Theory” is a product of displacement, comparison, a certain distance. To theorize you must leave home’ (Clifford 1989). Let us return for a moment to the ancient Greeks (without whom we would not be having this discussion in the first place). In ancient Greece, theoroi (observers) travelled ‘elsewhere’, among others to see and experience something new, to learn new things. We expect the same thing from an ethnographer. The rationale is that experiencing ‘Otherness’, which implies leaving one’s personal comfort zone and known environment (Clifford’s metaphorical ‘home’), leads to new insights and, eventually, novel anthropological theories.

The basic idea behind this reasoning is much older and much more widespread than most anthropologists realize. The idea of transformation through travel, broadly interpreted, has always fascinated people (Salazar 2018). In the Mediterranean region, Moses’s biblical exodus or Homer’s Odyssey are two legendary transformative journey narratives. The word ‘odyssey’ itself has come to mean a difficult and transformative journey. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh narrates the makeover the king of Uruk undergoes through traveling. The story of Jason and the Argonauts, one of the most popular from Greek mythology (that inspired, among others, Bronislaw Malinowski), is an epitome of the human ‘quest’—journeying to reach a destination or a destiny. In the Persian tale of Shahnameh, Rostam and his son Sohrab undertake journeys and suffer to win the title of a hero. The medieval theme of the pilgrim on the road of life appears in the opening verse of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) and is also employed by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Such imaginative journeys are intricately linked to the more widespread role of travel (and displacement) in age-old rites of passage and transition in many cultures. One could also think here of the tales of shamanic transformation journeys to the edge, where trials are undergone and power is confronted, then won. In sum, there are multiple links between concepts for travel, transition and experience, especially the prevalence of journeying metaphors to describe all manners of change, along with life itself. The idea of travel-as-transformation keeps on reappearing in a broad range of cultural fields: in myths, folklore and fairy tales, in arts and music, film, poetry, novels and other literary genres, and in psychological theory and therapy.

Ethnographic fieldwork, too, is often considered an important rite of passage. ‘Surviving’ the first fieldwork experience, usually in the context of doctoral research, is seen as one of the breaking points in becoming an anthropologist. Important here is the aspect of duration. ‘Otherness’ needs time to unveil itself, as does reflective introspection. Ethnographic theory thrives on the principle of serendipity, the art of making unsought findings (Rivoal and Salazar 2013). Interestingly, the concept of serendipity itself is derived from another transformative travel tale, namely The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian story in which the main characters travel around making fantastic and unexpected discoveries.

The reliance on serendipity makes anthropology by necessity a ‘slow science’. This, of course, goes radically against the currently dominant political and economic demand for (very) rapid knowledge production and innovation. The general trend to shorten the time allotted to obtain a doctoral degree, as set by funding agencies and university administrations alike, has dramatic consequences for ethnographic theory. At many universities, periods of fieldwork ‘elsewhere’ have become much shorter than they used to be. Because of this, there is a general tendency to choose ‘easier’ fieldwork sites, ones that require less preparation time (and, thus, sites that tend to be less ‘different’, less ‘unknown’). Moreover, the ‘Otherness’ encountered during fieldwork may be understood less profoundly (among others because there is little or no time to learn local languages and not enough time to establish relations of trust). What kind of ethnographic theory can develop productively in such circumstances?

To recapitulate, behind the question on how to define and understand ethnographic theory hides a discussion about how (anthropological) knowledge is or should be produced. Going back to the etymological roots of the concepts teaches us a lot about the core characteristics that define how theory is created and the ethnographic variant of this creative process. Unfortunately, because of the changed structural conditions in which anthropologists must conduct research nowadays, the essential travail (toil) that is associated with transformative travel (and, thus, with ethnographic theory) is disappearing.

References

Clifford, James. 1989. “Notes on travel and theory.” Inscriptions 5:1-7.

Rivoal, Isabelle, and Noel B. Salazar. 2013. “Contemporary ethnographic practice and the value of serendipity.” Social Anthropology 21 (2):178-185.

Salazar, Noel B. 2018. Momentous mobilities: Anthropological musings on the meanings of travel. Oxford: Berghahn.

Salazar, Noel B. In Press. “The writing behind the written.” In Writing anthropology: Essays on craft and commitment, edited by Carole McGranahan. Durham: Duke University Press.