Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics
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81  Rethinking Ethnography Towards a Critical Cultural Politics Critical theory is not a unitary concept. It resembles a loose coalition of interests more than a united front. But whatever it is or is not, one thing seems clear: Critical theory is committed to unveiling the political stakes that anchor cultural practices—­ research and scholarly practices no less than the everyday. On this point the participants in this forum agree. Yes, critical theory politicizes science and knowledge. Our disagreements arise from how we view (and value) the tension between science/ knowledge and politics. Logical empiricists are dedicated to the eviction of politics from science. Critical theorists, on the other hand, are committed to the excavation of the political underpinnings of all modes of representation, including the scientific. Ethnography, with its ambivalent meanings as both a method of social science research and a genre of social science text (see Clifford and Marcus 1986; Van Maanen 1988), has been the most amenable of the social sciences to post-­ structuralist critique. It presents a particularly sensitive site for registering the aftershocks of critical theory. No group of scholars is struggling more acutely and productively with the political tensions of research than ethnographers. For ethnography, the undermining of objectivist science came roughly at the same time as the collapse of colonialism. Since then, post-­ colonial critics have set about unmasking the imperialist underpinnings of anthropology (Mad 1973; Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1989; Miller 1990), the discipline with which ethnography has been closely but not exclusively associated. Clifford Geertz explains: The end of colonialism altered radically the nature of the social relationship between those who ask and look and those who are asked and looked at. The decline of faith in brute fact, set procedures , and unsituated knowledge in the human sciences, and 82  cultural struggles indeed in scholarship generally, altered no less radically the askers ’ and lookers’ conception of what it was they were trying to do. Imperialism in its classical form, metropoles and possessions, and Scientism in its impulsions and billiard balls, fell at more or less the same time. (Geertz 1988, 131–­ 132) The double fall of scientism and imperialism has been, for progressive ethnographers, a felix culpa, a fortunate fall. The ensuing “crisis of representation ” (Marcus and Fischer 1986, 7) has induced deep epistemological , methodological, and ethical self-­ questioning. Though some assume defensive or nostalgic postures, most ethnographers would agree with Renato Rosaldo’s current assessment of the field (Rosaldo 1989, 37): “The once dominant ideal of a detached observer using neutral language to explain ‘raw’ data has been displaced by an alternative project that attempts to understand human conduct as it unfolds through time and in relation to its meanings for the actors.” Moreover, a vanguard of critical and socially committed ethnographers argues that there is no way out short of a radical rethinking of the research enterprise . I will chart four intersecting themes in the critical rethinking of ethnography: (1) The Return of the Body, (2) Boundaries and Borderlands , (3) The Rise of Performance, and (4) Rhetorical Reflexivity. Return of the Body Ethnography’s distinctive research method, participant-­ observation fieldwork, privileges the body as a site of knowing. In contrast, most academic disciplines, following Augustine and the Church Fathers, have constructed a Mind/Body hierarchy of knowledge corresponding to the Spirit/Flesh opposition so that mental abstractions and rational thought are taken as both epistemologically and morally superior to sensual experience , bodily sensations, and the passions. Indeed, the body and the flesh are linked with the irrational, unruly, and dangerous—­ certainly an inferior realm of experience to be controlled by the higher powers of reason and logic. Further, patriarchal constructions that align women with the body, and men with mental faculties, help keep the mind-­ body, reason-­ emotion, objective-­ subjective, as well as masculine-­ feminine hierarchies stable. Nevertheless, the obligatory rite-­ of-­ passage for all ethnographers—­ doing fieldwork—­ requires getting one’s body immersed in the field for a period of time sufficient to enable one to participate inside that culture. rethinking ethnography  83  Ethnography is an embodied practice; it is an intensely sensuous way of knowing. The embodied researcher is the instrument. James Clifford acknowledges (Clifford 1988, 24): “Participant-­ observation obliges its practitioners to experience, at a bodily as well as an intellectual level, the vicissitudes of translation.” In a posthumously published essay, “On Fieldwork,” the late Erving Goffman emphasized the corporeal nature of fieldwork: It’s one of getting data, it seems to me, by subjecting yourself, your...


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