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The Two Faces of Mutuality: Contemporary Themes in Anthropology

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 86, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 257-275 | 10.1353/anq.2013.0010

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The theme of mutuality has lately emerged in anthropology by the hand of some of our most influential contemporary thinkers. Yet they explore it in apparently unrelated guises: in the work of Johannes Fabian (2001, 2007) or of Michael Carrithers (2005), mutuality emerges as a methodological preoccupation in discussions about fieldwork ethics referring to the way in which anthropologist and informant are engaged in processes of co-responsibility1; by the hand of Marshall Sahlins (2011a), mutuality is a constitutive principle in personal ontogeny that allows for a theoretical re-founding of kinship studies. Are the two meanings simply unconnected or do they share something in common which may turn out to be of theoretical relevance for contemporary anthropology? In this essay, I aim to show that both meanings are indeed relevantly interrelated but, in order to do so, I find it necessary to explore further Marilyn Strathern’s proposals concerning the intrinsic plurality of persons. Mutuality would be the movement between singularity produced out of plurality and plurality produced out of singularity—and that is why it implies “co-presence” to use Sahlins’ term or “participation” to use Lévy-Bruhl’s.

Ethnographic Mutuality in Fabian’s Work

In his well-known essay “Ethnographic Misunderstanding and the Perils of Context,” Fabian provides us with one of the best definitions of ethnographic mutuality in the literature: “the promise of nontrivial understanding that is produced by researcher and researched together” (1995:47). In short, an unavoidable aspect of all fieldwork interaction would be the occurrence of a feeling of shared revelation. In our present world of almost instantaneous globalization, even more so than in the past, the ethnographer’s presence in the field, as well as what she eventually comes to write about it, has an impact on the field but, more than that, it corresponds to processes of joint discovery. A superb example of this is provided by Michael Carrithers when he describes a conversation he had with a group of men during his fieldwork among Jains in India:

they thought themselves independent, since they ran their own businesses and were not, as I was, subservient to an institution and to the will of others; I thought myself independent because I could pursue my research interests and not be bound to the drudgery and anxiety of Indian commerce. We never agreed, but we did understand for immediate purposes. We also managed, though with more strain and evasion on my part, to agree to differ about Western eating habits versus their vegetarianism, which for them touches very closely the self-evident practices of Jain living. But in either case it is the very conversation itself, with its mutual understanding and its differing views, that illustrates my point. Here is an ad hoc morality of mutual recognition, mutual trust, and mutual forbearance which arises more or less spontaneously in the course of interaction, in some part because of and in greater part despite our cultural differences.


In passages such as this one, we can see how the typical preoccupation of the young ethnographer of being lied to by the informants soon gives way, in the more seasoned ethnographer, to what one might call a Rashomon fascination: the awareness that there is no end to interpretation and that we will ever be working on processes where absolutes play no role. Ambiguity will ever persist, as the ethnographic moment is part of the broader process of human communication and, thus, it is subject to what Donald Davidson (2001) calls the indeterminacy of interpretation.

More than that, however, the traditional propensity of anthropology towards semiotic models of interaction, where conscious meaning is treated as the be-all and end-all of communication, has presently given way to more sophisticated understandings of the fieldwork context. We must find ways of approaching analytically the ethnographic gesture that do not disembody it; that preserve its physicality in a world where what we understand is as much communicated by others as it is understood with others. We participate jointly in environments that are historically inscribed with sociality. As Evans-Pritchard (1976) used to put it, the ethnographer should attempt to learn to use, at least rudimentarily, the...

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