- Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters
This book is a call for ethnography as a method for the study of, and intervention in, contemporary society and politics, especially in the United States. It is written by David Westbrook, a self-described “sympathetic outsider” engaged in a dialogue with anthropology. He teaches at the University of Buffalo Law School in New York and has also published on global capitalism, on corporations, and on U.S. strategy toward Islamic extremists.
Here, he suggests refashioning ethnography as purposeful conversation, making it more appealing and useful not just for anthropologists but especially for scholars and intellectuals in other fields, who might [End Page 172] find their sometimes boring pursuits enlivened by the delight of purposeful conversation with living people.
The book is written not primarily for anthropologists but for intellectuals and students generally (mostly those in the United States: most references are Anglo-American, and the “now” of the book clearly refers specifically to the United States). The author hopes that anthropologists, too, might take its message to heart. Some, like myself, will find quite a bit to disagree with, and also find Westbrook bashing through quite a few already open doors. But we would do well to applaud this attempt to promote the ethnographic investigation of contemporary issues.
Ethnography as “refunctioned” by Westbrook would help “navigate” the contemporary by way of multisited “conversations” (p. 24). He makes potent observations on the potential of such encounters and many interesting suggestions, and yet he is not so much after reinventing ethnographic practice—in deference to the revamping and expansion of ethnography already under way in anthropology—as a “fresh and [widely] understandable statement of what it is to do ethnography, a new image of what it is to be a cultural anthropologist” (p. 61).
Westbrook would like ethnography to be deployed in investigating contemporary issues, from “how people . . . live now” to “going to war, derivatives trading, or the formulation of energy policy,” and he wants it to engage not only experts licensed to pronounce the official truths but also “people who know something, or perhaps exercise power.” The ethnographic “conversational practices” to be deployed are envisioned as “systematized, taught, and institutionalized”; this in order to “think seriously and perhaps even speak politically” about issues such as the current war(s) (pp. 23–24).
Thus formulated, Westbrook’s expansion of ethnography has great potential indeed, even for contentious problems like why the Iraq war was started—not least since, as many have pointed out, in that decision, dialogue and argument were excluded in favor of a “faith-based” certainty that the mass media helped orchestrate. The idea of the anthropologist as someone who might be investigating ethnographically how such certainty is fashioned and propagated is certainly more than welcome, and is not at odds with current anthropology.
The author’s argument for ethnography’s renewal is based both on the celebration of its contemporary potential and on the perceived crisis of an anthropology unable to move beyond earlier misconceptions. Possibly for the sake of rhetorical expediency, Westbrook consistently elaborates a straw-man characterization of past anthropology as the collecting of exotic but dying cultures on isolated, faraway islands. He [End Page 173] is correct, for sure, that the general public and many scholars do still see anthropology as the pursuit of vanishing cultures, and its methods thus can indeed come to seem forlorn now that “the maps have no more blank spaces; [and] the islands have run out” (p. 9). According to Westbrook, in place of vanishing geographic margins, anthropology now has shifted to social margins and failed to study (mainstream) contemporary issues.
There is some truth to this, but don’t readers deserve to hear more about the new “anthropology at home,” the “studying up” targeting the rich and powerful, and the restudy of out-of-the-way places as deeply intertwined with wider worlds and processes that shape both “them” and “us,” as well as the powerful new collaborative trend (e.g., Bamo et...