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The Politics of Ethnographic Authority: Race and Writing in the Ethnography of Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston DEBORAH GORDON IN THE 1980S, cultural anthropology in the United States was transformed by a growing body of critical literature that focused on the politics of ethnography. Historians of anthropology, anthropologists themselves, and literary critics have turned their attention toward the writing of fieldwork as a locus of power relations and historical contexts .1 The text itself, the document that certifies the authenticity of fieldwork, has come under scrutiny from critics who view ethnography not as a transparent window onto another culture but rather as a poetic and rhetorical translation, inevitably partial and contested. This focus on representation as problematic, incomplete, and responsible to specific histories has merged with various analyses of social science as socially constructed practice, situated in global and local politics. Recent critical histories of anthropology and discussions of ethnographic representation merge hermeneutic philosophical trends with an examination of the power dimensions in fieldwork accounts. Knowledge is, thus, understood not as a quasi-transcendental object but constructed and managed in, social and political relations . Important to the management of anthropology in the United States was its process of becoming a professional vocation undertaken by university-trained experts. In his analysis of the invention of modern ethnographic authority, James Clifford has noted that in the struggle to achieve professional status anthropologists endeavored to shift the social relations between academic practitioners and older workers in the field. The latter group includes colonial administrators, traders, 1 See Marc Manganaro's Introduction to this volume for a survey of this literature. See also James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). POLITICS OF ETHNOGRAPHIC AUTHORITY 147 missionaries, and members of learned societies—people whom anthropologists such as Franz Boas considered unscientific and too illtrained to be reporting on "natives," and in positions insufficiently distant from world politics or too explicitly interested in the exotic. These became the "amateurs" over and against whom anthropology, in many ways, constituted itself (Clifford 1983, 121-22). As Clifford notes, in this process of professionalization, modern ethnography took its literary form. Anthropologists of the 1920s and 30s frequently claimed that their practices were distinct from those of earlier fieldworkers , defining their identity as the privileged persona for interpreting and speaking about non-Western peoples.2 Because fieldwork has been one of the most important areas of certification of the professional anthropologist, its representation is crucial to the constitution of the discipline. To be a certified anthropologist it is not enough to have a fieldwork experience; it must be authentically conveyed in the writing of ethnography. In the translation of experience into writing, ethnography "enacts a specific strategy of authority" (Clifford 1983, 120). The modern ethnography's claims to authority, thus, are intimately bound to literary conventions of authenticity. In addition to conveying that the fieldworker had a distinctly anthropological experience, the ethnography must also display signs of "scholarship" that are connected to fieldwork but do not necessarily signify a unique fieldwork experience. These textual features signify "professionalism," or the acquisition of academic prestige. For example , most ethnographies claim that the author is universitytrained , is connected to other anthropologists who have published ethnographies, has read a certain body of literature, etcetera. Although these do not convey the presence of the ethnographer in the field, they are, nonetheless, important to the authorization of the account . Moreover, in the process of professionalization of anthropology , hierarchies of disciplinary locations are asserted, and, thus, certain questions, issues, and problems bear higher status than others. With these issues in mind, Margaret Mead's Coming ofAge in Samoa and Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse are two ethnographies from the 1920s and 30s, respectively, that constitute prime examples for examining what could count as professional ethnographic authority during this period. Reading their ethnographies demonstrates that the authority of the discipline was marked by race and gender. Al2 For an account of this in Malinowski's work see George W. Stocking, "The Ethnographer 's Magic: The Development of Fieldwork in British Anthropology from Tylor to Malinowski," in George W. Stocking, ed., Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, History of Anthropology, Volume 1 (Madison, Wise: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), pp. 70-120, and Clifford, "On Ethnographic Authority," 121-22. 148 DEBORAH GORDON though a number of Boas's students were women, they did not, as a group, achieve the academic status that...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781400861415
MARC Record
OCLC
889253500
Pages
349
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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