Friday, 20 June 2008

The Dark Night of the Ethnographer's Soul (Part II)

You are, no doubt, familiar with the jibe that there’s more truth in fiction than non-fiction. Though that always seemed to me correct intuitively, I think I now appreciate why.

In my inbox lies a recent email (it matters not who sent it / don't ask / I won't tell):




To: “mark de Rond”

Subject: The book


I am sure you are aware I have always vigorously opposed the publication of this book and many who are aware of its existence feel the same way. It shows up what is currently wrong with the organization and it is extremely distasteful to me to read much of what you have written or implied.

I do not like you - you know that - and the less said or written further is probably best.


What I am to do with this? More relevantly, what does it tell me about scholarship in the ethnographic tradition? Aside from re-affirming that I’m not universally liked (and here I wished I had the skin of an elephant but am as vulnerable as most), what does it bode for truth telling in ethnography?

I am reminded of Bronislaw Malinowski’s controversial A Diary In The Strict Sense Of The Term (or rather Clifford Geertz’s references to Malinowski). This diary is said to contain a meticulous record of time spent by Malinowski observing natives, and revealed a quite different world from that described in his authoritative text on the Western Pacific. And it was this diary, said Geertz, that blew the straw house of ethnography to bits, leaving its author accused of doing the dirty on the discipline. As Geertz wrote, most of the shock arose from the discovery that Malinowski was not, to put it delicately, an unmitigated nice guy. He had rude things to say about the natives he was living with and rude words to say them in. He spent a great deal of time wishing he were elsewhere.

Presumably Malinowski didn’t care – he was dead by the time his wife published his diary. The controversy they triggered, however (he by writing and she by publishing it) points to a persistent difficulty in the practice of ethnography: to what extent are those doing the observing able to commit their observations to paper? Need ethnography – to be useful from a scholarly point of view – not reflect rough edges, daubs and warts, holes patched up but not yet repaired, irritability and instability - all that and more as well as of course the poetic and pretty sacredness of human organization?

If so, does our writing then not invariably involve hurting the feelings of some (even inadvertently), disappointing some by not giving their views more prominence, desecrating what yet others hold as sacrosanct? Provided of course all is done for the sake of scholarship, and with the necessary disclaimers of partiality and imperfection?

I’m aware that this problem may be peculiarly ethnographic. I also realize that those more entrenched in the field may properly place my experiences as novice. Be that as may – they are not therefore less poignant

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