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Entering as an Anthropologist

Buck Schieffelin
Dept. of Anthropology
University College
London WC1E 6BT U.K.

I come to this conference as an anthropologist rather than a philosopher. I suppose from a post modern perspective my trade involves trying to do what posties say cannot be done - coming to undertand, give an account of (and perhaps also caring for) people at radical cultural/historical distances from ourselves. The postmodern critique cut to the core of what we thought our discipline was all about, and in the last ten or fifteen years perhaps more than any other social science we have gone - indeed had no alternative than to put ourselves through - fire and water to see if our souls could be saved. The question of whether ethnography could be done at all brought many of us in the discipline to the brink of despair. (I remember one particularly bleak meeting of the American Anthropological Association in the late '80s when several appalled book publishers asked me if I thought this was the end.) We aren't out of the woods yet, but I think a surprising number of us have tried to take the best of the critique to heart and work with it. And often with interesting results.

I take it that one of the values of having anthropologists in this debate is that most of us have actually worked with people from radically different cultural systems, as a matter of practice rather than theory, and have had to actually somehow get on with it. As an ethnographer and at one time a conventional cultural relativist it seemed to me the postmodern critique was irrefutable, theoretically. Why was it, then, that I still thought I could understand something significant about the New Guinea people whose lives I had shared for four or five years? I found myself in the position of the bumble-bee who goes ahead and flies anyway. So do many anthropologists. We have to abandon conventional cultural relativism: there are no people so culturally different that the gap can't be bridged to some degree. But this doesn't mean that they are much like us either.

So how do we do it - and what is the "it" we do - and does this really mean we have something to say about how these people experience their lives? I've only come part way to resolving this problem - but there seem to be several things involved. First, as Gendlin points out, this is not a matter of applying my cultural frames to their lives and getting away scot free. They do not submit to what I make of them, they answer back and have a lot to say. And if they misunderstand me, I have something to say in return. We are plunged in mutual social practice, not social theory.

It is reflecting out of this sort of experience that old hands will tell students about to leave for the field something like this: "Don't worry if you don't have the foggiest idea what is going on for the first three or four months after you get there. After about five months, you'll begin to get a hold on it, and by nine or ten months you'll think you've begun to get a pretty good grasp of the basic principles and see your dissertation taking shape in your head. Then something will happen and you will realise that you've got the whole thing profoundly wrong and don't really understand what's going on at all. It looks like you will have to start all over again - but now, as if you had to start a race again after running for half of it, your body's toned, your muscles are warmed up and you aren't starting from zero any more. After another six or eight months you really do begin to get a grasp on what is going on - and after that, though you will still be fooled and surprised, you are steady on your feet. Its in the last two or three months that you do your dissertation research.

I developed some working experience with "the truth" in my fieldwork: If I was sure I was right about something, I would almost always find out I was mistaken: the next day someone would walk in and blow it. If I kept in mind that the people would always surprise me, and approached the situation asking what was *most likely* to be true (in my experience, given the circumstances) I was much more likely to be right about it - by the balance of evidence, the reactions of the people, the outcome of the situation and what people said about it afterwards. I also came to an awareness of what I called the "epistemological edge". This was not that there was a limit to what I knew beyond which there was more to know, but rather that there was more to know than I could know by my present (western cultural) means of knowing. I had to adjust myself to, incorporate their (the people's) rythms, learn their language, like their food, feel sorrow at their grief - *I* had to change. I found myself with one foot on their side of the line and I began to see - not what they saw - but how it was possible to see what they saw. The epistemological edge can only be surpassed by passing over in some way oneself and coming back alive. And that was tremendously exciting. Speaking out of this half-way position, perhaps ethnography is possible.

In the working field situation it seems to me that every object, act, and utterance has irresolvably fuzzy edges. However much one can be reasonably certain of something, there are always loose ends, indeterminacies, further questions. It came with the job; one had to live with it. And there is always the "epistemological edge". I took this experience to represent "in principle" both the fullness and the limitations of what we can know ethnographically - or at all: no refinement of technique or theory would ever resolve the final fuzziness.

We will never know anything exhaustively, "objectively", or "as it really is". (*That* is Divine Knowledge", available only to God). But that doesn't mean we don't know anything.

When I discussed some subject with my informants it was precisely because it was posited as a topic-object that stood over against both of us that we could discuss it at all. And it was precisely this recalcitrantly independent, fuzzy-edged, object of mutual interest that formed the "site" of our conversational exploration. The "space" where we mutually and participatively organize our intentions, and coordinate our discourses and practices until we achieve a working agreement about the nature of the situation that enables us to move on.

In these conversations - and in the rituals I observed (which often formed the topics of conversations) - I found that mutual coordination, organization and rythmicity between the participants was possible even without everyone understanding what was going on. To the extent that coordinated practice became mutually shared and rythmically synched, we achieved "participation": itself a mode of understanding and a new ground from which to move further. It was this which enabled our conversations and communication to move us beyod ourselves. Sometimes far enough to discover a foot already in the other's world.

More formally, one might put it this way: It is upon the objectification of the world (including events and others) that we rely to ground our ability to act and agree in this world. The "over-against-us-ness" (alterity?) of the object/other provides not just the site of misunderstanding or disagreement, or for cultural structuring, but also the space in which (mis)understanding is "absorbed" in that it becomes a focus of mutual interest and coordination of conversational practice and an arrival at something new. This NEW thing also "stands over against us". It, too, is fuzzy at the edges, has an edge of indeterminacy, but it has been arrived at by mutual coordination and ryhthmicity as much as by "rational discourse". The participants move together beyond their original divergences of understnding (without necessarily resolving them) to a new position which they (perhaps) see more in the same way. It is arrived at by participation and coordination as much as rational discourse.

The "Truth" arrived at in this way is always a sort of working agreement, a "good-enough-for-now" truth, (but often pretty good for all that!). This becomes the "truth" you are confident enough to commit to the dissertation and to believe another anthropologist visiting the area would also find to be the case. This is what you arrive at when the conversation finds its mutual resting place. In two weeks time when something else happens, or you've read another book, you may want to open the topic again and go further. Only fatigue and clearly diminishing returns reveals when you've approached the limits of what you can confidently understand with your present agenda and current cultural and intellectual equipment. Then you find yourself, as one of my colleagues did, sitting in the men's house for four hours heatedly discussing the merits of one pig, and you know its time to go home.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]