Extraordinary Anthropology: Transformations in the Field
November 4, 2013
Review By Leslie Robertson
“Anthropology is unquestionably a discipline with well-known intellectual traditions, or histories … [It is] not a social science tout court, but something else. What that something else is has been notoriously difficult to name, precisely because it involves less a subject matter …than a sensibility.”
Liisa Malkki (Cerwonka and Malkki, 2007, 162-63)
Surely an anthropological “sensibility” is nowhere more evident than in its signature methodology – ethnographic fieldwork. As the primary site of knowledge production, ethnography has long been the source of self-critical innovation within the discipline. Sceptics (outside of the discipline) sometimes critique the multi-method approach for generating accounts that are too particular, or not theoretically transparent, or not contributing to the present widely accepted project of informing policy. But, as Johannes Fabian remarks, ethnography is currently “a matter of concern” (ix) for students and practitioners (across disciplines) who are freely adopting it. In his preface to Extraordinary Anthropology, Fabian invokes a disciplinary history rocked by decolonization in the 1950s and later reshaped by a reflexive turn towards representation, by attention to multiple genres of writing, and by a reluctance to engage in interventionist projects. Fabian’s disciplinary history is too brief, but it forms the backdrop of the philosophy, theory, and practice within which the contributors to this volume write. As the title suggests, however, these are no ordinary accounts from the field – a recognized genre in the discipline – they are, rather, “an exceptional harvest” of “involved narration” that attends to central debates in anthropology surrounding the subject/object binary, to matters of epistemology and ontology, as well as to the “ecstatic moments,” the “anxieties and aversions,” that characterize our research praxis (x-xi).
The sixteen contributions to this volume are forays into what editors Jean-Guy Goulet and Bruce Miller introduce as a “radical anthropology of cross-cultural encounters” intended to “deepen our knowledge of the ethnographic self in interaction with others, and within the field” (2). This is no introductory text on anthropological fieldwork (see Robben and Sluka 2007); rather, it is a theoretically informed collection of essays that reflect upon ethnographic knowledge production, upon the ways that researchers are affected by fieldwork, and upon how these researchers reconstitute ideas about “the field.”
At the heart of Extraordinary Anthropology is Fabian’s concept of “ecstasis”: a “quality of human action and interaction – one that creates a common ground” upon which ethnographic selves and Others meet (5). In an informative introduction, the editors situate concepts like “coactivity,” “transformation,” and “radical participation” firmly within a phenomenological trajectory of anthropological enquiry that has sought out the experiential grist (à la Victor Turner) of fieldwork and cross-cultural dialogue. The central ethical and epistemological quandaries of research praxis are well represented in Extraordinary Anthropology, but this volume also attends to a “creative engagement” that spills outward from intensive periods of fieldwork (usually over a year) into our professional and personal lives. More than current works in auto-ethnography or traditional field accounts, these chapters focus on the quotidian realities of research relationships – relationships that are formed with individuals in host communities, with their physical and psychic landscapes and within their imaginative horizons. It is this careful attention to such relationships that is most striking in the contributions to Extraordinary Anthropology – the ways that field experience comes to inhabit ethnographers, and the ways that people in host communities open themselves to engage with researchers in an immediate field of experience.
Conceptually, contributors converge in their deep engagement with “the field” as a site for personal, ethical, and intellectual transformation wherein the co-production of ethnographic knowledge involves processes of “coming back to our senses” (11) that are sometimes darkly enigmatic, usually challenging, and always “mindful.” The volume is arranged into five parts, and chapters are grounded in various social, geographical, and temporal contexts, with a slight emphasis on research within indigenous communities. The ethnographic range includes the Russian Far East (Petra Rethman), Australia (Deborah Bird Rose), Canada (Jean-Guy Goulet, Peter Gardner, Guy Lanoue, Barbara Wilkes, Edmund Searles), the United States (Bruce Miller), Guatemala (Janferie Stone and Duncan Earle), and Mexico (Edward Abse). Other chapters deal with spiritualists in Montreal (Diedre Meintel), Argentine tango artists and their customers in New York City (Anahí Viladrich), Indian Hindustani and North American diaspora tabla players (Denise Nuttall), and women in Japan (Millie Creighton). One chapter addresses professional apprenticeship in ethnographic fieldwork (Jeanne Simonelli, Erin McCulley, and Rachel Simonelli).
In what appears to be the spine of the volume, Bruce Miller, Jean-Guy Goulet, and Guy Lanoue focus on the vital realm of power in their research with North American Aboriginal communities. Power here refers to political and representational action (or inaction), to supernatural power recognized in host communities, and to ethical decision making that is complicated by the “adoption” of indigenous epistemologies and a departure from academic habits (11). The chapters in Part 3, entitled “Epistemological and Ethical Thresholds,” confront the intellectual collisions brought on by “embodied participation.” Miller (186-207) addresses the double edge of a radical engagement with the belief systems of others, importantly outlining the representational risk of dehistoricizing, homogenizing, or exoticizing indigenous experiences. He offers an explicitly political analysis (welcome at this point in the volume) of “experience-near anthropology” (187), one that is grounded in his long-term relationships with – and obligations to – several Coast Salish communities. Goulet (208-36) brings the realities of participating in other “lifeworlds” (208) into a dialogue with the Tri Council Policy Statement on Ethics – a dialogue about dreaming and decolonization that questions the status of “true” knowledge. He asks: “What are the limitations in the field of foreign-bound ethical guidelines?” (211) Perhaps more than any other, Goulet’s discussion challenges anthropological tenets and boundaries that are currently so securely framed by ethics. Guy Lanoue’s chapter (237-53) addresses another primary theme of the volume, focusing squarely on the disciplinary conceptualization of “the field” as “a special instance of space and time” (239). He critiques this “essentialist” (239) notion, looking instead to the ways in which epiphanies and understandings accrue long after a researcher leaves “the field.” Lanoue turns over the idea of “power” learned from his engagement in the 1970s with Sekani people in British Columbia, assessing his own deepening understanding through a personal narrative of mobility, space, and time.
There is a vulnerability in Extraordinary Anthropology that will be recognized by those who share the ethnographic “sensibility.” This work is a refreshing counter to an increasingly neopositivist academy, a must-read for those interested in what a critical, phenomenological ethnography looks and feels like in anthropology today.
Cerwonka, Allaine, and Liisa Malkki. 2007. Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Robben, A., and J. Sluka editors. 2007. Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader. Malden: Blackwell.