Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ethnographic Authority (random ramblings)

There's a debate in anthropology about where authority comes from, and there are two schools that feature most prominently in the discussion. One school (Geertz comes to mind, if my memory serves) claims that an outsider is not going to understand the perspective of the insider, and will consequently no really "get it." The best the ethnographer can hope for is to look over her informants' shoulders.

There are other assertions that a fresh perspective is of prime importance. Was it Mead who said "a fish doesn't know it's wet?" From this view it is the informant/insider who is biased, not the culturally-transplanted ethnographer.

As I became more involved with the communities I studied, TGC in particular, I faced a tough dilemma. Could I continue studying a community after becoming established within it myself? Was I an insider yet, and if so what did that mean?

On TGC I had been made staff in a couple of places, a gesture of trust and esteem that most members do not receive. As a member I was flattered and eager to contribute my perspective. As an ethnographer I was both thrilled and troubled. On the one hand this was undeniable proof that I understood the values of the community well enough to be entrusted with their preservation. I would be privy to the discussions and explanations behind staff decisions, able to read the staff boards and potentially gain insight into how the staff justified decisions and to what degree they were accountable to each other. What a prize!

There were also reservations in my mind. If I were to be acting as a staffer, was this an indication that I'd become too involved? Was I too deeply embedded in the community to study it in its "natural" form? To use the term with full intended irony, I felt like I could no longer study "pre-contact" TGC. Perhaps I'd changed TGC too much.

At this point (or shortly thereafter) I decided to abandon the pose of the invisible God's-eye, freeing myself from the imperative "look but don't touch." I could just be a member and a staffer, free to act as I pleased in the community because now the community was mine.

I was almost immediately after this caught up in a dispute that exploded into a power struggle that divided the community into factions: rebels, royalists, bystanders, and even the odd secret agent (and you know who you are if you're reading this). Despite the fact that I orchestrated much of it, the cleavage of power and accountability revealed irresistible machinery operating beneath the surface of the community. For nearly a week I was consumed in this little rebellion almost to the exclusion of all else (including my proximal affairs). Constantly recording, responding, recruiting, much of my time was spent in a propaganda war that ended in the splintering off of a dozen or more people. They formed a new board and I assisted however I could with its establishment.

I learned a great deal about the flow and power of information during this "separatist" movement. These observations will color my analysis of my earlier days at TGC, and therefore they're important to note. Dear reader, these events mattered to my study, and therefore we cannot ignore them simply because I saw them from the inside and helped determine the course that they would take.

And so I find myself faced with a question I must answer. Can an anthropologist ethically be an activist as well? To situate the question in the context of my study, was it ethical for me to use my knowledge of the community to change the community?

Whatever the answer to that, the community was changed (if only for a time). Whoever did it, it occurred. The fact that I played such a prominent role is a further challenge to the "invisible observer" paradigm, and a test of your willingness to accept that all ethnographers change the communities that they study. It is only a matter of degree and intent. The degree was great, but my intent was supported by many members, and my relative success would not have been possible without them. Keep that in mind before levelling accusations or judgments on my ethicality or objectivity. I did not pull TGC further from its own values or change the way things worked. I lent my insight to the members and they did the rest.

So yes, I participated in a power struggle, but in the end it was the members who carried the burden of assuring success or failure. If it were not also their cause, they wouldn't have fought it. Because they cared, because they fought, I am including this period in my study (and in so doing, including more of myself).

Establish my credibility through study, through theoretical education and its application and practice. Or, establish my credibility on the trust of my informants, people who agreed with my perspective and defended it within the community. Establish it however you must to answer the question of where ethnographic authority comes from.


Bess said...

It was Benedict who made the fish comment. I loff that notion... still reading...

Bess said...

I look forward to reading your thesis, if you'll let me!! Elise has said good things about it.

And I love that there are other people in the world who sit with these questions.

Cobalt said...

Really? I found CS Lewis in the end.

Also, you can totally read the hell out of that thesis if'n you want. Just need to get it done....

Bess said...

I'll probably be up all night getting mine finished... I read a book by Marshall Sahlins in which he referenced Benedict as the originator of the quote... But who knows? I bet there were a few people throwing similar words around.

Must. Survive. Tomorrow.