Current Anthropology 1995

Aunger, Robert. On Ethnography: Storytelling or Science? Current Anthropology February, 1995 Vol.36(1):97-130.

Robert Aunger’s discussion deals with the argued lack of confidence in the validity of ethnographies. He states that textualists believe that the “objective” analysis of ethnographers be abandoned for lack of objectivity. They argue that an ethnography presumes to present a mirror image of a culture, when it fact that image is only one interpretation of that culture. Aunger’s solution to this problem is a dual approach to ethnographic work, encompassing both scientific and narrative methodologies.

In his approach to his argument Aunger includes background on the textualist position on ethnographies. He also discusses what he cites as “reflexive knowledge” which proposes an analysis as opposed to a presentation of knowledge:

The reader’s ability to interpret the quality of the ethnographic statements must be increased by clues to the origin and nature of ethnographic statements provided in the ethnographic document itself. (98)

He discusses the science through the reflexive analytical approach through data collection and statistical modeling, while also critiquing the “general linear reality” statistical modeling when applied to culture. Aunger also includes a discussion on comparative event-history, or “story-telling, which he cites as not being reflexive. Finally, Aunger discusses ontology and the two paradigms social science research: the scientific/ positivistic and the humanist/ interpretive. These paradigms are represented in both the reflexive analytical and the comparative event-history, although the ontology, epistemology, analytical methods and units of analysis are different from each other.

All of these summaries lead to Aunger’s proposition for a combination approach of the scientific and the humanist. He argues that a scientific approach on its own is not acceptable when dealing with culture, but allows that there can be some systematic methodology in the approach to ethnographies. In conclusion, Aunger lists four problems with ethnographies and subsequent solutions for each using his dual methodology, or two-step, approach. Aunger argues that his approach combines an “interpretive feel with a scientific approach.”

CLARITY: 3
HEIDI STANDEVEN University of Northern British Columbia (Michel Bouchard)

Biolsi, Thomas. Bringing the Law Back In: Legal Rights and the Regulation of Indian-White Relations on Rosebud Reservation. Current Anthropology August-October, 1995 Vol.36(4):543-573.

In this article Thomas Biolsi argues that law is a mode of constituting both social relations and social meaning and law should therefore be seen as ‘deeply imbricated’ in just about everything done in anthropology. Adopting such a stance moves legal anthropology from a subdiscipline to an important theory-building enterprise. Biolsi gives a concise overview of the evolution of Federal Indian Law since the 1940s. Early in this period the most important focus was upon landclaims under the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, while the focus since the 1970s has increasingly been upon Indian sovereignty.

Biolsi then moves into an examination of the two main areas of contention in Indian law in the United States, the first being state jurisdiction over Indians on reservations. In this instance the state of South Dakota unsuccessfully attempted to utilize a legal technicality to assert provisions of Public Law 280 of 1953, more commonly known as termination policy, provisions which have been superceded by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968. The other main area of contention in US Indian law has to do with the jurisdiction of tribal authorities over non-Indians on reservations. The case that Biolsi examines is that of the Municipal Liquor Store at Mission, which seems little more than a blatant attempt to decrease the tax burden on non-Indian residents by exploiting the suffering of Indians.

Biolsi then uses these two arenas of contention to examine two connected ways in which federal law shapes the political space for Native American struggle.

What Biolsi terms the ‘specificity of rights struggle’ has to do with the particularity of rights associated with sovereignty. For example, federal law grants tribes the right to be free from state jurisdiction but it does not grant them the right to be free of the symptoms of oppression such as poverty and addiction. Thus the tribe has no right to effectively combat alcoholism because alcoholism is deemed a personal and non-political problem.

What Biolsi terms the ‘geography of rights struggle’ refers to the way that federal law channels Indians quest for rights into the regional or local jurisdictional arena, which automatically challenges state and municipal authorities. This process reinforces and perpetuates federal hegemony by assuring that jurisdictional disputes are played out as zero-sum local games, thereby maintaining local tensions, which are then often perceived as being of racial origin. This article very convincingly illustrates the power of Biolsi’s argument for the centrality of law in anthropology.

For the most part the commentators focus upon what Biolsi has not done. Michael Asch writes that Biolsi does not seem to have recognized that colonial divisions may be more important than class. Asch also notes that he would have liked to have seen more emphasis on sovereignty and colonialism. Viola A. Burnette points out that Biolsi has not dealt with the Dawes Act nor with the whole complex history of oppression since the Lakota “first had to make the choice between obeying the white man and not eating.” Vine Deloria, Jr. points out that the development of laws is a process and advocates that the study of this process be brought to a more central place in anthropology. Robert Hayden argues that Biolsi’s article in inconsistent and lacks theoretical sophistication. Mindie Lazarus-Black, on the other hand, argues that Biolsi’s paper is sophisticated and makes a valuable contribution to anthropological theory. Other commentators question whether Biolsi’s comments on Lakota alcoholism are “paternalistic” and ask for clarification as to what he means by “coded denial of experience.”

Biolsi responds only to substantive criticisms and agrees with the idea that colonial divisions can be more important than class before going on to show how this is consistent with his argument. He notes that attacking Native American alcoholism means attacking hierarchies of race and class as well as white privilege and does not accept the paternalistic label. Biolsi explains that his use of the term “coded denial of experience” refers to the law’s silences, in that laws that prohibit discrimination refuse to recognize that discrimination still exists and thus remain silent upon that ongoing discrimination.

This is an article that anyone with an interest in issues pertaining to aboriginal sovereignty will most like find quite interesting. It is clearly written and easily accessible for students.

CLARITY: 5
GREGORY SELL University of Northern British Columbia (Michel Bouchard)

Dauber, Kenneth. Bureaucratizing the Ethnographer’s Magic. Current Anthropology February, 1995. Vol.36(1):75-95.

In this article the author set out to discuss the matter of ethnography as a form of bureaucracy and the attainment of the authority of ethnographers through the same methodology as bureaucratic administration. Dauber’s approach to this argument is to give a brief comparison of ethnography and bureaucracy, citing similarities in the approaches of both.

In support of his argument, Dauber discusses three different texts, two of which are ethnographic and one he cites as being “quasi-ethnographic”. The two ethnographies are Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific and Ruth Brunzel’s (a student of Franz Boas) The Pueblo Pottery: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art and the third context is a look at the British colonial administration in Africa. Dauber gives a summary of each of the ethnographical contexts, including a summary of the work done and the methodology used, as well as quoting each of the anthropologists to cite their attitudes towards those they were researching. In these summaries he outlines the paperwork involved, which resulted in each ethnography being published from, including field notes, maps, tables, charts, diagrams, photographs and interviews. Dauber then summarizes the British colonial administration in Africa, focusing primarily on a manual that was published by a British officer giving advice on the administration of Africa. As well, Dauber outlines the methodology of filing, note taking and organization of British officers in order to aid the replacing British officer.

From these summaries Dauber argues the similarities in each context. In each situation, the anthropologist or administrator began in a weak position and ended in a strong one. In the case of the two anthropologists, the knowledge that they perceived themselves to have surpassed that of the natives they were studying. As well, in all three of the contexts the physical realm was simplified into a series of charts, diagrams, photographs, and analysis, which was presented subjectively (under the auspice of being objective) by those doing the research. This is the basis for Dauber’s argument that the ethnographer’s magic is based solely on a paper world, not unlike that of bureaucracy.

CLARITY: 4
HEIDI STANDEVEN University of Northern British Columbia (Michel Bouchard)

Heyman, Josiah McC. Putting Power in the Anthropology of Bureaucracy: The Immigration and Naturalization Service at the Mexico-United States Border. Current Anthropology April, 1995 Vol.36(2):261-289.

Heyman calls for an anthropology of bureaucracy that analyzes the organization of power in unequal societies. Heyman is interested in the relationship between power and inequality and contends that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is “fundamental to the creation of ethnic contexts in the United States today.” Heyman’s goal is to analyze bureaucratic function through glimpses of worldview revealed in workers’ narratives. Specifically, he looks at “bureaucratic thought-work,” which he defines as “the routine production of thoughts about and consequent actions aimed at the control of the slippery, sometimes resistant, recipients of organizational orders.” Heyman wants to ask “grand questions of societal constitution.” However, because of his use of the Freudian technique of free association to examine the worldview and organizational socialization of INS officers, Heyman seems to be walking a fine line between achieving his goals and getting mired down in the venting of disgruntled government employees. For example, he was told by one informant that Border Patrol Officers referred to Mexicans as “Tonks” because that was what it sounded like when they were hit in the head with a flashlight.

Heyman notes that anthropology “arrived late on the scene” in respect to the study of bureaucracies. This may have something to do with the fact that Heyman’s theoretical section is not easy to understand. One of the commentators, Ronald Cohen, also appears to be having some difficulty: “If I understand him, Heyman sees ‘thought-work’ occurring when ‘a detailed division of labor partially routinizes the ‘manufacture’ of thoughts.” Cohen then goes on to criticize Heyman for being “so strictly phenomenological.”

It is also interesting to note that two of the commentators, Don Handelman and Michael Herzfeld, both of whom were cited by Heyman in his theoretical preamble, state that Heyman has misinterpreted their work. Among the serious theoretical deficits that Herzfeld notes are such problems as the “persistent confusion between agents and formal institutions” as well as “a self-defeating misconstrual of existing arguments.” In his commentary, Alex Stepick makes little direct comment on Heyman’s article, exactly one sentence to be precise, but talks instead about his own work and the influence of racism on immigration policy.

In his response, Heyman notes that the commentators have, perhaps inevitably, simplified his argument by their focus on the concept of thought-work. Heyman reminds readers that one of the main directions of his work is to raise questions about an appropriate direction for the anthropology of bureaucracy. Is it to be “one of many small, divisive specialties, or will it become one of a few major lines of inquiry into ‘the ‘constitution’ of society’”? Thus, this article raises some important questions even if it does not succeed in clearly answering many of them.

CLARITY: 3
GREGORY SELL University of Northern British Columbia (Michel Bouchard)

Lieberman, Daniel E. Testing Hypoteses about Recent Human Evolution from Skulls: Integrating Morphology, Function, Development, and Phylogeny. Current Anthropology April, 1995 Vol.36(2):159-197.

Lieberman contrasts the two competing hypotheses for human evolution, the multiregional-origin (MR) hypothesis and the recent-African-origin (RA) hypothesis.

The MR hypothesis assumes that archaic and modern humans belong to the same species, whereas RA assumes speciation or cladogenetic event. Also the MR hypothesis predicts that transitional specimens exhibiting a mosaic of primitive and derived characters will be widely spread through time and space. The RA hypothesis predicts that modern humans share derived characters with no more than one archaic population, possibly in the Levant, but most likely in Africa. In addition, the RA hypothesis predicts that transitional fossils having some but not all modern morphologies will be found only in Africa and will be between 100,000 and 300,000 years old.

These hypotheses cannot both be correct, but Lieberman claims that they are both testable with the same craniodental and mandibular characters. Lieberman’s goal is to propose some methodological improvements in the testing of models of human origins with craniodental data. He employs three major criteria to test competing hypotheses of human origins. Firstly, morphological characters used to infer evolutionary relationships must be assessed to ensure that they are developmentally homologous, a consequence of shared ancestry, unlikely to be convergent, or the result of in vivo responses to nongenetic stimuli. Secondly, evolutionary relationships can only be inferred from features that have changed between ancestors and descendants; primitive characters do not resolve evolutionary relationships. Thirdly, if it is to be determined whether modern populations are more closely related to each other than they are to regional fossil populations, analyses must incorporate living an fossils populations from all regions of the globe.

After Liberman finishes laying out the problem he will examine, the language in this article becomes far too technical for a student of cultural anthropology with only minimal previous exposure to the technical language of paleoanthroplogy to fully comprehend. Lieberman does use enough clear language for me to be able to ascertain that he believes that he has demonstrated that most of the data that he analyzes does not support either hypothesis.

The commentators use more technical language, and the only thing that is readily apparent is that supporters of both of these hypotheses think that the data presented by Lieberman should be interpreted as supporting their pet hypothesis. In his reply Lieberman notes that the debate is far from resolved, which is not surprising as the debate extends to not only interpretation, but also to methodology and even to what data to analyze. It is unfortunate that the debate over human origins is conducted in language that is incomprehensible to non-specialists.

CLARITY: 0
GREGORY SELL University of Northern British Columbia (Michel Bouchard)

Mulder, Monique Borgerhoff. Bridewealth and Its Correlates: Quantifying Changes over Time. Current Anthropology April, 1995 Vol.36(3):573-601.

In this article Borgerhoff Mulder seeks to demonstrate how comparative, quantitative and statistical methods, which she states are being “increasingly eschewed by sociocultural anthropologists,” can shed light on social behavior. To these ends Borgerhoff Mulder has produced a detailed quantitative analysis that does indeed shed a great deal of light on the relations between bridewealth and domestic economic production. By using data she collected during an earlier session of fieldwork, Borgerhoff Mulder documents the changes that occurred between 1982 and 1991. From the data on changes in bridewealth over time, Borgerhoff Mulder hopes to reveal shifts in the qualities that parents seek in the spouses of their children.

But the period of analysis seems rather narrow. The period upon which Borgerhoff Mulder focuses begins decades after colonial authorities imposed a reservation system and, eventually, a European derived system of land tenure. Also, the AIDS crisis hit Kenya shortly after the time of Borgerhoff Mulder’s first fieldwork and by the time of her second round of fieldwork Kenya was undergoing serious problems, most particularly with a soaring number of orphans. In other word, the study period is a relatively stable period sandwiched in between two periods of enormous social change. It would be very informative to have more information about the effects of colonialism and AIDS upon bridewealth and the economy of the study area. Also, Borgerhoff Mulder mentions clitoridectomy but is very careful to be non-judgmental, some would say too careful. However, more information about genital mutilation would seem desirable. Is resistance to this practice developing? Is the rate of its practice increasing or declining? Is this having an effect on bridewealth? Are the high rates of orphans seen in other parts of Kenya present in the study area? If so, what effect is this having upon bridewealth?

Turning to the commentators, Robert Aunger suggests that Borgerhoff Mulder’s work would be improved by the use of neoinstitutional theory, which would allow non-economic factors to be brought into the analysis. Duran Bell points out that the phrase “maximization of value” is a dangerous concept in anthropology because it induces “wrong thinking” that ignores the abstract and ambiguous aspects of value. Vinod Dixit challenges the low level of Borgerhoff Mulder’s emphasis upon history and calls for “a dynamic and creative interpretation of history” as an important tool for better understanding bridewealth. Eckart Voland wonders if the changes that Borgerhoff Mulder documents might be “purely culturally idiosyncratic” and states that he is looking forward to the “next updating report in ten years or so.” Indeed, one must wonder whether or not the devastating effect of the AIDS epidemic and changing attitudes toward clitoridectomy might possibly make it into that analysis.

Borgerhoff Mulder’s response focuses on the evolutionary theoretical significance of her work and the commentators analysis of it. She dismisses Dixit’s call for a different style of historical analysis. It is this dismissal that raises a couple of glaring questions with respect to Borgerhoff Mulder’s goals. Which is, how can a system of bridewealth that seems to have been completely reshaped during the colonial period provide an adequate window through which to direct evolutionary questions? And why does the main authority upon that bridewealth system seem so determined to ignore colonialism?

CLARITY: 3
GREGORY SELL University of Northern British Columbia (Michel Bouchard)

Williams, Brackette F. The Public I/Eye: Conducting Fieldwork to Do Homework on Homelessness and Begging in Two U.S. Cities. Current Anthropology February, 1995 Vol. 36(1):25-51.

Brackette Williams article sets out to outline the fieldwork conducted by Williams, not for ethnographic purposes, but as homework to become an informed citizen. She looks at homelessness in New York City and Tucson, Arizona, analysing who is homeless, the methods they use to get charity, and response to them by the “homed”. The goal of her study was to understand homelessness and to determine whether or not, and to whom, to give charity.

Williams’s primary method of data collection was participant-observation. In New York she took the subway to work, which gave her an opportunity to observe interactions between homeless and homed. She carried a tape recorder, took notes during and after interactions, conducted interviews, conducted some literary research and did analysis of experience-near interactions and experience-distant theoretical concepts. All of her information is organized into a narrative of her experiences and analysis. She gives descriptions of specific “character” homeless, and what she describes as the bargain pinches and the “brother-can-you-spare-a-dime”, as well as analysis of the role of a newspaper in New York called Street News, which is sold by homeless people – something she sees as an attempt to bridge the gap jobless homelessness to “jobbed” homelessness.

In her analysis there is constant reference to physical appearance, including skin colour, dress, and class position in society. As well, she cites differences between the cultural backgrounds in homeless people, especially in terms of “white” and African American and the differing responses of homed people to these differences.

In her comparison of New York City and Tucson, she cites that the homeless in Tucson stand at intersections as opposed to subways, and that the personal contact is not there in Tucson, since interaction is limited by traffic lights. She argues that in this case, the Tucson homeless have a harder time of it because they do not get the opportunity to give their stories, as they do on the subways in New York. However, in her conclusion, she states the methodology of the homeless is the same: pity, guilt, morality, family values, and the desire to work.

CLARITY: 4
HEIDI STANDEVEN University of Northern British Columbia (Michel Bouchard)