Blog | January 2012

Time, order, and the ethical in the production of ethnographic knowledge

by Nathaniel Roberts


Since coming to Max Planck I have begun to measure my readings in inches. Today I gathered the articles I have read over the last 4 weeks; combined with the pages of hand-written notes I have taken on both readings and seminar presentations, the stack was 4.5 inches high. Without the underlinings and marginal notes I have made, these printouts would soon be useless to me. While I have a good memory for overall arguments and conclusions, the pencil markings I have made are the threads that will lead me back to the empirical details and interesting side arguments. But what to do with the stack itself? If I just pile it atop the previous months’ reading and notes I will become once again lost. The chances of finding a dimly remembered title in which some precious argument was made grows less and less certain as the stack grows ever larger. Nor is any physical filing system adequate to the task. Thematically, any documents will seem to belong equally well in at least two different files. To organize them arbitrarily by author’s surname represents only a minor improvement over the chronological stack.

The problem is one anyone who has conducted ethnographic fieldwork will instantly recognize. Collecting reams of data is the easy part, figuring out how to organize it so that the relevant bits can be retrieved at a later date—that is the problem. I once met a fellow anthropologist on the field who told me proudly that he had recorded 200 hours of interviews. On cassette tapes! None of it had been transcribed. He hadn’t even made notes during the interviews to tell him what each tape contained. Poor fellow. So far as I know his dissertation remains uncompleted.

Battling my own field notes—that was how I spent the two hottest hours of the day, gnawing on caffeine pills and dripping sweat onto my notebooks, as everyone else in my slum enjoyed their midday nap. I was never entirely successful. Often I felt like the aphasiacs described in Foucault’s Order of Things who, “when shown various differently coloured skeins of wool on a table top, are consistently unable to arrange them into any coherent pattern.”1  But though I never hit upon a foolproof system for ordering my data, the consistent effort to do so bore unexpected fruit. I began to amaze slum dwellers with my apparently wizard-like power to recall the details of quotidian events from many months ago. And in the favorite slum pastime of trying to decipher the hidden meanings of other people’s actions (in a milieu where everyone was sure something was being hidden from them—why did she speak that way to her sister? why is she accusing that boy of trying to seduce her daughter when he is clearly innocent?) I became an acknowledged seer, even despite my imperfect command of the language and the fact that privacy concerns meant I could not reveal all I knew. But it was easy. For I had not only heard the same stories told from dozens of different perspectives, but was able to “remember” them in all their every detail, perceive even the tiniest inconsistencies in stories that would normally go unnoticed in the flow of events, and discern unmistakable patterns in the concatenation of minor details.

Thus I smile at the question, of perpetual interest to anthropology students and others who know fieldwork only secondhand: “As an outsider, how can you be sure you really understand the people you studied? How do you know they weren’t just saying what they thought you wanted to hear?” Of course people shape what they say to what they think you want to hear—or to what they want you to think. But what they in fact tell you is not always what they think they are telling you, and is always much more than what they say.

It is often said that the special knowledge claims of the fieldworker depend on the immediacy of their physical presence in the field—of having actually “been there.” While some ethnographers may have actually implied such a thing, I do not think this is an accurate or helpful description of what we do. Ethnographic knowledge, like all knowledge, is necessarily mediated. And this is no less true for the ethnographer having “been there.” Nor does the fact that it is mediated through elaborate (and inevitably) incomplete notes and other records make it any less reliable. The ethnographer’s knowledge is always partial, of course, but that is true of all knowledge. And it is also therefore true of the knowledge “natives” have of one another. To ask how an “outsider” can really understand natives is to picture culture as a bounded, internally transparent whole.  Before asking how the outsider could understand natives, one should ask how natives understand each other. What we call “culture” does not involve a mystical mind-meld joining insiders but excluding others. It is itself mediated through language and through other publicly observable signs and actions. “Insider” and “outsider” are not neutral categories that simply describe positions relative to some already existing totality. They are themselves signs whose meanings are variably applied within different language games (including that of the anthropologist), and their social salience is not always what North American identity politics would predict.

The defining feature of anthropological knowledge is thus neither the spurious immediacy of ethnographic authority, nor the fact that it is in reality highly mediated, but the sorts of questions and concerns it addresses. That and the manner in which it is produced. As my previous comments on sweat and caffeine pills suggest, there is no golden road to science. At the same time, to be freed from the practical struggles of daily life in order to spend all one’s waking moments simply collecting and processing information is itself an immense privilege—as Pierre Bourdieu has reminded us—and one that is possibly only with serious economic backing. Thus although I lost some 20 pounds while living in the slum, this was due entirely to the rigors of fieldwork and not (unlike many of those around me) for lack of sufficient food to eat. And it is by recognizing this difference, I think, that the ethical relationship of the social scientist to those she studies, and to the world around her, is most usefully approached.

In the case of my own research, what this meant was attempting to build a picture, not only of these Dalit slum dwellers’ “culture,” but how that culture is produced, what it hides from view, where its fault lines lie, who it helps and who it hurts, and, perhaps most importantly, what can be said about the relations between the slum and the dominant society around it that serve to render slum dwellers so abject. To get a handle on these sorts of questions was not so easy as the parlor magic I described above—mindreading and such. It required me to work long hours, seven days a week for over a year after returning from the field: sifting through and coding data, searching out patterns, trying out one interpretation after another (only to have each bump up against some inconvenient datum, forcing me to abandon it), until finally I hit upon an explanation that really made sense to me. Writing an ethnography need not be so arduous; I recall the late Olivia Harris once advising fieldwork returnees to “write everything up as fast as possible, because it is only when you first return that you understand it all.” It all depends what you are looking for, I suppose… and not all of us possess Olivia’s intuitive ability to synthesize disparate ethnographic data. But even in the case of the fieldworker who “sees it all in an instant,” as it were, this intuitive leap should not be mistaken for immediacy. The road to instantaneous insight is always paved by many months and even years of very hard work.

*        *        *

Oh, about the problem of ordering my stack of readings and handwritten notes, with which this essay began. Although the problem here is not fundamentally different from that of ordering fieldnotes, the stakes are somewhat lower; whereas all one’s field data must be accounted for, if I forget an argument in some paper I have read, this will not prevent me from forging ahead with my own arguments in quite the same way. Whenever my stack of reading and notes grows too big, I simply scan the whole batch, and store the resulting PDF files on my computer. Unlike paper files, these can be multiply indexed using keywords within a free bibliographic program like Zotero. I then take the whole stack, and toss it in the recycling bin!

Nathaniel Roberts, January 2012


1 Such aphasiacs, Foucault continues, “will create a multiplicity of tiny, fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets; in one corner, they will place the lightest-coloured skeins, in another the red ones, somewhere else those that are softest in texture, in yet another place the longest, or those that have a tinge of purple or those that have been wound up into a ball. But no sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again… and so the sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them again.”


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