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Dissolution and Reconstitution of Self: Implications for Anthropological Epistemology

Essay Excerpt 

Most ethnographies, even of the reflexive kind, are products of contexts in which the observer/ethnographer is a visible outsider. Perhaps as a consequence (and perhaps as a gender difference; see Kirschner 1983), these ethnographies depict the Other as ineffably alien, as separate, distinct beings. The best we can  do, they say, is to engage in a reasoned dialogue with the Other, thereby achieving a "fusion of horizons" (Gadamer 1982), where discourse constitutes threads ten­ ously connecting  two monads (e.g., Rabinow 1977; Dwyer 1982). For anthro­pologists of the interpretive persuasion such as Geertz, the essentially public, en plein air nature of social life leaves no room for any other kinds of knowledge, for knowing the Other is even more distant than conversation: it is like reading a text (Geertz 1973).

Through the analysis of several key moments in the process of my fieldwork, I examine the implications of events for the nature of anthropological  in­quiry. Central to the understanding of these events are the hermeneutic concepts of distance and prejudice or foreunderstanding. In the work of Gadamer (1982), distance generally connotes historical distance from a text or work of art; for Ri­coeur, "distanciation" seems to be a cognitive (and, although less explicitly rec­ognized,  emotional) stance. Here, I interpret "distance" as position (inside or outside the culture) as well as a cognitive/emotional orientation (how removed or alien one may find the Other). Distance is inseparable from "foreunderstanding" or ''prejudice,'' where one's assumptions arising from experiences as a particular individual from a particular society, inevitably enter into one's  interpretations. Along with Heidegger (1962), Gadamer, and others, I assume that there can be no understanding free of value or presupposition (74).

Dorinne K. Kondo is Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at the University of Southern California

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