The Ethnographic Present: A Reinvention

Essay Excerpt

In this article I shall explore the theme of the ethnographic present from various perspectives. My point of departure is a view of anthropology as practice, that is a mode of doing or of acting and creating (cf. Fabian 1986). The anthropological practice consists of two intimately linked processes, of fieldwork and writing. The use of the ethnographic present in anthropological writings has been seriously criticized as reflecting a particular relationship of observation and distancing to the object (Fabian 1983:86). It has been described as a vague and essentially a temporal moment (Stocking 1983:107) reflecting the ahistorical or synchronic pretense of anthropology (Crapanzano 1986:51).

The ethnographic present is, evidently, a literary device, and as such it needs to be questioned along with other conventions of representation in anthropology. However, it is not solely an accidental temporal model loosely linked to the "synchronic" nature of fieldwork as suggested by Marcus and Fischer (1986:96). Much more importantly, the ethnographic present is a logical corollary of the peculiar nature of the anthropological practice. As I see it, it is a necessary construction of time, because only the ethnographic present preserves the reality of anthropological knowledge. This will be substantiated in the course of this article.

Before I proceed a note of warning should be made. If it appears anachronistic to defend the ethnographic present in the critical postmodernist era, this is not so. My defense is actually made from this critical perspective, and I contend that although the modernist choice of tense was right, it rested on false assumptions. We are now in a position to reassess our assumptions and to reinvent the ethnographic present without the previous connotations, however.

While encircling the theme, my exposition will touch upon several general issues in the anthropological debate. They are fieldwork, the writing of cultures, presence and representation, silence and semantic density, cultural translation, and the prophetic condition of anthropology. Toward the end of this ambitious path, we shall return to the present-in order to get on with ethnography. (Hastrup, 45)

About the Author

Kirsten Hastrup is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. She has done substantial research on Icelandic history and society; on human rights and legal language; on theatre and social action; and on the beginnings of Danish anthropology in early polar expedition. In addition to these more specialised fields, she has published critical explorations of the philosophical and epistemological foundations of anthropology, text-books in anthropology, and general introductions to the history of the human sciences and their contributions to society.The Icelandic work spans the entire history of the island society and traces the intricate links between environmental changes - notably the warm middle ages and the later 'little ice age' - and historical and social developments.Waterworld project:In recent years, Kirsten Hastrup's research interest has centred on the environmental and social changes in the Arctic, notably in Greenland, where she has started a series of fieldworks in a small hunting community with the aim of studying local perceptions of threats and opportunities over a five-year period.

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