Issue 3.1, February 1988

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Essay Excerpt

The problems of place and voice are vital to anthropological practice and so is the relationship between them. The following set of articles is the result of a symposium on this subject held at the 85th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia, in December 1986. The articles by Appadurai, Dresch, Fernandez, Marcus, and Rosaldo are revisions and elaborations of presentations at that symposium. Strather's article is based on her responses (as a discussant) to the oral presentations at the symposium, which included one by Paul Friedrich, in addition to the ones published here.

More than with any of the other human sciences, anthropology is based on circumstantial evidence. The circumstances in which the evidence is gathered (those of fieldwork) and the circumstances of the writing up of fieldwork have been much discussed recently and do not need to be revisited here. But it is worth noting that the spatial dimension of this circumstantiality has not been thought about very much. This spatial dimension has many aspects, including the issue of maps and terrains, regions and areas, landscapes and environments, distance and scale, centers and boundaries. The articles in this collection do not by any means deal with all of these issues, though some of them are touched on. What they do focus on is one aspect of the problem of space in anthropology, and that is the problem of place, that is, the problem of the culturally defined locations to which ethnographies refer. Such named locations, which often come to be identified with the groups that inhabit them, constitute the landscape of anthropology, in which the privileged locus is the often unnamed location of the ethnographer. Ethnography thus reflects the circumstantial encounter of the voluntarily displaced anthropologist and the involuntarily localized "other." One problem that the articles discuss, in their various ways, is the light shed on this circumstantiality by attending to the dimension of place.

When it comes to voice, we face another problem. Much fieldwork is organized talk, and the ethnographic text is the more or less creative imposition of order on the many conversations that lie at the heart of fieldwork. But in fieldwork there is a curious double ventriloquism. While one part of our traditions dictates that we be the transparent medium for the voices of those we encounter in the field,that we speak for the native point of view, it is equally true that we find in what we hear some of what we have been taught to expect by our own training, reading, and cultural backgrounds. Thus our informants are often made to speak for us. Sometimes, as with Victor Turner and Muchona the Hornet (and often less glamorously for the rest of us), it becomes difficult to say who really speaks for whom. But the problem of voice is a problem of multiplicity as well as a problem of representation. How many voices are concealed beneath the generalizations of reported speech in much ethnography? And how many voices clamor beneath the enquiries and interests of the single ethnographer? How can we construct our voices so that they can represent the diversity of voices we hear in the field? How can we construct in anthropology a dialogue that captures the encounter of our own many voices with the voices we hear and purport to represent? The problem of voice ("speaking for" and "speaking to") intersects with the problem of place (speaking "from" and speaking "of"). 

Appadurai, Arjun. "Introduction: Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory." Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 1 (1988): 1-96