The Rhetoric of Ethnographic Holism

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

The fundamental and motivating problem of ethnography is how to use writing to bring the "everyday" into relation with "history" and "environment." Since writing is a work of the imagination, it is in the imagination that the crucial synthesis between the microcosm and the macrocosm takes place. Unlike the zoologist who describes the mollusc before him, the ethnographer must imagine the "whole" that is society, and convey this imagination of wholeness to his reader along with the descriptions of places seen, speech heard, persons met. The description of wholes, however, is "description without place ... a sight indifferent to the eye." For this, the ethnography needs a special kind of rhetorical technique. Both the rhetoric and the imagination essential to it are founded on classification employed as rhetorical figure. The ethnography's use of classification constitutes a use of language outside of its normal syntactic and semantic sense that point to or suggest  other levels of meaning-that is, it functions as a trope that I shall call the rhetoric of classification.

The understanding of ethnographic writing that I present here focuses on the apparently pragmatic way in which the text is organized into chapters and sub-headings within which is embedded the "verse" of daily life as it is encountered in the fragmented rhythms of existence. I argue that the imagination of wholes is a rhetorical imperative for ethnography since it is this image of wholeness that gives the ethnography a sense of fulfilling "closure" that other genres accomplish by different rhetorical means. The rhetoric of classification is the means where by this closure is achieved, since it structures the descriptions of "items" that derive ultimately from the experience of research in the field. Where the narrative achieves closure by a successful conclusion to the plot, the ethnography achieves it by a successful description of a social structure. Social structure, then, like plot, is the image of coherence and order that writing creates. (Thornton, 286)

About the Author

Dr. Robert Thornton is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests include Identity politics, Gender, Economic Anthropology, Cultural Theory,Political Anthropology, Anthropology, HIV/AIDS, Medical Anthropology, African Studies, Social Theory, Kinship (Anthropology), and South Africa (History). Robert Thornton, Ph.D has been Professor of Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand since 1992. He taught previously at Rutgers University (USA, 1990-1992), the University of Cape Town (1979-1989), The University of Chicago (USA, 1977-78), and high school at Rubaga Girls School, Kampala, Uganda (1969-1972).  He was educated at St. Xaviers High School (Delhi, India),Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda), Stanford University (California, USA; BA degree), and The University of Chicago (Chicago, USA; MA and PhD degrees).  He has held major fellowships and research grants from Fulbright Foundation, John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities (USA), National Research Foundation (S. Africa), and Lottery Fund (S. Africa) amongst others.  He specialises in the politics, society and culture of southern and eastern Africa, and is currently researching HIV/AIDS, indigenous healing systems, and local-level political structure. He has specialised expertise in Social Impact Assessment and conservation of cultural and natural heritage, and has considerable experience in consulting with development agencies, international industry, and the South African government (land affairs, cultural heritage, tourism), among others.  He has published over fifty articles is major journals and three books.  He speaks English and Kiswahili fluently, and some French, Zulu, and Afrikaans.

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