Denaturalizing Ethnographic Epistemology

Image by Adela Zhang.

This piece brings attention to the consequences of binarizing categories like “the native” and “Other” for scholars who do not fit easily into a hegemonic paradigm that assumes white scholars study “Others,” while “native” scholars study their “own” cultures. Over the past forty years, certain ideas about what the voices of “Others” are good for in anthropology have steadily coalesced and hardened into commonplace assumptions that govern the place of the “native” in academia. Manifested at various points in anthropological graduate training, from positionality statements to casual conversations among colleagues, these taken-for-granted ways of thinking link the anthropologist’s identity and the knowledge they may produce to determine the hierarchies of value that rank and evaluate anthropological scholarship and its authors today (Harrison 2008, 16). We invite fellow anthropologists to reflect on the manifold effects of various subtle discourses about value and knowledge and ubiquitous practices of naming and definition that actively enforce and manage a racialized (and gendered) division of intellectual labor in the academy today. Submissions problematizing the link between the ethnographer’s identity and their work, the category of “native” in anthropology, the epistemological relevance of Others, and related themes will be accepted until May 31, 2022 (1000-1500 words). Please send submissions or questions to Adela Zhang ([email protected]) and Elix Colón ([email protected]).

In 1992, Michel-Rolph Trouillot asked about the “epistemological status and semiotic relevance of native discourse” (Trouillot 1992, 24-25). This question took aim in part at a persistent, Eurocentric dichotomy that opposed unstable categories like “natives” to “non-native” (unmarked, white) observers, arguing that the specific historical contours of the Caribbean’s emergence and its global, heterogeneous character “defied most understandings of nativeness... No discursive field is fully ‘ours,’ or ‘theirs’” (Trouillot 1992, 24-25). A basic empirical observation about today’s increasingly heterogeneous discipline makes Trouillot’s challenge especially apt: “non-native” no longer only means white. Where “untethered ‘research interests’” were once the exclusive province of the “Euro-American, white, middle-class male,” today many of the scholars entering U.S. doctoral programs—so-called “minorities, women, and Third World Scholars” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997, 16)—study a wide range of topics. What, then, is the epistemological status and value of “native voice” for scholars who do not claim to study “themselves?” (Harrison 2008, 16).1

By directing our attention to this residual category, our aim is to denaturalize the distribution of academic labor and expertise in which “foreign and minority students are frequently expected to study their ‘own’ communities,” a disciplinary phenomenon noted as early as 1970 in the United States (Des Chene 1997, 83).2 The fact that “own” almost always appears in air quotes suggests widespread awareness of the term’s problematic nature. Yet its usage is nonetheless ubiquitous, apparently reflecting a commonsense understanding that so-called “foreign and minority students”—itself a precarious grouping—are always already “native” to a degree, irrespective of their training, expertise, or chosen topic of study. Properly problematizing a term like “own” therefore means denaturalizing the assumed links that make certain kinds of ethnographer-subject relations intelligible, while rendering others in need of further justification.

The Argument

“The anthropologist has been assumed to be Western, so the field site must be non-Western,” Mary des Chene wrote in the 1990s (1997, 70).3 This claim stems from the discipline’s Euro-colonial origins, the related, assumed existence of some Other, and the usage of contrasting cultural differences as the basis for empirical observation (Geertz 1983; Trouillot 1992). Yet in a footnote to the claim, Des Chene also noted: “The contradictory experiences of foreign and minority graduate students in North American anthropology programs emphasize current disciplinary confusion over the relations between cultural identity and the possibility of conceiving of a place as a field site” (Des Chene 1997, 70). In this footnote lies a nagging question about the ideal relation between the ethnographer’s personal identity and the anthropological location of their work. Who is “native,” and who gets to decide (Trouillot 1992, 24; Harrison 2008, 21)?

Renato Rosaldo described the founding anthropological myth of The Lone Ethnographer as follows: “After undergoing a series of trials…he encountered the object of his quest in a distant land. There, he underwent his rite of passage by enduring the ultimate ordeal of ‘fieldwork.’ After collecting ‘the data,’ [he] returned home and wrote a ‘true’ account of ‘the culture.’” (Rosaldo 1989, 30). Here white, male scholars stand as the unmarked bearers of “objective” knowledge capable of cleanly identifying a bounded object of study distinct from them. Decolonial scholars, like Faye Harrison, protested the ways in which this ideal type rendered “Third World/non- Western/‘minority’ perspectives…[as] less adequate, less ‘universal,’ and less ‘scientific’” and placed “‘native’ theorizing on tenuous ground” (Harrison 1991, 6).4 By the 1980s, scholars increasingly troubled by anthropology’s coloniality would advocate for more self-reflexive practices in the discipline (Gough 1968; Lewis 1973; Harrison 1991). To undo anthropology’s imperialist bent, practitioners would have to actively resist “writing culture” in ways that elided important power differentials between those doing the representing and those represented (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Efforts to valorize “native voice” pointed to the insights it could provide, greater “communicative competence” and legitimacy, and the possibility that a “native” anthropologist might speak “from” rather than speak “for” one’s “own natives” (Lowie 1937; Srinivas 1995; Abu-Lughod 1991; Jacobs-Huey 2002).

But imagining “native” or “local” expertise as the solution to white domination leaves the white:“native” opposition largely intact (Trouillot 2003, 8). Certainly, some scholars characterized or self- identifying as “native” pointed out the inconsistencies and irony of a label which rendered them as “insiders regardless of their complex backgrounds” (Narayan 1993, 677).5 As Harrison points out, “Which point of view qualifies as emic when members of the same society and community disagree over, and vigorously contest, cultural meanings and political ideologies?” (2008, 22). Yet the postmodern critiques that brought the powerful exclusions dominating the discipline into sharp focus nonetheless spoke of culture and society in the language of “one’s own” or “the Other” (Narayan 1993; Abu-Lughod 1991; Gupta and Ferguson 1997). Critiques of the “hierarchy of purity” that represented Africa as more Other than North America, for instance, somehow stopped short of breaking down the white:non-white division that, to this day, maps so neatly onto a split between “those who have no compelling reason to work in particular localities or with particular communities other than intellectual interest” and “those interested in working with their ‘own’ communities” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997, 18).

This cascade of overlapping binaries—Western:non-Western, non-native:native, white:Other, modern:primitive, intellectual:personal—gives rise to a series of “grids of intelligibility” (Butler 2004, 42) which locate and evaluate anthropological work and necessarily assess the anthropologists who produce it. Underlying these grids is a basic disciplinary assumption about the proper links connecting the ethnographer, the scholarship they produce, and those they represent in it (Clifford and Marcus 1986). One of us, for instance, is regularly assumed to work on topics related to China or informed that such a project would be particularly attractive for grant and job applications. Often coded as encouragement, such comments give the impression that the researcher’s value may be readily reduced to an assumed cultural intimacy or one specific language skill that can be read off a family name or physical appearance. When speaking about their fieldsite, one of us is constantly asked if they are Cuban or have family living in Cuba, with the assumption being that their intellectual interest must stem from a familial or personal intimacy with the island.

These grids are present throughout the graduate training process. Students recruited to study their “home” countries or “own” people are constantly reminded of how compelling their personal narrative is when it explicitly links their research agenda to their identity. Dissertation grant applications demand students describe why they are the “right person” to do the research they propose,6 while write-up and postdoctoral fellowships hungrily devour personal narratives reformulated to satisfy the demands of a diversity statement. Condensed in these requirements are a number of suppositions anthropologists would do well to trouble; taken to their logical extremes, they appear absurd: would one readily assume that an Anglo-American student’s fluency in English makes them especially equipped to study other English-speaking Americans? Just as we might collectively cringe when Americans of color or non-native English speakers are asked “where are you really from?”—such questioning is apparently perfectly reasonable when interrogating a student’s site selection: “Are you from -insert field site-?”

These kinds of questions are not just logically specious. Presuming similarities between groups of people not only legitimizes the universalizing perspective-from-above that “sees” such similarities in the first place; it also naturalizes the Eurocentric and U.S.-oriented racial hierarchies that flatten “Asians” as “minority” or construct “Chinese” as categorically “foreign.”7 This white view-from-above also reduces non-U.S. scholars into national spokespersons by smoothing out the meaningful differences that might separate such scholars from the diverse compatriots they study (Trouillot 2003). Recognition that the experiences the ethnographer brings to their research (and those they acquire during it) may powerfully shape the fieldwork they conduct and the analysis of their work should not mean assuming the general grounds on which that influence takes place.

The presumption that, in the absence of a personal connection, there is no plausible intellectual interest or value to our chosen fieldsites or our study of them not only devalues the intellectual rigor of our work but also that of the discipline of anthropology as a whole. While a personal connection to one’s research site is undoubtedly a meaningful source of motivation and knowledge for many ethnographers, it is not the only source of their expertise nor is it a stand-in for specialized training in anthropological methods and texts. Indeed, what anthropology at its best promises is the possibility of cultivating relations with one’s interlocutors through work, commitment, careful attention, and radical openness to create shared grounds for connection. None of this can be assumed a priori.


We are cognizant of some of the challenges associated with bringing these questions out into the open. Although the discipline has become increasingly critical of essentialism when applied to one’s interlocutors, it has been less vigilant about its application to anthropologists themselves (Bonilla 2015, xvii; Allen and Jobson 2016). Today, the non-native:native binary (as it maps onto the white:Other opposition) reaches well beyond anthropology, weaving itself into important discussions on the politics of identity and the revindication of one’s “own” people. Yet the very notion that one’s “own” might be a meaningful claim to begin with compels us to interrogate the naturalizing and essentializing work of identity and culture that buttresses such a claim and the role that anthropologists themselves might have played in its spread.

The semiotic mappings we identify here—white:native::outsider:insider—unduly foist the work of upending these binaries onto the very scholars who struggle against its constraints. At the same time, because these grids of intelligibility manifest in moments of opportunity (like admissions or funding), they implicate us in their basic colonial logic. Prompted to give an account of oneself for money, the budding scholar might find themselves in self-doubt: “Am I interested in this topic or site because it says something about me or because it provides a plausible frame for narrating the promise of my work?” It is also possible that the constraints we describe are unequally applied to scholars marginalized in different ways. The authors’ ability to study topics which we do not claim as our “own” may well be a function of the privilege we have as students at a well-resourced, “name-brand” department, the flexibility offered by our training, and the ability to fund research trips that facilitate intellectual exploration, among other advantages.

The full effects of the racialized and gendered expectations that seek to put peripheralized scholars in our place are unknowable. By shaping which students are accepted to which programs and on what grounds or by determining which field sites are considered appropriate or plausible for study and for whom, the expectation that certain students study “themselves” not only cements tenuous and problematic associations between the ethnographer and the subject of study but also delimits the horizons of possibility for those scholars, the knowledge they produce, and the relevance of an entire discipline. As anthropology’s demographics shift with the entry of “outsiders within,” the hierarchies of purity ranking fieldsites and research topics come into ever sharper view. To escape this “prison-house of essentialism” (Trouillot 2003, 17), anthropologists— particularly those who influence graduate program admissions, grant awards, and hiring decisions—must interrogate the persistent notion that views some of us as bridges to Other worlds rather than modern intellectuals in our own right. Those who contribute to this series will, we hope, show us how anthropological scholarship might look otherwise, in defiance of such expectations.


1. The category of “native” is struggling to contain an un-nameable diversity of anthropologists. Many efforts have been made to name or specify such practitioners by enumerating their defining qualities. Examples include: “minorities, women, and Third World scholars” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997); “foreign and minority students” (Des Chene 1997); “non-Western scholars or scholars of color” (Rosa and Bonilla 2017); “Third World/non-Western/‘minority’” (Harrison 1991); and so forth. We are therefore particularly cognizant of how fraught any effort to name scholars who do not conform to the “white”:“native” opposition is. Doing so may inadvertently “reproduc[e] and reinforc[e]…[the] given social configuration” of a colonialist anthropology’s impulse to identify and classify (Bauman in Wynter 2003, 259). Loosely defined by a lack (of whiteness or maleness, for instance), no shorthand is likely to satisfy. Hence, in the absence of a “self-definition,” in this piece we borrow terms that approximate a set of shared experiences (like Faye Harrison’s “peripheralized scholars” or Patricia Hill Collins’ “outsider within”) and use “native” and “Other” only where they are contextually appropriate to the argument.

2. See also Amory in Gupta and Ferguson 1997.

3. See also Jones 1970.

4. See also Amory 1997.

5. See Narayan 1993; Jones 1970; Radebe 2016; and Jacobs-Huey 2002.

6. For instance, the Wenner-Gren Foundation‘s 2020 Dissertation Fieldwork Grant application asked applicants to answer the question: “Why are you the right person to carry out this project?”

7. See Amory 1997.


We thank Saumya Pandey, Jameelah Morris, Sylvia Yanagisako, Orin Starn, Karma Frierson, and the Member Voices editors for so generously reading this piece and offering crucial insights. Their labor and kindness made this work possible.


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