Issue 7.4, November 1992


Essay Excerpt

I start with Graham's summary of a fascinating story in the history of science. The Hessen episode enabled the historian of science to employ what seems to be an anthropological case method to reveal the impact of ideology and other contextual circumstances on scientific endeavor. But anthropology itself still lacks a rigorous orientation toward a contextual study of ethnographic writing. This missing approach differs from the various genres of critique that have developed in the quest for ethnographic authority.

Any attempt to review the avalanche of literature produced in recent years about the predicament of modem anthropologists concerning their mission and the value of their ethnographic work might cause both eye strain and intellectual despair. I shall only introduce a few telling remarks, though unsystematically chosen, on the present state of anthropological affairs. Thus, for example, Eric Wolf was quoted: "The Church of anthropology is in trouble. The sacraments have been stolen. People have looked behind the altar and found nothing there" (Sass 1986:50). Beidelman, irritated by what he views as the present demoralized and confused state of a new generation of American anthropologists, exclaimed: "In a guilt-ridden trend toward reflexivity these [circumstances] promote a crisis of self confidence and a diminution of social theory in the name of eschewing intellectual and political imperialism"(1989:267). In a similar tone, Johnson claimed: "Many among this new generation of scholars have flatly rejected scientific methodologies in order to treat ethnography as the subjective, hermeneutic enterprise they insist it really is" (1987:227). Geertz described the predicament of that generation in the following words:"They are also harassed by grave inner uncertainties, amounting almost to a sort of epistemological hypochrondria, concerning how one can know that anything one says about other forms of life is as a matter of fact so" (1988:71).

Salzman's(1989) recent exposition of contemporary assaults on the positivist ethnographic methodology focused on its depiction by the critics as "value free." That essence, he claimed, was to be replaced in some new paradigmby value commitment and subjectivity. His presentation reminded me of my first encounter during the late 1970s with the surprising results of committed anthropology, which I will discuss later. It has also encouraged me to respond to the peculiar professional ethos employed in an article recently published in Cultural Anthropology (Swedenburg 1989:265-272). It is the above-depicted notion of insecurity and guilt that seems to engulf many older and younger anthropologists (though for different reasons) that sometimes also topples, I think, the walls of First World journals before what supposedly represents "authentic" voices from the Other World fields. The messenger, however, as indicated below, is none other than the ethnographer, whose tools of research, as well as his basic claim for professional authority, have not changed much in spite of the ongoing debates about ethnographic authority. (Shokeid, 464-465)

Shokeid, Moshe. "Commitment and Contextual Study in Anthropology." Cultural Anthropology no. 7, issue 4: (1992). pp 464-477