Issue 5.1, February 1990


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 (Crapanzano1986:51).

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, Kirsten. "The Ethnographic Present: A Reinvention." Cultural Anthropology no. 5, issue 1 (1990): 45.