Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge

Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge

Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge

Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge


Anthropology poses an explicit challenge to standard notions of scientific knowledge. It claims to produce genuine insights into the workings of culture in general on the basis of individual social experience in the field. Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledgetraces the process from the ethnographic experience to the analytical results, showing how fieldwork enables the ethnographer to arrive at an understanding, not only of 'culture' and 'society', but also of the processes by which cultures and societies are transformed. The contributors challenge the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, redefine what we should mean by 'empirical' and demonstrate the complexity of present-day epistemological problems through concrete examples. By demystifying subjectivity in the ethnographic process and re-emphasizing the vital position of fieldwork, they do much to renew confidence in the anthropological project of comprehending the world.


Ingrid Rudie

The dominance of participant observation as methodological credo in anthropology has been founded on an idea that we can understand another culture through sharing the experience of the practitioners themselves as far as possible. More specifically, this implies that it is important to get at what people do because there is so much cultural practice that is never verbalized. The anthropologist infers 'culture' from a number of other representations besides and underneath speech and writing. These representations take several forms-as bits of practice, symbolic and ritual expressions in the widest sense. Just as the polysemy of words is filtered through the context of the sentence (Ricoeur 1981:12), we assume that the polysemy of acts and sub-linguistic representations is solved through the context of the situation, a notion introduced by Bronislaw Malinowski (1923), and internalized and elaborated on by later generations of anthropologists.

In anthropology, however, contextualization goes beyond the unfolding situation; context is also determined by the experiential luggage of the participants including the participant-observer, and the way in which such learned disposition intersects with new experience. Our experiential luggage consists of events that have already been mentally processed and internalized so that they fall in familiar patterns or at least create an illusion of patterns. Every day we face a series of events, most of which are compatible with these patterns and therefore do not challenge our understanding. Some events, however, are truly unprecedented in the sense that they call for new explications.

My discussion departs from this point. I will be concerned with the problem of making sense, but instead of seeing it as a matter of synchronic contextualization I shall be concerned with it as a

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