The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology

The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology

The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology

The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology

Synopsis

Anthropologists who have lost their senses write ethnographies that are often disconnected from the worlds they seek to portray. For most anthropologists, Stoller contends, tasteless theories are more important than the savory sauces of ethnographic life. That they have lost the smells, sounds, and tastes of the places they study is unfortunate for them, for their subjects, and for the discipline itself.

The Taste of Ethnographic Things describes how, through long-term participation in the lives of the Songhay of Niger, Stoller eventually came to his senses. Taken together, the separate chapters speak to two important and integrated issues. The first is methodological—all the chapters demonstrate the rewards of long-term study of a culture. The second issue is how he became truer to the Songhay through increased sensual awareness.

Paul Stoller is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University and the author of Sensuous Scholarship, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Excerpt

In the summer of 1969 I went to the Republic of Niger for the first time. As a recently recruited English teacher, I spent my first two weeks there as a guest of the government. They housed me in a spacious villa and provided me a government chef who had been trained in Paris. My plush airconditioned quarters protected me from the heat, mosquitoes, and dust of summer in Niger.

This luxurious arrangement initially diverted me from the sensual realities of urban Niger: naked children defecating into the ditches which carried the city’s sewage; clouds of aromatic smoke rising from grills on which butchers roasted mouth-watering slices of mutton; dirt roads rendered impassible by rat-infested hills of rotting garbage; gentle winds carrying the pungent smell of freshly pounded ginger; skeletal lepers thrusting their stump-hands in people’s faces—their way of asking for money; portly men wrapped in elaborately embroidered blue damask robes, emerging from their Mercedes sedans; blind and crippled beggars, dressed in grimy rags, singing for their meals.

After a two-week dream holiday, I walked into that world and remained there for two years. What did I experience? At first I dove into the sensual world of the city. I was particularly struck by the misery of the “have-nots” juxtaposed with the insouciance of the “haves.” The misery of the “have-nots” was at once horrifying and fascinating. It was horrifying because nothing in my twenty-two years of life had prepared me for such human deprivation. It was fascinating for the same reason that makes motorists slow down or stop at the scene of a gruesome automobile accident. The insouciance of the “haves” was also horrifying and fascinating.

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