Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Writing Experience: Does Ethnography Convey a Crisis of Representation, or an Ontological Break with the Everyday World?

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Writing Experience: Does Ethnography Convey a Crisis of Representation, or an Ontological Break with the Everyday World?

Article excerpt

FEW SOCIAL SCIENTISTS, ESPECIALLY ANTHROPOLOGISTS, CAN have failed to notice the proliferation of publications analyzing the rhetoric of ethnographic writing both from the epistemological and ideological perspective over the past three decades (e.g., Asad 1973; Said 1978; Fabian 1983, 1991; Tambiah 1985; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Spivak 1988a; Inden 1990; Wolf 1992). One consequence is that researchers who undertake the task to grasp the actor's subjective point of view must now revise their polemics in a way to defend themselves against the charge of misrepresenting "others." In question is a reflexive call to examine the cultural, historical, and epistemological contingencies in which the ethnographer textualizes the lived experiences of "others." In the mid-1980s, such a tension pertinent to the interpretation of subjective experience mounted almost to a "crisis of representation." This has been widely publicized and discussed mainly in two books--Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment on the Human Sciences, by George E. Marcus and M. J. Fischer (1986), and Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James E. Clifford and George E. Marcus (1986). Despite differences among these scholars, (1) their line of critique generally evolved around the failure of the ethnographer to authentically document lived experience, which is represented (or created) in/as texts (Marcus and Cushman 1982:32-4). The crisis is described by Denzin: "If we only know a thing through its representations, then ethnographers no longer directly capture lived experience. Experience is created in the social text. The legitimization crisis questions how we bring authority to our texts" (2002:483). The blind spot of our precedents lies in failing to attend to the complex knowledge and power relations known as ethnographic authority, which are inherent in the production of textual representations. As remarked by Clifford, the subjects being studied "are constituted ... in specific historical relations of dominance and dialogue" (1983:119). The failure to recognize these relations results in a unified, controlling mode of authority inclined to entrap the other into misrepresentation. Such an "uncertainty about adequate means of describing social reality" (Marcus and Fischer 1986:8) has called upon the "experimental ethnographies"--based on a reflexive epistemology--such that,

   ... they integrate, within their interpretations, an explicit
   epistemological concern for how they have constructed such
   interpretations and how they are representing them textually as
   objective discourse about subjects among whom research was
   conducted. Marcus and Cushman 1982:25)

The crisis was stemmed from the critique of colonialism in the postwar period and has led ethnographers to problematize the notion of "text." Acknowledging cultural diversity, a "text" can be interpreted in many equally valid ways. The lack of a single correct interpretation of text represents a serious reflection of the act of writing and representing the other. It also makes many ethnographers question their "ability to represent other societies" (Clifford 1986:10).

Evidently, the crisis of representation has been fueled by postmodernist scholarship (2) which privileges the "experiential," "interpretive," "dialogical," and "polyphonic" processes that resist the closure of meaning as a fait accompli under the aegis of the totalizing dominant discourse (Clifford 1983:142). Tyler (1986:126) further suggests that postmodern ethnography that privileges "discourse" over text sees the written text as collaborative in nature and rejects the ideological dichotomy of an observed and an observer. Postmodernist ethnography hence spurns the pure realist stance which treats the other as given, the observed; that which wrings every bit of here-and-now out of the subject, and creates artificially a temporal and spatial distancing between the researcher and the subjects s/he represents (Fabian 1983; Wolf 1992:11-2). …

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