Academic journal article History In Africa

The Importance of Being Honest: Verifying Citations, Rereading Historical Sources, and Establishing Authority in the Great Karamoja Debate

Academic journal article History In Africa

The Importance of Being Honest: Verifying Citations, Rereading Historical Sources, and Establishing Authority in the Great Karamoja Debate

Article excerpt


Anthropologists pay considerable attention to the writing style, the construction of a text, and the question of ethnographic authority, particularly since Derek Freeman's critique of Margaret Mead's Samoa writings. Although the issue of representation of the history and culture of far-flung peoples in the form of the written report is a long and distinguished tradition in the field of cultural anthropology, the Freeman/Mead debates have raised a number of questions ranging from the problem of faulty citation practices to the issue of vulnerable ethnographic authority. The debate over Freeman's critique of Mead has developed into a major controversy and was featured at the 1983 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (Marshall 1993:604). Since then, numerous articles and books have been written on the debate, and while many people have become tired of the "whole mess", the case continues to attract scholarly attention.

Critiques of Freeman often revolve around the sources Freeman used to support his historical argument against Mead, illuminating how Freeman used rhetorical devices, selectively omitted vital passages in historical documents that he cited, and "heavily" used partial quotations and (sometimes) ellipses, in order to "...undermine Mead's ethnographic authority and enhance his own" (e.g., Marshall 1993:604).

The Freeman/Mead debate underscores how important it is for authors to get their references right (Shankman 2006), since failing in this not only undercuts the ethnographic authority of the scholars, but it also distorts the historical and cultural representations of ethnographic communities under investigation. Since the elusive discourse surrounding citation practices is typically beyond the purview of the readers, any scholar is at risk of being victimized. The question is how we can be insured against such malpractice. Should we trust authors to provide the necessary citations correctly, or should we test their conclusions by examining the cited sources?


Recently, I happened to read a book entitled The Vitality of Karamojong Religion: Dying Tradition or Living Faith? and I was struck by how Ben Knighton, the author, adopted practices that match-and perhaps surpassthose of Freeman's. Knighton discusses my work (Mirzeler/Young 2000; hereafter MY2000) that I co-authored with Crawford Young about the impact of die AK-47 on Karamojong culture and people.1 Knighton (2005:127) writes that we stated tiiat "[hjistory is simple when it all tarns on a single event. Before 1979, Karamoja was peaceful, pastoral and traditional, but that year ushered in the 'new era' of guns (Mirzeler and Young 2000: 409)."

Knighton also argues that MY2000 neglects the history of guns in the region, and that Karamojong have "enculturated" them into their culture like any other iron implement. Throughout his book Knighton uses both ethnographic and historical sources to suggest that MY2000's portrayal of the Jie of northern Uganda-particularly the impact of guns, warlord politics, and the discussion of Nakapor, the current Jie firemaker (politico-religious leader)-is fatally flawed, and that I was deceived by Lodoch, one of the Jie storyteDers, whom I worked with during my field research. This is a perfectly legitimate view to bring to the table, but only as long as it is defended appropriately. Here I illustrate how far short of this standard Knighton's arguments fall.

Knighton often omits relevant historical works, and frequently cites relevant scholarship only with brash but strategic selectivity. Thus he relies heavily on constructed quotations and decontextaalized partial quotations, and rarely uses ellipses to indicate that they are partial quotations. An examination of Knighton's text shows that these are not due merely to carelessness, but are carefully deployed to undermine my own argument in order to enhance his own case.

Equally problematic is the way in which Knighton deploys oral data. …

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