ORNA R. JOHNSON
On the Measurement Potential
of Ethnographic Fieldnotes
Anthropology straddles the border between the sciences and the humanities ( Bennett 1976; A. Johnson 1978: 60-74; Shweder 1986; Service 1985). This is an awkward stance to maintain, and some anthropologists resolve the tension by moving resolutely to one side or the other. But most anthropologists accept the situation because we want a science of humankind capable of studying whole persons within a framework of humanistic values. Nonetheless, this border-straddling entails no end of contradictions, and nowhere are these more evident than in ethnographic fieldnotes, perhaps our single most crucial repository of knowledge. Fieldnotes provide scientific data to the extent that they contain intersubjectively reliable descriptions of beliefs and behavior of individuals in other cultures; and they are humanistic documents to the extent that they enhance our understanding of behavior and beliefs by illuminating their meaning within a cultural context of related meanings. What makes joining the scientific and humanistic traditions in anthropology so challenging a task is that like oil and water the two do not mix well: every step toward scientific reliability seems inevitably to be a step away from humanistic intimacy, and the achievement of many-layered humanistic interpretation seems possible only at the expense of scientific precision.
Ethnographic fieldnotes, serving these incompatible masters simul