In fact, such ironies are not new. Ethnography was founded on a paradox that has rendered it both unusually useful and vulnerable to critique. This conundrum is also integral to modern anthropology, which is simultaneously universalizing in its key assumptions (about the intrinsic nature of humans as social, signifying beings, for example) and relativizing (about the fact that societies and cultures vary fundamentally with context). As a critic once quipped, anthropologists believe that "people everywhere are the same, except where they are different." Put in more generous terms, the discipline seeks to subvert modern universalist assumptions by making Westerners aware of other viable forms of reasoning and rectitude, kinship and sexuality, religion and representation, politics and politesse. But this procedure also raises thorny epistemological problems. To what degree can one assume that cultural categories are translatable across lines of difference? Is it not the case that the platonic referents of the whole enterprise—not to mention the politics of its practice—remain indisputably Eurocentric? What violence do we do to African assumptions that people can harm each other by powerful, superhuman means when we refer to these etiologies as "witchcraft"? How does such a term, which Europeans associate with dark ages past, color our rendering of African existential realities in the present? How does one establish the qualities and currency of such a "belief" in the first place?
These questions of method rest on a host of interpretive presumptions: What constitutes a field for analytical purposes? How systematic is culture, and how much is it the stuff of conscious reflection? How much does one impose order on action through one's very observation and description? Such things clearly are also matters of theoretical assumption, and here again ethnography can never simply be distinguished from the presuppositions and interests of those who practice it. What is more, scholarly values have varied across time and place: the accounts of the early ethnographers Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973) and Margaret Mead (1901–1978) were hailed in their time as relativist correctives to unquestioned Western orthodoxies. But in a later, postcolonial climate, their texts have quite often been criticized for offering timeless, essentialist, exoticized depictions of "others" (Said, and Clifford and Marcus).