The Native's Point Of View?
If ethnographers are unusually aware of the dangers of vulgar empiricism, why have they themselves frequently been accused of essentializing others? To what extent has such critique actually been aimed at the wider anthropological project? How much does it reflect a growing discomfort, in a postcolonial world, with experts—still largely of Western origin—who claim a privileged ability to interpret other cultures, or to represent those threatened by a dominant world order? The claim that anthropology was directly complicit with colonial rule, and that it remains irredeemably orientalist in perspective, is clearly overdrawn: much early ethnography was liberal, even critical in intent, and the discipline has long been subversive of establishments of most kinds, at home and abroad. At the same time, the discipline's enduring investment in cultural difference and local particularity—and in the independent existence of the powerless peoples within the world order—has laid it open to the charge that it fails realistically to come to terms with the oppressive, large-scale forces ravaging these local contexts (Graeber, and Comaroff and Comaroff, 2003). The taint of European paternalism lingers—although this does not necessarily attach itself to ethnography per se, which some see as having the potential to empower its former subjects. Thus Archie Mafeje, a respected African scholar, has declared that ethnography, to be true to itself, needs to be liberated entirely from anthropology so that it can become a source of "social texts authored [solely] by the people themselves" (Mafeje).
There is also a history of efforts to deploy participant observation beyond the orbit of anthropology in Western contexts. From the classic "Chicago School" of urban sociology in the 1920s, to those of the late-twentieth-century Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, investigators have seized on what Graeme Turner has called "the democratic impulse" of ethnography—its promise to give expression to human worlds that exist beyond established cultural discourses, elite institutions, and highbrow media (Turner, p. 178). The approach has yielded resonant accounts of European and American phenomena like youth cultures and urban underclasses (Park, Whyte, Willis, Duneier) and the everyday life of formal institutions and the professions (Goffman, Becker). The impetus to understand forms of ordinary activity that lie in the shadow of grand institutions is closely related to the methods of social history, the kind that aim to recuperate the texts and traces from other times to uncover "hidden" chronicles, written "from below" (Samuel, Davis). It has often been noted that, to the degree that they treat the past as "another country," historians work very much like participant observers, practicing what amounts to an "ethnography of the archives" (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1992; Hobsbawm; Cohn). But nonanthropological ethnographers have not entirely escaped the accusation of paternalism, or of exoticizing "local" worlds. Speaking of British cultural studies, an approach that shares anthropology's concern with culture (but more as a function of class differences within societies than totalizing differences between them) Turner suggests that "the democratic impulse and the inevitable effect of ethnographic practice … contradict each other" (p. 178). Here one might do well to recall that there are non-Western critics who believe that the method might serve as a means of empowerment. It might also be argued that the tendency to fetishize "marginal" cultures is not altogether absent from the paradigm of cultural studies itself.
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