Some Thoughts on Action and Reflexivity.

Ethnography is the entrenched study of a people, most often of  a population classically considered “the other”. However, in recent years, anthropologists have turned their gaze inward. While methods vary significantly, “participant observation” characterizes the general sentiment of the profession since its inception. Certainly, ethnography has been conducted for a variety of purposes[1] over the years, but a commitment to learning inter-group dynamics through participant observation is a necessary step in the scholarly, scientific study of cultures.  As the goal of science is objective and replicable study, one must ask, can participant observation really prevent bias? Should anthropologists even endeavor towards impartiality? Or rather, have anthropologists ever undertaken studies of “irrational beliefs” without letting their biases affect their work?  Are their conditions in which they should employ their biases? In this post, I reflect upon the historical trajectories of ethnography in the late 19th and 20th centuries up through to the present, and also the means by which anthropologists have entered and exited the realm of scientific inquiry.

Any discussion on objective inquiry and ethnology in the Americas should begin with the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) and the Smithsonian Institution.  Frederick Ward Putnam, the BAE’s first director, was discreetly aware of the cultural loss occurring at significantly increasing rates throughout the growing American nation. Westward expansion, Indian removal, and disease all played significant factors in the development of American salvage ethnography.  Principle scholars at the turn of the century who worked with the BAE to record and photograph the rapidly diminishing Indians of the interior, the Southeast, and the Northwest coast were James Owen Dorsey, James Mooney, Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and John C. Swanton, to name just a few.  They recorded histories, songs, folklore, and myths, among many other things, all while establishing incredibly close and personal relationships with their informants.  Many became initiated within the medicine/war societies that they studied. Some even participated in the same millenarian movements they came to record[2] and reportedly, prevent from continuing[3]. It was during this time that the concern for salvage and objective study made full-scale immersion into an “outside” society a necessary aspect of the field.  While they made have looked down upon their informants, and this is purely speculative, it appears from their notes, they didn’t explicitly let their opinions color their work.

The value of the work these ethnologists completed cannot be underestimated. Their research has continued to inform scholarship well into the 21st century, but no contemporary scholar of Native American societies would dare approach their data without the necessary skepticism and caution. I am clearly aware of what many of these scholars initially thought about their subjects – one cannot claim that hunter-gatherer life is “nasty, brutish, and short” (Louis Henry Morgan) without some preconceived notions of indigenous society.  And yet many proudly received honors given to them by their informants – they were initiated as war chiefs and made medicine men.  I believe this apparent dichotomy reveals that no study of culture, whether scientific, cognitive, nomothetic, and/or phenomenological can be undertaken without a clear and explicit delineation of goals, expectations, and possible interferences the scholar and informant might encounter.  Two things are certain – 1) the ethnologists of the BAE engaged in excellent fieldwork and left great records, and 2) regardless of bias, their records have produced relevant data on many no longer extant societies.

The scholarship of the BAE  demonstrates that presupposing “irrationality” among a society reveals only an inadequate understanding of the ontology of reality. That which is created, is known, since existence itself is contingent upon observation and identification. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis clearly states, if one assumes the extreme position, that if a thing cannot be articulated, spoken, written, or expressed, than it cannot exist. Thus, that which we call real, rational, or logical, cannot necessarily apply to any other society.  Calling a belief irrational belies the existential dilemma all anthropologists must face – what is real? By mid-century, with the rise of structuralism, anthropologists had come to understand the vagaries of truth and reality.  My opinion is that reality is observed and constructed. Each and every society has the means by which to create a cosmology explaining their place on land, in the sea, and in the air. Both space and time present no significant problems because societies for all of time have endeavored to answer these questions. The scientific explanation of the cosmos, the “big bang” reveals no more truth than do Muscogee myth about earth divers and the birth of the universe[4]. Where anthropologists must be careful, and be prepared to act, is when needless lives and their own life become endangered because of actions of their informants.

Female genital mutilation, infanticide, honor killings, and hazing/torture – these are just a few practices anthropologists might observe, both in foreign or domestic settings. Abstract reasoning might allow one to develop several reasons not to act, but in all of these cases I believe the anthropologist has the duty and responsibility to engage with their informants. While these may not be “irrational” in the sense that no such concept can exist, we also do not live in a relative world. A global culture of sorts does exist, and in the unified sets of values held by almost all humans, these things are not permissible. Certainly there are varying grades of genital mutilation and hazing/torture, but infanticide and honor killings result in death, so perhaps murder is where the line must be expected to act, although I would get involved in all four of these situations.

In a sense, an ethnography of irrationality is a study of all human behavior – what activities do we engage in that make any rational sense?  Our planet is polluted, the Earth is increasingly getting warmer, and a true deficit in global resources is just around the corner. How might even Western society, that paragon of Enlightenment rationality, justify inching ever steadily towards the precipice knowing what we know about the fragility of ecosystems. Given anthropologists, or anyone else for that matter, can’t ever truly eliminate bias, becoming aware of what constitutes rationality, reality, and knowledge is the ultimate means by which we might address studies of the “irrational”.


[1] Salvage, colonialism, and commercial exploitation are several reasons.

[2] Adolf Bandelier, James Adair, and Louis Le Clerc Milfort, although not with the BAE, all went “native”.

[3] Frances Densmore and James Mooney.

[4] Earth diving creatures are ubiquitous throughout the Southeastern United States. See Robert Hall (1997), An Archaeology of the Soul.


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