It’s a lesson I learned recently in Anthropology 300. Just as Hamlet can be interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars without ever coming to a single definitive reading of the play, research should not set up ultimate truth as a goal.
We read Glifford Geertz’s classic The Interpretation of Cultures, in which he uses his varied fieldwork experiences in Northern Africa and Southeast Asia as jumping-off points for building theory about the nature of anthropology. He pushes us to consider culture not as a laboratory specimen to be dissected and understood in set ways, but as a piece of literature with infinite interpretative possibilities.
Regarding the notion of definitive answers, he writes, “I do not know how long it would be profitable to meditate on [a fieldwork] encounter…but I do know that however long I did so I would not get anywhere near to the bottom of it. Nor have I ever gotten anywhere near to the bottom of anything I have ever written about … Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes, the less complete it gets.”
“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete.”
In other words, a researcher must learn to be satisfied with imperfection. The best you can hope for is shades and colors of truth. Ironically, the more you know, the more you realize you know very little.
This spoke to me. It’s not that I ever fooled myself into believing my research could solve everything, but I have at times felt the pressure to account for all things related to my topics.
I sat down last week over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. Last week, I shared Yun-Yun’s insights on finding a meaningful research question and working through self-doubt. This week, Alice takes us to another continent and another research topic. Here, she reflects on conducting fieldwork in a new language, and finding her feet as an autonomous researcher.
Alice is an Anthropology concentrator investigating the past and present of the international community of Esperanto speakers. She spent portions of her summer at – among other places – the central office of the Universal Esperanto Association in the Netherlands, and the Austrian National Library’s Department of Planned Languages in Vienna. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Fieldwork is often – at least in my experience – a perfect storm of challenge. Our time is limited, our advisers are distant, and we are immersed in unfamiliar cultures and experiences. Fieldwork has given me some of my most dramatic and overwhelming challenges – and also my most transformative learning experiences.
I was one of many rising seniors who spent time in the field this past summer, collecting the data which will (if all goes according to plan) serve as the foundation of my senior thesis. I wanted to understand better how fieldwork shapes other seniors’ personal growth and research paths. This week, I sat down over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. We talked about the experiences and lessons we have brought back to Princeton after spending the summer in the field.
Yun-Yun is an EEB concentrator researching the social, economic, and environmental factors that affect rubber farmers in southern China. Here, we talk about how she found her research question and worked through self-doubt in the field.
In an ideal world, research is pretty straightforward. Evidence is collected, synthesized, and analyzed. Meaning emerges. Results point to objective truth.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned from the first two weeks of ANT 301 (The Ethnographer’s Craft), it’s that research is often far from this ideal. Ethnography, at its core, is a subjective science. But that does not discount its intellectual value.
We recently read Harry G. West’s Ethnographic Sorcery, an account of West’s research in Mueda, Mozambique, where he studied sorcery as a prominent belief system. In short, Muedans believe that there are sorcerers among them who turn into lions and claim innocent lives. Early in the book, West recounts a conference he held to bounce his ideas off of community members. There, he presented a theory: we may understand these lion-people as metaphors for power play in society. An awkward hush took over the room before a schoolteacher spoke up. “I think you misunderstand,” he said. “These lions that you talk about … they aren’t symbols — they’re real.”
The case of the lion-people as metaphors reveals a problem of subjectivity: interpretations are often based on vastly distinct epistemologies, or ways of understanding the world. West acknowledges that calling lion-people metaphors is a fallacy because it dismisses local belief systems. In other words, viewing aspects of other cultures as metaphors rather than truth is a way of holding Western values above others.