The anthropologist's eye

AN ethnography is a study of a specific people, an account of what their way of life is like, and by now anthropologists have produced enough ethnographies to fill a small library. If you want to know what the people of the jungles of Venezuela are like, or the peoples of Bali, or of the Sudan in Africa, this is the literature you would consult. Why is this such a splendid achievement? Are these ethnographies not in principle like stamp or butterfly collections, interesting, perhaps, as curios, but not much more? Is anthropology something of an academic version of Ripley's Believe it or Not? Consider the argument we might hear from the hardheaded businessman, who would maintain that anthropology is a waste of time and money, for in spite of the hundreds of thousands of years combined that anthropologists have spent studying the natives of New Guinea, say, this has not contributed significantly to the material well-being or progress of the world.

Let me say simply that I think there is an inherent value in our being exposed to the way other people live, think, and feel; to how they organize their lives; how they respond to the situations confronting them. This exposure stimulates self-reflection and self-knowledge; it raises our awareness of our own values, beliefs, and assumptions; it forces us to see our lives in general from a different perspective.

I would argue that people living in some isolated pocket of the world who know very little about other societies, have - because of that isolation - less potential for self-knowledge than we. Similarly, we have greater potential for self-knowledge than our 14th-century, European forebears, who believed they were living at the very center of the universe.

The discovery of how other people live and think, and the self-knowledge that this may bring, can come not only from ethnography, for good literature and good history - especially social history - may have the same effect. What it takes for such a work to do so is to present a slice of human life in such a way that we can see ourselves reflected in it.

What precisely does it take for a historical study to measure up in this sense?

A work may achieve importance in a number of ways. One is by asking fundamental explanatory questions, or ``why'' questions. To answer a ``why'' question is to explain why a specific phenomenon occurs. A classic example in anthropology is the question ``Why are societies cohesive?'' Is social cohesion the result of the internalization of moral values, or is it a natural product of unbridled self-interest? In the discipline of history the major ``why'' questions relate to the genuinely significant events in the human past - what factors were responsible for the American Civil War, the Progressive movement, World War I, McCarthyism, and so on.

Important as these truly crucial ``why'' questions may be, there is another very respectable purpose in my research. This is to ask ``what'' questions: to provide faithful descriptions of what takes place, not why. In anthropology, this is the goal of ethnography.

Let me give my fantasy free rein, and imagine that I could somehow go back in time and live in a past age for one or two years. I have in my grasp the chance to convey to posterity what life was like there and then. What would I say? What would I address?

First, I would present an account of the economic organization of the community. I would want to describe how the locale supports itself; the main economic divisions in the district (for example, I would ask whether the local merchants line up with the farmers against the working people; or if there is a three-way split among these three economic classes); how the local economy connects with the larger economic system beyond the district; and so on.

The second topic I would include would be the regional organization, or the relations between this community and other localities, and the place of this community within the larger regional system. Is this community an economic or social backwater, or a central market town, or even a regional administrative center? Does the community see itself as being subject to the political domination of a larger, more powerful center? Is it perceived as a particularly upstanding district, or the home of riffraff?

Third, I would describe how these people sort themselves out socially: What is the range of differences in social position within the community, both hierarchically and vertically, and how are the social categories perceived? For example, from the perspective of the middle-level merchants, where is the line drawn between respectable people and the disreputable? Are the local well-to-do conceived by the working people as morally corrupt or benign? Or as people like themselves but wealthier? Or as a different order of people altogether?

Fourth, I would be interested in describing community dynamics, or how things get done. Are there institutionalized leaders, and, if so, are informal leaders not in fact more significant than they in mobilizing collective activities and stimulating public opinion? Are there enduring factions or divisions, and what do these divisions rest upon?

I will not argue that these four topics exhaust what one might do in this hypothetical study; there are others that could be used with considerable success, even though they are not the ones I would select, given my background and training. For example, one might choose to present a series of biographies of characteristic individuals - not simply the rich and influential, but people from a variety of social categories and levels.

It would be an interesting exercise to discover other approaches that one might take if one were given this precious opportunity of going back in time and living in another age. But, of course, many anthropologists have already been there, in a sense, by virtue of their work on documents and oral histories. This fantasy visit to the past is not really so much a fantasy after all.

Dr. Hatch is a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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