Writing about other cultures - more literature than science

Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, by Clifford Geertz. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 157 pp. $19.95. ``Ethnography,'' according to the Random House Dictionary, is a ``branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures.'' Many contemporary anthropologists would take issue with that definition, including, I expect, Clifford Geertz, who describes the ethnographer's task as ``constructing texts ostensibly scientific out of experiences broadly biographical.''

The nature of ethnography is the central question in this provocative book, and though the question may seem specialized, as treated here it reflects a broad concern: How do we apprehend other cultures - how have we, how should we, how can we?

``The illusion that ethnography is a matter of sorting strange and irregular facts into familiar and orderly categories - this is magic, that is technology - has long since been exploded,'' says Geertz. ``What it is instead, however, is less clear.''

The clarity has been dimmed in recent years by concerns both ethical and epistemological. As Geertz points out, the primitive peoples anthropologists once wrote about are now the third world, and their ``transformation, partly juridical, partly ideological, partly real ... from colonial subject to sovereign citizens ... has ... altered entirely the moral context within which the ethnographical act takes place.'' Today's anthropologists worry whether about ethnography is ``decent.'' They ask: ``Who are we to describe them?''

Moreover, they question whether such cultural description is even possible. An academy ``beset with paradigms, epistemes, language games, Vorurteile, epoches, illocutionary acts ...'' has bred ``authorial self-doubt.'' Today's ethnographers question ``how one can know that anything one says about other forms of life is as a matter of fact so.''

In ``Works and Lives,'' Geertz takes an approach to ethnography which, he suggests, may offer a way out of the present dilemmas.

Whatever else ethnographies may be, he says, they are writing. For various reasons, anthropologists have resisted analyzing ethnographies as writing. Their focus on epistemological concerns and the problematics of fieldwork - how the ethnographer acquired data - has obscured the problematics of discourse: how the writer gets the story told.

But, Geertz argues boldly, not only is ethnography writing, it is as writing that it establishes its authority. The idea that through an abundance of data anthropologists convince us of the truth of their accounts is, he suggests, illusory: Many data-poor texts (he mentions several classics) are utterly convincing. Rather, it is as writers that anthropologists ``get us to take what they say seriously'' - by convincing us that ``what they say is a result of their having actually penetrated (or, if you prefer, been penetrated by) another from of life, of having, one way or another, truly `been there.'''

To illustrate his point, Geertz analyzes the writing of four major anthropologists - L'evi-Strauss, Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Benedict - focusing not on their doctrine but on their ``strategies of discourse,'' their rhetorical methods of establishing credibility. He examines, for example, Evans-Pritchard's prose style, with its assured, declarative sentences, its upper-class British tone, and the vivid picturing that persuades us he was visually ``there.'' In the case of Malinowski, he shows how the author enters his text, describing his method of persuasion as one of ``rendering your account credible through rendering your person so.''

By applying literary analysis to these anthropological works, Geertz casts them in a new light. His comments are extremely perceptive, but in a sense, whether or not one agrees with his particular interpretations is beside what I take to be his more crucial point, which he brings home forcefully: the degree to which ethnographies are written. Evans-Pritchard gives us the Azande; but Evans-Pritchard is on the page as well.

Geertz concludes that ethnographies should be viewed as literature, and that anthropologists should view their work as a literary endeavor. He argues, moreover, that such a view might reenergize the field: that by accepting ethnographies as ``intermediary'' texts - neither fictions nor scientific tracts but ``imaginative'' works - and by accepting their role in writing them, anthropologists might regain their ``authorial nerve.''

This is a persuasive book, as effective in its own rhetorical devices - its wit and striking juxtaposition of examples - as in its arguments. It is hard to see how anyone who has read it would argue with its premise that ethnographies are constructed texts. Whether anthropologists - as a profession - would be willing to view their work as ``art'' is open to question. Nor is it likely that such a view would resolve all their dilemmas. Western travel writers in the third world, who have never pretended to write anything other than literature, seem to find mere observation morally problematic.

What Geerz offers ethnographers is a conceptual framework that allows them both freedom and control: a way to talk with confidence once again about other peoples, a way to write new texts that might, as the earlier ones so powerfully did, ``enlarge the sense of how life can go.''

Gail Pool reviews travel literature for the Monitor.

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