Sanjek, Roger (ed.) Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990, xviii + 429 pp. Including
chapter references and index. $42.50 cloth, $12.95 paper.
Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology:
Dialogue for a New Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1991, xiii + 297 pp. including chapter references, appendices,
and index. $31.95 cloth.
American anthropology has lost its center and is in disarray. This
is shown in the preoccupation with ethical discourse, the intrusion
of moral justifications into theoretical arguments, and the rush
to find new metaphors for research and organizing data, which includes
grasping at literary straws. Thus in Fieldnotes Sanjek can write
(pp. 408-9) “The answer must not be just to append, edit,
transcribe, or co-create the writings of informants. We must break
each of the four legs of WMWM [western/middle-class/white/male]
anthropology and radically widen the discipline’s membership...”
And “today the promise and premise of a world anthropology
in its liberal or more radical universality is visible reality.
Other-fucking in its more vulgar forms [I am not sure how it can
be more vulgar!] is drawing to a close” (p. 40-41). As Sanjek
buys into this very American need to conflate sex with aggression
(cf. Appell 1991), his concern with bias in field reporting seems
empty and not very reflexive. This is particularly so when he claims
that the new wave of the future is the “ethnographic”
writing of the former subjects of research who are now doing it
without the encumbrance of the dichotomy between self and other
(Hallowell, where are you when we need you?). Are they any less
biased? Has the professional ethnographer been without any theoretical
and methodological clothes all these years? What then is the need
for graduate fieldwork training? What then is the need for a volume
examining the nature of ethnographic fieldnotes?
Thus, anthropology today has some amusing contradictions. One
finds both scholars and true believers. But the boundaries between
these two subsets are sometimes blurred with the members of each
frequently jumping from one to the other even in the middle of an
article. This helps to explain the unrelenting rise and death of
fashions in American anthropological inquiry and its apparent lack
of scholarly development. For the “answer” to anthropological
questions are revealed to true believers by claimants of new paradigms,
new metaphors that solve everything. The past can then be swept
away without review other than scorn and a fresh start made. Frequently
the claims of true believers become more shrill the closer there
is an impending decision on tenure or academic position.
But why do scholars permit this? Is there something in the American
psyche that needs new beginnings or that needs new heroes to paper
over cognitive contradictions? This trend seems to have been exacerbated
by the shift in economics that has infected the character of the
anthropological endeavor itself. One of the original goals of anthropological
inquiry in attempting to understand the human condition was to rescue
threatened and disappearing cultures. These, of importance in themselves,
would also provide data on human nature, its capacities and limits,
material to understand the nature of culture and its processes,
and information on forces leading to the formation of cultures.
But this focus on salvage ethnography was supplanted with the rise
of the National Science Foundation. Now the focus is on theory,
on answering the problems of American society or contradictions
in the Western condition on the backs of indigenous peoples.
The harm that this does to ethnography is discussed by Allen and
Orna Johnson. They decry the shift from the holistic approach of
ethnography to a more scientific paradigm with tight deductive research
designs and an emphasis on theory. Unfortunately, the holism argument
is not cogently phrased. The more fundamental issue is the development
of system models of various sociocultural domains, which has proven
more productive than a simple holism of patterns and configurations
(see Appell 1973a). But their argument that such focused research
designs are reductionistic, resulting in the loss of context and
relevant data to the profession as a whole is right to the point.
Margery Wolf in her essay on her relationship to her fieldnotes
over several decades of research on Chinese women and the family
reaches similar conclusions. She argues that the anthropologist
who goes into the field with a circumscribed problem and a clear
picture of the kind of data to collect for a quick dissertation
sacrifices the opportunity to return to the fieldnotes to ask different
questions, to search for solutions to conflicting explanations,
and to add to the general ethnographic literature.
This also has implications for those peoples whose societies we
study. Robert Smith (p. 369) argues for the necessity of keeping
the voice of the ethnographer down and decries the view of fieldwork
as a rite of passage: “The implication is demeaning to people
who deserve more respect; the transformation of our informants into
hapless victims of alleged careerist machinations is the high price
we pay when we stop writing anthropology and start writing about
it and ourselves. The subjects of ethnographies, it should never
be forgotten, are always more interesting than their authors.”
Simon Ottenberg draws similar conclusions in his discussion of
the changing relationship of over thirty years to his fieldnotes
and the anthropological discipline. One of his most trenchant points
cultural relativism has been replaced by textual relativism. We
have moved from ideas of the relativism of the cultures of the people
we study to concepts of the relativity of interpretation and the
interpreter. That is possible because we have moved from employing
scientific metaphors, particularly those relating to organic qualities...
to using humanistic metaphors drawn largely from literature, literary
criticism, history, and drama.... Fieldnotes have gone from being
viewed as scientific data to being seen as interpretive text....
Anthropology has shifted from questions of the accuracy of the data
in the notes to matters of how one interprets them as text. Now
everything is interpretation.... But it is also part of present
Western society’s preoccupation with the self, a narcissism
in which the ‘native’ becomes secondary, while concern
with our anthropological and personal processes becomes primary.
This brings us to Clifford’s contribution in Fieldnotes, which
can be passed over with no loss as it unfortunately supports the
prejudice that much of literary criticism is not a scholarly pursuit.
It really is too bad he is not more familiar with the anthropological
literature and so uninformed about anthropological theory and the
ethnographic endeavor, for he has had some influence. A reappraisal
of Clifford’s much referred to article “On Ethnographic
Authority” is warranted here as it forms the foundation of
argument in many of the articles in Fieldnotes. I refer here to
the revised version appearing in Clifford (1988).
First, is the metaphor of fieldnotes as text and ethnographic
writing as interpretation either unique or enlightening? All scholarly
inquiry involves textual materials — whether it is the chemist
writing up his lab notes, the anthropologist writing down his sensory
observations, the historian making notes on the documents he reads,
or Clifford taking notes for his writings on anthropology. So the
view of fieldnotes as texts leads us nowhere if we do not take the
next step to analyze the mode of interpretation that authors of
these texts themselves use. Literary interpretation is not the only
mode, nor should it necessarily be privileged. It is just as important
to ascertain how evidence is marshalled, what is the logic of the
argument, what is selected, what is overlooked, what reality is
Second, Clifford’s argument is based on the analysis of
types. Any inquiry that depends on the selection of a type to represent
the whole is weak and the argument unsubstantiated unless evidence
is produced as to how types are selected and the degree to which
they are representative. Clifford avoids this. An example of the
failure of type analysis in his original article is his argument
that participant-observation, as used in several ethnographies he
has selected, produces experiential authority that is based only
on intuition, aesthetic and/or divinatory styles of comprehension,
and as a result produces naive claims. Does he really believe ethnographic
inquiry proceeds in this manner? Has he ever been in the field with
a skilled ethnographer? His knowledge of the literature on fieldwork
appears to be rather superficial.
The biased selection of types can lead one into intellectual quicksand.
Another blatant misuse of types and the bias this produces occurs
in his Fieldnotes contribution. He analyzes a photograph of Malinowski
in the field to typify how fieldwork was being done without establishing
how representative it is. And from the spatial relations depicted
he reads into it interpretations of intent and relationships indicative
of the fieldwork process without knowing the meaning of the spatial
relations to the participants themselves and without knowing the
original purpose of the photographer. Surely this is not scholarship!
Third, for narrative coherence he organizes his types along a time
line in which he imputes both covertly and overtly the notion of
progress, a very Western mode of organization.
This time line could, on the other hand, involve degeneration,
in terms of loss of knowledge, but that possibility is ignored.
Furthermore, this implies an independent reality against which accounts
can be judged as to their validity, which undermines his argument.
But this “progress” could also represent only a shift
of problem, with no improvement or degeneration in methods of obtaining
knowledge. For example, he applauds developments in the use of informants’
texts little realizing that the collection of texts may also represent
either a stage in an inquiry or the fact that the sociocultural
system is no longer operating and texts are one of the remaining
sources of information. Thus, what he ignores, and which is ignored
by most of the contributors to this book, is the fact that knowledge
is the product of interests in the broadest sense, of problems raised,
of questions posed, of novelty encountered, of a multitude of constraints
and contingencies in each piece of fieldwork. Unless that is factored
into the analysis, criticisms of anthropological writing and fieldnotes
There is a down side to the current emphasis on textual analysis
and interpretation, since this is not approached from a reflexive
position and is based primarily on literary modes of criticism.
It permits many to avoid the hard work of framing hypotheses, clearly
defining the problem to be examined, selecting relevant questions
to be put, marshalling of the resultant data, using controls to
minimize cultural bias, collecting quantitative data, all of which
are involved in disciplined fieldwork. And it ignores other modes
of analysis and interpretation of texts of data, privileging only
that of literary criticism.
One of the marks of scholarship of any kind is a knowledge of
the literature in the field, but this seems lacking in those concerned
with textual analysis in Fieldnotes. For example, in the discussions
of bias, never a mention is made to the methods used in ethnosemantic
inquiries to eliminate bias (see Werner and Fenton 1973 for a review
of this) or the classic work of Devereux (1967) on countertransference
in ethnographic inquiry. Plath in his interesting essay, which also
raises the problems and importance of filework on return from the
field, also makes this important point: “the jackleg preachers
of ‘reflexivity’ and ‘sensory ethnography’
should be invited to do a little more homework in the history of
their discipline” (p. 383). And Simon Ottenberg (p. 157) writes
that “despite the ridicule of past scholarship which marks
much of social and cultural anthropology today, we can... make use
of our own scholarly past if we are sensitive to the nature of our
anthropological texts, their complexities and limitations.”
But historical truth appears to be the first casualty of the battle
over the soul of anthropology. The editor, who himself contributed
approximately 45% of the material to Fieldnotes, at times appears
to be antifoundationalist and cynically skeptical. He refers to
Lévi-Strauss’s statement, now often deprecated by the
politically correct, on the rewards of being the first white man
to visit a native community as an example of “romantic Western
self-inflations.” Sanjek claims that this involves both racist
and sexist conventions which “were dying — if slowly
— by the 1930s...” (p. 39). And he naively argues that
the present reality is that everywhere the subjects of anthropological
inquiry can read and write fieldnotes. Yet, for example, there are
large areas of Southeast Asia where this is not true, and where
indigenous cultures have not been recorded and are rapidly dying.
But even before World War II anthropologists were studying literate
However, the problematic nature of fieldnotes is a worthy subject
of study. And the articles in this book represent the range from
scientific realism to relativism. In another chapter entitled “The
Secret Life of Fieldnotes” Sanjek probes the nature of fieldnote
practice by examining historical developments in the field. This
is an extraordinarily useful chapter accompanied by an analytical
bibliography of the subject. But with all the talk about bias and
the intrusive anthropologist, it is strange that there is no mention
of the fieldnote practice in inquiries on ethnoscience. Nor is there
reference to the special problems of legal, economic, or ecological
anthropological inquiry. Nevertheless this is a useful chapter,
although his analysis of the interview has its limitations. Sanjek
distinguishes two dimensions: whether the ethnographer comes to
the informant or the informant comes to the ethnographer, and who
controls the interview. There is an implied bias towards the informant
in control on his turf, but surely this depends on the questions
being posed, the problem being addressed.
But again the failure to frame the discussion of fieldnotes in
terms of the problems posed and the question raised, models used
and theories being tested, whether the society is functioning or
dying, leaves a major lacuna in this essay. As this is characteristic
of other essays, it eventually wounds the book. This failure to
consider the focus of the fieldwork also occurs in Jean Jackson’s
essay, “a somewhat lighthearted exploration of the emotional
dimension” (p. 5) of fieldnotes that summarizes the results
of her interview of seventy anthropologists on the subject. This
is a very interesting and revealing essay. Two findings are particularly
valuable: the ambivalence anthropologists feel toward their fieldnotes
and the fact that there is almost no formal instruction given in
graduate training in taking fieldnotes. But this chapter also illustrates
both the weakness of American anthropology and many of the contributions
in the book. There is no stratification of the data in terms of
experience, success, frequency of response, type of fieldwork, etc.
The material is organized on the basis of what the author selects
as typical and in terms more of descriptive integration than analysis.
Lederman explains much of the emotional discomfort Jackson found
over fieldnotes in her discussion of the liminality of fieldnotes
and their ambiguities. But I think more could be made of fieldnotes
as a liminal area, a transition zone, that the anthropologist must
constantly traverse, a liminal zone that includes errors, early
superficial understandings, and so forth. Lederman also argues to
extend the scrutiny of fieldnotes to the “scenes of reading
notes” on the ethnographer’s return home in which the
“significant work of decontexualizing and recontexualizing
cultural categories and idioms takes place” (p. 90).
Obbo presents a very disturbing narrative of her experiences with
European anthropologists who have tried to use her research data
to further their own careers, treating her as a “research
assistant on the cheap,” lying to her, publishing her data
without her knowledge, and even breaking into her research files
when she was not at home. And she concludes with her experience
studying an American community in which she found that few American
anthropologists were comfortable with her as a non-Western anthropologist
studying an America community. Her essay is the best for understanding
that aspect of the ambivalence anthropologists feel over their fieldnotes
because of the potential danger they pose to informants if certain
information is mishandled or revealed. And she nicely delineates
how ethnocentric anthropologists themselves can be and how some
anthropologists can be so career driven as to engage in unethical
and even illegal behavior.
In their essays Nancy Lutkehaus and Robert Smith discuss the issues
of using the fieldnotes of others and the changing relationships
to the data that this entails. Lutkehaus in her study of social
and economic change on Manam Island made extensive use of the fieldnotes
and published articles of Camilla Wedgwood. Her relationship with
Wedgwood through her fieldnotes and the changing character of this
provides one of the more interesting essays in the volume. Smith
discusses how he dealt with the fieldnotes of John and Ella Embree
(Wiswell) and the publications that resulted.
Sanjek’s last contribution on ethnographic validity is most
useful. He argues, unconvincingly but interestingly, that emphasis
on reliability in ethnography verges on an affectation and is not
the issue; validity is. And he proposes three canons to test the
validity of an ethnography: (1) theoretical candor in which the
ethnographer makes explicit his interests; (2) the ethnographer’s
path in which the development of informant contacts is made explicit
along with how they were made and an assessment of their representativeness;
and (3) fieldnote evidence in which the relationship of fieldnotes
to the ethnography is made explicit. These are critical points.
But he might have added that questions of validity are also raised
by a lack of internal consistency in the argument as well as by
assertions that have no supporting evidence but which fall beyond
the range of expected human behavior or are inconsistent with past
ethnographic reports from the region.
What I would like to have seen addressed in this book is how sensory
data are transformed into fieldnote text, how these are then selected
and transmuted into ethnographic statements, and how anthropological
fieldnote taking is different from other forms of data gathering.
To do this it would have required some consideration of the large
literature on note taking by journalists, by ethologists, by ornithologists,
by natural scientists (for example see Herman 1986), etc.
Finally this book raises fundamental questions on the nature of
the scholarly endeavor. First, much of the argument revolves around
the false dichotomy between scientific and humanistic inquiry. The
real issue is the creation and certification of warranted knowledge
and what methods are appropriate to what kinds of inquiry at a particular
stage of knowledge. Unfortunately, science is frequently viewed
as an exercise in generating statistical data and those taking a
humanistic stance tend to ignore rules of evidence and argument.
Allen and Orna Johnson have a very useful chapter on measurement
potentials of ethnographic fieldnotes. They then show how even in
humanistic research designs qualitative data can be transformed
into quantitative data with the improvement in scholarly argument.
Second, there are examples in this book which cast doubt on a
strong relativist program and suggest that relativists in their
attack on positivism need to rework their critiques. The program
of positivism, which holds that fact and theory are distinguishable,
has been ridiculed. It is claimed that there are no immaculate data
but that data are thoroughly penetrated by theory and the bias of
the researcher, with the degree of penetration charged depending
on the degree of relativity espoused by the author. Yet Ottenberg
writes “I have found that some of my data, collected with
other theories in mind and during a colonial period, can nonetheless
be reinterpreted in the present political world and in terms of
current theory” (p. 157). And Wolf also writes that her older
fieldnotes and those of her husband were amenable to analysis at
a later time with different theoretical issues in mind. And then
there are the examples of Smith and Lutkehaus finding important
data for their ethnographies in the fieldnotes of others, taken
at other times, under other conditions, and for other purposes.
Fieldnotes is an interesting and important book, although anyone
contemplating fieldwork should consult Ellen (1984), which is more
systematic and indispensable.
Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology also deals with the threatened
identity of American (U.S.) anthropology and the loss of the moral
center. But these authors are not concerned with the moral issue
of salvage ethnography. They are primarily interested in issues
facing the American profession of anthropology.
At a fundamental level I am not persuaded by arguments using moral
discourse for purposes of professional politics. It would have been
useful if some of the authors in Ethics had tried to make the distinction
between political discourse and ethical discourse. Perhaps there
is none. Certainly Chambers deftly points out how ethical discourse
is used to create social identities and solidarity, and to establish
boundaries between those who are inside and those who are outside.
By this process one faction attempts to gain privileged position
in control over another faction, and to discourage or exclude anthropologists
from participating in areas of behavior, as in nonacademic employment.
In other words, ethical discourse as well as regulating behavior
in the opportunity structure, as I have noted elsewhere, is frequently
used to control access to future resources.
Fluehr-Lobban argues the source of the crises in ethics has been
the profound change in the old order in anthropology by the lack
of employment opportunities in academia and the continued production
of professional anthropologists so that by 1986 there were more
anthropologists employed outside academia than inside. The market
for traditional anthropologists has been shrinking while the production
of trained anthropologists has continued. She provides an historical
analysis of the growth and changes in ethical debate in the U.S.
anthropological profession, focusing on the various ethical statements
of the American Anthropological Association. This is an interesting
review, but it seems to lack depth, particularly in dealing with
the Vietnam War issues as the defenses made by those accused of
unethical behavior are not included or analyzed.
Both Fluehr-Lobban and Berreman attack the proposed revisions
of the American Anthropological Association statement on ethics
for ignoring the problem of secret and clandestine research. But
Chambers makes a good case for a rethinking of this issue. Berreman
distinguishes ethical discourse from so-called “realist”
arguments of militarists, bureaucrats, and those with economic interests,
and warns that such arguments are inappropriate in a profession
that deals with truth. In this context he reviews the history of
these “realist” defense mechanisms in the American Anthropological
Association over anthropological participation in the Vietnam War,
how they affected him, and their consequences. Fluehr-Lobban also
makes this important point on how bureaucratic the American Anthropological
Association has been when confronted with ethical issues, using
delaying and cover-up tactics rather than leading the profession.
Berreman argues against the evisceration the 1971 Principles of
Professional Responsibilities in the draft code of 1984 and the
abandonment that this represents of the spirit of ethical practice.
While some of his points may not be accepted by all in the profession,
we are fortunate to have such an ethically sensitive individual
to force us to consider such issues.
What has caused this identity crisis in American anthropology?
Is it really the demographic expansion that has required the search
for new positions outside academia? Has there been a different bias
in the applications and selection of graduate students? Was the
rapid expansion in departments giving the Ph.D. in the 1960s and
1970s in response more to internal rather than external market conditions?
And has this resulted in a lowering of standards so that the identity
crisis is partially the product of inadequate training? Or has this
identity crisis been purposely constructed by those seeking power
and position on the basis of this? I suspect that all these have
That very real ethical issues exist. In his contribution Hakken
argues that there is a diversity of ethical thinking in the profession
as well as an employment crises, and our ethical difficulties derive
from philosophical confusions regarding what ethics should be. He
argues that we have to develop an effective ethical culture within
the discipline but the American Anthropological Association has
failed to take the leadership in this.
Jay Szklut and Robert Reed in a pertinent and useful essay address
the ethical dilemmas that arise from the demands of publication
and reassess and revise the traditional ethical principle of protection
of the community of research by anonymity. John Halsey reviews the
current situation for the proper ethical and legal practice of archeology
in the state of Michigan.
William Graves and Mark Shields, in a well thought out essay on
the nature of ethical codes, argue that they are based on a conceptualization
of social life as a game of control, contributing to the view that
conflict is an inevitable consequence of differences. Ethical discourse
should be based on a more positive set of ideas than control, harm,
and protection. Furthermore, social scientists do not have that
kind of authority and control over their research to guarantee that
the rights of subjects are protected, nor do they control the research
process independent of the interests and actions of others. Research,
as any social relation, has an emergent character, and one never
knows what the effects of the feedback of results might be, particularly
in contract research. They argue for a dialogic conception of moral
responsibility in which an attempt is made to understand and accommodate
a plurality of perspectives and definitions in research.
Barbara Frankel and M. G. Trend question whether anthropology
is not developing two cultures and whether a single code of ethics
is still appropriate. And they compare the differences in the cultures
of academic and nonacademic anthropologists and the implications
of these for a code of ethics.
Jean Gilbert, Nathanial Tashima, and Claudia Fishman’s very
informative essay discusses the issues behind the development of
the ethical guidelines for the National Association of Practicing
Anthropologists, enlarging on the problems faced by nonacademically
In the final chapter Fluehr-Lobban provides an excellent summary
of the ethical issues raised in the book and discusses them in the
light of the new realities within the anthropological profession.
A series of appendices contain the various enacted and proposed
codes of ethics for the American Anthropological Association, the
Society for Applied Anthropology, the Society of Professional Archaeologists,
and the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists.
However, to understand some of the basic issues in our ethical
dilemmas I believe our relationship with informants needs greater
scrutiny. It is not enough just to state, as the present AAA code
does, that our first responsibility is to protect the dignity and
privacy of the people who provide information. Our ethnographic
interview is unique in that it has similarities to the psychiatric
relationship, but at the same time the data we obtain are to be
made public or used in a public fashion, whatever the public. We
establish trust and understanding, and then in a way violate this
by turning the healing emotion of understanding into data, objectifying
the other. Certainly, some of our ethical confusions and the ambivalence
we feel over fieldnotes result from our failure to define that relationship
I also come away with the unresolved question of why nonacademically
employed anthropologists want an anthropological identity by having
an ethical code that is responsive to their interests. What competitive
advantage is there to be identified as anthropologists in the nontraditional
occupations? Or does this identification have something to say about
how these individuals want to place themselves in terms of their
own larger culture?
But what should be the moral grounds for ethics in the profession
of anthropology? The values of our own society? Is this not slightly
ethnocentric? Is this not why discussions of ethics are frequently
so culture bound and uninformed by anthropological theory? I am
constantly amazed that discourse on ethics in the anthropological
profession seems strangely unenlightened by the theories and methods
we apply to other societies, which tends to suggest we do not really
believe our own theories of behavior when applied to ourselves (see
Appell 1973b). But anthropological knowledge about social processes
can at least provide a partial base for a code of ethics.
As anthropological grounds for starting a discussion of ethical
behavior, I would be concerned that anthropological inquiry not
cause any social disintegration in the community of research. To
phrase it in another way, anthropologists as a result of their research
should not add to the adaptation load of any society or individual,
either by destroying trust, increasing conflict, eroding beliefs,
or lowering self-esteem. The veil of public secrecy should not be
pierced, as this interferes with social processes; and intervention
in the system of distributive justice should not be engaged in unless
such actions would improve the adaptive capacity of first the society
and then the individuals. But I have spoken about this before (Appell
Finally, one of the founding pillars of our profession was the
concern over recording the cultures of the world before they disappeared
under successive waves of “modernization” not only for
their contributions to knowledge but for the very peoples themselves.
Those American anthropologists who have been swept into the postmodern
eddy of this flood of modernity and who now from that position accuse
ethnography of being part of that flood seem to have forgotten our
history and have abandoned unfinished the very critical antimodernist
program of salvage ethnography. This program required the elimination
of ethnocentric bias and the development both of better theoretical
tools for ensuring that our data reflected cultural reality and
better questions to ask to increase our understanding of social
processes. What has happened to this centering ethos? Why is salvage
ethnography no longer one of our concerns? Was that not an ennobling
and transcendent endeavor? And is not the loss of this the cause
of our identity crisis? Murdock and Lévi-Strauss, as well
as other major theoretical thinkers, have all claimed that the most
important contribution that anthropology has to make is its ethnographic
record of these disappearing and lost worlds. Would not a return
to this again make anthropology the vibrant discipline it once was?
Isn’t this one of the reasons anthropologists not employed
in anthropological positions want to maintain their identity with
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