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Imponderabilia

The new international student anthropology journal!

For all interested in writing, illustrating, editing and becoming involved with Imponderabilia

 

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Website: http://imponderabilia.socanth.cam.ac.uk/
Location: Main Office : University of Cambridge
Members: 57
Latest Activity: Jun 9, 2013

Imponderabilia - 'a series of phenomena of great importance which cannot possibly be recorded by questioning or computing documents, but have to be observed in their full actuality' - Malinowski, B. [1922] (2002:18) 'Argonauts of the Western Pacific'. Routledge: London

Imponderabilia is a multidisciplinary student journal, a platform to share and exchange ideas, criticisms and reflections on anything anthropological (in the widest sense of the word - on anything related to culture and society). With contributions from students from different countries and disciplines, Imponderabilia tries to blur and overcome the boundaries between institutions, disciplines, theories, and between undergraduates and postgraduates.
Imponderabilia is about dialogue, exchange and interaction. Read the articles and think about them, but don't stop there. Respond with comments and reflections. Propose counterarguments and criticisms and contribute to the next issue.

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Imponderabilia 2011 2 Replies

  After a highly successful launch event on Sunday, I'm happy to be able to share with you the latest edition of  Imponderabilia. Thanks are due to all donors, without whom this project would never…Continue

Tags: impoderabilia, student, journal

Started by Toby Austin Locke. Last reply by Camilla Burkot May 10, 2011.

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Comment by John McCreery on December 20, 2010 at 10:12am

Not to mention international trade and other forms of globalization. <-grin->

Comment by M Izabel on December 16, 2010 at 7:15pm

A nutritional anthropologist, once, explained to me in a functionalist and Marxist way that our eating of balut (unhatched egg) was due to the "fact" that it was easy to produce a source of rich protein in quantity than waiting for the eggs to hatch and grow into chickens, and that the poor masses loved it because it was cheaper than chicken.  I thought of it as a nice explanation.  Does that explanation exist in my culture?  No.  So, is it cultural? No. Interpretive? Yes.  Her opinion? Yes.

 

We eat "balut" because it is delicious, and tastes more of a chicken than an egg.  Some rich Filipinos eat them too.  We love variety.  We have salted eggs, unhatched eggs, pickled eggs, and plain eggs.  The same pattern is observable in producing, processing, and cooking rice.  Compare and contrast practices within a culture to see cultural patterns.

 

The danger of allowing an anthropologist's interpretation to sip in a culture is the  acculturation of thoughts.  Imagine if a Feminist anthropologist tells the four wives of the Muslim husband about misogyny and exploitation, an interpretation that does not exist in their concept of polygynous marriage, do you think that's ethical to subtly and indirectly condemn and demonize one's culture all because of interpretation and application of a theory?

Comment by M Izabel on December 16, 2010 at 12:47pm

"My paternal grandfather's memories included driving a mule-drawn wagon from one town in Missouri to another. My parents and I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and became young adults during the Great Depression. I can recall a world whose dominant social fact was the Cold War and threat of nuclear destruction. I remember the first news broadcast I saw on TV, when TV was a very new thing. There was one newscaster, a white man named John Cameron Swazey, with a pack of Camels cigarettes on his desk. There was a time when I knew Luther's Small Catechism by heart, not any more. And to my grandkids the world I grew up in will be as alien as Missouri and mule-drawn wagons and the Great Depression are to me."

 

Is that how you think of culture?

Comment by M Izabel on December 16, 2010 at 12:39pm

Keith told me to stop, but let me answer.

I think you are the one who has misread me.  I consciously used "everyone" because culture is a collective practice.  "Each one" doesn't sound right.  Culture is practiced by a population whose members belong to or represented by groups.  Children have their parents who can tell them about their culture.  Young adults have their elders to listen to for advices.

 

If anthropology is science, it has to be consistent.  Anthropologists should not resort to multiple theories and interpretations to understand a culture.  Consistency is not a difficult thing to achieve.  All we have to do is to listen and see what the people in that culture are saying and doing for us to come up with a general description or ethnography of that culture.  Anthropologists coming from different backgrounds won't be contradicting each other if they stick to what they see and hear, not what they think and interpret.

Comment by John McCreery on December 16, 2010 at 11:40am

M Izabel, it is hard to take seriously someone who misreads as much as you do. I haven't seen anyone here assert that the natives don't think about their culture or lack ideas about it. Some of us, Huon and myself in particular, have gone out of our way to note the necessity of paying careful attention to what the native tells us.

 

What you refuse to concede is, first, that the natives themselves may have multiple points of view and that cultural knowledge may be unequally distributed among them. Huon has mentioned that children may not know what their parents or grandparents do. In the modern world, this is hardly surprising. My paternal grandfather's memories included driving a mule-drawn wagon from one town in Missouri to another. My parents and I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and became young adults during the Great Depression. I can recall a world whose dominant social fact was the Cold War and threat of nuclear destruction. I remember the first news broadcast I saw on TV, when TV was a very new thing. There was one newscaster, a white man named John Cameron Swazey, with a pack of Camels cigarettes on his desk. There was a time when I knew Luther's Small Catechism by heart, not any more. And to my grandkids the world I grew up in will be as alien as Missouri and mule-drawn wagons and the Great Depression are to me.

And this isn't just the Western world we are talking about. I have cited before Stevan Harrell's small survey in a Taiwanese village in the early 1970s. The topic was Chinese religion, and in one small village his fourteen collaborators included three village theologians, each of whom had devised his own idiosyncratic version of traditional Chinese cosmology, one village atheist, an old woman who called the whole business nonsense, and ten who said repeatedly only "It's the custom."

 

The assumption that there is a culture, specific to some group of people, all of whom know it equally is a methodological abstraction that was, I suggest, of pragmatic value when anthropology was getting underway. It allowed field researchers to focus on easily observed, frequently repeated behavior and terms and rules that everyone in the community studied seemed to take for granted. That there is a reality in which the world is divided into natives who know everything there is to know and anthropologists who start out knowing nothing and impose arbitrary ideas has long been recognized as counterfactual.

Second, you ignore the possibility that a stranger with a fresh perspective can learn things about a culture of which the native is unaware. To declare this impossible is also counterfactual. The most obvious examples come from linguistics, where it is generally the case that native speakers of a language are unaware of phonological peculiarities until they are pointed out by a linguist, e.g., that in English the "p" in "pool" is exploded while the "p" in "spool" is not.

 

A third point is, of course, that the anthropologist in question may, in fact, be a native, who makes use of anthropological theory and methods to deepen her understanding of her own culture.

 

Should the anthropologist pay careful attention to what the natives have to say? Of course, absolutely, to fail to do so is clearly a lack of due diligence. Does the anthropologist's analysis have to stop with what the native says? No. Good ethnographic analysis combines what the natives say with what the anthropologist observes, then adds to the mix ideas and comparisons from elsewhere, thus generating new knowledge, which natives as well as non-natives may accept, reject, or modify as they will.

 

Knowledge is the product of dialogue. The result of insisting that one and only one side always has it right, what would you call that?

Comment by M Izabel on December 16, 2010 at 10:25am

I hope I'll be clearer this time.  I'll make it ethnographic to illustrate my point that ethnography should be freed from theories.

 

In my apartment complex, most residents are from Mexico.  I chose this apartment six months ago for anthropological reason.  I wanted to prove if my idea of an ethnographer as a neighbor, which I'll blog shortly, would make sense.

 

Last weekend, I was invited by my next-door neighbor for a get-together.  She invited her friends, family, and relatives.  I knew and met some of them before.  We were eight all in all, three males and five females.  I was the only Asian in the group, and the rest were Mexicans. I was surprised;  it was not a party.  We cooked tamales.  I could not back out, so I just did what they all did. I straightened the corn husks, helped measured the masa dough, and did some wrapping.  When everything was all cooked, we ate and gossiped while the guys had beer.  Afterwards, I was told that I could take some; I took four pieces for dinner.

 

Before I left, I became curious and asked them if what we did was a Mexican thing.  They all told me it was a bonding tradition during Christmas season among Mexican families, friends, and relatives.  It was clear to me that such get-together was a form of networking and nothing else.  That was what they told me in the first place.  Should I not believe them?

 

If I were a Marxist anthropologist, I would think of the get-together as a communistic practice related to “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” I did think if their practice being communistic was an example of them not knowing their culture.  I thought it over if their explanation was not enough or if I needed a Marxist approach to grasp their practice.

 

The lesson I got: theories in the field ruin ethnographies.

 

I called some professional Mexican friends to crosscheck.  They did tell me that indeed it was a Mexican tradition, and had nothing to do with Marxism or Communism.  It was primarily for bonding.  If all they wanted were to produce tamales of different flavors, they could easily buy them. My friends laughed at me.  They should because I over-thought the way anthropologists who brought theories to the field would.

 

Why would people in a culture need outsiders for a dialogue to meaningfully know their own culture?  Multiple modes of dialogue happen among natives within a culture.  A current culture is a result of conflict-and-resolution and opposition-and-cooperation in the past.  That's why it's hard for me to accept the idea that natives don't know and think about their culture.  Do you think the natives in that culture are all zombies who needs awakening?  Do they really have to know what Marx wrote a long time ago so they will know what they are doing?

 

Comment by John McCreery on December 16, 2010 at 5:33am

I just cannot accept the idea that there are things natives do not know in their culture that only anthropologists know and can explain to them.

 

Could the problem be in the way this opposition is framed, i.e., the native versus only the anthropologist? There is very little, one suspects, that only an anthropologist can know. That does not, however, preclude anthropologists who reflect on what they are told and what they see, which may contradict what they are told, and direct their attention in ways suggested by theories and comparisons of which the native is unaware, from learning things about the native of which the native is, and may remain, oblivious.

Comment by M Izabel on December 15, 2010 at 7:48pm

Culture is a collective phenomenon, concept, or what have you.  If the children don't know about their gods, their parents do.  If farmers don't know their rituals, their shamans do.  I just cannot accept the idea that there are things natives do not know in their culture that only anthropologists know and can explain to them.  That is so, well, ethnocentric Western thought. 

 

Culture, as a phenomenon of space and time, is a lifelong practice. If someone stays longer in his community, he will know what he needs to know.  That's why in traditional cultures elders are revered for their wisdom.  They are viewed as keepers of knowledge because it is assumed that they know what should be known about their culture.

 

With the Qur'an example, I did not use any theory to process the simple answer of the husband.  I contextualized his practice in relation to another practice in his community, which should be the right way to do ethnography. 

 

Let's graph people in their culture not the dead white men and women and their theories.

Comment by Huon Wardle on December 15, 2010 at 4:10pm

M, I know from previous experience that you hold this view about culture very strongly, but I still don't understand it. First, to say that everyone knows their own culture is a seeming truism - it is like saying everyone knows what they know. But, even that is doubtful because people can change their minds and they know things in diferent ways and with different levels of conviction.

If you are saying that everyone within the 'boundary' of a culture knows everything about that culture then this can quickly be shown to be incorrect - children know less about some things and much more about others and they know what they know individually and as children; adults can barely read children's minds which often display highly imponderable states of knowledge from an adult perspective. So how can we say everyone in a culture knows that culture?

 

Malinowski was simply saying what is obvious: that I can know more about the context of someone else's actions than they do themselves - and the reverse is true too. My child can in many cases read the context of my actions better than I can. They can for instance note when I am unwittingly contradicting myself or handing out a dictat which goes against principles I have told them to follow. An intelligent third person might likewise quickly see the pattern governing the behaviour and even give me some good advice, who knows. My riposte might be 'I know what I am doing better than you do' - but surely that is only acceptable up to a point.

 

In your example you haven't stuck to your own rules: the man merely said what the Qoran said, he did not say 'I am saying that because otherwise I would be pulled up in front of the Sharia court': so you have introduced a functional explanation of a kind that Malinowski would have completely approved of. However, the Muslim would have every reason to be deeply offended by that statement if, for instance, he fervently believed that having four wives is appropriate according to Qoranic teaching. The (functional) explanation was yours not his and so you are claiming to know something in excess of what he has told you.

Comment by Keith Hart on December 15, 2010 at 1:43pm

Well, I guess we now know that the name was well chosen, if only for the follow up to the first 'What the f--k?' It makes people think, for and against. It is interesting that Danny Miller followed the opposite poetic line with the title for his latest, Stuff. The Latin and Germanic registers of English do express class positions: the church, law and bureaucracy vs the people.

 

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