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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 15, 2010 at 9:11am

OK, can't resist.


From Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift, p.21

What would happen if we saw our job as nothing more than reproducing what people tell us? L-S, in his critique of Mauss writes, "Then ethnography would dissolve into a verbose phenomenology, a falsely naive mixture in which the apparent obscurities of indigenous thinking would only be brought to the forefront to cover the confusions of the ethnographer, which would otherwise be too obvious."
Godelier goes on to suggest that anthropologists need to critique both (1) the illusions by which all societies, including our own, maintain themselves and (2) academic theories which ignore what the people studied have to say. I recall Victor Turner's advice that native exegesis is only one part of the ethnographic puzzle that also includes our direct observations and ideas and data brought for comparative purposes from other times or places. I also recall the "Letter to Novy Mir," in which Mikhail Bakhtin argues persuasively that all cultural understanding necessarily emerges from dialogue in which both parties have blind spots only revealed by the other's gaze. 


Comment by M Izabel on December 15, 2010 at 5:33am

Toby, I had no intention to "blaspheme" Malinowski.  It just happens that alternative ethnography is one of my interests.  Not long ago, a paper of a UCLA professor was linked here.  He said something about natives not knowing and thinking about their culture.  Since then, I have been tracing the root of such "othering" idea that, I think, is ethnographically questionable.  I believe Malinowski started it all with his concept of "imponderabilia."


An MIT-published qualitative research design book has the paper of Tim Plowman (2003), "Ethnography and Critical Design Practice," in which he says:


"By imponderabilia, Malinowski meant the daily life of the people, their ordinary behavior, which the "natives" themselves find difficult to explain or articulate."

I'm not questioning his statement because I'm a native of a marginalized culture.  It just also happens that I'm interested in epistemology.  I can understand if he only uses "articulate" since language can be a barrier, but he double-kills it with "explain."  Are there really anthropologists here who believe that there are natives who do not know their culture?  


I think the problem lies in the processing of ethnographic data.  If a Feminist anthropologist asks a Muslim husband why he has four wives, she will not be satisfied with his answer that it is allowed in the Qur'an.  Maybe she will use Feminist theories so the man and his culture can be labeled as misogynist.  A Marxist anthropologist will think of it as an issue of property, production, and gender as class.  Postmodernist can connect the patriarchal power that subjugates to state structures.  Does his answer have to be understood using different theories before it becomes a knowledge?  Isn't his answer already a knowledge? 


For me, his Qur'an explanation makes sense since Muslim men with wives exceeding four are dragged to Sharia courts for not following the teaching of the Qur'an.  What else do they want from the man before his answer is accepted as what it is?  That's the unscientific in anthropology.  A man pissing in public can be analyzed differently, maybe, from the psychoanalytic unconscious to Bourdieu's habitus.  There is no consistency.  There is no clear truth. 

Comment by M Izabel on December 14, 2010 at 9:04pm

The first time I read/encountered "imponderabilia" even before I decided to take anthropology in college,  three things came to mind:


1)  Participant-observation is mostly observation.


Anything in a culture can be imponderable to an outsider that observes it.  Take the bicycle photo above as an example.  To an observer, it is one of those street imponderabilia--pertaining to something imponderable.  He cannot really ascertain why the bike looks like that, why it is positioned that way, why it is there, and why it has to be there.  To the bike owner, he does not have those pondering questions.  He can explain from the bolts of the bike to the black-painted post where he locks his bike onto.  Impoderabilia, therefore, only exists in the realm of the observing outsider.  I believe humans are not cognitively wired to think the obvious but to accept it.  I have never touched a fire because I have accepted it to be obviously hot since it boils water. 


2) The natives cannot explain or do not ponder upon their cultural practices. 


If anthropologists cannot extract answers and exact explanations about a local culture from its natives, the latter are either lying or withholding information.  Since anthropologists are trained to detect lies, exaggerations, silences, and even indifferences, the easiest culprit is that these natives simply do not know their culture.  It is convenient to say, for example, that they do not know even their taking a bath and using coconut oil as shampoo and rough stones as body cleaning tools.  They do them without thinking.  The fact is that natives can explain every facet of their culture but do not have the gumption to spend time thinking cultural nuances and minutiae that are obvious or negligible.  Why should they explain in details why they eat rice, for example, since it is a kind of thing they just do and do not intellectualize.  They can, however, tell you how they produce rice or tell about their folktales about rice.  If you expect them to answer about rice being the primary source of carbohydrates, you need to talk to vegans and nutritionists.      


3) Imponderabilia was Malinowski's imponderables not of the Trobriands.


This quote by Malinowski (1961) alone will explain that:


The goal of anthropologists/ethnographers is "to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world"  Why can't the explanation that a cup of steamed rice goes well with a slab of broiled pork be accepted as what it is not grasped intensely or overly thought? It is in grasping that anthropologists and ethnographers interpret things whose absurdity tends to border around exaggeration or over-analysis.

Comment by Richard Irvine on December 14, 2010 at 5:43pm

Just in response to M Izabel on the definition of imponderabilia. While broadly speaking I agree with the idea of attempting to understand the logic of human life from the point of view of those living it (and so I am committed to ethnography, and thankful to my forebears such as Malinowski who helped pioneer the method), I think there are limits to what you're saying here:

1) If we rely only on the explanations and narrations of those participating in a culture, without any attempt to render them in a language outside of that that they themselves use, then communication between cultural settings becomes difficult or impossible. Anthropology is not simply the gathering of stories, but an attempt to think about different ways of doing comparatively. Malinowski's observation of exchange in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (from which the quote is drawn) not only informs us about what the Trobriand Islanders do; it also informs us about what we do, by giving us comparative tools to think about exchange in a different way. If we are restricted to only thinking about Trobriand exchange through their own language and logic, without making this vital move of trying and re-orient our own understanding using the comparative case of Trobriand exchange, then anthropology loses much of its potential.

2) Part of what Malinowski is pointing to here is the limits of language. Some things cannot be transmitted through oral explanation or documentation, but need to be observed. This is well known to anybody who has attempted to learn a craft (I was apprenticed in carpentry in my field site). My understanding is that he's not simply branding other cultures "imponderable", but pointing to a truth about learning-through-participation. The early chapter of Argonauts from which this quote is drawn is, after all, a rallying cry against armchair anthropology.

Oh yeah, and I think it's an ok name. Certainly looks pretty on the cover! And I sincerely doubt there was any elitist intention on the part of the original creators. While there is some truth in the claim that Cambridge is elitist, I don't think archaeology and anthropology undergraduates (and this was, at the point of inception, an undergraduate initiative) are the primary culprits in this at all. I think I posted something elsewhere on OAC about the radical potential of this project... but part of it is certainly that they're building a community of students that is wide and inclusive - certainly not 'Cambridge-only' or 'anthropology-only'.

Comment by M Izabel on December 14, 2010 at 10:47am

Do you think that definition makes sense?  From birth to death, what a human being experiences is a series of phenomena.  That's why only insiders know why they do things in their cultures outsiders think as a series of imponderable phenomena.  They can dissect and explain those phenomena too for  anthropologists who have no time to observe the entire series in its actuality.  Most terms coined by anthropologists do not make sense in the cultures they study.  I wish they stick to studying language rather than making one. 

Comment by M Izabel on December 14, 2010 at 2:15am

If there's something imponderable in a culture, what's the use of anthropology? The truth is that there's nothing that cannot be explained or evaluated in a culture if  we evaluate and explain it using concepts, definitions, and terms of that culture.  If we use its own logic, there will be no imponderabilia. 

Comment by Camilla Burkot on December 13, 2010 at 10:35pm

Hi there!  I am a Cambridge student working on Imponderabilia this year - although I wasn't around when the journal was founded either, I have to say I was somewhat surprised or taken aback by the idea that the title "Imponderabilia" might be considered elitist. Granted, it is something of an "insider" bit of knowledge - in that people who haven't studied anthropology aren't likely to have heard of Malinowski or his concept of "imponderabilia" - but I would expect most anyone who has taken an Anthropology 101 course to have heard of Malinowski and hopefully make the connection.  But then I've only ever studied anthropology at Cambridge (where our first assigned essay was on Malinowskian fieldwork...), so maybe I'm just taking this knowledge for granted!  But the way I see it, the title is meant more to be witty or a kind of in-joke, rather than demonstrating elitism.  


I'll try to get some of the original founding editors of Imponderabilia on here to get their comments.  Thanks for all the positive feedback so far!  We are busily working away on Issue 3 at the moment (hopefully to be published in March or April) and looking forward to sharing it with the anthropological world!

Comment by John McCreery on December 13, 2010 at 1:40am
Another bit of positive feedback from Anthropology-L: "I am so glad you found this resource! Thank you for sharing it with us. My next semester's students will enjoy reading some of these articles."

Re "Imponderabilia": I am going to stick my neck out and argue in my capacity as a professional copywriter that this is a brilliant naming. I use a framework suggested by Ohnuki Takuya, one of Japan's most brilliant and successful advertising creatives.

According to Ohnuki, successful advertising must pass five hurdles. it must be

1. Eye-catching: In a world over saturated with information, job no.1 is simply to be noticed.

2. Arouse interest: Those who notice the ad must also be motivated to pay sufficient attention to understand the message.

3. Be easy to understand: Simplicity beats complexity every time.

4. Be memorable: It doesn't just stick out in the flood of information; like a rock in a rapid, it is there, sticking out, whenever we try to recall it.

5. Add value: The audience is left with an improved image of the business or product in question.

To my mind "Imponderabilia" passes all of these hurdles. A more "informative" name would leave it buried among the hundreds of journals with more descriptive names, the ones we never get around to reading unless there is some direct connection to our own research or professional network. The name is also intriguing; it triggers a search to learn more. Could it be simpler? Perhaps. But the lead sentence of the explanation of the name not only evokes the hallowed name of Malinowski. It uses his words to point to the core value of ethnography, that there are things which cannot be learned by asking questions or counting alone, important things that require an exploration in depth made possible by experience. The idea is both simple and compelling. The combination of an unusual, eye-catching word with a simple, compelling message makes the journal memorable. It also, I would argue, adds value. This reader, at least, is left with a highly positive impression of social anthropology, a refreshing change from the gloom, doom and factionalism that infects so much of what I read about anthropology these days.m
Comment by Keith Hart on December 12, 2010 at 4:24pm

I am very glad that Imponderabilia might make some use of the interactive space we provide here and conversely that OAC members may get to know the journal and perhaps contribute to it. I certainly have nothing against the Cambridge department that spawned it. But I have long wondered why a new journal would chose as its name a Latin tag of seven syllables. Don't you think it smacks just a little of elitism? Or is that the point?

Comment by John McCreery on December 12, 2010 at 2:01pm

Toby, I passed the URL along on Anthro-L and this is the first reply I got.


"Many thanks. The site is quite impressive and so are some of the links it offers."


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