For those with careers to worry about, I note for the record that my single most cited article is a piece called "Women's property rights and dowry in China and South Asia," Ethnology 1976. It was, in essence, a literature review, working through available village studies to determine the conditions under which bridewealth (from the husband's family to the wife's) or dowry (from the wife's family to the husband) are paid, which turns out to have a lot to do with women's right or lack thereof to inherit a portion of their parents' estates. It is easy to imagine doing similar papers with different topics but the same basic strategy: working through ethnographic reports for the region in which you are interested, systematically cross-checking what they have to say on the topic you are interested in. The work may not have the buzz of currently hot theory; but if solidly done, it is likely to be cited by everyone who works on a similar topic in the future. A, what did we used to call that? contribution to knowledge.
Title: Why do the gods look like that?: Reflections on the iconography of Chinese folk religion.
I begin with a simple question, one that a tourist might ask. After all, nothing is more distinctively Chinese than the architecture of Chinese temples and the visual representation of the gods who sit on their altars. Yet, precisely because it is so everyday to the fieldworker whose topic is Chinese folk religion, why Chinese gods and temples should look like that remains largely unexamined. Familiar descriptions of gods, ghosts and demons and the notion that gods are heavenly bureaucrats, albeit some with demonic histories, are at best thin descriptions of an iconography whose baroque elaboration contrasts sharply with, for example, the relative austerity of Japanese shrines. So the simple question points to more sophisticated problems. Can anthropological theories combined with a closer look produce thicker descriptions or more compelling explanations of the wealth of detail that dazzles and dulls the eyes of both tourist and fieldworker alike? Can it point us to deeper understanding of the fundamental phenomenology that Chinese folk religion embodies?
What now? What place does comparison have in contemporary and future anthropology? And how would you use comparative analysis to advance your own research and understanding?
My way to put it is often in terms of dialogue, among ethnographers. Partly through books, but also through many other interactions, we get to learn about cultural contexts in which we're unlikely to ever do extended research.
We step into a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves.
Outside of this kind of "area studies" mode, there's the fact that scholars working on the same broad topic interact with colleagues who work in a wide variety of contexts.