I am coming round to a view of anthropology as a mixture of late Durkheim and Jung. It's why what the others call ethnography is not what we do and what anthropologists do is to some extent occult, so we hide it like a dirty secret when it is in fact the source of why we get it right more often. How do we turn the bits of concrete fieldwork, the individuals and events, into a partial vision of the whole society we study? By immersing ourselves in the social life and conversations of a place over a long enough period for it to become part of our own cumulative experience of society. There it sits undigested in our unconscious mind to be exhumed piecemeal and organized through the communion that is writing. This process can never be passed off as science, so we hoard our field notes away from public view and only feel comfortable in the company of other anthropologists who share our guilty knowledge. But there is another level, when you have lived in many places and have read a lot. Then the exercise offers glimpses into world society or humanity as a whole. It is of course like art, religion and philosophy (but none of them) and it offers me glimpses into unexplored regions of the brain's working. I still find the kernel of a possible understanding in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. "We worship society and call it God". The greatest mystery is how we all belong together in society, but this is linked somehow to the relationship between our conscious and unconscious minds, the known and the unknown.
Just a clue to the more concrete reasoning that underlies this gnomic summary. I examined a French guy for a PhD recently. He is an institutional economist and he studied alternative money in Argentina using what he called ethnography. He meant using qualitative observations obtained in a four month stay which anthropologists would consider ludicrously short. But he had actually lived in Argentina for over a year before that doing a degree. I tried to tell him that this longer experience was probably more important for his thesis than his so-called fieldwork. Trying to explain afterwards how anthropologists extrapolate from fieldwork experience to a vision of the society as a whole led to the musings above.