Anthropology, society and the unconscious mind

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.

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Comment by Jenny Hasenau on April 26, 2012 at 4:29pm

I'm new to this cooperative and have been very impressed with the sharing of ideas and experiences. In my experience, common sense can be found everywhere, although the things that will warrant surprise towards those who don't know, inevitably differ. (ex. I would be shocked to hear an anthropologist tell me they've never heard of Durkheim) Knowing these things is important to an individual's identity as belonging to a specific group. When that sense of security is threatened by doubt, stubborn behaviors of denial can ensue. Vico's work sounds fascinating as I agree there is a clear distinction between true and sure, the same difference exists between knowing and believing. I also would be interested in reading more on the relationship between memory and creativity, however I think the interesting question raised by this thread is the connection between culture, which can be observed and recorded, and perception/thought, something we cannot study so easily. It is entirely possible that what is considered instinct based on experience is really us seeking answers through patterns we've observed before and become familiarized with.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 20, 2012 at 9:45am

That's a great quote, John. Thanks.

The thing about being young is that you are more open to new experience than when you are older, wiser perhaps, but also more fixed in your ways. I know that I learned languages easily in my 20s and 30s, when I was opening out to the world, than in my 50s and 60s, when I was more interested in looking inward to make sense of the experience I had accumulated.

Meyer Fortes used to say that you should write down everything you see that strikes you as new in the first weeks of fieldwork, because you quickly become used to life there and don't see so much as a result. I spent two and a half years in the field for my doctorate and I was sure that I was getting better at it all the time. But when it came to writing up, I used very little outside the notes I took in the first year which read like a detective story, question and answer, new question etc. Towards the end I was just recording village gossip.

This is related to writing up after fieldwork. I have heard it said that you can't write in the first three months since it takes time for you to be able to retrieve the experience you have accumulated. Like it has to sink in before you can make an object of it.

So all of these factors, not just age, affect the dynamics of conscious/unconscious interaction in the context of fieldwork and writing, presumably many more that we might explore here.

Comment by John McCreery on April 20, 2012 at 8:19am

Reading an article on the editorial photographer Phil Sayer,  I stumble across the following remarks,

Sayer is self-effacing about his pictures. “I can’t claim any penetrating insights into character with these portraits,” he says. “They are really designed images, making use of both the subjects and elements of their surroundings, sometimes rearranged for effect.” When I asked him how he went about devising these images, he sidestepped the issue by sending me a famous passage from Newman, taken from Interviews with Master Photographers: “Influences come from everywhere but when you are actually shooting you work primarily by instinct. But what is instinct? It is a lifetime accumulation of influence: experience, knowledge, seeing and hearing. There is little time for reflection in taking a photograph. All your experiences come to a peak and you work on two levels: conscious and unconscious.”

Once again I think about how odd it is, in retrospect, that most anthropological fieldwork is done by younger anthropologists who, if they are successful as writers and teachers, will find less and less time to get back to the field. I wonder what I might have produced if my first fieldwork had been in my forties or fifties instead of my mid-twenties, with a bit more of that lifetime of accumulated experience to guide my instincts.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 19, 2012 at 7:44pm

That's an interesting observation, M. The 18th century Neapolitan philosopher, Gianbattista Vico wrote a brilliant book, Scienzia Nuova, which makes a lot of the role of memory in thinking and creativity. His main distinction is between verum and certum, the true and the sure. They are not the same. A lot of the time people are sure and wrong, just confirming their prejudices. What is interesting is that they believe they know, often instantly. People will often fight to defend their right to such knowledge since so much of their life depends on it. I remember a heated discussion with some Ghanaians about their use of the word Nasara for Christian. They didn't like the philological link to Nazarene, since Christian WAS Nasara. On another occasion, I pointed out that their word matoka was obviously borrowed from motorcar and one youth cried out, "Our ancestors used the word long before you white people came!" I saw people fighting in bars over language and it wasn't even Belgium.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 19, 2012 at 7:35pm

Thanks for this rich intervention, David. McGilchrist did come up before in a post from Boris Popovic. I don't know if the discussion went anywhere. But you are right to say this is a huge contemporary topic. If reasoning is slow, it is why rationalisation works better backward than forward. But th ekind of intuition I was talking about, the often painful excavation of buried experience for purposes of writing isn't fast either. One of the reasons I learned to improvise lectures was that often, in the pressurized last five minutes trying to wind up something new would pop out. So maybe these kinds of discoveries are spontaneous and unpredictable, but they can't be summoned up at will.

Comment by David Marsden on April 18, 2012 at 7:00pm

exploring tics at the back of our brains" - there is a really interesting thread developing here.


An enquiry into the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious mind has recently taken me into a whole new area of enquiry that tries to move us beyond 'traditional' ways of thinking - about anthropology and economics, but also about the relationship between anthropology and neuro-science and the attempt to re-think the nature of individuality (- to re-think "I think therefore I am.") This personally emerged with a search back into Enlightenment thinkers - to understand how we had gone wrong/taken a wrong turn (?) - and a reading of Antonio Damasio's works - 'Looking for Spinosa' and 'Descartes' Error' in particular - in which he challenges traditional ideas about the connection between emotions and rationality. 

This led me into the work of the psychiatrist, Ian McGilchrist and his incredibly rich 'The Master and his Emissary - The Divided Brain and the Making of ..., in which he looks at the different functions of the right and left hemispheres and argues (more subtly)  that "the left hemisphere has grabbed more than its fair share of power, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world holds sway at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us." A 10 minute cartoon summarising this work can be found here. "The left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we're in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human". To polarise discussion - could this be why deductive, unilinear, economistic approaches currently dominate thinking about progress and development, at the expense of more empathic and contextual approaches?

It led on to a reading of David Kahneman's "Thinking fast and thinking slow"- he is a psychologist and a Nobel Laureate in Economics. He argues that two systems drive the way we think and make choices. One system is fast, intuitive and emotional; the other is slow, more deliberative and more logical. He focuses on the thinking brain. I am still wondering of how to reconcile McGilchrist's perspective with Kahneman's.
Comment by M Izabel on April 18, 2012 at 9:03am

While eating lunch with my  co-workers today, the sex scandal involving US Secrets Service agents flashed on CNN.  When my Latina and Latino co-workers heard the denial of the agents that they did not know the women were prostitutes, they laughed in unison and said the "gringos" were lying.  What I saw and  heard intrigued me.  I could not say the agents were lying because I had no proof, but they said it with certainty and out of what they felt.  When I asked them why they were sure, they all said they just knew.  Maybe If I were from or had stayed in the Latin-American region and knew the almost  generic culture- its nuances and subtleties, I would posses the same reasoning from the unconscious mind that my co-workers expressed today.      

Comment by Keith Hart on April 16, 2012 at 12:29pm

Yes, it could be a more open-ended seminar with multiple protagonists in conversation and not tied so closely to an individual paper which we are less likely to produce if we are exploring tics at the back of our brains. Maybe this thread is that already.

Comment by Huon Wardle on April 16, 2012 at 11:14am

I think an seminar on this is a great idea, M. There is a clear link to your post on hallucinations. This is something I like about OAC, the capacity to generate agendas as, for example, how Philip's post on Henry Mayhew has helped catalyse the current seminar discussion on Keith's work and Mayhew and so on. OAC is like a large jumbled collective unconscious, so it is good to see it generating recursive sensibilities and new formal possibilties.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 16, 2012 at 9:30am

Thank you all for these brilliant and supportive comments. One common thread is the relationship of science to this point I raise. I take a keen interest in the history of science and take it for granted that "getting it right over and over again" matters more for some things than others and, following Kant, that scientific theories are cultural recipes that we need to change when they don't work for what we now want to do. For him the origin of science is cooking (yes, M, brewing and metallurgy). We need Einstein to send a vehicle to the moon, but not to build a bridge on earth (Newton's mechanics). And reason works better backwards as rationalization. Einstein again: I knew it was right because it was beautiful, but it took another two years to work out why.Thanks for sharing, John.

I couldn't agree more with Paul on the political conditions that make science necessary. Modern economics grew up in 17th century England to provide reasons for policy other than the King's decision after the King lost his head. And anthropology had to fight its way into 20th century universities by claiming that it was more than just the study of "the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe".

M's link to informal economies and gambling goes straight to my heart, as she probably knows. I will post a comment to the new online seminar shortly that will explain briefly how my Accra ethnography led to the invention of a concept. In my recollection, it was all less rigorous that John's account of theory and empricism.

I once asked myself what I did with my childhood and I came up with reading, playing cards and ball games. The next question was what I learned from each. Reading was the great escape, I could imagine myself somewhere else. Ball games taught me motor skills and teamwork. But cards? What was that all about? I was also aware that playing cards flourishes in different times and places and Britain after the war was one of those times. In sum, I decided it was about learning skills suited to market economy -- fast calculation, risk, partnership etc.

Now I come to the tricky part. What actually triggered this post was that in recent weeks I have been often stuck in my writing and I play cards on my laptop, Hearts, to keep me at my work station when not writing. I have logged over 2,000 games in three months at an average of three hours a day and my success rate is 57% (I learned statistics as a teenager in order to bet scientfically on the horses). I find this relaxing since it uses my unconscious mind at high speed rather than beating my brains out trying to think of a new sentence. The machine provides me with anonymous partners sitting West, North and East. Suddenly I realised that I could see them in my mind's eye: they were a white young man, brown woman of middle years and old black man. There was a time when I would have thought they were aliens come to take me to the furthest reaches of the universe. But I am past that now. Instead, I began to reflect more deeply on the unconscious mind and its relationship to anthropological practice.

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