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 M Izabel on April 16, 2012 at 5:03am

I like where Keith is going with this one.  I hope there is a seminar on it.  The working of the unconscious mind is particularly obvious in informal economic activities.  By just observing, one is already participating. The unconscious mind storing information is one way of participating through perception.  How one, for example participate in the peddling activities of a hawker in a bazaar?  Is it to peddle and hawk too or to be gullible and buy?   No and no.  The unconscious mind works its way to understand and accept what the hawker does as facts, and one does not have to ask questions.  He then feels that he can be an object of the hawker's cheating or overpricing.  I think this is only true for someone who has a grasp of the nuances and subtleties of the hawker's verbal and non-verbal language that are both cultural.  In gambling too, the unconscious mind is at work.  If you watch a poker tournament on TV, you will sense that they have their own language their eyes "speak" even when they are silent.  No wonder some players wear dark glasses so they won't be obvious.  In the field, eyes "speak" too. 

Comment by John McCreery on April 16, 2012 at 4:39am

Jung might have called it synchronicity. I prefer serendipity. But a similar discussion recently occurred on Savage Minds. There I wrote,

The relationship between theory and empiricism is an interesting one. When I think about it I tend to begin with a framework proposed by Noam Chomsky. Consider scientific method as an evaluation procedure. The inputs are a body of observations, the data plus, and this is the critical point, at least two theories. The method provides a way of deciding which of the two theories is superior give the data in question. Note what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t identify the one and only Truth of the matter. Neither does it establish that one of the two theories is Right and the other Wrong. All it does is evaluate the two theories and say, given what we know now, the data one theory is better than the other.

But then the question arises, what criteria to use. The usual candidates are simplicity and precision. Given two theories with the same degree of precision, choose the simpler one. Given two theories that are equally simple, chose the one that is more precise. But what about the case in which the more complex theory is also the more precise? That’s a judgment call; but other things being equal choose precision over simplicity.

In the history of physics, for example, Copernicus’ solar centric cosmology and Ptolemy’s terra centric cosmology are equally precise. Both predict the movements of the planets with an equal degree of precision. But Copernicus needs fewer epicycles to account for retrograde movements. The palm goes to Compernicus. Then along comes Kepler, who postulates elliptical instead of circular orbits and needs no epicycles at all. Now it is Kepler’s turn for the limelight. Newton’s mechanics explain why the orbits are elliptical and then, noticing that, even given the precision of Newton’s calculations, Mercury doesn’t appear to be where it ought to be, Einstein develops the theory of relativity and explains the bending of light, a new complication, that explains more precisely why we see Mercury where we do. Thus science progresses.

In anthropology, however, theories are virtually never mathematical laws. Even our most elegant theories are, at best, sketches for stories. That said, the same general principles apply. Given a set of observations, our data, and two competing stories, we are in the position of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. We are looking for the simplest story that accounts for all the facts at hand. Given two stories that account for the facts, we prefer the simpler one. But if the simpler story fails to account for facts that a slightly more complicated story explains, we choose that one instead. The real fiction here is the notion that only a certain small, finite set of facts are relevant,
In the field, we are still struggling to discover what might be relevant and, truth be told, there is always more to be learned.

Thus we have to keep in mind all the elements of Chomsky’s model and remember not only that a new and better third theory may come along, e.g., Kepler coming along after Copernicus and Ptolemy, but also that new evidence may reverse a previous judgment. In the best of all possible worlds, our new theories don’t replace our old theories. Instead, they offer improvements on them, improvements judged to be improvements either because they are simpler or they account for new evidence.

That human beings are constantly processing information unconsciously is now as firmly established as scientific fact can be. My own earliest reference is Leibniz's observation in the New Essays on Human Understanding, where, in his critique of Locke, he observes that sleeping people respond to alarms before they are aware of them. Otherwise, they wouldn't wake up. Recent decades have, of course, produced a gusher of research in all sorts of fields, but especially psychology and behavioral economics that suggests very strongly that most if not all decisions are made before we are aware of making them and that what we take to be rationality is mostly after-the-fact rationalization. On a neurophysiological level there is research on "mirror neurons" to consider.

Comment by T Paul Cox on April 16, 2012 at 4:10am

I think you're on to something. However we try to formalize ethnography, it's always about using yourself as a tool. And as long as that's the case, part of the tool will forever be a black box.

Working in agricultural research-for-development, I've become used to interdisciplinary environments and their niceties, and to people saying, "this is really interesting, even though it's really outside my disciplinary training..." I've encountered that line much more often than I've had people question my methods or experimental design or data. And of course I say the same thing to soil scientists and economists. Most of the time everybody's happy to think of ethnography as a method that's just a little different and hard for outsiders to understand, but probably the same as their own experimental methods on some level they can't quite see.

But it's important to remember that this is only the case so long as, in your words, "we get it right more often." So long as we come to conclusions that make sense to other people and support what they're trying to do. As soon as others are really, truly threatened, they're going to ask about those notes. Scientific rigour and methods were forged in protracted battles in which you had to armour your theories against all assailants, and this is still (and all the more) so in areas of great potential consequence like climate science. Meanwhile, as you just said in another discussion, we're geared towards reflecting the world, not changing it. I wonder if there's a connection -- if that's the easy way for us to get by.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 15, 2012 at 12:25pm

Yes, that's it, M. It's not as if experience is king and formal reflection superficial. We need our conscious mind to make use of the unconscious after we gain access to it. Otherwise it's just mysticism. For example, I am a big believer in the vibes, the invisible energy exchange between people as individuals and in crowds. It is one sign of how primitive we are that we privilege speech and think we are being cute when we recognize gestures. There's a whole lot more going on and most of the time we ignore it or don't have intelligent access to what we half-recognize.

Comment by M Izabel on April 15, 2012 at 8:13am

I believe you are right.  At least in my experience working in the kitchen for  more than a year with Mexican cooks, I am amazed how my unconscious mind has stored the nuances and subtleties of their culture  such as concepts of time, work, teamwork, family, friendship, etc. Sometimes, I have questions that I end up keeping to myself because I already know the would-be answers.  It seems there's an automatic flow of stored information and perception involved.  I don't think the same can be said about my communication experience with my neighbors that I seldom interact with although I have known them for more than a year.  With my  neighbors, I  have to think twice before asking  if the mailman is gone or if the gardeners are done pruning the shrubs.    


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