Reflective analysis on cultural practice in Africa

Recently I posted a link to a very interesting essay by Alan Fiske "Learning a culture the way informants do: observing, imitating, and..." (2000). The paper generated a fair amount of back and forth on whether or not members of any culture reflect on their own cultural practices in equal degree, so much so that Alan Fiske was asked by Neil Turner to to justify some of Fiske's observations and arguments presented in the paper. In another blog post I would like to present what I take to be Fiske's main and substantive arguments on the nature of cultural practice and ethnographic practice presented in his paper.

Here I'd like to summarize the debate, highlight some of the main points, and present the view of my friend Scott MacEachern, professor of anthropology at Bowdoin specializing in African ethnoarchaeology.

In his essay, Alan Fiske argues that "practice, even the most refined practical competence, need not necessarily give rise to reflective analysis". Fiske asks his (American) audience:

"...if I grilled you about why you carve faces in pumpkins—and why pumpkins, rather than watermelons? Why on October 31? “That’s just what we do!” That’s what Halloween is!” Similarly, most Americans would probably be at a loss if I asked them why they eat cake and ice cream at birthday parties, why they light candles and then blow them out—or why they celebrate birth anniversaries at all. Could you—or most American informants—give any answer that reflects an articulated understanding of birthday rituals that was in your mind before I asked the question?

I take this to be an accurate generalization of Americans. It is important to point this out because it is also true that USAian society does have a long and sustained tradition of inquiry and analysis of its own practices, for example in anthropology and sociology. We even have looked at birthday parties and Halloween celebrations (We need look no further than Richard Wilk's and Lisa Cligett's chapter in their book Economies and cultures: foundations of economic anthropology). Nonetheless, such reflection on one's cultural practices needn't occur uniformly in the same degree across all practitioners in a society.

Fiske takes this one step further, writing:

"In some cultures, people do describe and discuss their rituals with each other. However, like many other peoples in Africa, the Moose have no indigenous tradition of reflective analysis of their own practices. They have a rich, elaborate religion, but no theology. They have a complex society, but no ethnosociology. Like many other African peoples, they have virtually no mythology or cosmology. They have a sophisticated political system, but no political science. They live their lives in practice, but without any great interest in reflecting on it, analyzing it, or trying to explain it."

I personally find it quite believable that societies differ
in the extent to which reflection on cultural practices is engaged in, encouraged, tolerated, or communicated, but that as the aforementioned example of reflective practices in the United States illustrates, things aren't simple. The kinds, sorts, capacities for, and roles of reflection on one's practices and beliefs needs to be delineated more carefully for Fiske's audience. As it stands, Fiske's statements have left him open to some (in my opinion misguided) accusations. At the request of Neil Turner, Fiske responded to some of these accusations and characterizations of his work. But neither has it resolved what I take to be areas of more legitimate concern. In particular, how African-ness is being used here, and the empirical question of the forms and occurrence of native reflection on cultural practices across the African region. Indeed when first read the aforementioned passage in Fiske's paper, I immediately asked my friend Scott Scott MacEachern for his views on the matter. He offered the following viewpoint to be published at the OAC in response to this discussion, the essay, and Fiske's aforementioned response.

“You’ve asked me about reflection and self-reflection in the areas that I’ve worked in in Africa. I’ve been doing archaeology and ethnoarchaeology in the northern Mandara Mountains of Cameroon and
Nigeria since 1984, with work ongoing: this included 16 months of
ethnographic fieldwork in the late 1980s among Plata and related
Mandara montagnard communities, and approximately 3.5 years of
fieldwork in the area in total. I was reasonably capable in Plata at
that time, although my skills in that language have deteriorated as I
worked in other areas of the mountains and switched back to doing
mostly archaeology.

There’s no doubt that Plata and related populations reflected on lives
that were often difficult and sometimes tragic. I was among other
things interested in montagnard religious conceptions, because these
are reflected in particular realms of material culture. I talked to
montagnard people about their religious beliefs, in conversations that
ranged from the silly to the not-so-silly: about where gods and spirits
came from, and why they would want to inflict suffering on humans;
about why good and bad fortune are distributed unevenly among people;
about whether, if twins are so dangerous, a woman can humanly bear
triplets; and about why certain supernatural forces are indentified so
strongly with particular places. In the course of those conversations,
montagnard people reflected upon those questions with at least as much
insight and inquisitiveness as I’ve seen when I’ve had similar
conversations in the West. (Perhaps more so: what the original author [Alan Fiske]
seems to be doing is mistaking professionalisation for reflective
analysis: under his terms, the vast majority of people in Western
societies arguably have no theology, no cosmology, either.)

Of course, the Plata and their neighbours are people in just one small
area of Africa, and I wouldn’t presume to make judgements about
‘Africa’ as a whole from them. That’s the second point: claims of the
sort that the original author made collapse Africa down into one
unitary thing, as if there’s some essential African-ness that
characterises the whole continent. This can then be compared to
essential ‘Asian-ness’ and ‘Euroamerican-ness’ (and, inevitably, found

It all starts to sound rather like Nicholas Sarkozy’s little lecture to
‘the Africans’ in Dakar from a few years ago: “ …Le drame de l’Afrique,
c’est que l’homme africain n’est pas assez entré dans l’histoire. Le
paysan africain, qui depuis des millénaires, vit avec les saisons, dont
l’idéal de vie est d’être en harmonie avec la nature, ne connaît que
l’éternel recommencement du temps rythmé par la répétition sans fin des
mêmes gestes et des mêmes paroles. Dans cet imaginaire où tout
recommence toujours, il n’y a de place ni pour l’aventure humaine, ni
pour l’idée de progrès. Dans cet univers où la nature commande tout,
l’homme échappe à l’angoisse de l’histoire qui tenaille l’homme moderne
mais l’homme reste immobile au milieu d’un ordre immuable ou tout
semble être écrit d’avance….” Sarko was reflecting a worldview of
medium antiquity in Western culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct.

-Scott MacEachern

I would like to thank Scott for his input.

As a final note: it is my personal belief that a careful delineation of the sorts of reflective analysis as they occur in a society should go a long way to resolving these problems and potential misunderstandings. If we are to allow that different cultures are different from each other in more than just place and time, then we must also allow for the possible presence of those differences even when they violate our sense of fairness or of the obvious. At the same time, such characterizations require careful scrutiny and communication.

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Comment by John McCreery on May 17, 2010 at 1:00pm
While writing my chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion" for Ray Scupin's Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus, I dealt with this problem as follows,

As we look more closely at all these aspects of Chinese religion there are several key points to keep in mind. There are temples; there are sects. There are private be- lief and public practice. But there is no Church separate from the State, no sharp boundary line that separates religion from other institutions. Chinese religious cosmology reflects this social reality; there is no transcendent God, only spirits who are part of the social and natural order, just like the human beings whom they outwardly resemble and whose fundamental nature they share.

We should also bear in mind that while we speak of "Chinese religion," China is a very large country with a population that is now around 1.2 billion people, a quarter of the world's population. Chinese religious attitudes exhibit every con- ceivable shade from fervent belief to indifference and active atheism, and a wide range of variation can be found in rural villages as well as towns and cities. In a study of religious belief in a village in Taiwan, anthropologist Stevan Harrell inter- viewed fourteen villagers. Three, he found, were religious enthusiasts, village theo- logians who had each developed his own idiosyncratic version of Chinese religious cosmology. One, an old woman, was the village atheist; she stated bluntly that tra- ditional religion is nonsense. The other ten participated in ancestor worship and festivals because, "It's the custom."
The communist revolutionaries who founded the People's Republic of China were heirs not only to Karl Marx's conviction that religion is "the opiate of the people" but also to a long indigenous tradition of scholarly skepticism. It was, after all, Confucius himself who said that while a gentleman acts as if the spirits are pre- sent in ritual, he devotes himself to worldly affairs and keeps the spirits at a dis- tance. Many educated Chinese continue to follow his advice.
In attempting to understand Chinese religion we cannot, therefore, be satisfied with statements that say "The Chinese believe this" or "The Chinese do that." Our goal must be instead to discover the range of possibilities for religious belief and practice that the world of Chinese religion provides and to understand the motives that incline individuals who occupy different positions in Chinese society to act on some of these possibilities while, perhaps, rejecting others.
We must recognize, too, that attitudes may change depending on circumstances. Even in pre-modern China, a mandarin who seemed a sober Confucian while hold- ing imperial office could still be a Buddhist or Daoist mystic in private life and hire Buddhist monks or Daoist priests to perform their rituals at his parents' funerals. Adespiser of "superstition" might still turn to a Daoist magician or medium when faced with disease or misfortune. Even a modern intellectual can feel the pull of "superstitious" beliefs if her child is sick or when death draws near at the end of life.
Comment by Keith Hart on May 17, 2010 at 12:33pm
If it is absurd to discuss Africans in general, it is also dubious to imagine that reflection on the meaning of institutions is uniformly distributed within a "culture". In 'The Social Anthropology of West Africa', Annual Review of Anthropology, October 1985, Vol. 14, Pages 243-272, I discussed the approach of a French school of ethnographers headed by Marcel Griaule. He preferred to engage with the local intellectuals, of whom there were usually few anywhere. His most famous book was Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (1965, first published in 1948 as Dieu d'eau). Griaule approached fieldwork as a process of trying to draw out individuals like the sage, Ogotommeli. Some Anglophone readers were sceptical of the intellectual complexity he claimed to have extracted, believing that it all sounded very French. But then a conversation is always two-sided, isn't it?
Comment by Jacob Lee on May 16, 2010 at 11:56pm
@M Izabel
But, in my blog post you will see anthropologist who does dispute this point!

The word 'mythology' has two distinct meanings: a body of myths, and the study or scholarship of such a body of myths. Clearly he is using this word in the latter way.


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