Cara on Unni Wikan / What is at stake

Cara Curtis

19 September 2016

Precis: Unni Wikan; Kleinman & Kleinman


What (All) Is At Stake?: Trying to Account for Experience in Ethnographic Work


The authors we read for this week set their sights on a common methodological goal for ethnographic work: a hope that ethnographers will interpret their work not only through cultural scripts or categories, but rather focus more intently on “what is at stake for particular men and women in their local worlds” (Kleinman & Kleinman, 99). In other words, what actually matters to people as they go about their lives, both fully within their culture and also irreducible to it? Implicit in this methodological call is a second question, namely, what is at stake for anthropological work in the methodologies we choose and the analyses we produce—what, really, is the full (or proper) scope of the ethnographic project? This larger question looms throughout both Wikan’s book and the Kleinmans’ article, sometimes implicit and other times more explicitly framed. I’ll return to it at the end, but first want to focus—like a good phenomenologist, perhaps—on the concerns most clearly articulated by the “informants” (authors) at hand.

Within the broad call to conduct “experience-near” ethnographies, a particular concern emerges to focus on “real people”: real, live informants who lead rich lives that inevitably, according to Wikan and the Kleinmans, overflow even the most complex notions of cultural meaning. Real lives simply defy cultural reductionism, the argument goes, and we are forced to “make sense of the lived predicaments people face” (Wikan 12). For example, Wikan writes: “Suriati, like most Balinese I met, refused to be ‘simply caught’ [in so-called ‘webs of meaning,’ cf. Geertz and Weber] but showed remarkable resilience and even subversion” (13). By focusing on these individuals and the ways certain cultural categories actually seem to work in their lives, Wikan is able to arrive at a much more nuanced level of understanding of her informants and their lifeworlds than those who simply assume the salience of given cultural categories. The category of polos is of varying importance and meaning to different people, despite its general status as a cultural ideal, she shows (72-73). Similarly, she credits her time with average people as crucial to her understanding of the lived (vs. “expert” or orthodox) understanding of the workings of the bayu, or life-force. “Had I gone to the experts first, or been familiar with philosophical doctrine, would I have been able to take in earnest the notion that people lose their bayu?” (275) The implication seems to be that as academics, we must work to overcome our natural inclination to privilege “expert” knowledge over the “lived” or “real.”

The depth of Wikan’s work is indisputable: she has clearly gotten to know her Balinese companions intimately and achieved a fine-grain understanding of what matters to them. At the same time, I wonder if there are pieces of what is going on at a broader social level that this up-close framework doesn’t allow us to see. While reverting to inaccurate outsider categories clearly would not be helpful (e.g. public/private, as she shows), are there ways to look outward from personal relationships? I am not sure that Wikan would want to do this. On the one hand, she certainly writes about differentiations based on age, class, gender, etc. But in stating clearly that “people occupy center stage” in her work (19), other actors (the state, schools, churches, etc) necessarily take a bit of a backseat. This isn’t necessarily bad—all narratives make choices of emphasis—but I do think it’s an important question for accounts that aim to present what’s “really” going on. The Kleinmans have a certain kind of answer to this predicament in their argument that the “ethnographer’s focus moves back and forth” between “the density of personal awareness” and the “liberating distance” that comes in analysis (99)—in other words, perhaps in the wide-angle moment one can take stock of structures, institutions, and histories. But it does seem like a question each of us needs to consider: how will we decide when to be “up close” and when to be “far away”? How will we decide what takes center stage?

This is a question that in some ways continues as we look toward another major theme in both readings: the call to not be quite so afraid of universals—or as Wikan puts it more delicately, “resonances.” In some ways, this call forces us to take a position on where we think the “real” lives: is it in the close-up, the particular? Is there some “real” that stretches between and across cultural settings? What is the balance between particular and universal/resonant truths, and how should they be in conversation? And what is at stake in our answers—why do we get so worked up about this? Both Wikan and the Kleinmans argue that at a minimum, local truths should be allowed to be in conversation with each other. A “resonance” framework demands “a willingness on the part of both [author and reader] to engage with another world, life, or idea: to use one’s own life experience…to try to grasp the meanings that….are evoked in the meeting of an experiencing subject with the text,” writes Wikan (269). And this meeting is not ethically neutral. Rather, to recognize resonance is to “deexoticize…to make familiar, to acknowledge our common humanity” (279).

I think it says something about the state of postmodernism in liberal education (or  maybe just my own cynicism!) that I instinctively cringed when I read the words “common humanity.” How sentimental; how obscuring. Because of how I have been trained, I am instinctively suspicious that “resonances” is just a nicer word for Westerners inventing meaning for everyone. I want to ask why the assertion that “cultural codes cannot make of each of us precisely what they will” necessarily translates into some broader sense of common experience: we are all more than culture; therefore there are other “we are all”s (Kleinman and Kleinman, 118). And yet, I also know this is an over-reaction, an over-correction. I don’t want to live in a world where cultures can never speak to each other across our particularities. I don’t think we do live in that world—Wikan shows we don’t every time she describes the Balinese in ways that “resonate” with us. So I guess here the question becomes how to navigate epistemological terrain that has a loaded history—in this case, how to ethically inhabit the space of cross-cultural truths. How do we resist over-correcting past overreaches; how do we decide what are helpful “resonances” and what are harmful obscurations? And who exactly decides? Perhaps one approach is the move that Wikan makes in the end to learn from Balinese epistemology in a substantive way, i.e. to try and get Westerners to take seriously the notion of “thinking-feeling” (279-283). In this scenario, emphasizing knowledge flow back to the West is one way of trying to ethically engage the idea of cross-cultural truths. What might be others?

This, then, also gets back to the larger methodological question that I’m claiming is lurking in both articles: what kinds of truth should anthropology be aiming to produce/unearth/construct/discover? What exactly should anthropology be doing? In Rachel’s words from last week, who is it for? How would we answer that last question in particular in light of these new texts and their emphasis on particular individuals’ experiences that yet stretch outward and make (at least speculative) claims about humanity itself?


A few other questions that didn’t quite get woven in:


  • In an experience-near approach, how necessary is it to commit to indigenous notions of the real—vs. just acknowledging that they are real “for” informants? (This came up for me when Wikan describes Balinese hearts as “real,” p. 114.) If we do on some level commit, does this ever get in the way of moving back out to the analytic stance?
  • Kleinman and Kleinman advocate for cross-cultural translation as a “last step,” after one has fully understood the emic uses of a concept, which I found helpful (116). What “step” do we think translation was for Lienhardt or Deren? I ask because I think “last step” might be more complicated than we think—both of these authors might think they would qualify. How do we know that we have gotten to an appropriate place to begin to translate?
  • Where is religion in all of this? How does an experience-near approach handle religion, when there are both experience-near and more doctrinal understandings at work in a community?

5 thoughts on “Cara on Unni Wikan / What is at stake

  1. Dear Colleagues,

    What a thoughtful bunch. Cara’s precis was masterfully done and is exactly the kind of writing I hope to see in your final papers (with a bit more detail and depth of focus given the longer format). If these were not both old readings from the 1990’s, this would be a publishable review., which is precisely what we are aiming at. Your responses were also provocative, and I see that you are all going right for the jugular in posing questions about the stakes for the anthropologist or interpreter, questions of privilege (I would like to hear more about what you mean by this) and critical questions about the assumption that there are pan-human truths, which I have been calling, realities of the human condition (do you like that better?). While Rachel is wrestling with this (watch that armbar! ) I would like to turn the questions back on you all. How would you work to equalize the context between informant and anthropologist (yes, others have also complained that the use of the same term by law enforcement may point to an uncomfortable truth about ethnography, though I have no better term). I have not seen the wire though– can you please choose a more generationally correct example for me? Law and Order perhaps? You have noted how closely the Kleinmans and Wikan’s theoretical formulations are and that is no accident–they were in close contact with one another during this period. But please also note the differences in tone and aesthetic that represent different kinds of academic training, different ways of deploying (or refusing to deploy) theory and possibly, some gender dynamics. I look forward to our conversation tomorrow.

  2. Thanks for this, Cara. I’m glad you asked about the structural piece. Perhaps that is our own Ethics-oriented bias, but I think it’s an important one. Simply because one is zooming in on experience does not mean that there aren’t structural components that are also informing that person’s experience. In Wikan’s work, I’m assuming that these components weren’t mentioned because they weren’t particularly important (at least in an explicit way) to her informants? But, they certainly impact one’s experience whether or not they are explicitly mentioned! So, it seems that some kind of balance might exist where one is both accountable to the everyday experiences of informants, while also attentive to the institutional contours that may inform that experience. On the other hand, I think we’ve seen all too often how an over-attentiveness to a particular institution can (in a way) construct a picture of women who are “simply caught” in those webs of experience. (A good example that was mentioned in class at one point was female circumcision in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa which is often depicted as a backwards custom that is harmful to women. This is, at times, the case. But, not always.) I also really appreciate the way your articulated your own postmodern cynicism. It is a tricky things, isn’t it? What common humanity is left? I think Wikan’s book made a believer out of me, though. There are certain ways that I resonated with the women of Bali. Our experiences aren’t the same, but I certainly have also experienced some double standards for men/women in my own cultural context!
    I’m also curious about some of Wikan’s methodologies. In the beginning, she talks about how she rarely used a tape recorder because she felt like it obstructed the relationship. Is this somehow a misleading move? Are there ways in which this seemingly small decision might have put Wikan into murky territory with her informants? I love the idea and the book, but I’m concerned that perhaps there may be some misleading moves that Wikan may have taken in her relationship with her informants. Perhaps this is another way of calling attention to Nick’s concerns about power/privilege.

  3. The question “who is it for” also came up while I was reading Wikan’s account of Balinese experience. While I was relieved to finally ‘hear the voice’ of the people she was writing an ethnography on (as opposed to the categorizations of cultures and experience we have read before), I still wondered what her true purpose was. Was her main goal to present what goes on in individuals’ worlds or even how cultural pressures impacted how they though and acted? Or was her main goal to disprove her predecessors in Bali by showing that the people weren’t really heartless and emotionless? Wikan set out to describe how the Balinese “interpret themselves and each other….not their terms for gods, institutions, calendars, and rituals so much as the concepts with they feel and think about (xvi). She did so by highlighting stories of everyday interactions among the Balinese that she was in contact with and then describing what those interactions meant to the people involved. Instead of assigning meaning to these experiences, in most instances, Wikan asked what it meant to the people involved – why they responded one way instead of another, what they felt about a particular situation, etc. I felt like she was truly trying to present their worldview, but I was left wondering if by hearing about the experiences of a few individuals and what those experiences meant to them, are we really getting a broader grasp of Balinese culture or just how some people experience life in Bali? Is there a difference? How much is personality and individual characteristics and how much of it is people acting and feeling within the roles society has given them?

    I was also questioning where religion was in all this. There was discussion of black magic and summoning the dead, but Wikan did not describe a specific religious system. But perhaps this storytelling, this relating of magic in everyday life is more ‘true’ to the lived religious experience of an individual then just describing doctrine or a structure of dieties. Although there wasn’t a strong focus on describing ritual or spiritual practices, we seemed to get a better idea of how the spiritual world played into the decisions and reactions of average, everyday people in Bali. If the purpose is to present what life is like in Bali, then this might be more ‘true’.

  4. Hey all,

    Cara, thanks for your thoughtful, clear, and precise, um, precis! I enjoyed reading it, and it helped clarify a couple of things I was wrestling with.

    First, I found the question “what is at stake,” which as you point out came up in both authors’ works, to be a helpful and focused question to guide research. It keeps the focus on the “near experience,” as Kleinman says, and it also can serve to keep the ethnographer, perhaps, honest. I found myself wondering at times if Wikan had lost perspective a bit–it was never really something I could put a finger on, except perhaps her tone, which seemed to move from reporting or observing to advocating (for). Is this a problem in ethnographic work? Is it a common move for a researcher when one is living in such intimate quarters with “informants?” And, completely un-related-ly, does anyone else automatically think of the HBO show “The Wire” whenever “informants” is used??

    Ok, back to the serious comments. I think your sensitivity is commendable, Cara, to your own both “trained” and valid misgivings about Kleinman’s assertion that it is necessary to make a move to “pan-human” “truths.” But perhaps this is part of “what’s at stake” for the ethnographers themselves, to be able to contribute to humanity’s self-understanding? It seemed to me that Kleinman danced a bit around this question and never seemed to fully come down on one answer; admittedly, they do say on p. 118 “how social and behavioral science is to transform that realm into a suitable subject matter is not entirely clear to us.” I felt deflated when I read that; their article fully convinced me that the anthropological, medical, and psychological approaches are inadequate and perhaps even do violence to those whom they purport to help; but they never seemed to offer a concrete suggestion or even direction or movement in its place. I felt like I read a good book and was just left with an annoying cliffhanger…though perhaps the solution could be found in the work and thoughts of Kleinmans’ students? I believe we have one of those amongst us, yes??

  5. Cara, you would have to go and bring up the dangerous T word – truth. If truth, from a phenomenological perspective, is connected to experience, and experience is contextual, temporal, and subjective – then we might have to settle for truth(s) that can be complimentary and contradictory. It seems like our challenge in the west, and at least Wikan’s critique of Geertz and K&K’s critique of medical anthropology, has to do with the efficiency of surface readings and subsequent interpretations and generalizations. Gross overstatements make for cleaner metaphors and wider usage and, perhaps, greater (mis)understanding. I think the challenge with cross-cultural translation is the fact that you have to contend with the power dynamics at work any both the observation and interpretation – which is where Rachel’s question again resonates. If we are committed to our audience understanding the informants world how we, as researchers, came to understand it, I think we have to own that. If we are attempting to help our audience understand the word as our informancts understand it, we might have to do more work to allow the informant’s own voice to guide the content directly – this is perhaps biography to some extent. If we, however, are interested in trying to do both and theorize resonance or universality, then I think we might have to recognize that our efforts are limited to our tools, our context, our own understanding, and whatever else we bring to the conversation. These limitations allow for each generation to continue to do the work, to nuance, challenge, and correct, at times the work that has gone before. In this diversity of voices, we might better reflect the actual nuances of the cultures we are trying to understand write about.

    If one were to interview our siblings, the might hear of a family so different than the family of our own experience, that we might wonder if we grew up in the same house. Sure both my older brother and I can verify the factuality of events, pertaining times and places, but his experience of those events can be fundamentally different and even contradictory to my own. I think this is where the phenomenologists’ work is helpful because it allows for reality, and subsequently truth, to be qualified by the limitations of a person’s experience. Wikan’s approach allows for a particular kind of truth to be made accessible that centralizes the experiences of her primary informant…

    Still the question is what is at stake and for whom? How do we reckon with the real power/privilege dynamics that make the work possible in the first place?

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