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?