Module 1 (Jessica Ambroise) Can we trust anthropological work?

This module’s focus on culture interrogates the way in which an outsider’s perspective may be inherently flawed. Inhorn’s work centers Shi’ite Muslim husbands in the Middle East and their ‘’haram” or morally unacceptable decision to utilize in vitro fertilization (IVF). McKinnon’s piece surveys the diverse employment of kinship in various countries across the globe, highlighting that Eurocentric models of family should not be glorified.  Like Geertz, through his call for “thick description,” both Inhorn and McKinnon stress the importance of cultural relativism in their critiques of populations. It was very interesting to learn how the meaning of “mother” has a different meaning almost everywhere outside of the “Anglo-American” system. Surely, having two mothers seems better than one. I am curious to understand why a culture of interdependence is so absent from our society.  Why does biology and genetic makeup matter so much in the U.S? Who made it this way?


Moreover, while Inhorn and McKinnon articulate how definitions of kinship vary by people and place, there is not much said about: 1. why it is easy to and 2. why we are taught to, for example, see Middle Eastern men as “savage terrorists and religious zealots.” I am worried about how explicitly issues of race, sex, gender, etc. are dealt with in such anthropological studies. Inhorn’s piece addresses some of these issues within the context of Middle Eastern societies, however; she fails to critically do so in a U.S. one. McKinnon, while she refers to ethnocentrism, does not go in depth about the various aspects of ethnocentrism and how it informs our views on race, sex, gender, etc.  Although explaining these aspects might have been rudimentary or tangential to the readings, they could help readers recognize notions that affect their ability to see people impartially. Can we effectively critique our ethnocentric gaze on different cultures without nuanced emphasis of these multidimensional status markers? Or would doing that be unnecessary?


Furthermore, the fact that they (McKinnon and Inhorn) had to spend so much time justifying the non-normative (to the Western eye) lifestyles of people of color to not only provide context, but humanize them is interesting. Inhorn’s decision to humanize Muslim men by showing how they choose IVF (a procedure more accepted in the U.S.) despite social standards, seemingly affirms the notion that Western ideas are supreme. Are we only able to see the humanity in others when they do things we are taught to support? Why should we understand one’s beliefs according to his/her culture? Can we not make room in our own cultures to accept others’ beliefs based on our own? Does cultural relativism require us to tolerate other’s cultures rather than accept or support them? Frankly, I am not sure if these questions even make sense.


Nonetheless, I appreciated Shapiro’s bold critique of McKinnon’s work. By highlighting the flaws and inadequacies in her arguments, it reminded me to be cautious when reading anthropological works. Shapiro argues, for example, that McKinnon was wrong in her interpretation of the family structures of various groups, including the Wari Indians.

After reading that, although he provided cited information, I thought—how could we ever know what is true? How often are people from the groups that anthropologists study able to talk about themselves? In the case of poorer communities with little to no access to academia, I would imagine that they rarely get the chance to speak for themselves. With these ideas in mind, I wonder about the ethical responsibility of anthropologists who do field research. Are there people who ensure that they tell stories that people of the groups they survey want to be told? Lastly, how useful is it to reveal the lives of a relatively obscure groups of people? I think it is important to also stress the individuality of people from studied populations. When researchers get caught up in trying to make sweeping observations on a large group, they are likely to overlook people who are different. Subsequently, many readers may be inclined to make harmful assumptions that enforce stereotypes.


Can we trust anthropological work?

4 Replies to “Module 1 (Jessica Ambroise) Can we trust anthropological work?”

  1. Dear Jessica,

    Thanks for this very comprehensive blog. The question of whether we can trust anthropological work is an important one and I suppose it depends on what you mean. Ethnographic research ought never to claim a finality of knowledge; it is by its nature open ended and subject to multiple accounts. On the other hand, the lack of a single unassailable account does not, in my view, render more contingent accounts meaningless or without purpose. They represent a set of observations and analyses that can and should be challenged, supplemented etc., based on additional evidence. It is not meant to be “anything goes.”

    On the other hand, I would be troubled to think that there is someone trying to enforce that only the stories people want to be told can be told. Anthropologists need to seek the consent of the people they write about before they start research and people can withdraw their consent when they want to stop participating. But they cannot claim the right to censor anything a scholar writes that touches on them or their group and I believe that if you think about it you will see that this needs to be so. Part of our power is precisely in telling the stories that people do not always want told or don’t want told in a particular way. It is a complicated issue and one I hope we will talk about.

    I am glad you appreciated Inhorn’s approach. Personally, I felt that the political narrative in which she situated her account and the actual data she presented were not well integrated. But we’ll talk more in class!

    1. I think that the observations that you have made are very interesting, especially when you consider the colonial lenses through which anthropology arose from. The unbalanced power dynamics between anthropologists (typically educated, has some degree of wealth, and comes from an industrialised nation) and the people they study further exacerbates your question of “how could we ever know what is true?”

      How could we ever know what is true, when we factor in the inherent biases that many people harbour or the cultural ignorance and inability to fully understand the nuances of another society?

      Additionally, the question of “How often are people from the groups that anthropologists study able to talk about themselves?” raises another good point. The anthropologist is an “objective outsider” responsible for inscribing the actions of the culture they study, but when the anthropologists is responsible for synthesising their research and information and presenting it to the world at large, the anthropologists, in this case, has a greater and more influential voice than the people that they study.

      Nevertheless, I think that anthropological work, despite the various issues that come from it and its sweeping generalisations, is very important. The ability to understand human behaviour and the deeper meaning behind human actions and interactions allows us to tailor solutions to specific problems that different cultures face and helps us predict and understand how humans of a different context will act in a specific setting.

  2. Jessica,

    This post was really well written and really made me think about my own thoughts and how I have taken common beliefs in the United States for granted. I think you bring up a really good point when you say that interdependence is absent from our society. As citizens of the United States we grow up and are molded into thinking very specific things about gender, gender roles, biology and genetics among other things. For example, we throw baby showers in blue or pink depending on the gender of the baby we are going to have. We give our child a feminine or masculine name before they even come out of the womb. These examples just display our ignorance and lack of ability to see past the black and white ideas we have held for centuries. Our society is incapable of questioning the preconceived notions we hold. Where did these ideas come from and why won’t we challenge them? Are we afraid that there are other possibilities that exist outside of what we know?

    I think the idea of being able to trust anthropological work is also an important one. Your thoughts made me think of an American Education class I took last semester in which we discussed how the minority opinion is often left out. We read stories and take them for granted and believe what they say without ever questioning that there might be another side. When reading biographies, we also take the positive things that someone accomplished, but we don’t necessarily write about or even know about the negatives. I think it is important to note that while we can do research and learn about all the different perspectives of a story, it’s possible that we may not ever know the complete truth because who better to tell it then the people that actually lived it?

  3. Hi!
    I think your insights about looking at a culture from the outside and trying to understand it are really interesting! Human nature basically forces us to look at things from an ethnocentric point of view, and it is near impossible to shed all biases. Even the best ethnographers and anthropologists are unable to fully separate themselves from every experience that shaped them. However, this is not always a bad thing! Although bias tends to lead to judgment, there are often positives to using one’s past experiences to form well-rounded ideas and theories. I do think that the more experiences that a person has, the more he/she will be able to tolerate, support, and maybe understand others. I think your final question is really one that is important, not only in this class, but in life. And personally, I would say yes – we have to. Whether it is all true or it is full of bias and falsehoods, we need to have a foundation to build our own ideas off of, and seeing existing anthropological work is a good framework for studying and creating our own theories about how to look at the world.

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