Precis: Seeman, One People, One Blood and “Coffee and the Moral Order”

Precis: Seeman, One People, One Blood and “Coffee and the Moral Order”

Chelsea Mak

Both One People, One Blood: Ethiopian-Israelis and the Return to Judaism (Seeman, 2009) and “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals Against Culture” (Seeman, 2015) enter our classroom conversation self-consciously. Seeman locates his own work within what he calls the “broad ‘phenomenological’ or ‘experience-near’ school of anthropological writing” (2009, 3), drawing on works such as Unni Wikan’s Managing Turbulent Hearts, and contributing both methodological and analytical insights to our discussion of the ethnography of religious experience. Specifically, Seeman’s self-aware exploration of the position of the ethnographer in relation to the subject enlarges our understanding of several key questions, namely, what is at stake for those whose lives, religions, and cultures are studied; what is the nature of a “experience-near” (Kleinman and Kleinman, 277; Seeman 2009, 3) anthropological method, including how it might both expand and limit what can be said with academic certainty; and how the particularity of individual experience is both shaped by and shapes religious and cultural forms or, how might the anthropologist develop an “analytic frame better attuned to the shifting registers of freedom and constraint in the experience of everyday life” (Seeman 2015, 743).

Seeman’s two works both contribute to studies of Ethiopian Jews, while also departing from previous foci and method because of an emphasis on richly and thoroughly describing what is at stake for this community (Seeman 2009, 6). One People, One Blood tells the story of the “Feres Mura,” a sub-community within the larger group of Ethiopian Jews, who have sought and, with various levels of success, achieved a return to Judaism and integration into Israeli society. The book length ethnography has several significant goals: first, to demonstrate that “interpretations of religious agency lie at the heart of [the “Feres Mura” dilemma]” (Seeman 2009, 2); second, to shift the course of the conversation about Beta Israel and Ethiopian Jews “in a more analytic direction” in order to “drive theoretical reflection about religious  and moral experience in context” (Seeman 2009, ); and, third, to contribute and perhaps influence the public dialogue surrounding the “Feres Mura” dilemma (Seeman 2009, 7). Thus, the book focuses on the experience of the “Feres Mura” in relation to state immigration policy, public health, and Israel’s religious establishment, and concludes that the “return to Judaism was intended as a ritual-bureaucratic system for the transformation of apostates to penitents, nominal Christians into Jews” (Seeman 2009, 205). As such, it was successful, despite the disappointment expressed by some of its administrators and observers, who desired a greater demonstration of “single-minded religious devotion” (Seeman 2009, 205). Seeman’s article, “Coffee and the Moral Order,” published six years later, returns to one of the driving theses of One People, One Blood, namely, the question of religious and moral agency. Thus, in the article, Seeman begins to develop an analytical framework for attending to agency in a subject’s experience of everyday life (Seeman 2015, 743) by exploring the role of buna drinking in the lives of Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals. He argues that buna serves as “no less than a material medium for disputes about the limits of moral agency, the experience of kin relations that have been broken or restructured, and the eruption of dangerous potencies in the social world” (Seeman 2015, 734). Seeman’s studies are deeply informed by his attention to the question of “what is at stake” for his subjects and thus serve as a fruitful ground for discussions of ethnographic method and analysis.

Kleinman and Kleinman describe the importance of considering what is at stake for the subjects of ethnographic study as a matter of producing anthropological work that is either dehumanizing or humanizing (276-77). They thus argue that “. . . a contextual focus on experience-near categories for ethnography should begin with the defining characteristic of overbearing practical relevance in the processes and forms of experience. . . [which is to say] something is at stake for all of us in the daily round of happenings and transactions” (Kleinman and Kleinman, 277). That this theoretical framework is a driving factor for Seeman’s work with the “Feres Mura” community is strikingly evident, not only in Seeman’s introductory comments, but also in the telling of the story itself—that is, that the story begins with a death and ends with a refurbished grave. Seeman highlights that what is at stake for this community is more than the ability to relocate and settle in a new country, and more than religious conversion, but includes grief and suffering, kinship and belonging, and politics and health. Indeed, such a question, and the gravity it lends to the ethnographic task, led Seeman to give more space to the question of “cultural politics” than is typical in anthropological works and to reflect on the shifting role of the ethnographer as the stakes for the subjects are revealed: “Knowing what is at stake for informants must include the political contexts of their lives, as well as the Heisenberg-like effects of participant observation, which turns the observer into a part of the social scene” (Seeman 2009, 7). In tangible ways, a focus on what is at stake in people’s daily lives shaped the nature of Seeman’s work, influencing what content was most important to include and also the goals of his project, that is, the hope that such a work might also shape public dialogue.

Such questions and concerns are a mark of the “experience-near” approach to ethnographic writing and are essential for understanding Seeman’s project (2009, 3). This approach diverges from the assumptions of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who sought a thick description of culture. In contrast, the first obligation of Seeman’s approach is to “the thick and detailed description, not of culture but of what is at stake for people in local settings [see above]—stakes that are patterned in important ways but never wholly defined by cultural considerations” (Seeman 2009, 3). Seeman argues that this approach works to safeguard the anthropological task through “a rigorous theoretical and methodological approach to lived experience” that prevents “significant misunderstandings of the distinctive life-worlds in which human habitation and meaning occur” (2009, 3). That such “significant misunderstandings” are possible was illustrated clearly and profoundly in Wikan’s work on the Balinese (Managing Turbulent Hearts, xv-xxvi). One area where this framework is particularly evident in One People, One Blood is Seeman’s focus on shifting the conversation about the true identity of the “Feres Mura” away from the topic of origins and onto the “here-and-now, where Ethiopian Jews, “Feres Mura,” and Beta Israel Pentecostals . . . all struggle to define themselves—and also struggle just to get by” (Seeman 2009, 61). Similarly, “Coffee and the Moral Order” is structured around thick descriptions of the subjective experience of participation in buna drinking that reveals how one such aspect of culture is not sufficiently explained without attention to the nuances with which subjects and groups experience or disavow its observance. In this case, buna drinking or abstinence is revealed as more than “a mechanism for ensuring peace within families and ensuring solidarity among women” (Seeman 2015, 735), but also as a site wherein individuals and the groups to which they belong may actively engage in cultural negotiation (Seeman 2015, 740). As such, buna drinking/abstinence opens an avenue for the exploration of religious and moral agency.

Already in Seeman’s earlier work, One People, One Blood, the question of religious and moral agency (and, especially, how the religious and moral agency of another might be determined and evaluated) emerged as a significant theme for analysis. With regard to the “Feres Mura,” this was because, at the very heart of the dilemma, lay questions of authentic kinship and religious conversion for which no “truly objective and unqualified criteria” could be offered (Seeman 2009, 62). Thus, for the “Feres Mura,” the motivation for a return to Judaism has frequently been reduced in public political and religious dialogue to a matter of the truly penitent heart or the utilitarian desire to escape poverty in Ethiopia (Seeman 2009, 92–3). However, a careful analysis, according to Seeman, must include and consider the complexities which attend such a profound and life-altering decision—one which must be tied to “a more situated account of their lives in historical and ethnographic context” (2009, 83) and which reveals the way those who immigrated to Israel were required to navigate “broader and overlapping—yet not identical—fields of social expectation” (Seeman 2009, 108). Such a lived reality as that experienced by the “Feres Mura” draws the complexity of individual decision making and its relation to religion and culture into sharp relief and brings us to the question of freedom—a fundamental issue at the heart of Seeman’s article on buna drinking.

The focused nature of Seeman’s article allows for a close analysis of the Ethiopian practice of buna drinking as a cultural observance either embraced or rejected by Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals in Israel. Indeed, the negotiation of cultural, religious, and familial identity are evident in the varied responses to buna drinking and its rejection (a decision that may be made because of one’s past experience of the practice as hurtful, the shifting generational values necessitated by employment, or observance of religious commitments requiring denouncing the spiritual aspects of buna drinking). Seeman here argues that the Pentecostal notion of freedom highlights a “more basic tension between the human desire for autonomy as well as stable systems of relatedness” (Seeman 2015, 744) that, while never entirely divorced of its particularity in time, place, and history, may also provide a means to reflect upon the complexities of agency and constraint in socio-cultural and religious contexts. Seeman emphasizes that he does not intend to “deny the power of culture in human affairs but, rather, to insist on its conditionality,” which is to assert that cultures cannot be satisfactorily described as mere semiotic systems, but also as the “differing textures of constraint, freedom, and compulsion that characterize their lived horizons” (Seeman 2015, 745). Such an assertion, then, demonstrates the necessity of an “experience-near” approach to the study of agency, freedom, and constraint.

Given the ethnographic emphasis on illuminating the human condition (Kleinman and Kleinman, 278, 280) and Seeman’s own claim that “the stories we tell ourselves about belonging and kinship are at the very heart of the story [One People, One Blood] aims to tell” (Seeman 2009 12–3), it is prudent to ask to what degree Seeman’s analytical framework succeeds in an adequate account of the “Feres Mura” community, but also to what degree his framework may have explanatory power for ethnographic research in other areas. In other words, how might Seeman’s insights regarding complexity and experience-near descriptions of subject choices assist the ethnographer in other contexts? What are the pitfalls and advantages of an “experience-near” approach to anthropology? Or, specifically, to agency? Seeman himself notes that “the contingency of interpretation . . . has important analytical and ethical implications for the world we study” and that it necessitates caution regarding statements of academic certainty (Seeman 2009, 8 and 208). This implies that a greater awareness on the contingency of the researcher is also necessary for ethnographic work. Indeed, Seeman also highlights several of the challenges and complexities that come with ethnographic research and participant observation—some of which emerged as questions in last week’s forum discussion on Wikan, and Kleinman and Kleinman. For example, Seeman’s work with Ethiopian Pentecostals in Israel was cut short by tensions that emerged because of divergent religious commitments that resulted in a “rupture that no ethnographic methodology could bridge” (2009, 134). Seeman’s experience thus highlights some of the unique research challenges presented by participant observation, namely, how the particularities of the researcher’s person (gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.) and experience (among others, the ability to make friends or the length of the study) impact the results of one’s work. How can such challenges be mitigated to ensure the best possible contribution to the field of ethnography?

4 Replies to “Precis: Seeman, One People, One Blood and “Coffee and the Moral Order””

  1. In your opinion how does the work of Dr. Seerman differ from that of the other texts we have read? Do you think his attention to what is at stake is helpful to the overall material over and above the other readings thus far?

  2. Thanks Chelsea for the super thorough precis! And thanks especially for tying it through the previous readings and our conversations–I think it helps to put these things in conversation, and see how our seminar discussions have developed.

    The questions you locate about agency and experience, as well as the “Heisenberg-like” role of the ethnographer, are what stood out most to me in these readings as well. This quote about participant observation was, to me, particularly exciting:

    “In its best and broadest understanding, which includes both formal methodology and a whole ethos of engaged interaction with other beings, it is a necessary condition for the very possibility of understanding” (Seeman 2009: 209).

    I have my own self-interested reasons for this. Over in the school of theology, my own work is located at precisely this point of engaging with how ethnography is about more than empirical data and is actually a valid, and perhaps even necessary, means of finding theological understanding.

    But it raises more general methodological questions for me as well, questions about the ways in which we both perform and train ethnographers. This model of ethnography or participant observation as a mechanism for understanding is one I fully buy. It also seems to immediately invite a conversation about ethical disposition and ethnographic understanding. If ethnography is in part a question of situating a correct disposition in given circumstances to properly understand another person, this seems to become a question of the relation of self and other that is almost identical to questions of dispositional ethics.

    I don’t view this as a weakness by any means–in fact, I think recognizing the mutuality of ethnographic and ethical concerns is necessarily for the proper function of either of the two. But I think we have to hash that out, and see if we’re all equally comfortable with the possibility that a normative dimension is opened up in ethnographic work.

    It also immediately begs the question of what these dispositional ethics ought to be, how do we find them, are they universal or particular, etc. And, in addition, I think it raises critical questions about the ways we train ethnographers. At one level, the traditional model that maintains that fieldwork is the best training for fieldwork makes sense. The experience is irreducible.

    But on the other hand, if anthropologists “are really just engaging in a more disciplined and specialized version of what participants in social life do all the time” (Seeman 2009: 105), then what precisely is the distinction between fieldwork and living? Is there any distinction between ethnography and being?

    If there is no distinction between ethnography and being, and if ethnography is in part a way of knowing involving a proper disposition toward the other (a disposition that may involve friendship or empathy), then it seems like the conclusion is that ethnography is both properly a tool of ethical cultivation, and that the quality of ethnographic understanding is itself improved when the ethnographer is more ethical.

    I wonder what it would look like for ethnographers to engage more actively in these questions of not only how ethics are expressed in communities in which they live, but in an active ethical dialogue about what virtues are needed for understanding?

  3. Chelsea, thank you for a scholarly analysis of Dr. Seeman’s book and article. With all do respect, I do not have anything to comment about your analysis. To be honest, it is written above my limited understanding of ethnography. Having said that, I do look forward to tomorrow’s class and listening to you and the class interact with your analysis. I do have to say that of all the books we have read so far, Dr. Seeman’s has been the best written and easiest to follow to date. Once again, thank you for your précis.

  4. Thanks Chelsea for your detailed precis. As you highlighted, the thick description of the daily lives of the “Feres Mura,” enabled Dr. Seeman to see “what is at stake.” This method, which looks at the lived experience, made me to question when we need to use this kind of “experience-near” approach for our research. You have mentioned, “the necessity of an “experience-near” approach to the study of agency, freedom, and constraint. However, my question goes further and asks is the “experience-near” approach the only option or always the best option to study people? Should we consider “experience-near” approach for our research over other anthropological method? If not, how do we know when to use and not to use “experience-near” approach for our research?

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