Excerpts – 5: How (not) to write about “culturally distinct Others” in Ethnography

Ethnographic accounts have often hinged on ‘thin descriptions’ of culturally distinct Others. These stereotypes are immediately recognized by Rosaldo and Paredes who, by being researchers of colour, are perhaps more attuned to the ways in which Chicano discourses circulate amongst a primarily white academy with white researchers. Their voices add to a level of disturbance within researcher communities; by articulating the very real ways in which researchers miss a nuanced understanding of the cultures they investigate, researchers like Rosaldo and Paredes point out how “other” cultures are often depicted in ways that do not resonate with members of those cultures. Rosaldo highlights three ways in which we need to critique our own writing and research practices: First, he suggests familiarizing ourselves with another culture to find spaces of solidarity and understanding so that our writings do not dehumanize or stereotype “Others” to the point of parody.

Second, he suggests defamiliarising ourselves with our own cultures through parodic writings of our own cultures. Such writing and the emotions involved in reading it often leads one to question our own writing when we construct “Others”. For example, his account of a breakfast as a ritual that reifies patriarchal norms was amusing, but in the dissonance that followed, I could feel the barb of the point he was making: why is it seemingly appropriate, valid, or true for us to speak about other cultures in this way, but somehow so odd or absurd when applied to a culture we identify as our own? Simlarly, Miner has written about Western “mouth rites” when describing teeth brushing; again the account made me pause because “who could continue to feel comfortable describing other people in terms that sound ludicrous when applied to ourselves?” Recently, I came across an article by Eric Garland called “If media covered America the way we cover foreign cultures” that engages the public in reconsidering the prevalent Islamophobic atmosphere in Western media. In it, he writes

Yet another massacre has occurred in the historically war-torn region of the Southern United States – and so soon after the religious festival of Easter.


Brian McConkey, 27, a Christian fundamentalist militiaman living in the formerly occupied territory of Alabama, gunned down three men from an opposing tribe in the village square near Montgomery, the capitol, over a discussion that may have involved the rituals of the local football cult. In this region full of heavily-armed local warlords and radical Christian clerics, gun violence is part of the life of many.


Many of the militiamen here are ethnic Scots-Irish tribesmen, a famously indomitable mountain people who have killed civilized men – and each other – for centuries. It appears that the wars that started on the fields of Bannockburn and Stirling have come to America.


As the sun sets over the former Confederate States of America, one wonders – can peace ever come to this land?

The writing is funny – absurdly so. We do not recognize it as a feature of North American life. The links and connections made feel false, stretched, and utterly parodic. Through the imagery of a diurnal cycle, an illusion of “timelessness” or “eternality” is present in the account – it is illusory precisely because it rings so very false with our own understandings of flux in our lives. The title is directed to a Western audience, forcing us to acknowledge that Western media often treats “foreigners” in similarly absurd ways.

Thirdly, Rosaldo suggests that in addition to such acute repositioning on part of the researcher through parodying a culture one is familiar with, one should also take criticism by informants and research-participants deeply to heart; as Geertz would say, such criticisms are, after all “first-order interpretations” of a culture, while anthropological writings are necessarily second or third order – often more superficial, and usually less “thick”. First-order interpretations, then, can be seen as a valuable source of knowledge.

But is this reflexive approach necessary? What are the harms in describing cultures at this superficial level? First, one could argue that from a philosophical and epistemological standpoint rooted in the very basic purpose of research, there is the danger of not producing valid data. If the descriptions we produce feel superficial, shell-like to the people we are structuring our writing around, what are we explaining or describing? What are we writing other than the imposition of our own understandings of an “other” we construct? Social sciences(?) – should I start saying ‘social studies’, instead?

The other danger of such superficial researching – the one that resonated with me and the tensions I face on a regular basis as being a woman of colour – was the way in which individual accounts are taken to be local patterns of larger events. In my life, it is the way in which people of colour are held as spokespeople by Euro-Americans, researchers and otherwise, for an ethnicity that itself was likely patterned and held as “Other” through Euro-American institutions. In research, it was the ways in which ritualization suffices as explanations for human behavior or emotions. This danger of ritualizing emotional force is a tactic that ultimately dehumanizes research participants. An example of this was Rosaldo’s critique of Radcliffe Brown’s classic ethnography of “weeping rites” in the Andaman Islands – perhaps the example stayed with me as it hit a little close to home. (In a very crude analogy, Andaman is to India what Cuba is to Canada. My uncle has often visited to parasail and scuba-dive.) In Andaman, Radcliffe-Brown ritualized the concept of weeping between estranged cousins by explicitly stating that something about the act was “obligatory”. There was an implication Radcliffe-Brown’s writing that insinuated the act of weeping as a ritual, as though the force emotions associated with this apparent ‘ritual’ was a secondary effect, produced by the ritual of weeping.  Rosaldo notes the subtle, yet chilling, effect such writing produces, particularly through uncritical readers, when a colleague of his easily said “Yes, but for them, unlike for us, the rites are obligatory.” I remember wanting to write so much in marginalia and simply choosing a dumbfounded “wow”, instead.

There is a very real danger in presenting cultures other than one’s own in these mechanized or ritualized ways – as though depth or force of emotion is something unavailable to other cultures, and reserved for ours alone. This “need to pattern” can be seen as a striving for internal consistency in other cultures- to me, it smacks of a positivist-oriented preoccupation that strives for predictive power. I think to catch the “what was felt”, requires Rosaldo’s notion of emotional force – that elaboration and ritualization do not necessarily add to the depth of observation and do not make ethnographic descriptions “thick”. This patterning leads to “equilibrium” accounts of cultures in ethnographic writing, which portray cultures as unchanging, existing forever in predictable ways.  Jerome Bruner argues that these accounts “are useful principally to guide the writing of older style ethnographies or as political instruments for use by those in power to subjugate psychologically those who must be ruled.” Here again, I see how writing and power, authorship and authority, are inextricably linked; it is easier to assume the inferiority or warranted subjugation of a people if accounts are written precisely to preserve the power of ruling classes. Linda Tuhiwai Smith further adds to the connection between writing and power, by stating that these desires for “‘pure’, uncontaminated, and simple definitions of the native by the settler is often a desire to continue to know and define the Other.” Rosaldo harshly defines these older writings as fictions of constructed Others, often leading to the subjugation of culturally distinct Others.

As Edward Said’s outlined in his notion of Orientalism, writing in research, rooted in colonial notions of presenting other cultures as ‘less capable than’ or “falling to predictable patterns” or “easy to understand” or as “benchmarks” for Western innovation is a very real ethical danger. Such writings have created fictions of the lived realities of the constructed, culturally distinct Other, such that descriptions are unrecognizable to Others who might wonder, incredulously “Is that really me? Is that what you see when you speak to me or seek to understand my way of life?”

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