Heretical Humanism in the Field

by Hugh M. Lewis


Good ethnography, like good art, succeeds at the test of time.


Most professional anthropologists who hold strongly to an ethos of a scientific anthropology would regard the idea of ethnography as an "art" as blasphemous, and yet this is precisely what I would contend that ethnography is and has been in most instances. Knowingly or not, every would-be ethnographer carries into the field a range of models, sets of anthropological experiences, and a "tool kit" composed of proven techniques, tricks of the trade, and special tactics. The ethnographer, whatever her/his prior expectations or designs, is bound to encounter a series of events which will require ad hoc decision-making and fast and loose cutting and pasting. The ethnographic project is always guided, from start to finish, by the final goal of writing a good ethnography. The medium that the ethnographer as artist has to work with is the information, the "data", which s/he is able to elicit from involvements, observations and informants within the field setting. The intent of the ethnographer in her/his project is to draw out from this material a sense of pattern, a configuration, a form, which has some degree of aesthetic value and integrity. The artist becomes as a poet, a painter or a sculptor in creating a vision of human reality that has a sublime sense of aesthetic vitality. As an art form, its criteria of validity and acceptability are inherently different than those we conventionally apply to our science.

What the ethnographer produces, like the artist, is an artifact that embodies in itself a new vision, a vital idea that serves to augment the sense of reality from which it was drawn.

Like all artwork, the scientific question can always be asked as to whether or not the representation is realistic or not, or if biased or distorted, then in what ways. But this is not the question the ethnographer, as artist, must normally ask her/himself unless s/he is intent on doing realistic ethnography.

The key question is if good art, whether poetry or painting or ethnography, has an equivalent power to science to inform its audience about something significant in reality. We do not criticize ethnography for being poor science, but for having been poor art.

The appropriate attitude of the ethnography, as artist, is one of an open and honest vision of the world. This is the difference between art and propaganda, and is part of a basic conflict between the function of art in relation to religion and symbolic ideology. From this standpoint, as Marshall Mcluhan wrote, the artist is the anti-environmental sleuth who is not comfortable with the received, correct version of reality. About the most that can be said of art as propaganda is that it is most liable to suffer the fate of its own mediocrity--its stratigraphic taphonomy, fossilization and petrification as a dead artifact and anachronism of a bygone era. Viable art has a certain vital "elan" about it which resists such ossification--the distinguishing mark of its vitality is its capacity to stimulate fresh and newer meanings with each rereading. An artist may choose to work with symbolic themma that is essentially religious or ideological, and do a superb job of it, but not for religious or ideological reasons.

While the ethnographer does have an obligation to stick to the facts, as must as this is possible, and therefore does not have the same kind of imaginative freedom as a novelist or storyteller, this falls short of meeting the stricter scientific criteria of "replicability" and "falsification." The anthropologist as scientist may sample a statistical universe and submit findings for review and retesting by other colleagues of the scientific community, but the ethnographer as artist does not have a commitment to produce a repetitious account of the "really real."

The value of ethnography is not the rhetorical or ertistic value to persuade its readership of its "truth." It is the witness-value of a first or second or third hand testimony that is publicly open for weighing and evaluation. Perhaps anthropologists have too conveniently depended upon this witness-value--"I came, I saw, I conquered"--approach in their ethnography--leaving their presence, as a matter of good "style", for the reader to take for granted. Ethnographers have also been known to be masters of certain literary tricks of the trade, certain contrivances, allusions, convenient or commanding metaphors, etc., to lull the reader into a certain naive gullibility in accepting the authenticity of the vision represented. It is often undesirable to describe every detail of one's ethnographic involvement--leaving it for the reader to sort through and decide which are relevant or irrelevant to the theme.

The effectiveness of ethnography of art critically depends upon the openness and honesty of the ethnographer. Art depends utmost upon an open and honest view of the world, one that resists the deception and illusions of preconstructed points of view. The witnessing of ethnography in the field must often go uncontested. We are often left without any choice but to take the word of the anthropologist as the first and last, because no other testimony may be available. But even the sincerest and most well intentioned of ethnographer's may still see the world in a fundamentally biased way--honesty has its own relativity of truth about it--as has been attested to by the ethnographic work of many missionaries and priests. Though rooted in honesty, the vision of the artist also depends upon critical skepticism which questions all received forms as these are presented to experience. This fundamental doubting leads the artist, via her/his work, upon a course of discovery in the world of unknown possibilities which leads to the reconstruction of a world more genuine than the one from which it departed.

This is one of the prerogatives of the ethnographer as artist. All art work, as representations of reality, are artifices and simplifications of reality. All such artwork involves distortion and selective bias. Art would not succeed otherwise. The virtue and integrity of any work of art is intrinsic to its own design, and transcends the considerations of its context of production or appreciation.

But we must also resist the fallacy that those who critique ethnography from the standpoint of literary criticism commonly make, to confuse ethnography as just another genre of fictional literature which resonates, however awkwardly or brilliantly, with its own symbolic mythoi. This is the rub that drives experienced anthropologists crazy with the radical literary account of what they do--anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the field will understand the disdain for those who haven't and yet presume to be able to judge the merits of their work. As an art form, ethnography constitutes its own specialized genre, one which is not fictional so much as fictionalized, factitious if not factual--the merit of ethnography is determined upon its ability to frame the "facts" and remain as close as possible to the "history." In this sense, ethnography shares more with narrative history or journalistic reporting than it does with fictional literature or poetry. It can be poetic in style and force, but it faces the challenge of artistically recording and recovering the realissum of reality.

An artist with a keen eye and a creative imagination can often create a vision of reality that is more real than reality.

No doubt that a good novel will reveal dimensions of human reality the surface of which a scientific ethnography cannot even scratch. In this regard we can legitimately refer to the virtue of the aesthetic sensitivity and sensibility of the ethnographer as artist--to what might be called ethnographic virtuosity in being able to turn a vision of reality into a good story while still sticking to the facts.

Sometimes, even severely scientific ethnographies achieve such virtuosity and become as aesthetically viable as they are scientifically interesting or information, while oftentimes ethnography framed as poetry fails in its virtuosity as a work of art. In other words, even science can have its aesthetic virtues that many works of art lack.

The training of good ethnographer's may not necessarily depend upon the development of a hypercritical, and often hypocritical, outlook upon the world--such exclusive criticality is often anathema to aesthetic awareness that depends primarily upon the ability to achieve an attunement, and an "appreciation" of phenomena. It is the critical difference between looking and "seeing"--to take "notice" of something as a thing in itself. If we teach student's of anthropology to be mere critical of their world, without first showing them how to appreciate and involve themselves in the phenomena of the world, in its own terms, then we are producing imbalanced ego's lacking in the capacity to experience reality, with reversed priorities to judge before they see.

We can also in this regard refer to the therapeutic function of ethnography as art to integrate in a meaningful way the marginalia of experience, and at the same time to provide the anti-structural relativization of normality by which identity and difference achieve value. This is just the reverse of a annihilating function to critically destruct and therefore obfuscate marginal realities. The ethnographer as artist yields a productive interpretation of realities that would otherwise remain foreign and strange--in the process estranging the normal realities with which we are familiar. It is just this, an interpretation of reality, a representation, and not the presentation of reality itself. It is not the ethnographer who necessarily reifies reality, whether ethnography becomes used to reaffirm some cognitive, symbolic or moral order or not is another, ethical, not aesthetic, manner.




The perspective of anthropological research, especially participant-observation, as phenomenological process, has always been readily apparent and available, but nowhere has it been fully exploited for its implications for such research. Similarly, the view of human reality as phenomenological process has largely been left unadressed by serious theory, except in more recent ethnographic accounts which deal with "pathways of practice" and which attempt to bring the subject-centered world back into focus--this is in spite of the belief that the anthropological construction of human reality is irreducibly "phenomenological" in its subjective ordering of human experience.

The phenomenological process of anthropological research can be seen from two points of view. The first is that of the researchers own streams of conscious experience and transformations as s/he moves from beginning to end of research projects. The phenomenological nature of this perspective presents an inherent witnessing. It is through such witnessing that the researcher becomes placed in a strategic, pan-optic point of view which offers the possibility of not only destructing the previous order of experience, of passing from one field to another different field and therefore demonstrating the situated, differential relativity of knowledge, but of also reintegrating this order in a new way. This strategic location of the participant observing researcher occurs not only in the ethnographic field but in the field of anthropology as a whole as but part of a larger field of Mind. It is accomplished because the research presents to himself as wide a variety or variation of experiences as possible, experiences which would normally or otherwise prove disruptive or unlikely, and thus provides her/himself the potentiality for the subjective incorporation and reintegration of a new range of experiences. This strategic locating of the researcher coincides with a critical moment during which the research is able to fully exploit and capitalize upon the experiential resources made phenomenologically available. It is a moment in which a new vision of reality may be born.

The experience of the ethnographer is framed in terms that are subject to disruption. The encounter of alien experiences leads the ethnographer to elicit subconscious frames which then become subject to disruption and which require reevaluation. This process continues until a state of phenomenological fusion is reached in the state of mind of the ethnographer, one that does not entail the energy invested in reinforcing preconceived frameworks and the reinterpretation of experience.

The phenomenology of the observed, versus that of the participant, presents another kind of perspective that the researcher must deal with. Part of the implication of the phenomenology of the anthropology of knowledge is getting behind veil and into the heads and hearts of the other--the exploration and coming to understand the subjective perspective of the other's experiences, feelings, beliefs and intentions. This presents from the researcher's perspective, as an observer, versus a phenomenologically oriented participant, a critical phenomenological horizon to the experience of the researcher which the ethnographer is challenged to overpass and thereby expand. It is assumed that the native point of view is not just an important perspective, but is critically nonexpendable in the phenomenological realization of human experience. Our anthropology cannot go without it, because it provides an important boundary and challenge to our own frames of experience.

Penetrating the veil of phenomenological experience requires a "fusion" of the horizons of the observer and observed, of the phenomenological experience of the participant and the observer. The phenomenological experience of the other does not remain totally inaccessible or unavailable to the researcher, but its position in the strategic perspective of the researcher always remains somewhat problematic and paradoxical.

Passing into the world of the other usually proves much more circumspect and indirect than a simple straightforward projection would appear. It is a series of gateways and passages in a complex labyrinth of experience. We approach its center without really knowing where we are in relation to its periphery. We are caught up within its forest of subjectivity and our map is based upon the phenomenological history of our own pathways. We may be right by the center, and not realize it, we may be going in circles and think we are going in a straight line--going south while headed north.

The strategic power of the phenomenological research is always complemented and constrained by the phenomenological power of the other to obfuscate and the dependency upon the researcher upon the witness and testimony of the other to guide the research into its world. We cannot penetrate the world of the other without their willing acceptance and mediation. The other then becomes the mid-wife to the birth of the researcher's phenomenological baby.




These considerations lead to a related notion of existential ethnography taken in a similar way that Jean-Paul Sartre autobiographically framed his own life-experiences as well as those existential raison d'etre of artists.

Existential ethnography; effectively combines both the phenomenological perspective of the researcher and that of the other in to an aesthetically and ethically integrated synthesis.

The existential perspective of the ethnographer, involves a series of existential dilemmas and decisions, a phenomenological train of situational encounters in which the ethnographer must act and choose paths. Often serendipity becomes involved in this process, but also a mysterious form of synchronicity and kharma in which the ethnographer's intuition leads to the predicated discovery or encounter. There is much risk in this process, because it entails an openness of the ethnographer that can be easily victimized by the other. At every turn, encounters force upon the ethnographer choices which are not just aesthetically or anthropologically significant, but which also have an intrinsic ethical dimension. The ethnographer must choose, for better or worse.

The existentiality of the other's world is perhaps the goal of the ethnographer's journey. It is to describe/explicate the significant, phenomenological life-world of the other in terms of that other's existential reason for being and dilemmas for existential encounter. The exploration and discovery of such reason for being may be elusive or oblivious to the other. But its investigation is based upon the faith that there is an important "phenomenological sense of order" in every human beings life--if we are all by definition subjectively sentient. This means that even insane people, who from a normal perspective may seem to lack any order at all, may exhibit nevertheless an internal sense of order--an wonderland kind of world, which is more ordered than sanity, or else a kind of order of disorder. But existential reason for being exists not just exclusively in terms of the phenomenological process of the other's subjective, inner experiences--their existential dilemma is rooted in a wider life-world whose avenues branch out in many directions, and which has its own raison d'etre.

The foundation of the meaning of being human in the world is centrally located in this existential reason for being of the phenomenological other. This reason for being is to be contrasted with the purpose for becoming which either the ethnographer may ascribe to the other, (in terms of development, equality, etc.) or which the other may ascribe to himself or to the ethnographer. The purpose for becoming entails the superimposition of an alien, objective perspective upon existential world, constraining it in human ways it would not otherwise have been constrained.

Part of the principle of a person's reason for being is that we are all, as human beings, culture bearers and it is this fact which constrains how we construct and order our experiences and make sense of the world. The anthropological paradox of humankind's reason for being in the world is that for each individual it is culture historically unique and different from any other's. This makes a phenomenological, idiographic approach to its understanding paramount. And yet we all similarly share in the burden and consequences of such a reason for being in our lives that we cannot escape, except perhaps in death or madness.

In this regard, we might refer to ethnographic ego as incorporating the ethnographic self and the ethnographic other. It is neither the experience of the ethnographer nor the subject/object of her/his research. It's theoretical, scientific counterpart is what I refer to as the anthropological ego--the subject-centered human reality. It is what emerges as the phenomenological birthing process proceeds to its resolution. It is a transcendent sense of identity that is based upon the incorporation of differences--it is the sense of human reality that results from existential ethnography.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05