Autobiography as "Self" Ethnography

by Hugh M. Lewis


A great deal of lip service has been given over the last decade toward a more "reflexive" Anthropology, and, implicitly at least, the deliberate inclusion of the sense of self in the construction of ethnographic descriptions. To say that ethnography is a matter of construction as much as it is a matter of science is to point up the "facticity" of the facts that somehow manage to account for the background contexts in which the ethnography as a written document is situated in the personal life of the ethnographer. The apparent fact of the act of fabrication of the story is then exposed for what it in truth is.

Important in this call for greater reflexivity of our ethnographic accounting is to somehow provenience the "Other" in some sense of real place and time--in a shared world that is contemporaneous and contiguous to our own, and not merely a facet of our construction. The reflexive problem that autobiography highlights is not one of the professional "Other" but rather of its antithesis--the professional sense of "Self." That the professional "Self" is somehow critically tied to our conceptioning of the "Other" should go without saying--except to reiterate again that if the self is seen as somehow problematic, so must the other be seen as fundamentally problematic as well.

Professionalization of the self, a process which is articulated primarily in Anthropology departments, involves the identification and subjective internalization of certain implicit knowledge structures and core values of what it is to be an anthropologist. Part of this professionalization process seems to inevitably entail some form of internal symbolic and behavioral dichotomization of the self between ideal and real, or foreground and background. It is a dichotomization that involves to some extent separation between personal and private and professional and potentially public domains of one's life. There is quite a bit a variability in how professional anthropologists finally achieve this compartmentalization of their lives--some apparently do a better job of it than others and for many it seems to have been a downright frustrating process.

When we are forced to put our best foot forward in professional arenas, we are simultaneously compelled to hide our worst points from view. Unfortunately this repression of a part of ourselves comes to influence our projective construction of the other and of how we professionally define ourselves in relation to the other. To say "compelled" is to point up the subconscious and strikingly compulsive nature of the entire process. We find ourselves doing it whether we realize it or not or can control it or not. If the definition of our professional self in the critical arenas of the department becomes a somewhat neurotic style, then at least a part of this neurosis embodied in our self-denial and internalization of anthropologos becomes projectively transferred upon our constructions of the other. This can become a quite frightening phenomena when its potential extent is considered, especially when we consider the extent to which arbitrary prejudice and judgment is being passed upon others in lieu of actually getting to know the other.

Autobiographical accounts are an overlooked style of ethnographic description, even though many descriptive reports are actually framed in a first-person voice, and even though a great deal of what passes for objective, impersonal description may actually be based upon first-hand subjective experiences of the participant-observer.

The explicit use of autobiographical accounting as a meaningful form of ethnographic information can move beyond the anecdotal narrative of personal experiences to provide a systematic document of psychological attitudes, changes of attitudes and feelings, of subjective experiences in interaction or withdrawal from the field situation, so that a reader might more objectively than the author separate the real from the contrived.

The aim of such ethnographic autobiography is to attempt to centrally provenience the anthropological self and the vital context of the self in its relation with the other--to bring the sense of self and the factors that influence the construction and identification of the anthropological self both in the field and outside of it, in the department.

Of course, Great Persons write great autobiographies, and so, very minor, anonymous anthropologists must ultimately write very minor, anonymous autobiographies. But there is an overlooked ethnographic virtue in such humbleness, that one's own personal accounts, disinvested with any of the illusions and allusions that greatness is heir to, may somehow lie closer to the common voice of humanity, and resonate the forgotten experiences of so many lesser biographies.

Looking critically at one's own past experiences, and then writing about them in a narrative voice and in the first person, is sometimes to open a Pandora's box that is usually kept safely locked away and hidden from view. There are many facts that I would have rather not mentioned, some now embarrassing and ridiculous that make a good yarn, others too close to home and too revealing. It is sometimes the height of unwisdom to reveal too much about one's self and one's human foibles when one's central concern is to try to leave a good impression upon the world about who you are supposed to be, professionally at least.

But somehow I felt that if I were going to put down on paper and publish the life stories of other peoples, most of whom gave them to me very generously and honestly, then I must also demand of myself the same requirement. If I am to give a countless rounds of tasks to an endless stream of informants, then at some point I felt an obligation to give myself those very same tasks, even if I had performed them vicariously countless times while giving them to different informants.

Besides, there are many valuable and interesting experiences in the course of fieldwork that cannot be best described except in the first person, which, if they were omitted, would entail the loss of many valuable, insightful and interesting anecdotes. It would be a disservice to the spirit of the entire study not to try to put these experiences down in some detail and to omit them as if they never happened.

I have chosen to include a document in the first person as a nonfiction narrative of my own experiences abroad in Malaysia mostly because I have a firm faith in the value and importance of human subjectivity and subjectiveness of attitude in the world--in its fundamental honesty and value in bringing meaning to the world.

I take as a fundamental symptom and failing of an impersonal "System" that grows beyond human proportions that it inevitably squashes human subjectivity and subjective attitudes into little squares and stamps them with the label "irrelevant" or even sometimes "dangerous."

To me the epitome of the fascist is that person who has so repressed and denied human subjectivities and rendered the self so selfless and impersonal in service to some ideal that is larger than life, that the person is not only more than willing to sacrifice his/her own hide to the cause, but also the hides of anyone and everyone else who may be deemed as interfering with that cause. Thus, as queer as it may sound to some, I take it as a fundamental duty, both anthropologically as a professional and personally as a human being, to at some point at least reemphasize the irreducible importance of the subjective point of view--not just my own, but of anyone's and everyone's that I come into significant contact with.

One of the saddest and most important lessons to have been learned from years of exclusion and prejudice from within different anthropology programs is the importance of human subjectivity in the full accounting of facts, and of the danger of the denial of such subjectivity in the social construction of objective realities of other people.

But writing of one's own life-events has another important function, and that is of making objective and rendering critical what otherwise remains only subjective and uncritical. In effect it forces a kind of integration that both allows one to work out a lot that might be bubbling around back in the old head, and to reconsider and rethink those past experiences and rearrange them in an order that best fits the present demands of one's life.

Of course, subjectivity should not be confused with the lack of a certain critical objectivity, as it most often seems to be. Adopting a subjective point of view is not a substitute for attempting an objective description or analysis of the subject at hand. But subjective and objective points of view can coexist in the same complementary realm without conflict or contradiction, and there may even be considerable overlap that can be productive and "dialectically creative." Furthermore, subjective experience can be approached "emically" in a manner that does justice to the humanness of the experience and yet which remains at the same time true to objective form.

Anyone who shallowly criticizes or lightly dismisses the field of cultural anthropology does not know or appreciate the tremendous amount of work and energy involved in its production. The personal sacrifices have been incredible in the pursuit of a degree that somehow always seems to slip from grasp, or the promise of a full professional career that always falls further on the horizon of a receding economy with all its racial double-standards.

Long without medical insurance, we venture into unknown, strange, alienating and potentially hostile environments at some risk to ourselves, supported only by a shoe-string "budget" and without any of the conveniences or creature comforts of modern life. We deal with hunger, insects, disease, animosity, prejudice, and anonymity. We suffer the lack of dignity at the hands of arrogant and ignorant "others." We give up the hope of having a home, of a regular pay-check, of a nest-egg, of material belongings, of even professional respect or acknowledgement, for the pursuit of professional knowledge and entitlement in a world that too often can be downright cruel and unfriendly. We sacrifice many personal friendships and any social identity for the sake of this mad pursuit. Sometimes we even sacrifice family and ourselves in the process.

A professional pariah is what might be considered a fifth generation cultural anthropologist in an academic world now dominated by linguists, political scientists, ethno-biologists and computer wizards all of whom claim to be cultural anthropologists but who seem never to have had the time to read Levi-Strauss or Clifford Geertz or to conduct genuine cross-cultural fieldwork. Culture is no longer a force to be reckoned with, but something to be explained in terms of some other more important scientific process. A professional pariah is a person who has learned their professional skills largely by default--by the hard knocks school of trial, tribulation and sometimes error, without a great deal of funding support and almost no professional recognition or acknowledgement within the field. It highlights the inescapably liminal dilemmas of a new generation of cultural anthropologist lacking any real context of social identity or support in a larger world.

Being a pariah means to be excluded from normal participation in social life in almost every but the most minimal contexts. It is to be indirectly ostracized from such participation, and to suffer the psychological consequences of such ostracism. In a professional world, it means a basic lack of respect or interest in one's work, the exclusion from vital dialogue, from information sources and critical professional resources.

The process of exclusion is almost total in a social sense, and is a social reality that is of undeniable statistical significance. The observation that such behavior is class-tied has been made, and it is not necessary to belabor this point except to reiterate the importance that larger external structural connections play in influencing such behavior. Such connections are largely defined along lines of class--class interests, styles, prerogatives and background.

Achieving, negotiating and maintaining one's identity and position within a competitive status hierarchy within the department setting often becomes of paramount importance, even more than the project of doing good ethnographic work itself, and even if it remains implicit to the background of social identity within the field. With increasing years in departments, the lack of any strong, necessary correlation between skill, capability and talent and professional position as an anthropologist becomes much clearer, as does the continuous, across the board application of extreme double standards in the treatment of persons within the profession according to the relative estimation of their status within the field by departmental standing and standards..

This account covers only those periods of my involvement with Anthropology subsequent to my discharge from the military--roughly from 1980 until 1995--before, after, and during which we were actually residing in Malaysia, or interim periods between our times of residence in Malaysia. During these periods, no great events tragically affected our lives--our daughter was never kidnapped and my wife never won a lottery. Mostly it was a long, hot, tedious and boring wait at bus-stops, or long rides on overcrowded, dirty buses, or long walks in the hot sun to accomplish some silly, daily bothersome task. Occasionally it was interesting, and only rarely any great fun.

I had to be selective in what to include and exclude from this document, simply for the sake of brevity and legibility. There were some points that I glossed over or excluded altogether because either I felt them to be too private and thus no one else's business, or else because they seem irrelevant to the main thematic direction of the story. Thus, in the chapters dealing with the interregnum periods especially, and in the foregrounding and back-grounding of the story, many details were left out that may or may not have some indirect bearing to the story as it appears. This is especially true for the long second interregnum period between August of 1987 and July of 1993--almost six years to be exact--during which we went through a whole series of critical periods that had a profound shaping influence on the course of our subsequent lives. This interim period was marked initially by unemployment, a decision to go back to graduate school, the decision to leave the first graduate program for the sake of finding a better one, the birth of our baby girl who more than any other single thing has served to reshape our lives and lifestyles, eventually finding a more suitable program after several dead ends, and finally successfully completing this program and returning to Malaysia. It is a dry, banal and somewhat sordid story--one that has probably been repeatedly played out in literally hundreds of anthropology programs across the United States.

The most important lesson I've learned in my years in departments is to never pass judgment on people whom we really don't know--something anthropologists seem do all of the time. But, after all, anthropologists are only human.


Professional Pariah: Ethnography of the Anthropological Self


Hugh M. Lewis

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: 03/17/05