Text as a Fundamental Ethnographic Tool

Anthropology has a history ofdealing with texts that go back to its origins as a discipline in the late nineteenth century. American cultural anthropology, following Franz Boas, revolved around the collection or creation, transcription, translation, and interpretation of collected texts by representatives of endangered Native American cultures. Linguistic experience and cultural empathy combined, as anthropologists hired native informants or collaborators in marathons of dialogue and text editing. British social anthropology, following Malinowski, also treated the collection of texts as a vital ethnographic tool, providing pieces of evidence about indigenous attitudes and beliefs. But while American cultural-linguistic anthropologists made texts the central focus of inquiry – the method, the object and result of the research – British social anthropologists tended to bury them in their field notes and refer to them only when necessary to corroborate or expand a point based on other forms of data. In both traditions, there was a certain slippage between the text as an indigenous creation that existed independently of ethnographic intervention (ritual singing, praise poetry, myths, proverbs) and the text as the joint creation and the result of the anthropologist’s interactions with informants (incited life stories, explanations of customs). To this day, it is striking that American anthropology gives the interpretation of texts a central place,

The American approach to texts gave rise to an influential interpretive approach, associated primarily with Clifford Geertz and influenced by the work of Paul Ricoeur, in which the text became a metaphor for society / culture, and the mandate of anthropology it was hermeneutically interpreting that text. Along with this approach, he has focused on the ethnographic document as text – what and how the anthropologist writes, using what tropes and conventions, what elements of fiction or poetic form. This emphasis was underlined by Clifford and Marcus (1986) and has led to an intense critique of ethnographic writing, and of the ethnographer’s claims to authority and self-positioning in the text. He asked ethnographers to recognize the role of their interlocutors as co-authors,

Text has traditionally been associated with writing. However, following “fBakhtin, the linguistic anthropologist William F. Hanks in an influential overview article defined the text as ‘any sign configuration that is consistently interpretable by some community of users’ (1989: 95). The text of this definition includes not only oral verbal productions, but also other visual and kinetic sign systems such as film, dance, music, and art.

Leave a Comment