Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth in Ethnography

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Introduction to Truth in Ethnographic Study[edit | edit source]

This chapter focuses on the superconcept of truth within the discipline of anthropology. The specific anthropological research method that we will be considering with relation to truth is ethnography. Ethnography [1] allows us to explore the day to day lives of culturally diverse, un-westernised societies and uncover social patterns and potentially universal social truths. To ensure our research is specific and focused we decided to structure our wikibook around the question of to what extent can ethnographic study find social, cultural truths in local societies. The functioning definition of truth[2] for this wikibook will be that which is true or in accordance with fact. Alternatively, and more specifically to anthropology, truth can be defined as a fact/ belief that is accepted to be true. Truth is a particularly pertinent issue with relation to interdisciplinary study because it arises in both the arts and sciences. Despite mainly focusing this wikibook within the discipline of anthropology, truth also arises in similar humanities-based subjects such as philosophy with concepts such as correspondence theory of truth [3]. Truth also arises in more scientific and objective disciplines such as logic in maths. In the initial stages of the wiki book we will be looking at applications of ethnography in finding truths in local societies with relation to the Indonesian village of the Donggo [4] before evaluating issues within ethnographic method[5].

Applications of Ethnography in Finding Truths in Local Societies[edit | edit source]

Emile Durkheim – researcher of the suicide rates

Ethnography helps inform us on particularly intricate aspects of life that other disciplines would find difficult to discover without the methods ethnography utilises. The majority of anthropologists find themselves assimilating to the culture of their host communities; enabling participant observation which uncovers truths that would otherwise be unknown. A clear example of this can be shown in Peter Just's fieldwork with the Dou Donggo [6][7]. The ethnographic study of the dispute in the Donggo involves the trial of La Ninde who confesses to a crime he did not commit (the assault of Ina Mone) but admitted to this conviction because "that was more true than what really happened" [8](the truth being he threatened Ina because she knew he was unfaithful). If the villagers accepted this as just; how does that reflect on what we as humans consider to be true or just, and how does that relate to our own western system of law. Peter could only discover this anthropological truth within the local community because ethnography allowed him to uncover truths that even official members of the local community may not have been privy to. It was only because Peter was truly immersed within the local community at the scene that he could discover what truly happened demonstrating the serendipitous nature of ethnographic method when discovering truths.

The Dou Donggo on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia

Unlike ethnography in the discovery of local truths, a historian would have primarily worked with court records that would have made the case of La Ninde's assault on Ina One completely invisible, further, often primitive communities such as the Donggo do not keep written records which means the discovery of truth is to an extent only possible through immersion. The issues of discovering local truths are not only isolated to the limitations of histography but also to disciplines such as sociology and criminology which rely primarily upon surveys, questionnaires and the analysis of official statistics. A well known positivist survey is Durkheim's exploration into the differing suicide rates[9][10] among Protestants and Catholics, arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. However, a survey would unlikely uncover the superficial evidence of the case within the Donggo nor uncover the notion that the conviction was more "true" than the crime he actually committed.

Issues in Ethnography[edit | edit source]

While it is arguable that ethnography allows a deeper and more thorough understanding of a society or social law, there is a counter-argument to say that it is less reliable due to the issue of ethnocentrism [11]. Ethnocentrism can be understood as the judgement of other cultures based on one’s own cultural values. Historically this was true in many ethnographic works around the turn of the 19th century with evolutionary anthropology being the popular perspective of societies and cultures. The key findings in evolutionary anthropology were that societies weren’t static, social progress evolved from savagery to civilisation over many years and social diversity was explained by evolution at different speeds. These ethnographic claims were taken as true which was problematic because it could be used to justify colonial intervention on the basis of speeding up social progression [12]

It can be argued that this example of ethnocentrism is somewhat extreme and this view of society isn’t accepted anymore, however, some say that ethnocentrism is inescapable. Each ethnographer has their own set of beliefs and values from living in a particular culture so it is impossible to observe another society without seeing it through a biased lens. Therefore, can any piece of ethnography be accepted as completely true if it can't study and describe society and culture objectively?[13]

The Nuer People of South Sudan

Finally, although truth in evolutionary anthropology is generally no longer accepted [14], there have still been cases of ethnocentrism by anthropologists who ignore historical contexts of societies. For example in a study of the pastoral Nuer tribe [15][16], Pritchard saw a “balance equilibrium” in a condition of ordered anarchy as a result of "internal mechanisms". What was not taken into account was the fact that the Nuer people were subject to Anglo-Egyptian government, so perhaps ordered anarchy was because they had been pacified by stern imperial rule. This case implies the society is static and, unlike evolutionary anthropologists, romanticised this primitive society.[17] . The anthropologist has a considerable task in taking into account all the complexities of each society, let alone separating their own values from the ethnography, making it hard to take any ethnographic account as completely true.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Whilst ethnography is faulted in that we cannot take the discoveries of anthropologists as the absolute truth without considering how their own cultural preconceptions have influenced their findings [18], it is without a doubt one of the most insightful and detailed ways of finding hidden truths amongst local societies. It is essential in uncovering the truth to the intricate, complex ways in which small communities operate within their daily lives, and how these virtually simple interactions can have large scale applications to our own modern day society and how we as humans view the world around us. The "Dispute in the Donggo" demonstrated that ethnography can uncover truths that disciplines such as sociology, history and criminology could have difficulty finding. Different forms of truth can apply to a monopoly of different situations, but what is so deeply important about these truths is how we not only apply them to our own field of study, but to look beyond that. To consider how information found within one discipline can have unimaginable applications within another, if we do not start communicating and linking ideas between disciplines we will never truly move forward and reach our full potential as human beings.

  3. Blackburn, S. (2016). Correspondence theory of truth. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
  6. [1], J. Monaghan & R. Just (2000) Ch1 “A dispute in Donggo: fieldwork and ethnography” pp13-33 Social & Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction Oxford Uni Press
  7. Just, P. (1986). Let the evidence fit the crime: Evidence, law, and “sociological truth” among the Dou Donggo. American Ethnologist, 13(1), 43-61.
  8. A Friend of Peter Just, Page 16 Line 15-16, A Dispute in Donggo, Social and Cultural Anthropology
  9. Taylor, S. (1982). Durkheim and the study of suicide / Steve Taylor. (Contemporary social theory (London, England)). London: Macmillan.
  10. Durkheim, &., & Simpson, G. (1979). Suicide : A study in sociology.
  11. Dickens, D., 1995. What's Wrong With Ethnography – Hammersly, M. Symbolic Interaction, 18(2), pp.207–216
  12. Stocking, G., 1991. Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualisation of Ethnographic Knowledge
  13. Eriksen, T.H., 2010. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology pp.7-9 Third., London: Pluto.
  14. M. Sahlins (1972) The Original Affluent Society in Stone-Age Economics, Aldine
  15. E. E. Evans Pritchard, (1960), “Introductory” pp7-15 in The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People in South Sudan
  16. C. D. Johnson’s 1994/7 Ch1. 'The Hammer of the Kujurs’: Government Ethnography. And Nilotic Religions pp3-9 and pp29-34 in Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the 19th and 20th Centuries) Clarendon Press
  17. D. Freeman (1983) Margaret Mead and Samoa. The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth Harvard Uni Press