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Ethnography term paper

"Ethnography was once the almost exclusive domain of anthropology. In studies dating from the end of the nineteenth century, American scholars went and lived in a remote culture for a substantial period of time. The following selection falls within this tradition of cultural anthropology. Alma Gottlieb, then a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, set out to do fieldwork for fifteen months among the Beng people in a tropical rain forest in a West African village. She had not secured the necessary governmental permission to do the research before she flew halfway across the world. In addition, since this group had never been studied by Western scholars, she could not learn the Beng language in advance of her trip. As with most classical anthropological studies, she would have to rely on a translator or informant and try to learn to communicate once there. Although field workers often work alone, in this instance Gottlieb was accompanied by her husband, Philip Graham, a fiction writer then working on his first book of short stories. Graham was between teaching jobs, and thinking that as a fiction writer he could "write anywhere," he "went along for the ride." The resulting collaboration, Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa won the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology."

"The influence of geographical environment on culture seems a matter not so much of logical inference as of direct observation. Taking the continent of North America, it is known that cotton is raised in the South, that our wheat belt lies in Minnesota and the adjoining states and Canadian provinces, that the Rocky Mountain and some of the Plateau states are the seat of the mining industry while Florida and California form our tropical fruit orchards. With these obvious facts are combined correlations not so clear, perhaps, yet very convincing to the mind as yet undebauched by ethnological learning. What seems more natural than that culture in its highest forms should develop only in temperate regions, that the gloomy forests of the North be reflected in a mythology of ogres and trolls, that liberty should flourish amidst snowy mountain tops and languish in the tepid plain, or those islanders should be expert mariners?

This geographical theory of culture bears a certain resemblance to the classical associationist theory in psychology. According to that doctrine, the mind is something in the nature of a wax tablet on which the outer world produces impressions and all the higher mental activities are, in the last instance, reducible to combinations of the represented impressions or 'ideas'. Modern psychology, however, regards this system, fascinating as it appears at a first glance, as little better than an historical curiosity. The association of ideas itself is now conceived merely as a special manifestation of the synthetic nature of consciousness. In short, the tables are completely turned, and association, instead of explaining consciousness, is interpreted in terms of consciousness."

"Discrepant meanings for the same term are not, of course, in themselves surprising, at least in ordinary language; polysemy, as the linguists call it, is the natural condition of words. I bring this example of it forward because it takes us into the heart of the unity and diversity theme as it has appeared in the social sciences since, say, the twenties and thirties. The overall movement of those sciences during that period has been one in which the steady progress of a radically unific view of human thought, considered in our first, "psychological" sense as internal happening, has been matched by the no less steady progress of a radically pluralistic view of it in our second, "cultural" sense as social fact. And this has raised issues that have now so deepened as to threaten coherence. We are forced at last, whether we work in laboratories, clinics, slums, computer centres, or African villages, to consider what it is we really think about thought. Malinowski, Boas, and L"vi-Bruhl in the formative phases of the discipline, Whorf, Mauss, and Evans-Pritchard after them, Horton, Douglas, and L"vi-Strauss now, have all been unable to leave off worrying it. Formulated first as the "primitive mind" problem, later as the "cognitive relativism" problem, and most recently as the "conceptual incommensurability" problem - as always, what advances most in such matters is the majesty of the jargon - the disaccordance between a lowest common denominator view of the human mind ("even Papuans exclude middles, distinguish objects, and lay effects to causes") and an "other beasts, other notions" one ("Amazonians think they are parakeets, fuse the cosmos with village structure, and believe pregnancy disables males") has grown steadily more difficult to avoid noticing."

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