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Peter Metcalf, 2002

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Approaches to ethnographic analysis in a postmodern climate

  • Jul 3, 2010
They Lie, We Lie is a deconstructionist interlude in Peter Metcalf’s research and analysis of the Berawan of Borneo. Metcalf combines many theoretical paradigms in his interpretations, nearly all of them having a critical aspect to them. Certain aspects of Berawan life are looked at in political, historical, and social context, and every possible interpretation is considered before moving on to another topic. This deconstruction includes not just the ethnographic data obtained by the author and other researchers, but the methods, processes, and influences of ethnography as well, particularly in reference to informants.
Metcalf makes use of linguistic interpretations by analyzing the different terms associated with cultural identity. He explores how cultural names have an amazing amount of variation: the names people call themselves, the names their neighbors and governments use for them, what anthropologists call them; the names also have different categories that do not always fit the culture one is trying to describe, depending on if they are place names, ethnic names, names of old ethnic groups or places that were assimilated, and so on. The best use, Metcalf says, is to use the term the people you are studying use, if that can be defined and is the best description of the group you are identifying. Difficulties with migrations and marriages make this confusing and perhaps a detailed description is the best approach to communicating this.
Metcalf applies similar analyses using forms of symbolism and visual anthropology (relating to rituals and photographs, as well as the symbol of Kasi having his book buried with her), as well as political economy and history. He frequently reminds me of Foucault (“Truth and Power”) when discussing the ways that the anthropologist, merely by publishing ethnographic information, creates a discourse that affects the power relations within and beyond the focal community.
This book calls for a multiplicity of views. Maintenance of only one interpretation is not only stifling and unstable, but can contribute to structures that create or maintain hegemony. Metcalf’s ethnographic perspective, the need of which is shown with this deconstructionist argument, is “mobile positioning” of the researcher, shifting “the point of vantage repeatedly, placing first this ethnicity in the foreground, and then another, within some fairly restricted field” (p 107). The effect of this is not to develop the perfect system of finding objective truth, but it is the best technique for gaining a full understanding of the subtleties of the relations among people. In this way, we can move beyond the limitations of traditional cultural anthropology as well as the paralyzing doubts of postmodern anthropology.

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July 09, 2010
Wow! This sounds like a book that is right up my own literary theory work. Was this something you picked up from school? I'm adding it to my Goodreads TBR list now. Thanks so much for sharing!
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Ranked #1226
      A graduate student of biological anthropology. My favorite writers are Peter Straub, Alice Hoffmann, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and E.O. Wilson … more
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