Conklin, Harold C., 2007, Fine Description: Ethnographic and Linguistic Essays.
Conklin, Harold C., 2007, Fine Description: Ethnographic and Linguistic Essays. Joel Kuipers and Ray McDermott, eds., New Haven: Yale Southeast Asian Studies, Monograph 56, xvii + p. 511. ISBN 0-938692-85-2.
For many of us who were graduate students in anthropology in the 1960s, Hal Conklin was a figure of inspiration. Conklin's study of Hanunoo agriculture and his essays on ethnobiology were, for some of us, a revelation, disclosing the unexpected riches that can come from painstaking observation, careful attention to everyday speech, and to the categories by which people relate to, and act upon, their social and material surroundings.
The last four decades have not been kind to Conklin's legacy. None of his essays are currently in print and only Hanunoo Agriculture, published a half century ago, is still available, in a reprint edition. The editors, Joel Kuipers and Ray McDermott, both former students of Conklin, and the Yale University Southeast Asian Studies Program are therefore to be commended for republishing here a significant body of Conklin's writing, for the time has certainly come to reintroduce graduate students to the work of this remarkable anthropologist.
Fine Description is arranged in eight topical sections, each containing from one to five essays, or extracts from longer works, preceded in each case by a brief editorial introduction written by a different author. In order of appearance, these are: 1) "Fieldwork" (Clifford Geertz), 2)"Ethnographic Knowledge" (Myrdene Anderson), 3) "Lexicographical Approach" (Harold Scheffler), 4) "Kinds of Color" (Charles O. Frake), 5) "The World of Plants" (Eugene Hunn), 6) "Modes of Communication" (Deli Hymes), 7) "Orientation" (Nicole Revel), and 8) "Agriculture" (Michael Dove). A ninth section, "The Early Years," reprints from the Annual Review of Anthropology Conklin's autobiographical reminiscences, "Language, culture, and environment: My early years," and concludes with a CV and complete bibliography of Conklin's writings.
Frake in his foreword, Kuipers and McDermott in their introduction, and most of the other contributors attempt with varying degrees of success to identify Conklin's place in anthropology. At the outset Frake acknowledges the difficulty. Conklin was never a polemicist, his essays rarely confront theoretical debates directly, and, by and large, his ethnography, as Frake puts it, lacks "narrative style." In the end, Frake settles on "fine description" (p. xiv) as the defining characteristic of Conklin's work. The editors are more explicit and in their introduction they briefly sketch what they see as Conklin's principal contributions to the eight topical areas into which the volume is divided. "Ethnographers," they argue, "have higher responsibilities than arguing with each other," chief among them being a responsibility "to represent ways of life with full attention to the ingenuity and complexity they demand" (p. 3). Beyond question, Conklin took this latter responsibility seriously. As a consequence, his work includes a large body of meticulous ethnography describing first the Hanunoo, with whom he began fieldwork in 1946, at the age of 20, and later, beginning in 1962, the Ifugao, since then continuing intermittent work among both groups for more than four decades. This long duration has allowed Conklin to document long-term cultural processes in a way that is almost unique in anthropology. Michael Dove, writing later on, cites two examples. One is Conklin's classic account of the long-term succession of vegetation among the Hanunoo that effectively demonstrates that the spread of grassland is not, by any means, a necessary outcome of swidden cultivation. The second is his study of continuity and change in Ifugao patterns of settlement and rice-field terracing, making innovative use of long-term mapping and photography.
A key to Conklin's success as an ethnographer, the editors argue, is that he starts where those he has studied start. He begins with the things people do, the kinds of activities they engage in, the kinds of social persona they assume in the process, and the everyday speech they use while doing these things, including the words they use to describe what they do and who they are. Much of the history of anthropology is marked by a curious mistrust of what our informants say. This is attributable, perhaps, to the discipline's early empiricist roots. However, as Deli Hymes writes in his introductory contribution, this comparative neglect of everyday speech cuts anthropologists off from an important source of understanding, as speech is clearly a major dimension of how people interact and communicate with one another and with their surroundings. Here, as be observes, Conklin has always been a notable exception. Given the importance of speech, descriptions of what people do with language, Hymes argues, should be commonplace in ethnography. Instead, their comparative neglect has led to the development in recent years of a specialized subdiscipline: the ethnography of speaking. By contrast, for Conklin, such descriptions have always occupied a major place in his ethnographic writings.
Another useful point made by Kuipers and McDermott is that much of Conklin's writing is concerned with questions about "kinds of" things--for example, kinds of colors, kinds of plants, or kinds of kin (p. 7). It must be acknowledged that this gives Conklin's writings at times a resemblance to early nineteenth-century natural history in its seeming preoccupation with taxonomic pigeonholing. This resemblance is strongest in section three, "Lexicographical Approach," the one direction taken by Conklin's work that seems to have run its course. What redeems Conklin's writings, however, and gives them their significance, is the fact that the systematics he explores are those of his informants, not his own, and that his main concern is with the intervening variables of language and culture.
Section One, "Ethnography," contains, for this reviewer, one of the genuine ethnographic gems of Conklin's writings: "Maling, a Hanunoo girl from the Philippines." Not only does this essay present us with a moving account of the experiences of a young Hanunoo girl upon the death of her younger brother, but, at the same time, it also presents a brilliant exposition describing how, in a small community, adult and childhood worlds intersect. Clearly, Conklin can, when he chooses to, write compelling narrative ethnography. The essay only makes one wish that he had chosen to do more of it. Writing more generally about the ways in which people make use of language, Conklin distinguishes between what he calls "aesthetically appealing" and "culturally valid statements." While his anthropological writings tend to focus on the latter, some of his most insightful works concern the former, notably cultural and linguistic aesthetics, in, for example, his essays that appear later in the volume on word play and speech disguise. Something of these interests is also reflected in his Maling essay. Thus, Maling, in characteristic Hanunoo fashion, expresses her experiences in poetic form by inventing a series of extemporaneous verses addressed to her younger bother, one of which Conklin beautifully translates into English rhyming verse, the structure of which nicely replicates that of its Hanunoo original.
Section Two, "Ethnographic Analysis," reprints two of Conklin's essays on ethnographic method, Section Three deals, as already noted, with Conklin's writings on folk taxonomies, (including kinship, "Ethnogenealogical Method"), and Section Four, "Kinds of Color," reprints Conklin's classic essay, "Hanunoo Color Categories," and a more general review, "Color Classification," written in response to Berlin and Kay's Basic Color Terms.
Conklin's concern with color categories reflects a more general interest in questions of perceptual categorization, an interest that runs throughout much of his work. In this case, every normal human being has the ability to distinguish between virtually millions of potentially distinguishable "colors," but the manner in which different languages classify these possibilities differs greatly. Charles Frake, in his excellent introduction, points up a number of conceptual principles which Conklin introduced that have greatly influenced later writing. First is the basic notion that terminological systems, such as those of color, have a taxonomic structure comprised of levels of contrast that must be understood before the semantic range of individual terms can be grasped. A second useful notion is that of "focal value," which refers, in the case of color terms, to a color within the range of a category that speakers consider to be the ideal or best exemplar of that color. Another is surface texture, for example, bright, shiny, or dull. Thus, for the Hanunoo, Conklin relates these notions to cultural and aesthetic preferences. For example, in textiles, clothing, beads, and basketry, the Hanunoo favor sharpness of contrast and intensity, hence, as focal values, "black," "red," and "white," whereas "green" is the dominant color of the surrounding natural world and so is avoided in the production of cultural artifacts. As Frake writes, Conklin's essay on Hanunoo color terms remains unique even now in the way it explores the association of color classification with cultural uses of color, both technical and symbolic (p. 158).
Section Five, "The World of Plants," is deservedly the longest in the volume, containing, as it does, two major ethnographic works, excerpts from Conklin's 1954 Ph.D. dissertation, "The Relations of Hanunoo Culture to the Plant World," and "Betel Chewing among the Hanunoo." The former, as Eugene Hunn aptly observes, set the standard for all subsequent botanical ethnography and remains the "world standard" in terms of its ethnographic detail and the number of native taxa recognized by the Hanunoo: 1,625--with no less than 93% of all local plant species having some recognized utility (pp. 192-93). The Hanunoo are clearly fascinated by plants and Conklin describes them as combining the interests of both systematic and economic botanists. Conklin's long essay on betel chewing is to many ethnographers what "Citizen Kane" is to film buffs. In it, among other things, Conklin shows how the practice of betel chewing is present at the center of virtually every social encounter and act of communication that the Hanunoo engage in with one another, whether as kin, lovers, friends, enemies, or strangers. Beyond the human realm, no offering to the dead or to supernaturals is complete without a betel quid.
Conklin's ethnobotanical writings contain, in a highly condensed form, a virtually complete ethnography of the Hanunoo. And, in its details, a fascinating ethnography it is. To give a personal example, Conklin in a footnote in his dissertation (here, in this volume, p. 247, fn. 15) writes: "The Hanunoo do not recognize 'spirit intrusion' or "possession' as a possible cause of sickness." As it happens, I did fieldwork in two communities that differ diametrically on just this point. First, for the Bajau Laut (or Sarna Dilaut, as they call themselves), possession by spirits, including spirits of the dead, is seen as a regularly occurring phenomenon, and mediumship, involving communication with spirits that characteristically enter through the head and speak using as their vehicle the body of a medium, figure prominently in village curing rituals (see Sather, The Bajau Laut, 1997). By contrast, the Saribas Iban, like the Hanunoo, have no culturally constructed notion of possession or spirit intrusion (see Sather, Seeds of Play, Words of Power, 2001). Spirits, to be sure, are described as a common cause of illness, but Saribas shamans and others explicitly deny that spirits enter, or take possession of a victim's body as a way of causing sickness. No doubt, the contrast was heightened for me by having worked first with the Bajau Laut, but Conklin's ethnographic observation was also important. This is particularly so, as possession states and ideas of spirit intrusion loom so large in the anthropological literature. Their absence, moreover, can be easily overlooked, for, as any fieldworker knows, it is much more difficult to establish the absence of something than it is its presence.
Section Six, "Modes of Communication," is, again fittingly, the next longest and contains five essays. Two of these, on speech disguise and linguistic play, have already been mentioned. Two more deal with Philippine systems of writing. Here, one of the attractions that drew Conklin to work with the Hanunoo in the first place was the presence in this small tribal community in upland Mindoro of an Indic script, or, more precisely, a syllabary, in which a majority of both men and women were literate. Characteristically, Conklin sought to understand Hanunoo literacy by examining how the Hanunoo themselves use it. The results, even now, challenge most commonly-held assumptions about orality and literacy, for the Hanunoo lack everything commonly associated with the latter: e.g., schools, scriptural religion, government, or markets. What they write is chiefly poetry, much of it for purposes of courtship. They acquire a facility for reading and writing with relative ease, without formal instruction, and maintain a high level of literacy in order to master, as Conklin puts it, "a repertoire of as many traditional love songs as possible'" (p. 342). This, he tells us, is sufficient motivation to keep most Hanunoo actively reading and writing. While this Hanunoo syllabary has survived to the present, at the time of Spanish contact a number of related scripts were in widespread use among coastal peoples throughout the Philippines, northward to Luzon, only to disappear soon afterwards, eclipsed, beginning in the 15th century, by the spread of European- and Arabic-based writing systems. In the second essay Conklin describes the Doctrina Christiana, the earliest book published in the Philippines (1593) that was printed in both Spanish and Tagalog, the latter in an Indic script which Conklin analyzes, drawing attention to its historical and linguistic significance, pointing up as it does the once widespread use of Indic-based writing systems far beyond Mainland Southeast Asia, Java, and Bali. Section Six concludes with another ethnographic gem, "Hanunoo Music from the Philippines," Conklin's program notes to an Ethnic Folkways recording of Hanunoo music. Despite their brevity, these notes not only describe musical genres and instruments, but give us one of the best accounts we have of the cultural contexts of music-making in a Southeast Asian society.
In Section Seven, Nicole Revel performs a valuable service by translating a brief address that Conklin delivered upon receiving the 1983 Fyssen Foundation Prize in Paris. This address, "Orientation, wind, and rice," is not only a useful contribution to the growing literature on spatial orientations among Austronesian-speakers, but also an excellent object lesson in how to do ethnography, specifically, in this case, how to move from individual terms of direction, which, in themselves, may appear confusing, to the underlying logic of an orientation system. It is also a tribute, by a master ethnographer, to those "indispensable coinvestigators, our informants" (p. 399).
The final section of essays, "Agriculture," contains two papers already mentioned, "Shifting cultivation and the succession to grassland" and "Ethnographic research in Ifugao." To younger anthropologists, it is probably inconceivable how important studies of agricultural systems were in anthropology forty years ago, particularly for anthropologists working in Southeast Asia. Today, the topic rarely appears on the program of anthropological meetings. It was once very different, owing in no small measure to Conklin's meticulous study of Hanunoo swidden cultivation. As Michael Dove observes in his useful editorial introduction, "Conklin's analysis of Hanunoo rice yields--and his findings that these yields matched those from the best irrigated systems, and that rice was only a small part of the total product--ran counter to accepted wisdom in development, then as now" (p. 413). In his studies of indigenous agriculture and ecological relations, Conklin, as Dove notes, has always been "a particularist," who "takes an interest in the same subjects that interest his informants" (p. 420). Following from this, Dove bravely seeks to link Conklin with what he describes as "anti-essentialist" trends in current anthropology. The result is far from convincing. "High-modernist thinking," as Dove terms it, continues to prevail outside of anthropology, while within it ecological studies have now moved, if anything, in the opposite direction, away from the concerns with culture and language that are at the heart of Conklin's work. Renato Rosaldo (in his essay, "Subjectivity in Social Analysis," from Culture and Truth, 1993) comes closer to the mark, I think, in arguing that Conklin, by making the concerns of his informants his own, and by addressing them in the "scrupulously dispassionate" language of science, succeeds far better than most in producing a critical ethnography that attempts, in the best tradition of anthropology, "to give voice to the voiceless" (p. 186).
(Clifford Sather, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki)