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Writing experience: does ethnography convey a crisis of representation, or an ontological break with the everyday world?

FEW SOCIAL SCIENTISTS, ESPECIALLY ANTHROPOLOGISTS, CAN have failed to notice the proliferation of publications analyzing the rhetoric of ethnographic writing both from the epistemological and ideological perspective over the past three decades (e.g., Asad 1973; Said 1978; Fabian 1983, 1991; Tambiah 1985; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Spivak 1988a; Inden 1990; Wolf 1992). One consequence is that researchers who undertake the task to grasp the actor's subjective point of view must now revise their polemics in a way to defend themselves against the charge of misrepresenting "others." In question is a reflexive call to examine the cultural, historical, and epistemological contingencies in which the ethnographer textualizes the lived experiences of "others." In the mid-1980s, such a tension pertinent to the interpretation of subjective experience mounted almost to a "crisis of representation." This has been widely publicized and discussed mainly in two books--Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment on the Human Sciences, by George E. Marcus and M. J. Fischer (1986), and Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James E. Clifford and George E. Marcus (1986). Despite differences among these scholars, (1) their line of critique generally evolved around the failure of the ethnographer to authentically document lived experience, which is represented (or created) in/as texts (Marcus and Cushman 1982:32-4). The crisis is described by Denzin: "If we only know a thing through its representations, then ethnographers no longer directly capture lived experience. Experience is created in the social text. The legitimization crisis questions how we bring authority to our texts" (2002:483). The blind spot of our precedents lies in failing to attend to the complex knowledge and power relations known as ethnographic authority, which are inherent in the production of textual representations. As remarked by Clifford, the subjects being studied "are constituted ... in specific historical relations of dominance and dialogue" (1983:119). The failure to recognize these relations results in a unified, controlling mode of authority inclined to entrap the other into misrepresentation. Such an "uncertainty about adequate means of describing social reality" (Marcus and Fischer 1986:8) has called upon the "experimental ethnographies"--based on a reflexive epistemology--such that,
 ... they integrate, within their interpretations, an explicit
 epistemological concern for how they have constructed such
 interpretations and how they are representing them textually as
 objective discourse about subjects among whom research was
 conducted. Marcus and Cushman 1982:25)

The crisis was stemmed from the critique of colonialism in the postwar period and has led ethnographers to problematize the notion of "text." Acknowledging cultural diversity, a "text" can be interpreted in many equally valid ways. The lack of a single correct interpretation of text represents a serious reflection of the act of writing and representing the other. It also makes many ethnographers question their "ability to represent other societies" (Clifford 1986:10).

Evidently, the crisis of representation has been fueled by postmodernist scholarship (2) which privileges the "experiential," "interpretive," "dialogical," and "polyphonic" processes that resist the closure of meaning as a fait accompli under the aegis of the totalizing dominant discourse (Clifford 1983:142). Tyler (1986:126) further suggests that postmodern ethnography that privileges "discourse" over text sees the written text as collaborative in nature and rejects the ideological dichotomy of an observed and an observer. Postmodernist ethnography hence spurns the pure realist stance which treats the other as given, the observed; that which wrings every bit of here-and-now out of the subject, and creates artificially a temporal and spatial distancing between the researcher and the subjects s/he represents (Fabian 1983; Wolf 1992:11-2). Rather than being represented mediatedly, others are only made to represent themselves through the gaze of the researcher whose authority remains unchecked. A key consequence is that postmodernist anthropologists see ethnography as a comparative, and ultimately a reflexive endeavor to discern the society/culture of Ours and that of the Other; or, what Marcus and Fischer would call, "a cultural critique of ourselves" (1986:20).

Such a rampant reflexive call to deconstruct ethnographic texts has aroused no small controversy even within postmodernist circles. For example, Rabinow, a contributor to Writing Culture, demurs that "the insight that anthropologists write employing literary conventions, although interesting, is not inherently crisis-provoking" (1986:243; see also Flaherty 2002). The contention is more severe from critics who, though without denying the totalizing problem inherent in the traditional authority of ethnography, defend the realist stance of textual representation (e.g., Strathern 1987; Sangren 1988; Bourdieu 1990; Spiro 1996; Bowlin and Stromberg 1997). Within the crisis-opposing camp, Bourdieu's rebuttal in his The Logic of Practice has been the most typical. He argues that the representational crisis has been underlain by a "self-deceptive" attempt to abolish the "methodical break," or the "objectifying distance" between "the observer and the observed" (1990:14). To Bourdieu, any attempt, including the experimental ethnographies, to bring the researcher "fictitiously closer to the imaginary native" can by no means deny the "insurmountable, irremovable" distance between the ethnographer and the represented subjects s/he creates in text (1990:14). And, in one of his last open lectures, (3) Bourdieu remarks that the overemphasis placed on narratives of the author's experiences of "observing oneself observing," "observing the observing in his[/her] work of observing or of transcribing his[/her] observations" has only led to the "rather disheartening conclusion that all is in the final analysis nothing but discourse, text, or, worse yet, pretext for text" (2003:282).

So far, there has been no meeting of minds between the two opposing camps, and their arguments could sometimes go beyond academic discussion and turn personal (e.g., see Marcus 1998:191). Bowlin and Stromberg (1997:123) label the contemporary debate "remarkably unproductive" as "[f]or the most part, scientific realists and their postmodern critics have talked past one another." Yet, no serious attention has been paid to conduct a meta-exposition of the theoretical root of the contention that explicates both sides of the argument or reassesses the philosophical assumptions that have brought them to theoretical deadlock. (4) This paper endeavors to work along this line.

The discussion will begin with the ontological break between the commonsense and scientific assertions--a thesis coined by Alfred Schutz which remains unresolved in his famous debate with Talcott Parsons during 1940 to 1941 (Grathoff 1978). The break warrants that, in order to contemplate others from their subjective point of view, the observer must give up his/her here-and-now understanding of the actors in the fleeting present. That being said, the observer--like any social scientist--can only grasp the other from afar, in a spatio-temporal world which is ontologically different from the everyday lifeworld, with a different set of relevant structures and languages. In this light, the scientific interpretation of human experience, including the ethnographic representation, must be based on past encounters; and any attempt to document experience with a goal to attain or retain a here-and-now understanding of subjective meaning, or "voice" is but an epistemological impossibility. Scholars from the crisis-provoking camp would consider that the break inevitably augments, or even legitimates, the ethnographic authority as the only single "voice," which heralds in the crisis of representation. This paper attempts to argue that the postmodernist privileging of a "naive ethnography" which emphasizes "experiential," "interpretive," "dialogical," and "polyphonic" processes is neither able to deliver on its promise at the methodic level, nor amendable to Schutz's ontological break at the theoretical level. Thus, this paper intends in part to defend the realist stance of ethnography because the postmodernist posture has failed to deliver on its promise that, ethnography can buttress a kind of "objectivity" that it by nature infers, while at the same time retaining the coevalness of the subjective experience of the other.

This is the goal, but to get there requires an examination of the representative claims, or "solutions" that aims to eliminate the dominant, monolithic authority in ethnography. Firstly, the background of Schutz's ontological break will be discussed.


Three years after the publication of The Structure of Social Action (Parsons 1937[1968]), Schutz began an exchange of correspondence with Parsons, which ended up in an unresolved debate over the understanding of subjective categories in the analysis of social action between the two. (5) Schutz sees that Parsons shares his interest in Weber's approach to problems of human understanding and rationality. However, Schutz complains that Parsons' analyses are not "radical" enough as Parsons "is not concerned with finding out the truly subjective categories, but seeks only objective points of view" (Grathoff 1978:36). Taking Schutz's manuscript-long letter exclusively as a criticism of his corpus magnum, Parsons almost opened the debate with the remark: "what of it?"; he wrote, "If I accept your statement in place of my own formulations which you criticize, what difference would it make in the interpretation of any one of the empirical problems that run through the book" (1978:67, original emphasis). The dialogue between the two stopped long before Schutz died in 1959, (6) but the discussions of the debate continued (Coser 1979; Giddens 1979; Wagner 1979; Embree 1980; Jules-Rosette 1980; Rehorick 1980; Tibbetts 1980; Nasu 2005; Wilson 2005).

The focus of contention in the Schutz-Parsons debate is that Schutz acknowledges an ontological break between the commonsense and the scientific world, that is, the "world of consociates" and the "world of contemporaries." (7) However, Parsons only considers it "a matter of refinement" (Grathoff 1978:69). To Schutz, within the world of consociates, I share with the Other a community of space and time. Each actor (including I) participates in the on-rolling life of the Other in the present moment of lived experience (Erlebnis). It is a world where the Other is "within reach of my direct experience" and my consociate "shares with me a community of space and a community of time" (1980:163). The subjective experience of the actor who confronts the Other face-to-face refers to the recognition that another Self--"as a human being, alive and conscious"--is before me in the vivid, fleeting present "while the specific content of that consciousness remains undefined" (1980:163). But still, I can, "up to a certain point," obtain knowledge about the lived experiences of my fellowmen as "real" (8); and the same holds true reciprocally for my fellowmen with respect to me (Schutz and Luckmann 1995:4). Schutz calls itperspective reciprocity which involves "phases of my own consciousness" and presupposes the "corresponding" phases of your consciousness, and within the shared time and space, "my fellow-man and I grow older together." (9) In short, in the world of consociates, I,
 can grasp in a vivid present the other's thoughts as they are built
 up step by step. They may ... share one another's anticipations of
 the future as plans, or hopes or anxieties. In brief, consociates
 are mutually involved in one another's biography; they are growing
 older together.... (1982:16)

It is perhaps the most erudite but yet also intriguing feature in Schutz theory that the subjective experience within the world of consociates as such--that is, I share the time and space with the Other; my stream of consciousness attends to yours, and yours to mine; and we-grow-old-together--is not "meaningful" in the sense outlined in Weber's theory of social action. Weber speaks of "social action" insofar as "the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior--be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence" (1978:4; see also Smith 1987:117-23). But Schutz states firmly that it is "incorrect to say that my lived experiences are meaningful merely in virtue of their being experienced or lived through" (1980:70). Schutz speaks of the meaningful experience only when it is constituted as an object of attention (i.e., as gegenstand). In other words, rather than being melted into one another in the stream of duree, experiences are discrete and meaningful only when the social actions involved are already finished, and when the ego no longer immerses him/herself in the flow of duration. From this moment on, the ego stops to reflect upon the experiences in the retrospective glance, in what Schutz calls the act of attention, or the act of reflection (1980:45-53); he explains,
 Only from the point of view of the retrospective glance do there
 exist discrete experiences. Only the already experienced is
 meaningful, not that which is being experienced. For meaning is
 merely an operation of intentionality, which however, only becomes
 visible to the reflective glance. (1980:52)

The ego now enters the world of contemporaries within which I abandon my simple and direct awareness of the Other, and suspend my immediate grasp of the Other in all his/her subjective particularity. I can then ask, according to Schutz,
 For instance ... "Have I understood you correctly?.... Don't you
 mean something else?.... What do you mean by such and such action?"
 ... The light in which I am looking at him is now a different one:
 my attention is shifted to those deeper layers that up to now had
 been unobserved and taken for granted. I no longer experience my
 fellow man in the sense of sharing his life with him; instead I
 "think about him." But now I am acting like a social scientist.
 (1980:140-1; my emphasis)

Therefore, in order that meaningful experience "becomes visible," apprehensible, and distinguishable to a social scientist who was formerly a participant with the Other in the flow of duration, s/he must step outside the present moment of lived experience, and attain an intentional gaze such that (past) experiences "now become objects of attention as constituted experiences" (1980:51). Once within the world of contemporaries, the social scientist does not share "a vivid present with Others in a pure We-relation"; rather, s/he "stays outside the different time perspectives of sociality originating in the vivid present of the We-relation" (1982:252), that is, my fellow-man and I no longer grow old together. Hence, Schutz concludes that social science (anthropology included) is through and through an explicit knowledge of contemporaries; and it nowhere refers back to the face-to-face experience (fieldwork experience included) (1980:223). (10)

Apparently, Schutz expounds a fundamental coupture between the two realms: the experiential and the scientific/theoretical. Within the latter, the social scientist can never grasp the meaning of subjective experience as action--"acting in progress," but only as actum--"action performed" (cf. 1996:30; original emphases; see also Costelloe 1996:257). (11) The consequence of this chasm has been far-reaching to social scientists, especially, anthropologists, as it means that the intellectual activities to interpret human experience must be conducted in the "world of contemporaries," and to capture the actor's subjective experience with a here-and-now understanding is an outright impossibility.


This epistemological position inevitably arouses contention among postmodern anthropologists who strive to preserve in ethnography the coevalness with the actors they study. For example, Fabian (1983) has been critical of the ethnographic rhetoric which systematically distances the subjects from the intersubjective sharing of the same historic time and space during fieldwork. Such denial of the contemporaneity of subjects in anthropological writing has, on the one hand, blocked the reflexive awareness of anthropologists concerning their own politicized contexts and intellectual history; and, on the other hand, relegated "others" to the status of passive objects held in the researcher's omniscient gaze (Marcus 1984). To argue that the here-and-now reality of fieldwork experience in anthropological writings is in lack is to presume that Schutz's ontological break exists such that the observer consciously denies the world of consociates and deliberately exerts his/her authority to textualize the experience of the other at a distance, both temporally and spatially--"within the world of contemporaries." I deem that it is with this vantage point that a critical mass of scholars began to bring to the fore different claims or even "solutions" to deal with the crisis.

Ethnography as Dialogic and Multivocal

Some explicitly claim to rescue people's "voice" from the single authorship in ethnographic writings. For example, Marcus and Fischer (1986) call for a "decentred ethnography" which limits the power of any single voice, and which encourages or allows for, a plurality of voices in ethnographic writings. The approach lays stress on the narrative presence of "others" in ethnographies (Marcus and Cushman 1982:43). Drawing upon Bakhtin's analysis of the "polyphonic" novel, Clifford also argues that every culture contains multiple voices, which have been suppressed and artificially synthesized into ostensible univocal texts. He coins the multivocal ethnography as "an alternate textual strategy, a utopia of plural authority" to uphold the plural authorship in anthropological writings (Clifford 1983:140). (12) This approach carries in itself the ultimate goal to grasp the here-and-now understanding of others during fieldwork, and to textualize them in representations relatively autonomous from the authority of the researcher. That being said, the multivocal approach automatically defies Schutz's ontological break which suggests either that the "voice" being so captured is not "meaningful" in the Weberian sense or that such an attempt as a whole has nothing to do with social science. However, even the advocates of postmodernist ethnographies think that this approach remains utopic. For example, Marcus and Cushman (1982:43) remark that the ethnographic turn toward a plurality of voices would further complicate the issue of ethnographic authority rather than resolving it. Stephen Tyler, as summarized by Moore, criticizes that the dialogic ethnography advocated by Clifford is just like the realistic genres it means to replace, or it is simply "monologue masquerading as dialogue" (Moore 1994:349; see also Herzfeld 2001:44). Rabinow also expresses that, while "Clifford talks a great deal about the ineluctability of dialogue (thereby establishing his authority as an 'open' one) ... his texts are not themselves dialogic" (1986:244). Indeed, even Clifford himself sees the difficulties in a twofold predicament:
 First, the authoritative stance of "giving voice" to the other is
 not fully transcended. Second, the very idea of plural authorship
 challenges a deep Western identification of any text's order with
 the intention of a single author. (1983:140) (13)

Ethnography as the Actor-Observer Epistemic Continuum

Another set of claims is not aimed at retaining the here-and-now experience of others but to conceive an "epistemic continuum" from actor to observer (Galibert 2004). The proponents of this approach (mostly anthropologists) believe that the epistemic disjunction between the actor and observer can be unified into a single attitude because of the constitutive intersubjective (fieldwork) process between the two. And, since the actor and observer are not ontologically torn apart, strictly speaking, the ethnographic authority does not necessarily lead to a "crisis." Instead, it subscribes to the vantage point that the ethnographic divide is grounded on, hence, can be closed down due to, the mutually shared field experience. What the authorial authority usually provokes, however, is the anxiety which calls for more sophisticated ways of carrying out observation and description during fieldwork. Clifford Geertz, I deem, is a representative of this approach.

Particularly in his later years, Geertz shared the postmodern anxiety in grasping "the native's point of view" for he felt,
 ... a worry about the legitimacy of speaking for others, a worry
 about the distorting effects of Western assumptions on the
 perception of others, and a worry about the ambiguous involvements
 of language and authority in the depiction of others. (1995: 128-9)

To him, it is mainly through participant observation that the observer can obtain the "experience-near" concepts, which subjects might "naturally and effortlessly use" to deal with their reality (1983:57). In contrast to the "experience-near" concepts, the "experience-distant" concepts are employed by various specialists "to forward their scientific, philosophical, or practical aims" (1983:57). Clearly acknowledging a break between the "vocational ethic," the "disinterestedness" of the researcher, and people's subjective point of view (2000:38-9), he quickly combines the two orientations into a single perspective. He suggests that "from a personal subjection," anthropologists are able "to combine two fundamental orientations toward reality--the engaged and the analytic--into a single attitude" (2000:40). This "single attitude" makes possible the kind of relativism he has in mind--"a relativism that allows the possibility of generalizations"--so long as the "experience-distant" concepts are placed in "illuminating connection" with concepts which for another people are "experience-near" (1983:58). Such an attainment of the "experience-near" concepts is similar to that of "chunked knowledge" put forward by Maurice Bloch. Bloch cogently claims that through the continuous and intimate fieldwork process, the researcher can learn the "chunked knowledge"--"the implicit peculiar knowledge of the actor"--which "people have themselves learned" to cope with daily tasks (1998:16-7) (15)

Needless to say, the possibility of the fusion of ethnographic distancing is highly debatable. For example, Nicolas Thomas, as summed up by Herzfeld, recognizes "an unavoidable division in the ethnographer's voice" because the production of ethnographies nowadays is increasingly drawn in two directions:
 ... on the one hand toward a global (in fact typically a
 Euro-American) professional discussion, that privileges the
 discipline's questions, and the elevated register of "theory," and
 on the other toward audiences within the nation ir not the locality
 studied. (Cited in Herzfeld 2001:30)

In my opinion, Geertz's rhetoric of "a single attitude" or/and "illuminating connection" is more a convenient methodic presumption than an articulated theoretical device able to convince Schutz that his ontological break is after all bridgeable. Here, it is worth adding that I also consider that the actor-observer epistemic continuum is a pragmatic premise being uncritically absorbed in traditional anthropological studies. Gellner has astutely pinpointed that in an early article of Malinowski published in 1923 (1923[1972]), the founder of participatory fieldwork methods distinguished two distinctive language types. The first one is the most commonly identified, action-linked, and context-embedded called the "primitive" style; which is
 [a] statement, spoken in real life, is never detached from the
 situation in which it has been uttered (Malinowski 1972:307)....
 [it is commonly] used by people engaged in practical work, in which
 utterances are embedded in action. (1923[1972]:312; cited in
 Gellner 1998:148)

The second one, however, is rarely used by the informants. It means to be "context-free, to be addressed to-whomo-it-may-concern, rather than to a listener already tied to the speaker by a specific context which enters in to the significance of the utterance" (Gellner 1998:148). Malinowski calls it the "civilized" style; he writes,
 It is only in certain very special uses among a civilized community
 and only in its highest uses that language is employed to frame and
 express thoughts.... In works of science and philosophy, highly
 developed types of speech are used to control ideas and to make
 them the common property of civilized mankind. (Malinowski
 1972:316; cited in Gellner 1998:148)

The two distinctive language styles are parallel to Schutz's ontological break that severs the everyday and scientific worlds. However, Gellner notes that Malinowski quickly moves away from this view in his later work and even calls it "a serious error." Malinowski revises it to an extent that verges on conflating the two realms; he remarks that "there is no science whose conceptual, hence verbal, outfit [i.e., the "civilized" style] is not ultimately derived from the practical handling of matter [i.e., the "primitive" style]" (1935:58; cited in Gellner 1998:152; my brackets). Malinowski confesses,
 I am laying considerable stress on this because, in one of my
 previous writings, I opposed civilised and scientific to primitive
 speech, and argued as if the theoretical uses of words in modern
 philosophic and scientific writing were completely detached from
 their pragmatic sources. This was an error, and a serious error at
 that. Between the savage use of words and the most abstract and
 theoretical one there is only a difference of degree. (1935:58)

Interestingly, in the above quote, the key phrase Malinowski uses to hook up the everyday and scientific worlds is "only a difference of degree," which is strikingly similar to Parsons' "a matter of refinement." On this point, Gellner does not hesitate to register his regret on Malinowski's theoretical swing. Gellner acknowledges that Malinowski's early distinction as "basically correct" as,
 ... there is a profound, fundamental, immensely important
 difference between the functional, culturally embedded use of
 language, and the, as it were, disembodied, abstract investigation
 of the world, which stands in contrast to it. (1998:151)

Ethnography as the Work of Translation or Strategic Positivism

Another set of claims rests upon the assumption that the other is not directly accessible, hence the fusion of the observer-actor distancing is impossible. But, they tend to justify their interpretations of subjectivity--"strategically"--as to render Schutz's ontological break seemingly resolvable.

For instance, Fardon is fully aware of the representational crisis though he shifts the attention from text to context as to reflect how disciplinary, institutional and regional contexts govern both the fieldwork process and the writing of ethnography (1990). With such a shift, he is not coy about the contention of whether others are "directly accessible" in ethnography. In his account of the sociality of the Chamba, Fardon openly admits that the social actions which are based on intentions are "in principle not directly accessible" to him (1985:143). However, he does not buy the idea of Schutz's ontological break, and turns to the metaphor of "the task of the translator" as formulated by Walter Benjamin (1969:69-82). Fardon claims that the inaccessibility of the subject to ethnographer is parallel to that of "the intention of a writer ... to his translator" (1985:143). Ir means that he chooses an epistemology which is based on the nature of language--as suggested by Benjamin--which is "a priori and apart from all historical relationships" (1969:72). With this common footing, the task of the translator is to find the "intended effects upon the language" and to produce "the echo of the original," not the originality of the original (1969:76). Fardon then seems to be very confident to have claimed that his "translation" of sociality can "inflect agency among the Chamba," and "reproduce the intentionality apparent in Chamba actions" though he also stresses that the "task of translation is by its nature incapable of completion" (1985:143). What sounds awkward to me, however, is that kicking off from here, Fardon concludes that his account of the Chamba does not "negate" their agency and is even "unaffected" by his writing of them. His word of defense is that his account only "attempts a generalized translation of the intentions implied in Chamba agency by positing the existence of an implicit knowledge" (1985:143).

To Fardon's facile "solution," my queries are: are the fact that language is "a priori and apart from all historical relationships" and is the metaphorical link between translation and transfer adequate to resolve the actor-observer epistemological break? Could his approach help exorcize the specter of the authority dominating ethnography? My answer to both questions is "no" as his approach is more a way of circumventing, than tackling the epistemological aproia we are facing. In particular to the second question, Asad, coming from a more uncompromising postmodern perspective, would criticize the failure of Fardon to see that meanings are not "translated," but created and imposed. Asad contends elsewhere that the ethnographer's translation of a particular culture is inevitably "a textual construct" and therefore the ethnographer still has the "final authority in determining the subject's meanings" and is "the real author of the latter" (1986:162-3; cited in Bowlin and Stromberg 1997:125).

Another pseudosolution of this kind refers to the Spivak's famous paradigm of "the subaltern cannot speak" (1988a, 1988b). Her paradigm presumes that others have their own "voice" which is silenced as they cannot speak without altering the relations of power/knowledge that constitute "the subaltern" as a subject of discourse, in the first place (Spivak 1988a; see also Beverley 1999). She maintains that the "voice" of the suba|tern can be recovered only in the academic discourse counterhegemonic to the colonialist discourse. But, how such academic practices of "voice recovery" can evade the trap of misrepresenting the other? Beverley has precisely queried how the "counter-hegemonic" acts are immune from "being complicit in the reproduction of the very relations of domination and subordination such representations are meant to oppose" (Beverley 1999:2, emphasis original; see also Kokotovic 2000:287). Spivak acknowledges this problem, but later asserts that scholars who follow her approach "may be excused [for being "positivistic"] on political grounds" (cited in Kokotovic 2000:292). The reason is that these academic discourses serve "a counterhegemonic function ... provided that it remains strategic and is not essentialized and naturalized" (cited in O'Hanlon 1988:196; Kokotovic 2000:292; see also Ho 2005:161-2). Indeed, like Fardon's metaphor of "translation" and the "strategic essentialism" put forward by Spivak marks another nonsolution to the actor-observer problematic in the representation the other.

Ethnography as a Multisited Endeavor

"Multisited ethnography" as proposed by Marcus is perhaps the most sophisticated "solution" to cope with the crisis. For example, to study families in a modern capitalist society, this approach suggests that s/he must look beyond the households and the community to which they belong to "the diffuse contexts of social and cultural activities that produce them" (Marcus 1998:52). The most preferred ethnography of families thus should not only encompass the perspectives of family members--that is, "local conditions," but also represent the perspectives of the capitalists, the state officials, family mediators, etc.--that is, "[macro] system, or pieces of [macro] system" (1998:51; my brackets). Implicated in the subsequent ethnography is a multisitedness (i.e., an ethnography of families involves other sites, like the government, business corporations, and nongovernmental organizations) which exposes the researcher to multifarious field experiences with shifting personal positions in relation to his/her subjects, and fluid knowledge (discourse) and power relations pertinent to one site that overlap with other sites. To Marcus, the crux of the matter is the experiences of moving among sites and levels of society as the researcher can encounter,
 ... all sorts of cross-cutting and contradictory personal
 commitments. These conflicts are resolved, perhaps ambivalently....
 in being a sort of ethnographer-activist, renegotiating identities
 in different sites as one learns more about a slice the world
 system. (1998:98)

Even more, this approach provides
 ... a kind of psychological substitute for the reassuring sense of
 "being there," of participant observation in traditional
 single-site fieldwork. (1998:99)

Through multisited strategies, Marcus outlines his "solution" to the crisis in a twofold manner. First, the juxtapositions among sites embedded in multisited strategies essentially involve "comparisons" related to an emergent object of study "whose contours, sites, and relationships are not known beforehand, but are themselves a contribution of making an account that has different, complexly connected real-world sites of investigation" (1998:86). Second, in carrying out such comparisons, the authority of the ethnographer--which Marcus criticizes of entailing "clearly distinct theoretical framings, interests, and critiques of ordinary language"--can be dispersed because the researcher has to find something out s/he does not already know (1998:18). Also, s/he has to do it in terms that ethnography permits in its own developed from of empiricism (1998:18). Marcus further explains,
 A resolute multi-sitedness in ethnographic terms tends to challenge
 and complicate in a positive way ... [the] hyperemphasis on
 situated subject positions by juxtaposition and dispersion through
 investigation in more complex social spaces than many recent
 varieties of poststructuralist theory on culture and identity have
 allowed. (1998:19)

Undoubtedly, the multisited imagery carries in itself some attraction. On the surface, it allows the researcher to traverse back-and-forth between the everyday world of the actor and the world of the observer. While the former world features complex and multilevel relationships related to the subjects, the latter leads the ethnographer to textualize these relationships and at the same time, take into account the complex knowledge-power relations. However, in my opinion, this picture is too ideal to be true. In practice, it is like having one's cake and eating it.

Let me illustrate it in another way. If to understand others is similar to a man who grapples something-other-than-himself in the dark, the multisited approach is suggesting that one touches the other in multiple ways, that is, from different angles, in different positions, or even touching it not with hands, but with feet, face, or even through other tools. This approach evidently emulates the single-sited approach for obtaining a richer set of data as it would contain controversies, or disagreements among sites in relation to a particular subject. No doubt, it is a merit of this strategy. But, what remains unresolved is that once the person gives up touching and shifts to the moment of writing, s/he can no longer study directly experiencing-of-other itself. S/he is forced to leave the constant temporal flow from the standpoint of the subject. And, if s/he so happens to be an academic working in a university, s/he is probably facing a series of concerns unrelated to the here-and-now experiencing (or touching in this case) of the other. For example, s/he has to ponder where to publish the ethnography, the style of the targeted journal(s), the word-count limit, the comments from reviewers, and even personal fame and promotion. Under these circumstances, I genuinely believe that one needs to be highly self-deceptive in order to claim to have removed the actor-observer epistemological distancing, and to have written the subjective experience without the penetration of dominant discourses, either political or purely academic, or both. Therefore, I view that the researcher is destined to face Schutz's ontological break no matter whether one's strategy is multisited and has more complex information to maneuver, or single-sited that entails less.


As mentioned in passing, Bourdieu denies any claims to directly access to the here-and-now meaning(s) of the actor, or to fuse the actor-observer divide, or any justificatory rhetoric to get close to the subjectivity of the actor. Instead, Bourdieu pursues what is known as "participant objectivation" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992); he says,
 Participant objectivation undertakes to explore not the "lived
 experience" of the knowing subject but the social conditions of
 possibility ... of that experience and, more precisely, of the act
 of objectivation itself. It aims at objectivizing the subjective
 relation to the object which ... is one of the conditions of
 genuine scientific objectivity. (2003:282)

The kind of "reflexive sociology" introduced by Bourdieu (see Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992), however, does not satisfy those in the crisis camp. For example, Marcus points out that, "the reflexive exposition of the epistemological and ethical grounds of anthropological knowledge to full critical discussion and opened the way for hermeneutics" only fruitlessly "reinforces the perspective and voice of the lone, introspective fieldworker without challenging the paradigm of ethnographic research at all" (1998:193). That being said, Bourdieu's insistence on the "methodical break" or the "objectifying distance" is not without their allies. Drawing "without conscience" on the work of Schutz, Garfinkel, for example, has sharply discerned "the natural and scientific attitudes," or more specifically, the "attitude of daily life and the attitude of scientific theorizing" in the early 1950s (Psathas 2004:17). To Garfinkel, social orders are everywhere, and seen by everyone; but they "are seen but unnoticed." Social order is observable only "in tours." By watching "in tours," Garfinkel points to Schutz's "world of contemporaries," within which social scientists are akin to "birdwatchers." And, only "in tours," the orderliness of social order "is picked out in its properties and watched; it is inspected in its features; it is noticed in its exhibited details, examined, identified and recorded in its witnessed particulars" (Garfinkel and Livingston 2003:26-7). Furthermore, Sangren cogently criticizes the postmodernist approach of mistakenly conflating "scientism and science as value" (1988:423). He remarks that the insight of "polyphonic" authority has only obscured the "locus of authority" but is "in effect a call for faith in the tuition of the analyst" (1988:423). Also, Strathern makes a case that anthropologists would have no way to avoid Fabian's criticism of treating people they study as "objects." She contends that the manipulations of languages and concepts on the part of the researcher to conceptualize the other inevitably "established distances between writer, reader, and the subject of study" (1987:261). On the whole, the lines of defense against the postmodernist assault are built along the affirmation of Schutz's ontological break. It also echoes an important distinction made by Turner (1986)--following Wilhelm Dilthey (1976)--between "experiencing" and "an experience." With this distinction, social scientists cannot study directly "experiencing" as a continuous temporal flow from the subjective point of view of the actor, but only "an experience"--"the intersubjective articulation of experience, which has a beginning and ending and thus becomes transformed into an expression" (Bruner 1986:6; see also Yamane 2000:174).

Bourdieu writes, "In opposition to intuitionism," he "kept on the side of the objectivism ... at the cost of a methodical break with primary experience" (1990:14). It means that he is on the side of Schutz, Garfinkel, Gellner, Sangren, Bowlin and Stromberg, Yamane, and Strathern. And, for those who claim that the break between the commonsense and the scientific worlds is bridgeable--in one way or another--is on side with Parsons who views the break as merely "a matter of refinement rather than of basic methodological principle" (Grathoff 1978:69). Those belonging to Parsons' camp include Marcus, Clifford, Geertz, Tyler, Fardon, and Spivak. (16)

At first glance, one might feel uneasy with the above categorization. For instance, Bourdieu may be surprised to know that he is aligned with

Schutz and Garfinkel. (17) Throughout the work of Bourdieu, Schutz's and Garfinkel's work are quoted only a couple of times just so that he could criticize them. (18) In addition, postmodernist anthropologists like Marcus and Clifford, would be shocked at being lined up with Parsons, the well-known founder of what they view as a totalizing, or even tautological "Grand Theory." This categorization, strange as it seems, sharply reflects that at issue is not the traditional philosophical debate between realism and idealism with one saying that the assertion of the existence of a reality is independent of thoughts about it, and the other saying that the social world, like all other objects of external perception, consists of subjective ideas. Rather, ir points to narrower, a much more focused intellectual domain concerning the nature of the social scientific gaze. It refers to the argument about the epistemological skepticism not of what is usually put: "how we know what we know," but concerning how we write what we know while sidestepping the more conventional questioning of how we come to know what we think we know. Therefore, central to the discussion is the possibility of producing "objective" ethnographic knowledge while bias or distortion due to ideological/social cleavages--such as ethnicity, race, class or nationality--are second-order questions. (19) With such a narrow and focused domain, a closer look at the literature suggests that the two alliances possess more similarities than differences. For instance, I can see no one in the Schutz-Bourdieu alliance would disagree with the objective of postmodernist ethnographies as to,
 ... integrate, within their interpretations, an explicit
 epistemological concern for how they have constructed such
 interpretations and how they are representing them textually as
 objective discourse about subjects among whom research was
 conducted. (Marcus and Cushman 1982:25)

And, indeed, both alliances are vigilant against reflexive questions like: Is modern science an applicable tool with which to measure Others against ourselves? Are we not simply imposing Our standards of measure an Other? Should the context of this relationship of the anthropologist and the Other be further examined? As clearly put by Sangren (1988:288), "few 'realist' ethnographers today would be so naive" as to claim to truly represent native views. This paper suggests that the crux of the matter can be boiled down to one simple question as whether one acknowledges the ontological break or not. For one to acknowledge that an ontological break is between the on-rolling life with the other in the intersubjective present, and the theorizing moment of writing ethnography; both "participant objectivation" and the "multisited ethnography" has to be on the same epistemological footing.


What lessons have we learned from the above discussion? The first and foremost is that a real crisis is illusionary as it is essentially a matter of whether the researcher acknowledges the ontological nature of the actor-observer distancing. In other words, it is a matter of whether one writes ethnographies from a Schutzian or a Parsonsian perspective. Unfortunately, the examination of the representative claims aligned with Parsons indicates that their postmodern posture has not delivered on its promises. Either their claims cannot stand the criticisms from within postmodernist circles, or they only work upon inarticulate theoretical tenets. Their attempts to represent the other without being intervened by a single authority are not successful. This consequence lies in the fact that, to borrow the wording from Herzfeld (2001:49), we could not write ethnographies without our informants; but more importantly, "we could not write those texts without ourselves." With Schutz's ontological break, we need to give up experiencing the other before we can write of an experience. The moment we begin writing, we enter the world of contemporaries. From that moment on, we look at the other in a different light. We are no longer "consociates." Rather, we are observers or theorizing selves (Schutz 1982:253). In writing ethnographies, we must work our way through the various debates, sorting out our positions, and clarifying conditions of both the actors and ourselves. There is no way that "ethnographic authority" that permeates these discussions can be eliminated, unless one gives up writing altogether. (20)

The remark made just now leads me to reject what some anthropologists mistakenly call "naive ethnography" (Galibert 2004; Barnard 1989; Quigley 2003). For instance, Galibert recasts the crisis of representation eloquently as follows: "An ideally theoretical ethnography is blocked by the actor's irreducible quiddity and an ideally naive ethnography by the exoticism of theory" (2004:456). Viewed under the light of Schutz's ontological break, this dilemma, however, no longer exists. To Schutz, the attitude of the person who can possibly live naively in his everyday life-world must be distinguished from the attitude of the theorizing self, or the disinterested observer for the writing of ethnography (cf. 1982:137). Therefore, "naive ethnography" is a composite category equally impossible as "here-and-now contemporaries" in the theorizing of Schutz, or as "circular triangle," "invertebrate vertebrate," or "inorganic benzene" in other human domains.

We have also seen that postmodernist ethnography privileges the metaphor of "experience," "interpretation," "dialogue," and "polyphony" over the metaphor of text in discussing the activity of writing (e.g., Marcus and Fischer 1986:30; Tyler 1986:126). The rationale behind this echoes Socrates' maxim that "saying" is valued over "writing" in his dialogue with Phaedrus. In Socratic terms, "writing" is denunciated as an inhuman behavior which pretends to establish external to the human that which can only really exist within it. One should be noted that, however, this maxim does not disavow the spirit of the Schutz-Bourdieu alliance. Experientially, this makes good sense: the written word cannot defend itself as the spoken word can. Putting it in Schutz's terms, the idea that "saying-values-over-writing" is emerging in the intersubjective discursive present within the world of consociates of Socrates and Phaedrus. The problem is that the here-and-now idea as such is not considered "meaningful" for social scientific investigation. It only becomes so within the world of contemporaries of Plato who theorizes the idea as text. As noted by Ong (1982:78), oral speech cannot allow questioning or contestations that are inherent in social science, and only written discourse which "has been detached from its author" does. That being said does not obscure the profound wisdom of Socrates. The key point is just that Socrates is not doing social science, but Plato is. Therefore, the overemphasis on the "experiential," "interpretive," "dialogical," and "polyphonic" processes in ethnography does run the risk of making its subject matter have nothing to do with social science.

To end this paper, I would like to add a final point on the paradoxical nature of most of the postmodernist arguments on "ethnographic authority" What the crisis-provoking camp suggests basically is that the rhetorical devices of the ethnographer have made the authors active and left others who are to be spoken for as passive subjects. The resulting distancing between the observer and the observed has become, like what Fabian writes, "both a prerequisite and a possibly autodestructive device in anthropological writing" (1990:755). So, on the one hand, the distancing seems so threatening as to imply a crisis regarding the representing others; on the other hand, the myriad "solutions" offered are to convey a message that the disjunction is indeed highly bridgeable. But, if the actor-observer divide is highly bridgeable, I then wonder why many postmodernists conceive a crisis in the first place, and bother to take pains to formulate "solutions" to resolve it. It is just like one is acting all out to fight against a malicious monster and suddenly realize that it is just a wind-mill. Their arguments therefore are problematic in a sense that they tend to unintentionally dissolve (rather than solve) the theoretical aporia--that is, Schutz's ontological break--which underlies their formulations in the first place.


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(1) As will be made apparent in subsequent discussion that there is indeed no monolithic body of opinions on the contentious issues of ethnographic authority and rhetoric (Sangren 1988:405, n2).

(2) For instance, Marcus notes explicitly that his multisited ethnography is inspired by the theoretical capital associated with postmodernism; he writes schematically (1998:86), "One might think, for example of Foucault's power/knowledge and heterotopia (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983), Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome (1988), Derrida's dissemination (1972[1981]), and Lyotard's juxtaposition by 'blocking together' (Readings 1991)."

(3.) The following quote is from his speech for the Huxley Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Royal Anthropological Institute on December 6, 2000. Bourdieu died in Paris on January 23, 2002.

(4.) Bowlin and Stromberg (1997) is an admirable exception. Their paper is based on the work of philosopher Donald Davidson, which suggests that doubts about representation do not necessarily entail doubts about epistemic access to the world. This leads to the conclusion that postmodernist arguments about representational crisis are seemingly unnecessary.

(5.) The debate involved an interchange of some dozen letters from October 1940 to April 1941 (Grathoff 1978).

(6.) Grathoff (1978:112) notes that after Schutz wrote a short courteous letter to Parsons dated April 21, 1941, "no further notes or letters were exchanged between" them. Parsons died in 1979.

(7.) Schutz further delineates two more worlds: the world of predecessors (Vorwelt), or history; and the world of successors. The further distinctions are out of the scope of this paper.

(8.) One should be reminded that Schutz adopts the notion of "real" from W. I. Thomas whose iconic statement states that, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (1982:348).

(9.) Similar formulations are also seen in Schutz (1964:23, 1980:163, 1982:220).

(10.) It should be noted that "the world of predecessors" is also the milieu where social science investigation can take place. Schutz remarks, "Social science is through and through an explicit knowledge of either mere contemporaries or predecessors; it nowhere refers back to the face-to-face experience" (1980:223). However, the present paper is only concerned with the "world of contemporaries."

(11.) In his early major work, Schutz criticizes Weber for confusing and conflating exactly these two meanings of action; he writes,
 This word [action] can, first of all, mean the already constituted
 act (Handlung) considered as a completed unit, a finished product,
 an Objectivity. Bur second, it can mean the action in the very
 course of being constituted, and, as such, a flow, an ongoing
 sequence of events, process of bringing something forth, an
 accomplishing. Every action, whether it be my own or that another
 person, can appear to me under both these aspects (1980:39).

(12.) Evidently, the multivocal approach carries ala explicit ethical component to protect the right to speak of subjects. Harvey (1989:48) elaborates that, "[t]he idea that all groups have a right to speak for themselves, in their own voice, and have that voice accepted as authentic and legitimate is essential to the pluralistic stance of postmodernism"

(13) The impasse of retaining "voice" in ethnography has been further articulated by Ulin that,
 ... the foregrounding of the informants' voices does not settle the
 issue of authority as these voices are not autonomous but rather
 stand mediated by the social conditions of their production and the
 potential audiences to which they are addressed. (1991:81)

(14) Geertz's dissatisfaction is particularly intense in regard to those anthropologists who attempt to convince their readership of their authority, of "their having actually penetrated (or having been penetrated by) another form of life, of having truly 'been there'" (1988:4-5).

(15) A blind reviewer reminded me that the distinction of "experience-near" and "experience-distant" is also in parallel with Herbert Blumer's classical distinction between "sensitizing concepts' and 'definitive' or 'operational concepts"" (1954:7).

(16.) The suggestion made by a blind reviewer about this categorization is worth mentioning here. S/he wrote that this "[classification] schema could be developed into a defense of an ethnographic pluralism that would be distinct from the relativism ... [which is] associated (sometimes unfairly) with postmodernist ethnography. The outcome would be a nuanced account of the varieties of ethnographic 'authority' and their respective strengths and limitations."

(17.) Bourdieu has been highly skeptical about phenomenology for--in his opinion--being exclusively entrapped in the ecological realm. To him phenomenology introduces a kind of subjectivism (represented by Sartre) to sociology in opposition to objectivism (represented by Levi-Strauss) (1990:42-51). And, this opposition, according to Bourdieu, is "the most fundamental, and the most ruinous" that artificially divides social science (1990:25). And, Schutz's phenomenological sociology is implicitly categorized--rather unfairly, I deem--to the side of subjectivism.

(18.) See, for example, Bourdieu (1977:21) and Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:73).

(19.) One should be reminded that this prioritization of question is agreed by Fabian (2001:16).

(20.) It is interesting to hear the personal experience of Fabian who was once stuck with the problem of being "unwilling" or "unable" to write after three years of carefully implemented fieldwork. He admits that his failure to write is a "sign of liberation from scientism and from a conception of writing as a sort of production line, running from 'raw data' through theoretical processing to final monographic assembly" (1990:769). Although in that paper, he argues that to stop writing about the Other will not bring liberation (1990:760), or even paradoxically that "not-writing ... [is] a part of writing" (1990:769), I believe that Fabian is just pushing himself to an extreme in saying that "not-writing" becomes the only option left.

WINO-CHUNG HO City University of Hong Kong

Wing-Chung Ho, Department of Applied Social Studies, City University of Hong Kong, 83 Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon Tong, Kowloon, Hong Kong. E-mail:
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