“After Objectivism” is chapter 2 in Renato Rosaldo’s (1994) book entitled, “Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis.” Rosaldo (1994) provides a thought-provoking look at the challenges associated with ethnography (i.e., the systematic study of peoples and cultures). In particular, Rosaldo (1994) criticizes “classic” ethnography that describes events as if they were programmed cultural routines and places the observer at a distance (at least figuratively) from those being observed. For some, classic ethnography, which was in vogue from about 1920-1970, became the one and only legitimate form for telling the literal truth about other cultures.
In the chapter, numerous examples of descriptions of people and cultures through the “objective” lens of classic ethnography are provided. The examples have a sterile detached quality that may be perceived as credible and objective because they were written by well-educated western scholars. Rosalado (1994) posits, however, that the examples are only one perspective. Others might be less collegial and consider the classic ethnographic view myopic. The author provides an interesting way to assess the adequacy of social descriptions with the question, “How valid would we find ethnographic discourse about others if it were used to describe ourselves (Rosaldo, 1994)?” To illustrate this approach the author describes a typical Canadian breakfast scene using classic ethnographic terms. In the description, the father is the “reigning patriarch, as if just in from the hunt” and “the women talk among themselves and designate one among them as toast maker.” Throughout the meal, “the women and children, including the designated toast maker, perform the obligatory ritual praise song, saying, ‘These sure are great eggs, Dad.’” As absurd as this sounds, would the people about whom classic ethnographers wrote have had a similar reaction to the description of their culture and them? Because the description is written in English and includes sophisticated vocabulary is it more accurate or credible than others?
The broad effects of classic modes of composition typically were not explored at the time because they were assumed to be objective. Rosaldo (1994) does not believe these perspectives should be rejected outright. Instead, he recommends they be displaced and become one among a number of viable forms of social descriptions. Specifically, the classic accounts should be recovered but no longer viewed as the sole truth about other cultures. Instead, classic descriptions should become one perspective among others (Rosaldo, 1994). How social descriptions are read and understood depends not only on their linguistics but also their content and context. Who is speaking to whom and about what? Why are these people speaking and what are the circumstances (Rosaldo, 1994)?
In addition to his criticism of classic ethnography, Rosaldo (1994) provides a number of perspectives and suggestions for reducing individual bias when describing different cultures and peoples. Personal narratives can add balance to impersonal descriptions to better represent other forms of life. Another practical idea is to give the same consideration to criticisms from the individuals and groups studied as to criticisms of peers. This is easier said than done but a noble goal, nonetheless. Finally, the author takes one step further and suggests that, “we ethnographers should be open to asking not only how our descriptions of others would read if applied to ourselves but how we can learn from other people’s descriptions of ourselves (Rosaldo, 1994).”
The idea of learning from others, particularly in relationships where learning is understood to be one-way, is a powerful and important concept. Transformational learning can happen when the one-way learning reverses direction. This occurs when teachers learn from students, when masters learn from apprentices, when ethnographers learn about their own culture and themselves from those they are studying, and so on.
As participant observers in action research, we have a unique opportunity to learn from our community and develop personally and professionally.
Rosaldo, R. (1994). Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (pp. 46–67, 168–195). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.