Culture & Truth The Remaking of Social Analysis
After Objectivism Chapter 2
Renato Rosaldo is a wonderful writer. Chapter two was witty, engaging and eye opening. His style of composition makes the book accessible to non-scholars. Through personal anecdotes and examples from prominent ethnographers’ writings, Rosaldo leads the reader through the downfalls of traditional modes of classical research. The strongest points I took away from the chapter are that by not becoming involved and engaging with participants in my research, I may degrade its validity if my interpretations of actions and speech are erroneous. Additionally it would be frivolous of me to not value and exploit my subjects’ personal insights into their culture and lives. In final compositions my word choice and level of formality influence and can manipulate the reader’s understanding of my research and the participants.
According to Rosaldo (1994), the classic period in ethnography was from about 1921-1971. This was a period when ethnographers were the judges that defined other cultures for society based on distanced and objective observations. Observations during this time were conveyed using the present tense to make generalizations about the culture’s social life. According to Spradley (1979), Ethnography “involves the disciplined study of what the world is like to people who have learned to see, hear, speak, think, and act in ways that are different. Rather than studying people, ethnography means learning from people” (p. 3).
Rosaldo’s goal “is to speed the process of change already underway in the modes of composition for ethnography as a form of social analysis” (Rosaldo, 1994 p.54). Rosaldo (1994) argues that traditional modes of composition used by ethnographers deteriorate the validity of the researcher’s findings. Traditional methods of ethnography fail to recognize the individualities of the culture’s members. He refers to this as the “ethnographer’s evaluated, distanced, normalizing discourse” (Rosaldo, 1994 p.51). Distanced objectified observations create erroneous and unreal generalizations of a culture’s social life. It is assumed that each member of the culture will react and behave equally in any given circumstance.
“Human subjects have often reacted with bemused puzzlement over the ways they have been depicted in anthropologic writings” (Rosaldo, 1994 p.49). Rosaldo (1994) reflects on the validity in ethnographic discourse if it were to describe ourselves. The author’s intended message may be lost if the reader’s response is humor. Rosaldo (1994) illustrates this through the assessments made by Americo Paredes about Chicanos’ responses to anthropological description about themselves. The Chicanos often found the writings more “parodic” than offensive. Mistranslations, misinterpretations of humor, unfamiliarity with double meanings in Spanish, and a literal belief in unauthenticated stories and urban legends were among the noted critiques made by the Chicanos. In order to remediate and avoid such mistakes Rosaldo suggests that ethnographers take the criticisms of their subjects with the same seriousness as those of their academic colleagues.
“The idiom of classic ethnography characteristically describes specific events as if they were programmed cultural routines and places the observer at great distance from the observed” (Rosaldo, 1994 p.55). Although use of the formal and classical idiom of composition can offer rational insights, it can also be very dehumanizing of the subjects it objectifies. Rosaldo voices a need for increased tolerance of diverse rhetorical forms. Case histories and personal narratives need to be moved from the borders of ethnographical compositions into the body. This would aide readers in comprehending the anthropomorphic emotions and reactions of the subjects to life situations and events.
Ultimately, Rosaldo (1994) explores the potential for critical reflection and reciprocal reflections from dialogs with the subjects in his research. In order to create a more equal ground, the studied or observed becomes the researcher. Ethnographers learn from the subject’s perceptions and descriptions about them. To get closer to understanding a culture, the ethnographer not only observes, but engages is meaningful dialog gaining insight into the culture’s ideologies from the perspectives of its members.
Throughout the various stages of my research, I will review the following questions to be mindful of my purpose in my work and my desired outcomes. What are the truths about a culture? How does my positionality influence me as an ethnographer and bias my interpretations of my observations? How do the modes of composition influence the reader’s understanding of the observed culture? Is what I am writing respectful and humanizing of others?
Rosaldo, R. (1994). After objectivism. In Culture & truth: The remaking of social analysis: with a new introduction (pp. 46-67). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Spradley, J. P. (1979). The ethnographic interview (p. 1). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.