Home ยป The problem of presenting non-Western ethnographic material

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The problem of presenting non-Western ethnographic material in Western terms is something that both authors had to work with. Abu-Lughod, on introducing her work, says, “the unusual form of this ethnography owes much to the remarkable women in the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin community with whom I lived” (Abu-Lughod 1993: 1). This is a progressive step for ethnography, to fit the form of one’s work to the content, inspired by the informants. Conversely, Marjorie Shostak describes the problems she encountered when trying to fit the lives of the !

Kung into the categories she had prescribed. Having “mentioned some of the topics I hoped to cover… “(Shostak 1982: 21), she found the informants difficult and unreliable. Shostak’s material was gathered mainly through formal interviews (often with informants receiving payment), in contrast to Abu-Lughod who had built up a rapport with her informants and used mostly informal personal and group conversations, which led her eventually to the conclusion that “perhaps my wealth, status and foreignness kept the women from trusting me” (ibid. : 33).

Shostak seems not to recognise the divide she creates and maintains between herself and her informants in her thoughts and actions, while Abu-Lughod is very self-conscious and self-aware. For all her determination to create an ethnography that does not perpetuate a cultural hierarchy, Abu-Lughod can not escape the fact that she remains in ultimate control of her material, and so potentially a superior and authoritative voice. However, she seems conscious of this fact, and is explicit in her methodology, leaving in the questions asked and not pretending conversations did not take place because of her presence.

The final chapter centred around Kamla is an example of Abu-Lughod’s editorial work being governed by the material she is gathering is shown. The content of the chapter is determined according to the information that Kamla included in her essay, Abu-Lughod merely adds relevant points to each section. Shostak, however, is not so open to suggestions as she has set out with a very clear picture of what she wishes to achieve through her ethnography.

She says that she explained to her informants, “that I wanted to learn what it meant to be a woman in their culture so I could better understand what it meant in my own” (Shostak 1982: 21), which is the kind of construction of self through opposition to others that I described earlier in the essay as contributing to the notion of self and other that perpetrates notions of cultural superiority. As shown at one point when she is “reminded … of the cultural gulf between Nisa and me” (ibid. :350), Shostak seems unwilling to attempt to understand her informants on their own terms and not in contrast to herself.

Despite describing the ! Kung in the introduction using many generalisations, the fact remains that Shostak has written, as Abu-Lughod would call it, an ethnography of the particular; she has allowed the voice of one woman to be heard. However, it seems that Shostak’s intention was not to allow us to see the intricacies of one person’s life so that we may see the boundlessness of ‘cultures’ or the similarity of living life all over the world, but rather that we may get a general picture of the ‘! Kung culture’ through one person.

In the epilogue, Shostak writes, “perhaps [Nisa’s] story was too idiosyncratic an interpretation of ! Kung life; perhaps it didn’t generalise to other women” (Shostak 1982: 350), which shows a certain unawareness of the potential of letting informants speak for themselves, and a simple wish to personify culture. Abu-Lughod, on the other hand, uses the opportunity of describing individual lives to great effect. Her wish, she says, was that each chapter might ‘unravel’ its title, each one being a conventional Western analytical category, to show the boundlessness of life.

She is able to show the tensions and contradictions that exist within the community, even within the individual, which would have been ‘flattened out’ (Abu-Lughod 1993: 221) in generalisations. For example, Kamla describes the importance of traditional values, but “… if she were to think about how the extensive bonds between kin are to be maintained, she would have to admit the virtues of marriage to paternal cousins, the kind of marriage she wanted desperately to avoid. ” (ibid. : 234). This internal conflict between tradition and progress is shown in the contradictions of one girl.

The question of exploitation in transferring the information gathered to the public is something both authors address. Abu-Lughod’s intention with this ethnography is clear, but she is uncertain of her authority in executing it: “Do the ends of undermining anthropological generalisations, questioning feminist interpretations, and shaking up assumptions about the Middle East justify the means? ” (ibid. :38) Abu-Lughod was worried that she was exposing things about her informants that were personal and worried that it may be seen that she was using them for her own purpose.

Shostak is not so sensitive to the consequences of her work being published. In debating asking Nisa for her permission, she says, “it was my work, certainly… but it was her story” (Shostak 1982: 350). The notion of self and other in her book is shown again. In this case, the issue of exploitation seems more apparent than in Abu-Lughod’s book because she has constructed an image of herself in contrast to Nisa, and of Nisa’s world in contrast to her own, which she was using for her own ends in understanding ‘what it was to be a woman’.

In this essay I have shown some of the main arguments from Said, Asad, Clifford and Abu-Lughod concerning the authority of anthropologists in speaking for their informants. I have shown, using two ethnographies, the potential for success and failure in letting the informants speak. I realise that I was very critical of Shostak’s work in comparison to that of Abu-Lughod, and that this followed theoretical suggestions from, amongst others, Abu-Lughod, which may seem biased.

However, the arguments put forward by Abu-Lughod for better and more representative ethnography were theoretically supported by other anthropologists and seemed to me to be sensible and appropriate for this discussion. In conclusion, if approached and executed in the right manner, I believe the work anthropologists do in making known the lives of others is not exploitative, but informative and useful.


Abu-Lughod, L. 1991. ‘Writing Against Culture’ in (ed. ) Fox Recapturing Anthropology. University of Washington Press, Washington. Abu-Lughod, L. 1993. Writing Women’s Worlds. University of California Press, California. Asad, T. 1973. ‘Introduction’ in (ed. ) Asad, T. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Ithica Press, London. Clifford, J. 1986. ‘Introduction: Partial Truths’ in (eds. )

Clifford & Marcus Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press, California. Said, E. 1995. Orientalism. Penguin Books Ltd, Middlesex. Shostak, M. 1982. Nisa: The Life and Words of a ! Kung Woman. Penguin Books Ltd, London. AN101 Lent Term Assessment Essay Joanna Clarke