Experiencing Gothic Anthropology: Author and the Genre

Jerzy Kociatkiewicz
Jerzy Kociatkiewicz

There are many ways of writing ethnographies. In his book ‘Tales of the Field’ (1988), John Eastin Van Maanen depicts the most common ways that he calls tales: “realist, confessional, and impressionist”. The classical form of ethnographic writing takes the shape of realist tales, dispassionate third-person narratives. “On display are the comings and goings of members of the culture, theoretical coverage of certain features of the culture, and usually a hesitant account of why the work was undertaken in the first place” (p. 45). Realist tales are concerned about the authenticity of the representations. Confessional tales are increasingly popular and quite different from the detached realist narratives. Their specific qualities are “their highly personalized styles and their self-absorbed mandates” (p. 73). They are written in a sensitive way, embracing the feelings of the author who is “always close at hand in confessional tales” (p. 74). Impressionist tales are similar to impressionist paintings as their authors, too, “are [.,.] out to startle their audience” (p. 101). They do this through a choice of “words, metaphors, phrasings, imagery, and most critically, the expansive recall of fieldwork experience” (p.102). These narratives reconstruct the experience of being in the field, they read like novels and the standards by which they should be evaluated are not so much disciplinary as literary ones. John Eastin Van Maanen presents also other forms of writing ethnography: critical tales, formal tales, literary tales, and jointly told tales. The critical tales are engaged politically. The formal tales are the works of specialists who aim at building, testing, generalizing and displaying theory. The literary tales may be written by non-anthropologists (e.g. journalists), but their main characteristic is that they explicitly borrow fiction-writing techniques. The jointly told tales are co-authored by the fieldworker and the native: the other thus acquires the possibility to write his or her story without the fieldworker’s translation.

The different types of ethnography are more or less personalized ways of telling the story of the anthropologic experience. Realism — the most depersonalized form — has been the subject to much criticism, although it is by no means “dead” or completely passé. A discussion within the discipline concerning the inclusion of the researcher’s emotions started in the 1960s and the 1970s. One of its consequences has been “the spread of a methodological self-consciousness and a concern for reflexivity that has not gone away” (Van Maanen, 1995: 8). Alternatives to the realist convention appeared and spread. Among the more emotional and personal ways of writing, there has emerged the self- or auto-ethnography, “in which the culture of the writer’s own group is textualized” (p. 9). These narratives are often passionate and “explicitly judgmental” (p. 10), offering a “rather mannerly distinction between the researcher and the researched” (p. 10).

Other parts of the ethnographer’s — or the anthropologist’s — work has been described as being immersed in feelings, for example, the fieldnotes (Jackson, 1995). Jean E. Jackson has been interviewing fieldworkers about their fieldnotes. Her respondents “expressed strong and ambivalent feelings about their notes” (p. 37). In her interpretation these notes are liminal: betwixt and between the worlds the anthropologist lives in as well as the selves he or she assumes. In our view, they also reflect the liminality of the anthropologic experience as such, the indefiniteness of the role in between worlds and selves.

Fieldworkers represent themselves as “marginal natives” (Frielich, 1970) or “professional strangers” (Agar, 1980) who, as “self-reliant loners” (Lofland, 1974) or self-denying emissaries (Boon, 1982) bring forth a cultural account, an ethnography, from the social setting studies (Van Maanen, 1988: 2).

The presentation of oneself and one’s role in the field is often seen as important, especially in the non-realist ethnographies (Van Maanen, 1988). It is quite typical that the author dramatizes him or herself within the text, problematizes him or herself.

According to Wojciech Burszta (1996), the anthropologist is someone thriving on problematization. He or she is like a detective: he or she looks for traces to make sense of what he or she is interested in, but the anthropologist, contrary to Marlowe, will never be sure whether the enigma is solved. Nevertheless, this is this uncertainty that drives him or her to further explorations. Furthermore, the anthropologist reminds of the nomad, with an irresistible urge to move on, both geographically and intellectually. Barbara Czarniawska-Joerges (1992) speaks about the anthropologic frame of mind, a certain openness of the mind of the observer of social reality. On the one hand, it means the openness to new realities and meanings, and on the other — a constant need to problematize, a refusal to take anything for granted, to treat things as obvious and familiar. The researcher constantly experiences curiosity, preserves and ability to be surprised by what she or he observes, also if it is “just” the everyday world. Bruno Latour and Stephen William Woolgar (1979/1986) see anthropology similarly, as they write about “the importance of bracketing our familiarity with the object of our studies. By this, we mean that we regard it as instructive to apprehend as strange those aspects [of the studied phenomenon] which we are readily taken for granted (p.: 29).”

Barbara Czarniawska-Joerges (1995) speaks of field research as of a “visit” to a place that is not the “natural” surroundings of the researcher. The people there speak another language because they do different things, they have other experiences. The researcher is a “guest.” In traditional anthropological studies, the situation is obvious for all parties. In organizational anthropology it often looks as if the outsider were “similar” to the participants of the studied organization: especially, if she or he speaks the same native language, if she or he lives in the same city, etc. Therefore misunderstandings and disappointments are common, and the researcher may experience the clash between the expectations coming from the field and the own motives and ideas.

Anthropology, in its symbolist version, can be a means of enhancing someone’s (the actor’s or the researcher’s) perception and understanding of the phenomena to which it relates (Czarniawska-Joerges, 1994). The author adds that this has nothing to do with the occult, but means that it is a discourse whose main feature is dialogization. In her view, it is the conversation with the Other that intensifies the understanding. In our opinion, the enhancement may well be of spiritual nature (even if not necessarily occult, for that sake).

The route towards understanding can be at times painful. For example, Ann Fisher (1986) describes the special version of culture shock that female anthropologists might endure. Both men and women, and among them even the best fieldworkers, the risk to experience some of the symptoms: depression, rejection of members of the studied culture, paranoid feelings that one is the object of contempt or dislike. These feelings may be of a marked intensity

The role of the anthropologist is one that inspired us to become self-reflective. Our previous experiences of field studies were more or less suffused by many and intense feelings, not only in regard to the field itself but also to our own role and the experience of doing field research in itself.

John Eastin Van Maanen (1995) recognizes the newly heightened self-consciousness of the discipline. He entitled his reflections ‘The Ethnography of Ethnography.’ In a similar vein, we engaged in an anthropology of anthropology. Our intention is to explore the experience of doing anthropological studies, how we feel about being in the field, how the field influences us, what the label “anthropologist” may mean as an identity or as a way of self-presentation. To do this we wanted to get out into the field, but concentrate on the relationship between ourselves (and ourselves) and the surroundings rather than on the features of the field itself.

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