Prof. Jean Comaroff

Ethnography on an Awkward Scale: postcolonial anthropology and it's objects

Discussant: Peter Geschiere
- Summary by Sana Lopez Abellan


Studying zombies in South Africa led us (Jean and her husband John) to acknowledge that reality and its representations become confounded in one another, at once both cause and effect, each inseparably a part of the phenomenology of everyday life in the post colony.


The appearance of zombies, in a post-colonial setting, when the global triumph of modernity was supposed to put an end, once and for all, to such putatively premodern things, seems stunning. Zombies appear, simultaneously, as antemodern and postmodern, simultaneously supralocal, translocal, and local, simultaneously planetary and, refracted through the shards of vernacular cultural practices, profoundly parochial.


The awkward scale of such phenomena is not easily captured by the ethnographer's lens. The objects of our gaze commonly elude, embrace, attenuate, transcend, transform, consume, and construct the local. Keeping this in mind how can we arrive at a praxis for an age that seems post- anthropological? We are called upon not to study in places but rather to study the production of place. If we are not sure where or what the field is, or how to circumscribe the things in which we interest ourselves, wherein lie the ways and means by which we are to make the knowledges with which we vex ourselves. The question of method rises.


The step we have to take as anthropologists from the ethnographic reality to abstraction is important.


One problem is: how do we study the local, when the local no longer seems limited to one space or place, there seems to have been a shift in scale.


In the 1980's a reflexive moment came upon anthropology; questioning how to cope with the fact that conventional geographies where no longer a satisfying representation of the ethnographic realities. In contradiction with what we might think, this has not brought about a revolutionary methodological change. Anthropology has proven to be 'conservative'.


In 'doing' ethnography the practice comes first. It is from this practice that the ethnographer can start his methodological 'journey' consisting of 3 steps.


The first is to pursue points of articulation among various spheres in which it manifests itself. Tracing the co-presence of persons, texts or images, across the various spheres is a way to map the substance of the phenomenal landscape. This mapping of the landscape on which any discursive flow is grounded, can help to identify its animating vernaculars and to chart the object world in which it interpolates itself.


The second methodological operation involves mapping the extensions of the phenomenal landscape, the four dimensional geography with reference to which any discursive flow constitutes itself. This, as well as mapping its substance, demands more than a "multi-sited" ethnography. It demands an ethnography that, once orientated to particular sites and grounded issues, is pursued on multiple dimensions and scales.


The third methodological operation to be performed is to trace the passage of a discursive flow over time. This step is needed in order to be able to determine what is new about it and what is not, what the relative proportions of ruptures and continuity to which it speaks are, and to get insight into what is unique about it and what is merely a local instance of a wider phenomenon.


Looking at the methodological operations set out above, leads us to reconsider the dialectic of induction and deduction, of theory and ethnography, of the concept and the concrete.


In seeking to account of those arguments (relating to research on zombies in South Africa) and their social motivation, and to grasp the phenomenology of the lived, material world from which they arose, we brought to bear an explicit theoretical orientation. That orientation primed our earlier readings, and mis-readings of the "new" South Africa. It was the incompleteness (incomplete in the face of the concrete world which we were encountering) of our theoretical scaffolding that set the dialectic in motion, altering our conceptual repertoire just as that repertoire was being mobilized to make sense of the unexpected landscape on which we found ourselves.


Ethnography is a multi-dimensional exercise, a co- production of social fact and sociological imagining, a delicate engagement of the inductive with the deductive, of the real with the virtual, of the already- known with the surprising, of verbs with nouns, processes with products, of the phenomenological with the political. The key problem of doing ethnography is a question of scale.


The challenge is to establish an anthropology, of multiple dimensions, that seeks to explain the manner in which the local and the translocal construct each other, producing at once difference and sameness, conjuncture and disjunction. An anthropology that takes, as its mandate, the need to make sense of the intersecting destinies of human lives, wherever they may happen to be lived out.


Discussant: Peter Geschiere


Geschiere stresses the importance of the issues Comaroff has stressed in her presentation. Especially the remarks made about the intertwined scales of the 'local' and the 'global' that we are confronted with in our fieldwork, are important. Besides the practical implications that this notion has, Geschiere points out that the way in which Jean Comaroff has theoretically talked about the 'occult economy' is a good way of putting this phenomenon in a larger perspective.


He points out having (had) problems with the ease with which Jean Comaroff suggests bridging the gap between the local and global scales. His perspective is that in practice the relation between the local and the global are difficult to distinguish. The starting point that Comaroff suggested for doing this, namely 'mapping' of the problem, seems a complex solution to Geschiere. In his days, and study, the only map that existed was a map drawn of the village, to be able to point out the different locations and kinship relations. The map that Comaroff is talking about is different.


Geschiere suggests that 'going with the flow' and letting the research go on, depending on what information comes across, is difficult in many research settings. He thinks that merely concentrating on the local, can bring about enough internal contradictions, let alone to also concentrate on the global.


Peter Geschiere further addresses the issue of the history of anthropology in the Netherlands and points out that many (theoretical, or methodological) problems that have presented themselves within this discipline, have also resolved themselves. Anthropology used to be a kind of technological trade, a trick to be performed to understand foreign communities.


Reply Comaroff:

She answers Geschieres criticisms first by stating that her map is a 'spacialization', a way to try and grasp the expansive scale in which phenomena occur. Whatever the size of the scale, she argues that anthropology can look at it as a concrete, produced, localized phenomenon.


For example the Zombies that she has studied are local, but the origin from which they emerge (lack of work, economical instability) are far from merely local. They are part of a postcolonial setting in a broad sense. The zombie- phenomenon is a way of coping, in a local context, with those things that people are confronted with, which come from a global scale.


What she means by 'mapping' is to follow the images, following and relying on the concrete.