Prof. Kirsten Hastrup

The ethnographic attention: founding anthropological knowledge

Discussant: Peter Pels

- Summary by Martijn Wienia


This report is written in my own words but as much as possible these are based on those spoken by the key note speaker, discussant and other speakers. Nevertheless, the beneath reported is to my account.



Hastrup appreciates seeing so many Dutch anthropology students at this symposium. In this lecture she wants to focus on fieldwork and the field of anthropological knowledge, or on both ethnography and epistemology.



'After a couple of decades of postmodernist debate, time is ripe to reassess the unity of anthropology as a distinct field of knowledge', without readopting the twentieth century's grand narratives. In reaction to the claims that anthropology does no longer exist as a discipline, but only as a 'multiplicity of practices', Hastrup states that a unified discipline is necessary. Therefore we have to learn the lessons from the discipline's past - especially of postmodernism - and take a leap into the future. Anthropologists have to acknowledge the fact that the discipline is fundamentally reflexive and historical.


Hastrup draws upon Ardener's (1987) scheme for pinpointing at specific phases in anthropology and links them up with four decisive turns. The biological turn - around the 1920s/1930s - was characterised by the premise that biological needs are the cause of culture (e.g. Malinowski). The linguistic turn in anthropology came in the 1960s and drew upon Saussurian-induced structuralism of Lévi-Strauss. The Leidse Richting should be taken into account as well. Paradoxically, structuralism was both the pinnacle of modernism - 'all language and culture are manifestations of similar logical operations' - and the undermining force of it. The world could thus only be known in terms of the other, e.g. language.


This latter point invoked the postmodernist critique and the literary turn in the 1980s: a focus on literature or narrative (hermeneutics, the 1980s) rather than language. Postmodernism entails an epistemological attack on modernist positivism - mainly influenced by the late twentieth century orientation towards phenomenology (the 1990s) It addressed 'the gap between people's living in the world and our knowing it' (cf. Husserl, Merleau-Ponty). Instead of modernist clarification is placed radical interpretation, which even made many an anthropologist to prefer intuitive research. It is this deduction from phenomenology which Hastrup rejects, not the important link between ethnography and epistemology in the post-modern era.


In the present time, anthropology has to find its way out of two implicit determinisms, being the focus on the field as an abstract community (modernism) or as an individual (postmodernism), ultimately the global versus the local. Neither approach is satisfying: in the dynamics of the space in between the two, the anthropological object is emergent. Hastrup briefly touches upon the concept of illusion to demonstrate that social reality is not reducible to either the whole or the parts. This insight has been largely applied to describing hybridisation of social worlds (e.g. through globalisation) and not to the local level. Hastrup regards it as a missed chance. She states that anthropologists should place themselves in the field of tension between the individual and the social. Apart from this experience they also have to write reality in theoretical terms.


This approach has its epistemological implications. Fieldwork does not produce knowledge about culture, nor does it write a biography. Doing fieldwork entails a performative rather than an informative (cf. Fabian) epistemology and is based on social relations. This is an important characteristic of anthropology. Anthropology has to find its way 'between the inconsequential narration of the everyday and the violence of abstraction'. Fieldwork implies engaging the world that others live and it is - at the worthy cost of subjectivity - the unique anthropological contribution to knowledge. Anthropological ethnography should distinguish itself from other ethnographies by adding the courage to theorise - and grasp the historical framework or sites of resistance - to experience in the phenomenological sense.


As anthropological knowledge has moved from encyclopaedic to relational, generalisations are now not horizontal but vertical, or temporarily institutionalised meanings and practices in the dialectics of the individual and the community. Therefore anthropological knowledge is based in a particular epistemology, meaning that the object has no ontological status.


The new turn in anthropology should be about radical interpretation (rather than clarification that persisted even in postmodernism) and a phenomenology of pragmatism (instead of metaphysical theories about the world that even persisted in postmodernism). Hastrup does not radically abort postmodernism but rather takes a leap beyond. In reaction to the literary turn, however, she argues that the lived-in-world is material. Therefore we are on the verge of a topographic turn, expressed for instance in the anthropology of landscape (Hirsch and O'Hanlon). The topographic turn and pragmatism will bring historicism back into anthropology as important feature.


In sum, it appears that anthropology is defined by its epistemology rather than by its object. The object has no ontological status outside our experiencing of it. As a result, it is not possible to generalise horizontally - between cultures or societies - but only to generalise vertically, putting processes of establishing meaning and its challenges in practices central. In the field, ethnography and epistemology come together. Anthropological knowledge is located between individual action and social mapping. In many recent studies this congruence is absent.


Referent: Prof. Dr. Peter Pels


Pels admired Hastrup's courage to maintain the theoretical debate in anthropology. This is much-missed in the Netherlands and in Europe. The topic is not so much about abandoning method but rather about reintroducing sophisticated theory about method. Anthropology is not to study cultures or societies as givens: anthropological knowledge is emergent. We have to make sense of new social relationships and acknowledge the fact that the researcher is somewhere in between. But what is in between? We have to apply a different notion of method. The concept method derives from the Greek word for 'transparent', 'something which is already there'. What is new is that we should focus on the path through social relationships. Perspective is very important.


To give one example: when the Dutch trader Willem Bosman arrived at the Gold Coast - present Ghana - in 1704, he engaged himself in social relationships with local traders on the basis of the trade of objects. But this exchange of objects was not always 'normal' to him: some goods were worshipped for instance. These abnormalities became known by the Portuguese pidgin word fetish. From there started a long history of describing African religion in terms of fetishes. Bosman had an essentialist view of how the Africans were. Such underpinning of social relationships into their essence is still common in the academic world as outlined by Bourdieu.


Pels wants to make two remarks of critique to Hastrup's lecture. Firstly, he stresses the crucial difference in anthropology between fieldwork and ethnography. Hastrup incorrectly uses both terms intermittently. Whereas fieldwork is about maintaining social relations, ethnography tries to transform knowledge while being in the field. Ethnography entails writing culture ('ethnos'), but not being culture. Hastrup mostly focussed on the social relations aspect.


Secondly, what happens to emergent knowledge? We could ask: what encounters, what emerges and what is in between what and what? Hastrup is unclear about this. We are namely positioned in between a many good things: the phenomenological and the visual, the part and the whole, the global and the local. Pels discusses two dimensions in particular, being the part and the whole and the individual and the collective. A focus on the whole would entail holism. But should not we have to demise holism? During fieldwork in Tanzania, Pels experienced that history has disappeared. So what would the connection between part and whole mean? An urban ethnographer as Prof. Dr. Birgit Meyer, who works in Accra, Ghana, cannot treat the field as a whole. So how do we deal with fieldwork in a globalising world, at home or abroad?


In a recent controversy of unethical fieldwork - that of the Yanomami case - we saw emerging new ethics. Collaboration and negotiation with locals as well as validating data with them will become necessary. Exactly this point is missed in Hastrup's lecture. She does not address the question how to validate knowledge. She also does not take power and unequal relationships into account. This is of relevance if we ask the question whether we meet individuals or a statistical category of persons in the field.


Prof. Dr. Kirsten Hastrup (reply):


She acknowledges some of Pels' points, but notes that some others are implicitly in the text. With reference to the part and the whole, she meant a sort of analytical holism: something we speak about. By doing so, we sort of close and generalise it, as we do in language. This is a complex process. But we should not give up speaking about something. The theoretical orientation should be brought in again, instead of the attitude of 'I don't know'. This is for the benefit of anthropology as a whole, as a discipline. Despite the many different viewpoints in the local - e.g. in the Icelandic farm - there are certain binding things. Anthropological knowledge is located between individual action and social mapping.


Discussion and questions from the floor:

Prof. Dr. Jarich Oosten:


In Oosten's research - among the Inuit - he needs a research permit approved by the local community. This is exactly the point Pels raised. It is about what anthropology is and what we do in the field. In the field different criteria count and there are different angles. In the lectures at this symposium so far, the interaction with the people we are dealing with has not yet been discussed.


Prof. Dr. Kirsten Hastrup (reply):


But this interaction has just been my argument.


Dr. Franklin Tjon Sie Fat (discussion leader):


Hastrup is right. Maybe Oosten's question is not valid at this point.


Prof. Dr. Patricia Spyer:


She was in Venezuela at the time of the Yanomami case. Oosten's case is different. Visas and local bureaus are intermediaries for anthropologists. But the case of the Yanomami was different. She thinks the arguments of the Yanomami do not work. But she agrees with Oosten that we have not heard enough about scale and modes of doing fieldwork. These are shifting, for instance through cyber-research. The question is: 'Where the hell are we and what difference does it make?'


Floor, question:


Which are the theoretical implications and problems of the role of involvement of the fund-giver of the research?

Prof. Dr. Kirsten Hastrup (reply):


All instances of ethnography are particular. There is no comparison possible, because there are so many ways of doing fieldwork. We need a shared ground of knowledge for this. We just cannot study each individual in the world in detail. She agrees with Pels that there is a profound difference between fieldwork and ethnography. It is indeed difficult to generalise. But in this lecture she is not talking about local knowledge.