Prof. Dr. Ronald Stade

'Victimless Ethnography? Anthropology’s Changing Triangulations'

- Report by Edo Kort


Professor Ronald Stade started his lecture by referring to the night before: “It was the best diner I ever had!”


The scientific genre of ethnography exists for the purpose of communication. Communication involves a transmitter (the author), a recipient (the readers, and, in the case of ethnography the research subjects). The three parties together form a triangular constellation. Prof. Stade tried in his lecture at the morning of the second day of the Symposium to show us the problems connected to this triangle.


This triangle is now collapsing, for increasingly the research subjects are the recipients as well. In other words: the author writes to them and for them about them. This sometimes results in the subjects giving feedback to the author and the text he or she wrote about them. The research subjects, when readers, may express their dissatisfaction with the ethnographic description and analyses or feel that it impedes their work. The author may feel as a victim of external pressure. So, Stade states, producing an victimless ethnography seems difficult under these circumstances. In his lecture he presented the methodology and ethics that may result in a victimless type of ethnographic writing.


Modern science can be described by three characteristics:

the will to classify;
  • the belief in history as progression; and
  • the idealization of a bourgeois public sphere.

In anthropology we could also find these characteristics. At the same time the ethnographic object of study became solidified. Here Stade uses Johannes Fabians concept of spatialization of time. By employing rhetorical strategies like writing in the ethnographic present and leaving the author out of the text, the research subject is relegated to a distant temporal space. Giving the research subjects an ethnos, social identities and collectivity, but still refer to them as a classifiable specimen, made anthropology a modern science as others.


By criticizing these practices and change the way of writing, anthropology nowadays is the only social science that abandoned modernist science and moved toward a decentered understanding of the world. Going through methodological and ethical debates concerning (for example) the research subjects, power relations between the author and the subjects and textual authority, anthropologists went through many controversies. The outcome of these dilemmas is an ethnographer that is in better condition than ever!


Anthropologists thus try to be sympathetic with their interlocutors in the field, try to remain analytical and struggle to decentre the world at the same time. Stade calls this methodological cosmopolitanism. This is positive and means that we are a step ahead of other social sciences. But he does have some critical notes. Instead of attempting to once and for all eliminate the doubts and remorse of ethnographic research, we may want to cultivate our bad conscience. Instead of consenting to collective identities, cosmopolitan anthropology acknowledges the existence of individual aspirations beyond particular communitarian alignments.


So, methodological cosmopolitanism must not be confused with methodological individualism. Cosmopolitanism contains the paradox of the comprehensibility of the human species and the incomprehensibility of the human individual. We will thus not be able to completely understand the ‘other’. Seeing the world as one place is a key part of methodological cosmopolitanism. But as long as we don’t see the simultaneity of our lives with lives in misery and agony, the bad conscience we produce will not be silenced by good intentions.


With methodological cosmopolitanism, the ethnographic triangle will certainly crumble. Ethnographies will be directed both at everyone and at someone, while remaining mindful of the otherness of the other. We may want to solve problems but we should not think we have the solution. The book will not close!