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Critical Review: Clifford – “On Ethnographic Authority”

This chapter by James Clifford explains the development of ethnographic authority in the field of anthropology. Between 1900 and 1960, educated anthropologists involved in intensive fieldwork became the standard in Western anthropology. Anthropologists such as Malinowski and Mead developed an experiential mode of ethnography, using participant observation to establish “scientific validity.” (This mode is exemplified by Evans-Pritchard’s’ The Nuer.) With “the experiential criteria of authority” coming under criticism, an alternative mode emerged: interpretive anthropology, in which culture is read as “an assemblage of texts.” Two other ethnographic modes have emerged as the “unreciprocal quality” of ethnography has been called into question: (1) a dialogical mode that presents ethnography as a discourse between two cultures (that of the researcher and that of the interviewed subject) and (2) a polyphonic mode that treats culture as an “open-ended dialogue,” incorporating not just the voice of the fieldworker but also texts from the indigenous people under study. These developments attempt to address some of the limitations of earlier ethnography, like the colonial representation of an “other” and a purely Western-centric basis of ethnographic authority.

Even still, these new approaches have their own limitations. As long as the observations made by an anthropologist are being “textualized” and used to make broader claims about cultures, they are subject to the biases and limitations inherent in the writer’s own cultural experience. If ethnographic research can never be truly free from subjectivity, should anthropologists (and ethnomusicologists) try to suppress their own personal reactions in order to think more objectively or should they embrace their own subjective responses as a vital part of the research process? To what extent can anthropology and ethnomusicology be considered sciences, and should anthropologists be striving to be more “scientific” in their approach or, rather, more human/empathic? (Are the concepts compatible or contradictory?)

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