Fetishizing Fieldwork on the Road to Essentialism

Adieu Culture

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s 2003 essay Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises endures as a powerful cry to contemporary anthropology. Trouillot insists that anthropology must retain and return to the anthropological concept of culture, the “Boasian conceptual kernel” (2003, 116). However, anthropology must recognize that the word culture and its surrounding terms are now out of orbit:

The word is lost to anthropology for the foreseeable future. To acknowledge this is not to admit defeat. Rather it is to face the reality that there is no privileged space within which anthropologists alone can refashion the word. Culture is now in an orbit where chasing it can only be a conservative enterprise, a rearguard romance with an invented past when culture truly meant culture–as if culture ever meant culture only. . . . There is a conceptual kernel to defend, but that defense need not be tied to a word that the general public now essentializes on the basis of our own fetishization. We need to abandon the word while firmly defending the conceptual kernel it once encapsulated. (2003, 115)

Trouillot’s essay has been under-read, misunderstood, and seems quite far from realization when anthropology textbooks still attempt to double down on culture. I began using the essay as a back-text for Cultural Anthropology in 2004, and then for several years tried teaching Trouillot straight-up (see this 2016 class on the “adieu culture” chapter for the last time I attempted to teach Trouillot). Of course, the fact that I have never been able to change the course title only adds to the irony. But, as Trouillot wrote, “the ‘adieu’ of chapter 5 took a long time to say” (2003, x). It may take an even longer time to accomplish.

Like the other chapters in Global Transformations, “Adieu Culture” is densely packed, at times extremely difficult, but richly repays reading and re-reading. For this blog-post, since we were reading Trouillot together with Laura Bohannan’s Return to Laughter, I concentrated on what Trouillot wrote about fieldwork and the ethnographic monograph (2003, 103-104).

Update 2021: As noted in this post from 2013, I have never been able to bid “adieu culture” from my teaching and courses. See this lecture for a brief attempt in Intro-to-Anthropology 2021 to at least outline some issues with the idea of culture:

Incentives to Fetishize Fieldwork

Fieldwork was obviously always important to anthropology as an academic discipline, but as anthropology gained an institutional foothold, especially in the United States, fieldwork and the ethnographic monograph became the essential rite of passage: “The production of at least one such work became the easiest–and soon enough the privileged–rite of access to the profession. In the North American context, it became the sole credential unanimously recognized for entry into the guild (Cohn 1987)” (Trouillot 2003, 104).

Fieldwork as an institutionalized rite of passage “invited practical closure” around “the ethnographic trilogy: one observer, one time, one place” (2003, 104). Trouillot insists this closure was not inherent or inevitable, but there were “institutional incentives to fetishize fieldwork”:

To put it bluntly, at some point in time one has to close the book and the easiest way to do so is to claim to have exhausted the territory. Doctoral theses claimed–not always implicitly–to put between two covers all that was essential to know about “the culture” under study. The monographic tradition may have had more impact on the closing of culture within academe than theory, exactly because it enforced the practice even among those who did not necessarily believe that cultures were integrated and isolated wholes. (2003, 104)

Most interestingly, Trouillot sees closure around essentialist notions of culture not so much as the result of theoretical debate and pronouncements, but anthropological practice, particularly the fieldwork monograph as a ticket into institutional resources. This certainly seems true for Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, where the emphasis on plasticity of human learning yields to reification of specific examples.

Also interesting to me is an unexpected coincidence between Trouillot and what Tim Ingold began saying around 2013, that anthropology is not ethnography: “Anthropology is studying with and learning from; it is carried forward in a process of life, and effects transformations within that process. Ethnography is a study of and learning about, its enduring products are recollective accounts which serve a documentary purpose” (Making, 2013, 3; see also the post on What is Anthropology? for an elaboration on Ingold’s position).

To be very clear, neither Ingold nor Trouillot are trying to belittle ethnography or fieldwork–both insist on the necessity of ethnography, fieldwork, and attention to empirical detail (see comment below on the importance of fieldwork). However, both insist that anthropology is a different enterprise, and to equate it with ethnography, or to fetishize fieldwork, can lead to pernicious outcomes.

More on Adieu, Culture

Trouillot’s essay is packed with insight. On this reading I was struck by passages which could be read as helpful responses to comments on previous blog-posts, especially on the issue of Gang Culture and Courtroom Anthropology. Namely:

  • “Anthropology’s monopoly on both the word and the concept of culture obtained only when the use of either was restricted to the Savage slot. When it came to black savages in the cities, white immigrants, or the majority population, other social scientists, such as political scientists or sociologists–notably of the Chicago school–took the lead” (2003, 109-110). This is an important point related to Alex Taub’s comment on Gang Culture, that indeed the idea of gang culture is less rooted in a misinterpretation of anthropology than it is in a development of ideas from sociology and criminal justice.
  • Shanklin (2000) seems surprised at the negative views of anthropology she discovered in her study of public opinion. Yet the whiteness of the discipline (extreme among the human sciences and made more blatant by anthropology’s favorite objects of study), the conservative and essentialist deployments of culture, and the near-total disconnect between anthropology as a theoretical practice and the public deployments of concepts and images together beg for a public relations disaster. The wonder is that the image is not worse” (2003, 153). Trouillot had been talking about anthropology’s extreme whiteness, even for the social sciences, a point that relates to the comment from No Racist Anthropology. Indeed, the years from 2009-2013, from the flap over science to the Napoleon Chagnon memoir, could be seen as the slow roll-out of the public relations disaster.
  • “We keep telling all sides: You’ve got it wrong. But a lot of it they got from us–not only through our epiphany of culture but also through our clinging to a space where we feel conceptually safe. If some Afrocentrists today believe that an inner-city Chicago kid is culturally closer to a Kalahari bushman than to her white counterpart on the North Side of town, and if the inequalities between the two are ascribed to culture, however misdefined, anthropology has to take part of the blame” (2003, 113-14). This is one of my favorite quotes, which I have used as an epigraph for my cultural anthropology syllabus. In this context, it relates to Ryan Anderson’s comment on Gang Culture: as much as I want the courtroom anthropologist to be able to yell out “but I’m an anthropologist and culture just doesn’t work like that,” it would have little effect for how far culture has moved out of orbit. Anthropological expertise no longer counts in those contexts, if it ever did.
  • And thanks to Ryan Anderson for further thoughts and links on Savage Minds: Trouillot on rethinking “culture” (via Living Anthropologically).

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Adieu Culture: Fetishizing Fieldwork on Road to Essentialism.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/adieu-culture-fieldwork/. First posted 15 October 2013. Revised 25 April 2021.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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