Bruce Kapferer - An interview

Bruce Kapferer - An interview

Interviewed by Olaf H. Smedal
Part One was originally published in Antropolog Nytt 3/2000, Part Two in Antropolog Nytt 1/2001 To download, print, or bookmark, click: To cite, quote this address and the download date. Not for commercial use. © 2000-2001 Olaf H. Smedal and Bruce Kapferer.

Part one: Growing up politically

Professor Bruce Kapferer joined the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen at the beginning of the fall semester 1999. He came to us from The James Cook University, Australia, before which he was Foundation Professor at Adelaide University and later Professor of Social Anthropology at University College, London. He has also held visiting professorships at University of California, Los Angeles, Copenhagen University, University of Manchester and University of Jerusalem, and been at the forefront of anthropological debate for over three decades. Major books: Strategy and transaction in an African factory (1972), A celebration of demons (1983, 1991), Legends of people, myths of state (1988, 1998), The feast of the sorcerer (1997) and the edited volumes Transaction and meaning (1976) and Power, process and transformation (1987).

Kapferer is usually busy. After several unsuccessful attempts at reconciling his schedule with my own we finally managed to squeeze in a half-hour or so midday break in my office. Kapferer comes in, takes a chair, nurses a bottle of mineral water and for once he sits quietly, looking, waiting for me to say something. So the conversation begins.

The editor of AntropologNytt asked me to interview you in order that the Norwegian anthropological community might learn something about your past and especially your current concerns. We can't go on into the night (space is limited, as it always is in journals) and I'm not supposed to chat with you about how wonderful it is in Bergen. But if I can go back to your first fieldwork - how did it affect you; what sort of lasting impressions did it have on you - I mean professionally as well as personally: I find the two aspects hard to separate …
Petrol bomb attacks and so forth

Ah, I went to Zambia to be involved with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute which was then centred in Lusaka, and that institute was started under Godfrey Wilson. But when he committed suicide, as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, it was taken over by Max Gluckman who then operated the RLI as the field centre for what he was developing at Manchester at the time. From that centre a whole series of monographs were beginning to appear when I was finishing up my undergraduate work in Sydney, Australia, which would have been around 1962. Notably Bill Epstein's Politics in an urban African community (1958) and Victor Turner's Schism and continuity in an African society: a study of Ndembu village life (1957). Manchester was sort of hot news on the British anthropological scene of which Sydney was then part.

Sydney had been - one of the early professors had been Raymond Firth, Radcliffe-Brown had been there and so on - hooked into the British anthropological scene. This is not the case today. But then I had the choice of going to Fiji, which I'd done a dissertation on, and I was going to work on plural societies - the Indian-Fijian conflict, but I really wanted to go to Africa. I was pretty bored with the Pacific - which no one would like to hear these days, but I really didn't want to continue working out from Australia.

So I went to Zambia, which was in the process of becoming independent. The United National Independence Party had just won the elections and it was the end of the Central African Federation. I arrived, actually, at a very seething point. My first night in Lusaka, when I went with my wife, Judy, into a bar, involved petrol bomb attacks and so forth. That was my first night. But I was connected to the RLI and had a Commonwealth Scholarship, which you could get to far-flung parts of the globe and which was worth, I think, 600 pounds a year. The pound was worth more then but it was pretty small - I remember discussing my field plans with Elizabeth Colson who was then at the Institute and she sort of asked me how much money I had and I was very proud - 600 pounds! - and she said, «For goodness' sake, that's not enough to buy your liquor!» We had a good relationship over that one ever since - she's still alive and very feisty.
Seven-year plans à la the Soviet Union

The advice was, in those days, that you couldn't do fieldwork unless you learnt the language, and the best place to learn the language was in a rural area. I intended to do work on the Copperbelt and so I went up north and learnt ciBisa (ciBemba - it's the same thing). I was 21. It was the Bisa area which people wanted to have a look at, because it had been, historically, important as the main territory through which the Portuguese had moved into the Congo, and it was a major slave route area. The Bisa had actually participated in organising the slave trade. But this was also a Bemba cultural area and there was a lot of opposition between them. The Bemba had interesting marriage patterns and inheritance structures which fitted in with the matrilineal complex. It was part of the Rhodes-Livingstone policy to actually spread their field workers over areas that had not been covered in an effort to build a fairly intensive cultural information for that region. That was sort of the seven-year plan - Max Gluckman had ideas of five-year and seven-year plans à la the Soviet Union. The early RLI scholars were fairly left wing. Many were members of the Communist Party (though Gluckman was not, rather his wife, Mary; Gluckman was merely sympathetic) such as Bill Epstein, Bill Watson. Vic Turner, before he turned Catholic, was one of the intellectual spokesmen for the British Communist Party. But many, such as Clyde Mitchell, were more liberal in their politics.

And yourself?

I wasn't a member of the Communist Party. Then I had anarchist affiliations. I was very suspicious of these totalitarian systems!

But despite that you developed a close relationship with Gluckman?

Oh yes! These were the good times! Although recently, people like James Ferguson are saying they were liberal; I'm doing a critique of this Expectations of modernity book (Ferguson 1999) which is on the Copperbelt studies and he says they were just liberals, they were against racism. I just think that this is a profoundly ignorant statement, since the whole structure of the colonial world in Southern and Central Africa was based around the structure of race. In fact, Northern Rhodesia, as it was called when I arrived, had apartheid actually under the British colonial government - much more heavily entrenched than it was in South Africa at the time. So that was all part of the tension. Many of the early RLI workers had great difficulty getting into the field because of the political sympathies. Although it does not sound like it - the RLI scholars were treated with great suspicion by the Colonial authorities. Max Gluckman became a prohibited immigrant and was not to be allowed back to Barotseland until Independence. I remember his pleasure at the Zambian Independence ceremonies ... he had not been there for 17 years. And he could still speak perfect ciLozi!
A bunch of barbarians

But I went up to the Bisa. The United National Independence Party had just won and so I was really in the middle of a people that just got their independence, were conscious of it and, just six weeks before I arrived had speared a colonial officer. So it was quite tense. They thought I was a fisheries inspector when I first arrived because I was living on the shore of the Baka Baka lake and they were all being done over for using fish poison - a major technique - and they were pretty good at it, too.

So I went there to learn the language, actually, and did this pathetic little study (Co-operation, leadership and village structure, 1967), but I believe it's still being used. It was on women's work groups, very boring stuff, and not nearly as good as it should have been. The RLI people, except Victor Turner, and he was the renegade, were very strongly anti-cultural. They were concerned with socio-economic processes, and culture was to be explained, not used in explanation. So, they were really strongly within the Radcliffe-Brownian tradition. Except for Vic, who was beginning to break, and had been very heavily involved with Jungian and Freudian thought which has influenced his work. I was very strongly into the sociological side of Manchester-style research and not then fascinated by culture. If I had been interested in this I might have looked at cisungu rituals - which the Bisa performed - or at the fabulous legends of female warrior queens who rescued the Bisa from Bemba and Ngoni conquest. At the time I was doing fieldwork people were just starting to hear of Lévi-Strauss. Gluckman insisted that nothing more was being said than that which had been suggested by Radcliffe-Brown! Other RLI scholars, like Clyde Mitchell, who was my supervisor, asserted that being interested in cultural abstractions was refusing to attend to modernising realities. He scorned «bongo bongoism» which is how he saw Lévi-Strauss. In a strange way this idea has reasserted itself under the name of postmodernism. Nonetheless, I found the English anthropologists among whom I was working inspiring - in spite of their anti-Gallic attitudes. (I was to find a kind of anti-structuralist - read anti-French - hostility among some at UCL at a much later period in my career.) Nonetheless, the kind of anthropology I was influenced by was far superior to that I had experienced at university in Australia. Some of the best anthropologists like Strehlow and Thompson had been marginalised. But at Sydney there were some great teachers, nevertheless ... such as Mervyn Meggitt and Chandra Jayawardena.

But the English certainly had a good training system and Gluckman insisted on solid ethnographic work; he was more interested in culture than he let on. He had a strong ethnographic sense. He also had a phenomenal eidetic memory whereby he could recall the minutest details of ethnography and then with some brilliance - and apparently from the top of his head - organise these details into a coherent theoretically-informing form. This ability was often awe-inspiring and created some jealousies among his colleagues. The seminars were often highly argumentative and conflict-ridden. And this was their excitement. They were not like Norwegian seminars, polite occasions, they were hard work where people really had to display their knowledge of the systems they were working with and defend themselves from people working in other areas.

A bit like the celebrated Friday Seminar at London School of Economics [founded by Bronislaw Malinowski and chaired by Raymond Firth for several decades after the Second World War]?

Ah no, I think the LSE seminar was much more civilised. In fact Manchester fought with LSE. Manchester was considered to be a bundle of barbarians. It was the only really socialist department in England. I have to say that. LSE was conservative, right wing, despite its protestations, and it was really Manchester which had Peter Worsley, Vic, Bill Watson - all these people who were very strongly left wing. Except perhaps John Barnes and Clyde Mitchell who were sympathetic, but not left wing.
I tend to still have very utopian views

But when you look back, in what way was the initial field experience formative?

No, you didn't get there, did you! It was very formative. Certainly I grew up politically in Zambia. Overnight. Coming from an Australian background, not a place full of really meaningful politics - probably a bit like Norway - I mean people's political attitudes were not really a matter of life and death. But in Central Africa, it was a matter of life and death. And it was there where I first encountered powerful left thought - which you would have in Norway, but didn't have in Australia. Although Australia is a very working class kind of culture, it wasn't one which had its class relations quite as strongly embedded in intellectual thought as in England. So these basically English anthropologists, on the left, were quite influential.

The political situation in Zambia was hugely important. You know, it was a very utopian moment, everyone thought, «now there is light», «colonialism is gone» - there was a huge attack on colonialism. And we were all part of that. All of us, well a whole lot of us, were facing the utopian future. We were very, very excited. I think it was intellectually formative for many. You know, the best guy working on globalisation nowadays, in my view, was also there, a Marxist guy, Giovanni Arrighi. He wasn't part of the RLI but part of the general intellectual community. A lot of intellectual work was going on in that part of Africa, also up into Uganda and Tanzania - all sort of stuff that was really important in the development of intellectual thought, actually, in North America and Northern Europe. It was really quite an important region. Many of us were banned from going south of the Zambezi after the UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) of Ian Smith; it was a politically formative period.

I suppose I tend to still have very utopian views. I haven't become a depressed liberal, you know!
It was very positivistic

When about 25 years ago you agreed to edit the volume that became Transaction and Meaning (1976) I suppose you did it because you had a strong, if perhaps waning interest in exchange theory - not in the Maussian but in the Barthian and especially the Blauian sense. Do you still see any merit in these analytical traditions, or have they become dead horses, as far as you are concerned?

Well, let me put it this way. It's a dead horse for me, but it's getting active again. There is all that early stuff I did on that kind of choice stuff, decision making, very Barthian, networks - I was a pioneer in network analysis - in the current globalisation stuff all that is now the current flavour again.

So would you use it now?

No. I mean, you'd really have to ask the question in another way. You asked me what effect that early period had. Well, the effect that early period had, which you see in all my work still, is my concern with massive amounts of detail. That is, working very closely with a lot of detail, with lots of practices, and working out of that. And that comes out of the old Manchester situational analysis and extended case method. As I've just been telling the students this morning, that process bifurcated. You got the extended case method which was very much concerned with how cultures and structures were continually being created and generated, and it used a kind of naive Barthian model. That is, one of interest, manipulation, choice, optative stuff - such as van Velsen's arguments on the politics of kinship - the extended case method, worked on optation. All that is very clear in Strategy and transaction in an African factory (1972), where I tried to articulate, using Blau, a theory that would support that extended case, network type of analysis. In fact it was very positivistic, very objectivist and so forth.

There was another, alternative line which was coming out of the same tradition but went in another direction, and that was from Victor Turner, actually. He refused the optative model, argued that we should still continue looking at conflict and disputes, which is certainly what we were all interested in - from a Freudian angle: conflict revealed the inner structures of things. But he stressed with respect to the Ndembu - though people of course make choices and so forth - that people were ultimately bound by duty and obligation, which overrode free choice. In fact, although he doesn't admit it, he was much more expressing Gluckman's original position than the sort of developments out of Gluckman by Mitchell, Epstein, to some extent, and certainly Jaap van Velsen.

But I was on the Jaap van Velsen, Mitchell side of analysis in the beginning. That's what Strategy and transaction is. As one of my friends said, it pushed the transactionalist model to its absolute limits. And that tends to be a line of mine: I get a position and then work it until it can go no further.

Some people have taken that book and worked out a lot of mathematical stuff from it?

Oh God, yeah! I still get letters on it. People have mathematized it, have done this, that and the other - I think for some people in America it's a classic, actually, and I just don't want to have anything to do with it! But out of my disillusion - it's all to do with friendships, as everything is, you know, I was quite close with Vic Turner who influenced me away from that perspective. Although I was very interested in Fredrik Barth's stuff, I still am, still think the world of him as an anthropologist, but I began to think about other things.

So the introduction to Transaction and meaning, that is the beginning of my looking in another direction. And all the people in that book, incidentally, have been fairly significant since. Many of them in the same direction - the Comaroffs, Mike Gilsenan and so forth. But that basically is the end of my interest in that transactional kind of stuff, although I still maintain a very close connection to the details of the material.

[ End of Part One. In Part Two, published in AntropologNytt 1/2001, Kapferer discusses his understanding of ritual, his ongoing concern with global processes and certain trends in current anthropology. ]
Part Two: Thinking about anthropology

Professor Bruce Kapferer joined the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen at the beginning of the fall semester 1999. He came to Bergen from The James Cook University, Australia, before which he was Foundation Professor at Adelaide University and later Professor of Social Anthropology at University College, London. He has also held visiting professorships at University of California, Los Angeles, Copenhagen University, University of Manchester and University of Jerusalem, and been at the forefront of anthropological debate for over three decades. Major books: Strategy and transaction in an African factory (1972), A celebration of demons (1983, 1991), Legends of people, myths of state (1988, 1998), The feast of the sorcerer (1997) and the edited volumes Transaction and meaning (1976) and Power, process and transformation (1987).

[In Part One, published in AntropologNytt 3/2000, Kapferer looked back on his first fieldwork (in Zambia in the 1960s) and how it shaped his political views, and discussed his innovative work in transaction theory and network analysis.]
Ritual for me is not just ritual

Do you have a strong sense of continuity in your research interests? I ask because your preoccupation with ritual, performativity, altered states of consciousness and associated displays of power has resulted in two books - A celebration of demons (1983, 1991) and The feast of the sorcerer (1997) - and I don't know how many papers, while your Legends of people, myths of state: violence, intolerance, and political culture in Sri Lanka and Australia (1988, 1998) would appear to be a work driven by a different set of motivations. Or do you see that differently?

It all depends what your interest in ritual is. I'd say that A celebration ..., which is my first ritual book, comes out of my decision to switch interest from Africa to Asia and it coincides with my dissatisfaction with what we would now call a culturally insensitive position. And I had the view that I'd have to bow down to cultural arguments in the Asian context much more strongly than I'd have to bow down to them in Africa. This is not because people in Africa don't have as complex a culture as people in South Asia, but it's because in Africa it's embedded much more in a whole variety of often disarticulated practices which spread out over large distances, especially in Central Africa. So you haven't got this density. Indeed, when you look at so much of the African materials, it does boil down to this dull repetition of choice, manipulation and so forth - interpretive logics often slip from view.

But that could well be an observer effect, as it were.

That's right. So I went to Sri Lanka, to get more culturally sensitive. I was actually blocked from going there, initially, because Leach said - those were the days when field areas were territorialised into university departments - no, this was Cambridge's. It was not a place for Mancunian Africanists. Eventually I was given a grant, after I suggested I might do a restudy of Pul Eliya! Nur Yalman, however, was very supportive of my work in Sri Lanka.

Was he from Cambridge?

He was from Cambridge. He'd just gone to Harvard, I think. Harvard or Chicago - something like that.

So my interest was to do that. Now, I'd been in Sri Lanka for about six months for my new study and I'd gotten into migratory communities, because the places I was working with had sent people to every part of the world. It was a globalised community well before globalisation was a word. The people were significant in the gem and jewellery trade. They'd probably got outreaches in Oslo - I'd expect they had, and they'd be thoroughly Norwegian by now. I bet there are some jewellery merchants here who came from that little place where I was working right at the southern end of Sri Lanka - I think I've probably got genealogies for them.

But after about six months I still thought I was doing a sociological study. And here I was in the middle of a Buddhist world which was clearly different from all the superficial stuff I was recording ... it was coming out the same!

So I managed to get into ritual, which I wanted to have a look at. I was very quiet about it, I was Marxist in orientation, still with Manchester, and to study ritual was regarded as out. Victor Turner was considered a traitor to Manchester's cause! When Victor became a Catholic - he got into ritual, left the Communist Party and became a Catholic - at which point Max actually accused him of being a traitor. It was really very intense stuff! So, there I was in Sri Lanka, doing the same old sociological analysis that I would have done in Africa. So I decided to look at ritual because this is about healing and it really - I came across it by accident - it showed a whole mass of things on politics, on the economy, the lot. The rituals were really something.

That's why I got into ritual: To really move into a culturally sensitive position which I've developed since, actually, because my whole argument, which goes through the two later books - much more developed in the last one - is a point I actually discovered in Victor Turner: It is human beings who create their worlds, and rather than take non-human models for understanding human worlds, like ecological models (which may be human, but nevertheless seem outside human thought) or biological models, or physical models, we should work with the actual structures of understanding that human beings in certain situations are working with. And by paying close attention to those, we may be able to develop better general understandings of human processes. That is the fundamental point of so much anthropology anyhow, and what distinguishes it from sociology. That's the direction I've been going.

Right. So ...

So ritual for me is not just ritual. It opens up a whole series of conceptual, philosophical, theoretical issues: you then move into worlds that may not be actually ritual in themselves. That's the direction of Vic, who was very influential upon me and used to argue with me on that, and I was also very influenced by Marshall Sahlins.

Which Marshall Sahlins?

The Marshall Sahlins of Historical metaphors and mythical realities (1981). We became friends in the process of these writings. And we used to have big arguments because he was just leaving his highly economistic phase and was beginning to get more culturally attuned.
I'm having existential problems

Right. You are concerned, I know, with the effects of globalisation, and at the moment you are to-and-froing at least two research locations.


Three? OK, let me mention two, then you add the third. It's Kerala in South India and Soweto in South Africa.

It's more than that. It's Kerala, which is assuming enormous proportions, South Africa, and I'm actually looking at three major centres. I'm gonna work in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, if I can work it out - I'll be working with a few other people and that's still got to be developed. And working back into Sri Lanka. But each has got a different point to it. My research is really not about globalisation, actually. It's about the state, different formations of the state and the transformations - and the relations - between different types of state structure, the production of inequality, poverty, the way these are affected by the interrelation of the state into larger global processes at one level but also the way local processes are also factors. It's quite a complex thing, as I'm working it up.

«Globalisation» is just a word that you talk to people with.

Well, these are global processes, some of them.

Some of them, yes.

So how do your experiences in these locations shape your understanding or vision of the nature of these processes? I know it's work in progress, but ...

Work in the beginning! There's a whole series of problems. If you really want to know, I'm having existential problems. How to do anthropology when engaged in such a vast regional spread and with a diversity of issues.

But do you intend these fieldwork stints, that I suppose will continue over the next few years, to fuse into a single statement, or do you see them as separate?

I'm going to make a single statement which is going to be highly problem-connected. That's also a Manchester thing: to argue that the fieldwork always has to be connected to a well-defined problem. You just don't go out and just collect data and then think about it. So I'll do something on transitions of the state; at the moment I'm interested in various forms of religious movement, actually, which are connected up with international charities. I can do this and work comparatively because the other thing I'm interested in is comparative anthropology of a Dumontian kind. I'm wanting to show that there are very different histories producing these state forms; these state forms are not mutually reducible. There are also other kinds of structures, some indigenous ones and some produced in the interface between the foreign and the local. So this is quite complex. I'm trying to get something out on that but what I'm interested in - I don't know whether it's possible - is to eventually get some students interested, in Norway, in Bergen, and to link these students up with local students in the various research areas. Because there's a whole range of things that can be done. I think I can do my little thing but it won't be the in-depth type of stuff. It will be like what a lot of other people do. I am analysing other people's work rather than working with the kind of first-hand, in-depth anthropological material ... well, I will be working with first-hand material but more superficially so.

But when you escalate the whole thing into three fieldwork locations you're not making it any easier for yourself!

I'm not making it any easier at all. But I think that anthropology has got to continually be able to make statements that reach an audience beyond its own people. And it's got to be able to show that anthropology actually has something original to say.
Foucault lives in outer Nepal

Precisely. And that's why I want to ask you a final question. You know, this is a day and age when many prominent anthropologists have pronounced the discipline to be in crisis (or perhaps it is more correct to say that they became prominent because they did so), but you might remember Stanley Diamond's definition of anthropology almost 30 years ago as «the study of men in crisis by men in crisis» in the light of which it would only be logical that the discipline itself is in dire straits. Anyway: do you see the discipline as being in crisis?

I think anthropology is definitely in crisis!

But hasn't it always been? Isn't that its natural state?

Yeah, well, it used to like to think of itself as being in crisis which it could sort of use to pat itself on the back and go: «We are in crisis». It wasn't!

But now it is?

Peter Worsley wrote a famous paper when I was at Manchester (c. 1970) which was called «The end of anthropology». It flew around the department. He used it to show that anthropology was a thoroughly colonial discipline and that the end of colonialism was the end of anthropology, now was the time of sociology. And it looked as if he was right. But actually anthropology, if you look at England and elsewhere, like in Norway, strong anthropology departments have developed - anthropology has been more successful in surviving than has indeed sociology. I mean, you could say that in America, for example, sociology has to a large extent collapsed into things like Cultural Studies. Which is also the risk for anthropology. I think that what is the crisis for anthropology now - and it's both inside the discipline and outside the discipline: a retreat from ethnography and from the kinds of philosophical issues that interested anthropology - and still should!

Much postmodernism manifests what I would call a liberal critique, a soft critique - not a hard critique. This is so in two senses. It shrinks from a concern with issues and from rigorous analysis. It's depressing. It's really providing a kind of language which permits people to no longer do fieldwork but to work on all sorts of things which they do rather feebly, and it has lost all sight of deep intellectual problems. When the earlier anthropologists got going they had big intellectual problems. They were worried about philosophy. They were worried about the hegemony of certain forms of Western thought. I mean, whatever you think about Margaret Mead and so forth she was important because she threatened. She was thoroughly American, but at least she put up a front of threatening dominant American thought. I think anthropology has watered itself down. It has lost its sense or its ability to criticise on the basis of in-depth knowledge of other forms of existence. And the postmodern argument that other people can have authority for their own worlds is to some extent contradicted in their work: The only authority that the others have is the authority that they have already had decided for them by a whole variety of metropolitan, postmodernist thinkers. It is now Bakhtinian dialogics or finding that Foucault lives in outer Nepal, or something like that. So, yes, I think the subject is in real crisis from within itself, which has caused a disillusionment with certain types of conventional practices which aren't necessarily bad because they're conventional, like fieldwork.

At the same time I think there's a huge transformation in the nature of academic work and the structure of the universities. Universities are no longer relatively open institutions. After the Second World War the university was established, at least in England, as a liberal institution to check the excesses of the state. Nazi Germany was the example of the state that went crazy. And many of the people coming out of the army were suspicious of oppressive state-run bureaucratic institutions. I think many of the intellectuals that went to the universities were very suspicious of state structures and forms. Universities protected their intellectuals and provided, to some degree, a base for resisting the state. But now I think that the move is to push universities into a more subordinate role to state and business interests. Pragmatics, not thought, is the rule.

And this is something you also experienced in Australia, right?

Oh yeah. I think there's a huge attack on the social sciences.
The worst anthropology

So where would you like to see anthropology go, then? Is there any light in the tunnel? Do you see something happening that gives reason for optimism?

There's a lot of reason for optimism! But you don't necessarily find the good anthropology where you'd expect it. I agree with Sahlins on this. Much of the worst anthropology is actually in anthropology departments. Here you find anthropologists more anti-anthropological, at least anti the idea of anthropology than many other people, actually.

Would you care to elaborate on that?

Yeah ... I think that the capacity to imagine another way of conceiving reality ... I mean, this is where I think some of the postmodernists are very weak. They say on the one hand that the social world is constructed, that we construct our ideas. Of course social life is a human construction and anthropology is - in many senses - a construction of a construction. Many talk about ethnographic work as fiction. Everything in some way or another is constructed (hell - mathematics is perhaps the most constructed and imaginative of all human practices), but to say this is not necessarily to deny the reality of the construction. The term construction is being used as in some way opposed to reality. But surely the reality of human realities is precisely in the fact that they are constructed. Instead of shrinking away from rigorous work, anthropologists should insist on penetrating into the heart of human constructional processes. We should be having more ethnography not less of it, which seems to be the case. There is much ethnography going on ... but because of some of the postmodern critiques there seems to be a nervousness in making firm statements about what the processes are about. Careful theoretical thought is being avoided and we are increasingly becoming bogged down in methodological arguments which are all about avoiding clear theoretical argument grounded in careful ethnography - certainly the potential contribution of anthropology.

Are you saying that they're ethnocentric? That it has that effect?

Yeah, I think what's happened is that it has moved back into metropolitan thought. So when I say it becomes anti-anthropological, it means that the possibility of anthropology to really discover new horizons - just down the road, for that matter; I quite agree that you don't have to go to the Pacific Islands - you can find them downtown Bergen, as far as I'm concerned. It's this notion of opening up new horizons of possibility which is what anthropology is about. I mean new horizons that expand beyond the limitations of metropolitan thought. Apart from some postmodern criticisms (and I should stress that I am still sympathetic to and am certainly influenced these days by European poststructuralist and deconstructionist thought), I think that the professionalism of anthropology is also driving the subject to reinsist metropolitan value at the expense of the ideas and knowledges present in other forms or worlds of practice. The subdivisions in anthropology of, for example, ecological anthropology, medical anthropology, legal anthropology, often discover their authority, not in the ethnography of peoples studied, but in the views of ecologists, medicine, biology, law. There is somehow a reinsistence on the objectivism and positivism of western thought of which an anthropology was often sharply critical.

But hasn't anthropology always looked outside itself for theoretical inspiration?

Certainly! But its chief source of inspiration are the peoples and practices it has encountered at depth. These have often traced the limitations of abstract theoretical thought from the metropole. Or, as Sahlins has insisted, have revealed the very cultural constraints under which western thought and theory often operates, but unreflectively. The problem for anthropology is to break through implicit and explicit relativisms and this it can do by ever broadening our horizons of understanding through an engagement with other modes of cultural practice.

Writing: Film :: Left Brain : Right Brain?

Writing: Film :: Left Brain : Right Brain?
Peter Loizos.

How should scholars think about the relations of documentary film to scholarly writing? This has debated for more than fifty years, and the following positions can be identified:

1. Writing is [Self]-Sufficient. This view is held implicitly, and sometimes consciously by those academics who are satisfied to teach and research through written forms alone. Many anthropologists have been willing to include photographs in monographs, and most textbooks use them too. But much teaching is through lectures, discussions and student reading, with no inclusion of photos or films as intrinsic components at any point.

2. Hierarchical Division of Labour: Again, often an implicit view expressed through the idea that writing is the dominant cognitive skill for recording ethnography, analysis and theoretical argument, but that photos, and perhaps films have their [subordinate] place, as supporting or complementing the all-important words. This is roughly the position of Kirtsen Hastrup, which will be evaluted in a moment.

3.Complementary Division of Labour: This is the view argued by many enthusiasts for “the visual” and it is expressed through arguments which elaborate the special characteristics of still or moving photographic images, for recording social actions in real-time. Sometimes these arguments are developed in a direction reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s popular contrast between the two sides of the brain, the left side being that which is specialised on linear cause-and-effect relations, logic, and the mechanistic structured relations needed in, for example, engineering; whereas the right brain is specialised in pattern-recognition, metaphorical linkages, intuitive understandings. So writing would link to left-brain activities, and film to right-brain. Since we need both brain specialisations to function effectively, the balanced interdependence of this “division of labour” calls for more use of film to meet the needs writing cannot meet. We respcet individuals who are clearly highly focused for one kind of brain-activity rather than the other, and very creative in their favoured mode . But “balance” is often arguably to be desired for most of us.

4. The Visual as Radical Challenge. This argument has been put forward in its most sophisticated form by the distinguished ethnographic documentarist David MacDougall, who is also known for his contributions to theory in documentary film. MacDougall suggests that well-wrought films can work to challenge deep-seated assumptions of a conceptually conservative character. This may be through portraying individuals “in depth”, rather than in the confines of the written “ case history”. Sometimes, the argument is developed that Visual Anthropology is poised to cause a major re-think within non-visual mainstream theory , but as it is made in writing, there is a sense of the advocate elegantly sawing off the branch on which s/he is ‘positioned.’

Because social researchers have often been single-minded about expressing themselves through the written word, it has sometimes seemed like an uphill battle to get them to take in what film and photography have to offer. In the early days of sophisticated ethnographic films being shown on British TV - the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was common for an academic to review a well-made documentary film, deplore the lack of information in the commentary, and complain that with the budget for this film, a goodly number of PhDs might have been funded. But as films usually work best if they use fewer rather than more commentary words, and television companies are not in the business of funding PhDs, these reviews tended to miss the value of the films as contributions in their own right. By the mid-seventies such films seemed to be sending a stream of young people to study anthropology [I write as a former admissions tutor] and today most British anthropology departments will have film showings as a routine complement to formal teaching, and will probably have an optional course which is focused on ‘Visual Anthropology’. The film-wallahs seem to be Home but not yet completely Dry.

There has been, inevitably, inevitably, a fight-back from some anthropologists sceptical of the inflated claims made for The Visual. Kirsten Hastrup [1992] has set out her views at some length in a prestigious collection [[Crawford & Turton, eds.] She argues that writing can produce relatively “thick” records of social events, and give a illuminating sense of social contexts; it can show the significance of social spaces, providing an itinerary rather than merely a map; and lastly it epistemologically encompasses or contains the semantic aspects of films. Photography, in contrast gives thinner descriptions, dwelling as it must on visual forms, it shows places, merely, not spaces, and what ever its strengths, it must play second fiddle to textual anthropology.

Hastrup allows that film has some strengths, which she calls blow-up and show-up effects in allowing us to discover small but significant details not noticed by the ethnographer eyes during the fieldwork encounter. She is very far from denying film as being useful to the academy. She accepts the power of films in conveying the plurality of the world, their value as historical resources, and as means of advocacy. But then she draws her hard line:

"As for their anthropological value, however, films are not on equal terms with ethnographic writing. They are not in conflict, nor are they just complementary modes of expression, because they do not operate on the same logical level. Rather, they are hierarchically related. Writings may encompass the images produced by films, but not the other way round, just as anthropological writings about the 'Other' by logical necessity, are hierarchically related to the voices of this stylized 'Other' [Dumont, 1986,p266;Hastrup 1991]"

[Hastrup 1992:21].

Her argument is elegant, and theoretically sophisticated, but it is flawed. It depends for persuasiveness on a powerful fieldwork-based incident, about which more in a moment, and this is reinforced by her initial approach, which is based on an exaggeration [her words] [which] “ consists in separating completely the visual and textual modes of representation, as if films had no subtexts and books never had pictures.” This exaggeration is fatal , a killer assumption, as I shall show in a moment. But first, let us address her high-impact field illustration.

She describes trying as an ethnographer to observe and photograph a “remarkable cultural event” in Iceland in which 40 male farmers came together in a large barn to judge the quality of 120 rams. Comments were made on several aspects of the rams, but the decisive factor seems to have been the size and weight of the ram’s testicles, and Hastrup suggests that their owners were competing as men in a potency contest, a view which seems fanciful. There were sexual jokes and laughter, and side-long glances at the ethnographer, who eventually left out of “sheer embarrassment”. Later, her photograps proved disappointing – “completely uninteresting backs of men and rams”. And then: “This is the point: the nature of the event could not be recorded in photography. The texture of maleness and sex which filled the room had been an intense sensory experience, but it was invisible. The reality of the total social event had been transformed into a two-dimensional image, a souvenir [cf Sontag 1979,p 9] For me it invokes a particular memory, for others the information is very limited.” [Hastrup 1992:9]

There is clearly something interesting in this judgement, but it is not fully persuasive. The interesting thought is that representations necessarily miss elements of what was present. An uncaptioned still photograph evidently misses smells, animal body sounds, and the jokes of the men. But a written account evokes these – it does not reproduce them as they were available to the senses. A written text is a reduction to lines on a page of what was a much more complex phenomenon in which the five senses were simultaneously engaged. Because Hastrup writes well, my imagination as a reader is stimulated to “fill in” the smells, the sounds and the jokes, and even imagine the feel of the ram’s testicles in a man’s hand. But Hastrup has not “recorded” that event. She has evoked it. In this respect, both text and image are highly reductive of much more complex events and sensations. They are more alike than different.

I accept that writing has more possibilities in terms of the layering which Goffman has termed “frame analysis”.

But Hastrup’s “exaggeration” strategy renders her argument misleading. Precisely because we most commonly use photographs with captions, [whether written underneath, or a verbal comment such as “This is my brother in 1985”] I can imagine some highly effective photographs of this event, which would have evoked it much more thickly and persuasively than the disappointing photos Hastrup ended up with. We would need to have pushed into the circle of men judging, and got shots of a man’s hand grasping a ram’s testicles, while other men look on. As Hastrup admits, here a male ethnographer might have had the advantage. Then we could add the jokes which the men were making while this went on, by way of captions. Of course , using still photos, the smells and the animal sounds and Hastrup’s experience of embarrassment would still be missing. In a film the lthese could be conveyed, for in a reflexive reportage film Hastrup could herself tell us “There is a powerful smell of men, animals and sex in this space.”

We almost never expect a photograph to “speak for itself” – to appear without a caption. Nor do we commonly make films without

words, whether those of the speaking subjects, of inter-titles, of commentaries. Once Hastrup allows that in most practical applications, we can use photos to amplify and enrich a written text, and words to elucidate images, the power of her comparison is greatly diminished. The abstract logic of her argument and comparison are reduced in impact when we compare real-world mixed strategies of usage, words-with-pictures, and pictures-with-words.

So what is left? Here are some comments which try to tease out the comparative qualities of the two media as they normally occur:

1] Particularity: Films dwell upon particular places, but the people who use these places can explain them to us so that their significance as social spaces becomes accessible.

2]Privileged Images: because films show particular people in such a way as to make them stand out memorably, films normally act as instruments of empirical particularism which can privilege the person seen and heard whether they are more generally typical and representative, or not. This can be a problem. The issue is discussed by documentary film makers as “casting”. Where a film may concentrate on a handful of vivid people, a written text can deal with a range of people, a few foregrounded, named and known in depth, a greater number briefly adduced, and some appearing as statistical aggregates. Writers face fewer problems about the privileging of foreground persons – balance is easier to achieve.

3] Unusual/Typical : Films can show particular ethnographic subjects at particular moments in rather misleading and untypical ways. Film lacks a visual mechanism for the kinds of qualifications academics make in footnotes. If we show a man who happens to be a polygamist when 95% of the men in this society have only one wife, it needs a special phrase on the sound track to make this clear, and to stop the polygynist getting out of hand.

4]Abstraction: The written word is the form which is most effective for complex abstract arguments, and “high theory”. There are documentary films which present complex arguments, but film specialists are often inclined to see these films as plodding “lectures with moving images”. They favour films which use the inherent concrete empirical particularity of the medium, particularly its real-time recording functions. Film can work well for dramatic historical narrative, and it can be effective in ironic or poetic juxtaposition. Chaplin’s hungry little tramp is always oppressed by a huge overfed policeman - film “arguments” often work best by implication rather than by an explicit statement.

5] Real-Time Records: Film, particularly modern video forms, allow long uninterrupted real-time records of moving images and sounds, integrally related . They can thus produce records which record the phenomenal flux of specific events in a continuous stream. This can allow play-back, and re-analysis. The playback can be shown to the people who participated in the event and their explanations of who was there, what was being done, why it was happening can be recorded and re-integrated with the record, or merely stored to aid the ethnographer in a future written representation. This is particularly valuable for rituals and all social performances – dances, myth recitals, battles, house building, pottery making, heart surgery, pottery production. No ethnographer can write effective notes as efficiently and tirelessly as a video camera records.

6] Point of View: as Hastrup argues, a record may be thin, and unilluminating. A camera does not think or analyse. And it can only operate from the viewpoint of the moment. Whatever it records, other things must go unrecorded. An ethnographer with a rapid eye movement may “take in” a detail which would be missed had the camera been handled in a normally deliberate and “steady” manner.

The ethnographer potentially sees and understands much more than the camera.

7] Criteria: film-makers like films to use the film medium to its best. Other things being equal, a film with fewer words and no commentary may be preferred to a film with a rich wall-to-wall expository/explanatory commentary voice. Text—focused academics tend to prefer films with fuller explanations, and to be feel uneasy if explanation is withheld. They may be led to accept that “more words” will distract a viewer from seeing what is “in” the film.

But at the end of the day, an academic has as much right as a filmmaker to include explanations which help the mind to come to rest, particularly if the academic imagines other academics [rather than purist film enthusiasts] as the end-users.

We are ending this essay by adding on the text written by Howard Mophy for the book Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest. This monograph was written to accompany a film called Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy, directed by Ian Dunlop. In his essay Morphy succinctly makes clear the different properties and limitations of monograph and film when both are concerned with the same subject.