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Stoller: The Reconstruction of Ethnography

by on October 4, 2011

In chapter 8 of Stoller’s “The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology,” the author argues for a “reconstruction of ethnography” that encourages the use of both science and art. He introduces the argument with an anecdote from his work in Songhay, Niger. Stoller says that he administered a survey to 180 people in an attempt to gather information on cross-ethnic relations in order to learn about local political processes. He spent 180 days administering the surveys, and was pleasantly surprised by the results, until he learned that all 180 people had lied to him about their multilingualism. When he sought help, he realized that the people had lied to him because he had been focused on interviewing rather than on listening. Stoller decided, therefore, to try a new approach, in which he simply sat and listened to peoples stories rather than asking them questions, and the results got him far better and more accurate information than he had before.On the surface, it appears that Stoller is arguing for an entirely subjective approach to ethnography. This is not the case, as he states that the subjective approach is not foolproof. We are then given a sort of history of ethnography – specifically the purpose of facts, and the significance and usage of language. He explains that the purpose of the human sciences is to seek out Platonic truths (the reality of things, rather than the appearance) in human beings. These Platonic truths will allow us to “dissolve” man and explain cultural practices to one another. Because of this, we need to be able to explain things to other cultures from an emic perspective (so that concepts can be universally understood), and therefore need an ethnographic language and theoretical framework in order to get data that is consistent in its content.

The central thesis is then presented. Stoller states that many ethnographic writings are dense and uninteresting when they really need to be lush, vivid, and personal. Of course they need to get the facts across, but they need to do so in a manner that is personal and engaging, as that is how we can best relate. Specifically, we need to use language to its full capacity. Rather than seeing it as a neutral mechanism for simple objective fact, we need to confront its full being so that art and science compliment each other.

I agree that a theoretical and linguistic framework needs to be established for ethnography. The ability to gather and use consistent data in a standard form would give us the ability to compare and contrast different cultural beliefs, and therefore allow us not only to better understand other cultures, but allow us to better explain them. The emic perspective is also crucial – we need to be able to explain things to cultures in their own terms, as languages and meanings can vary so drastically from place to place.

The part where this gets tricky is in the actual process of defining a framework. Establishing an objective framework is simple. Establishing a subjective one is more difficult, because everyone has uniquely different experiences. One cannot be told what to subjectively observe – biases, beliefs, and habits are always going to come into play.


Stoller left me asking myself a few questions. First of all, is it even possible for a framework wherein art and science come together be established? If so, how can it be done, and by whom? Furthermore, what would be the benefits or downfalls of creating a framework that is entirely objective, or one that is entirely subjective?

  1. This article connects well to the Arce-Nazario article because they both argue to gather local stories from the people living there. To establish a framework for this method goes back to an idea brought up in class today: stories from surrounding areas should be analyzed and connected to gain a grander perspective of what is going on in the local’s lives. These stories will present valuable information about what needs to be done for local communities.

  2. 242colleencarey permalink

    I agree with Stroller’s concepts on ethnography. Much of the anthropological research we see is dull, boring, and hard to read let alone comprehend. Stroller suggests art and science coming together to make research more interesting and enjoyable for the researcher and viewer. It is completely possible for art and science to come together and establish a framework. The meaning “art” is different for everyone. But overall it’s being creative in your own personal way. So coming up with a framework for fieldwork can be artistic in the ways you take record, interact, and then publish the work. For example, along with written observation, one can draw, paint, photograph or write in a more creative way.
    As for creating a framework that is entirely objective and subjective, I believe it’s impossible to do. Everyone is always going to be somewhat subjective, but there will always be facts that you can’t judge or invoke your beliefs and experiences on to change them; they will remain facts. Therefore, the downfall will be that it’s boring and uninteresting. Combing subjectiveness, with objectiveness would be better.

  3. i think in order for art and science to come together you have to weave an objective and also very subjective aspect in mind. this form of description would be very difficult to master, and would best be facilitated as two different entities in a book. i think one chapter should be based on the objective aspects, where the next chapter be more focused on the subjective aspects you are trying to convey. i think it would be great to have various perspectives, because it would encompass a much bigger picture of ethnographic writings.

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