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Bereavement, Rage, and Headhunters by: Kaity Plath

by on October 5, 2011



            In the introduction to Renato Rosaldo’s, Culture and Truth, Rosaldo reflects on his time spent with the Ilongot people in theNorthern Philippines, and the process in which the experience changed his approach to studying other cultures. More specifically Rosaldo depicted bereavement in the Ilongot culture and the practice of headhunting as a response to grievance. Before headhunting was barred in 1974, in losing a loved one and the rage that ensued, a member of the Ilongot tribe would cut the head off of another human being and toss it away. Not only was this feat accepted by the tribe but celebrated with song, music, and dance. Originally Rosaldo and his wife, who was also living and conducting fieldwork with the Ilongots, attempted to analyze and find meaning in the practice of headhunting; expecting that “analytical depth” would bring an “explanation of culture.” After many suggestions, some promptly negated by the tribal members, Rosaldo came to his own understanding of grief after losing his brother and wife. In Rosaldo’s recollection of his wife’s death, he describes the moment in which he became aware of his rage.

            “Immediately on finding her body I became enraged… I felt like a nightmare, the whole world around me expanding and contracting, visually and viscerally heaving.” Before Rosaldo knew this rage, the Ilongot’s motive for headhunting- “rage in bereavement could impel men to kill”- was too simple and unsatisying. However, his own experience lead him to believe that some things should be taken at “face value” and “granted its full weight”, even without further analysis.  Rosaldo concludes that cultural depth does not always equal cultural elaboration and depth, overall, should not be dependent on the presence or absence of elaboration.

            In part, it would seem that most of the authors we have read up until this point would disagree with Rosaldo’s surrender to simplicity. In general, the argument presented in the Greif and a Headhunter’s Rage challenges the idea that anthropology should “explicate culture through the gradual thickening of symbolic webs of meaning.”  I believe that Pimm would highly disagree with Rosaldo on the basis that Pimm believes in theories, hypotheses, models, and observation over time to help study and understand different cultures. Rosaldo might say that some of these questions, could be answered without extensive examination. Although most ethnographers such as Herbert and Irene Rubin agree that preparation, understanding, and awareness are extremely important in anthropologic work, Rosaldo would argue that this confidence could very easily be overdone and may forcibly lead to artificial data.

            Questions: Can accurate conclusions be drawn without extensive examination and analysis? Could an ethnographer ‘over’ prepare themselves for a cultural study? What results might this produce and will these results portray an accurate account of the culture being studied?

            My immediate thoughts on Rosaldo was that the ideas in this passage were impractical. Anthropology is based in extensive field work and analysis. However, after processing the chapter, I believe that understanding comes from experience, and the length and elaboration of that experience is sometimes irrelevant to the understanding

  1. I do think that it is possible to get an accurate analysis of something without extensive study. I think its possible, but very unlikely. To get the best results, like you said, I think time and experience are the best options. Rushing or jumping to conclusions can usually mean that the information isn’t completely accurate and full of holes. An Ethnographer could be over prepared, but I dont think that is very likely as well. To get the best results, as stated earlier, time and experience help to paint a better picture. The more prepared someone is to do this, the better the results should be. Thats why, in my opinion, it isn’t very likely to be over prepared for this.

    • After reading this passage, I actually don’t agree with you. I think that there ARE some questions that can be answered completely at face value. In studying why a person or a group of people do what they do, especially when dealing with emotions, it cannot really be overanalyzed without ‘forcing’ your way to a conclusion.In this case, over a long period of time ad extensive research, it would be extremely easy to forget the real question that has already been answered. I think in the process of overanalyzing, we discredit the person or people in which we are observing.

  2. I would argue on a completely different note that Rosaldo’s loss of his wife and son gave him a bias rather than insight into the rituals of the tribe. He allowed his own grief to challenge his objectivity by allowing his feelings, which are representative of a different cultural background, to help him interpret the actions of the tribe. Though he claims it helped him to understand them, it certainly wasn’t an ethnographer’s preferred objectivism. Furthermore, I don’t believe anyone could be “prepared” or “over prepared” to interpret the meaning of tribal decapitations due to the intensity and nature of the practice. I would actually argue that the loss of Rosaldo’s family impaired his perspective and left him “underprepared” for this type of study.

  3. The accidental death of Roasaldo’s wife allowed him to see the cultural difference between his own culture and the culture of the Ilongot. That grief, angry, and bereavement are expressed in different manners that another culture cannot grasp. He was able to understand this thru Michelle’s death. Before her death, his understanding of anger by the Ilongot did not compute. In a way he had to experience it first hand. It was his experience of her death, not thru rituals, or observations, that he was able to feel that pain and anger on a similar level as the Ilongot. Roasaldo suggest that in order to understand “powerful emotional states, both formal ritual and the informal practices of everyday life provide crucial insight” meaning to include “myriad less circumscribed practices” (16). His approach does seem practical and to the point. With so many different ethnographic approaches, being present, aware, and engaging thru this experience help the Anthropologist write the best account of their experience and ultimately it will up to the reader to interpret their thoughts.

  4. shanewyenn permalink

    I know this sounds contradictory, but I believe that in order for an ethnographer to fully understand a certain group of people and their culture, it is important to both conduct extensive examination and analysis, and to shut the books and sometimes ignore their own data. My fear is that the ethnographer might over prepare themselves and get too wrapped up in their notes, tables or charts and miss out on other opportunities to fully understand the people they’re studying. I agree with dfield86, regardless of how extensive it is, the ethnographer’s data couId still be completely inaccurate and full of holes.

  5. 242colleencarey permalink

    Extensive examination, analysis and field work unveil much data, but the ways in which these method are carried out will affect that data. If these methods are carried out and yes, and ethnographer is overly prepared, but he or she does not connect with the people or isn’t trusted by the people, then it doesn’t matter. Rosaldo is trying to get the point across that somethings must be “accepted at face vale.” I agree with him to a certain extent and that one is not going to find the answer to all things through examination and analysis. Sometime people must feel, sometimes they must experience for themselves in order to understand.
    Being overly prepared is not ever a bad thing, but being overly prepared to the point that your mind is closed to a bigger picture, different methods, and new experiences is never good for an ethnographer. Doing this can mean that the ethnographer misses out on vital information because he or she is so focussed on only the certain aspects they have prepared for.

  6. Benjamin N. permalink

    I think an ethnographer can certainly over-prepare for a cultural study. One could over-prepare by studying secondhand accounts and getting a set idea of a culture in their head before they go into their study, create biases, and seek to confirm those biases in their research. Those biases could cause them to cherry-pick results and get a conclusion that’s not broadly applicable or useful to others, or paints an inaccurate picture of the culture in question.

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