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«We Are All Insider-Outsiders: A Review of Debates Surrounding Native Anthropology Abby Forster University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Abstract ! More and ...»

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Student Anthropologist, Volume. 3, Number 1

We Are All Insider-Outsiders:

A Review of Debates Surrounding Native Anthropology

Abby Forster

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


! More and more anthropologists are doing “anthropology of home” by researching within

their own communities. Major methodological and theoretical contributions for researchers

working in their home communities come from debates surrounding “native” anthropology. Since anthropology has historically involved going outside one’s community, the shift to research sites in an anthropologist’s home community has fostered debates about the application of traditional anthropological methods to one’s own community. This article outlines several important methodological issues that have been debated by native anthropologists including issues of distance, cultural competence, translation, and defining “native.” This article shows that native anthropology offers a critique of dominate anthropological practices by opposing the customary position of natives as objects and countering Eurocentrist domination in academia. At the same time, native anthropologists have been strong in voicing the fluidity of identity which shows that every researcher is both an insider and an outsider. These insights are important for every anthropologist of home.

Key words: native anthropology, anthropology of home, methodology Introduction ! Bernard Perley (2011) once told me about his first experience conducting fieldwork, an experience which he also describes in Defying Maliseet Language Death: Emergent Vitalities of Language, Culture, and Identity in Eastern Canada. One day when arriving to the classroom he was observing on the Tobique First Nation, he was told to sit across from the teacher and her assistant who sat down in the adjacent seat. Perley sensed something was up. When the teacher spoke, she demanded “to know the real reason” that Perley was there (2011: 25).

Perley began to tell them of his interest in learning and helping when they started singing a couple of lines from the song, “Here Come the Anthros” which they followed with laughter. The assistant left, and the teacher went back to her work. As Perley describes, “I had just been told that I was an intruder and I was not welcome” (2011:25).

The song undoubtedly refers to the long history of exoticization of native people by white

academics of anthropology, as is evident in the following passage:

Like a Sunday at the zoo Their cameras click away Taking notes and tape recordings Of all the animals at play.

Here come the anthros, better hide the past away.

Here come the anthros on another holiday.

(Westermen: 1976) It is particularly interesting that this scene occurred even when the anthropologist in question, Perley, is a member of that tribe and grew up on the reservation. In the conventional sense of the term, he is a “native” anthropologist, an anthropologist who studies his or her own

Student Anthropologist, Volume. 3, Number 1

community, commonly minority or marginalized populations1. As a student who is planning to do anthropology at home in the United States, I became interested in native anthropology somewhat naively. I thought the term referred to anyone who worked in their native communities, and thus began to learn about the topic in order to inform myself of issues pertaining to my fieldwork interests. However, I quickly learned that the term “native anthropology” has a specific history and connotation connected to colonialism and marginalized communities. Throughout the article, I use the term “native anthropology” to refer to this specific situation, and the terms “insider anthropology” and “anthropology of home” to refer more broadly to people doing research in their own communities.

Debates surrounding native anthropology are important for anyone doing anthropology of home because they highlight tensions present in studying one’s own community. This article

reviews major debates surrounding the following native anthropological research issues:

distance, cultural competence, translation, and defining “native.” In doing so, I show that native anthropology offers a critique of dominant anthropological practices by opposing the customary position of natives as objects and countering Eurocentrist domination in academia. At the same time, native anthropologists have been strong in voicing the fluidity of identity which shows that every researcher is both an insider and an outsider.

Historical Context The methodological commitments of anthropology have historically been founded on the image of “The Stranger” offered by Alfred Schutz (1964). As Schutz depicts it, the stranger entering a foreign environment becomes highly aware of aspects of social life that he would take for granted in his own society. He quickly learns that his assumptions about the social practices of the foreign group were incorrect and that he needs native knowledge to survive. Thus, he begins the process of learning the cultural patterns of life in this new community. The objectivity of the stranger allows him to see the cultural patterns underlying everyday life, which the native community takes for granted.

Schutz’ depiction of “the stranger” largely parallels some of the tenets of fieldwork in anthropology. Traditionally, fieldwork involved going to a foreign place, living amongst foreign people, and then writing a description of them for an academic audience. Renato Rosaldo refers to the classic field situation as the “Lone Ethnographer” riding into the sunset “in search of his ‘native’” (1989:30). The Lone Ethnographer, like the stranger, must become detached and objective, and he must adhere to a strict division of labor between himself and his “sidekick” native (1989:31). He remains the final authority on the objective depiction of the cultural life of the native. This traditional image is a product, in no small part, of the colonial situation in which the discipline of anthropology emerged. Anthropology was a standard, institutionalized, degreegranting discipline at a time when colonial powers had a strong motivation to know more about the non-Western peoples they sought to manage. Anthropology was given what Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2003) calls the “savage slot” which became essential to its disciplinary identity.

However, several factors brought this image of the ethnographer under question for the discipline leading to shifts in the traditional insistence that anthropology’s object of study had to be foreign, non-Western cultures. In the sixties, there was increasing alarm that with native populations rapidly disappearing, anthropologists would quickly become obsolete (OhnukiTierney 1984; Peirano 1998). Instead, anthropologists asserted that it was not whom they studied, but how they studied them – through a particular relationship between the scholar and the observed (ethnography), that truly defined anthropology (Peirano 1998).

1Perley does not refer to himself as a “native anthropologist,” but instead takes a reflexive approach to his identities as “both native and anthropologist” (2011:20-1).

Student Anthropologist, Volume. 3, Number 1 Contemporaneously, decolonization and the increase in American imperialism fueled highly influential social movements in the United States such as the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War Protests. With social movements came increased calls for social analysis of sexism, racism, and homophobia (Clair 2003; Rosaldo 1989). Changes in the social sciences included an ongoing shift from making general claims to more particular interpretations. With a focus on the particular, objectivist notions of theory, language, and detachment slowly unraveled and the epistemology was destabilized (Clair 2003; Rosaldo 1989). Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, there were increasing critiques of classical anthropology. These included critical review of the relationship between anthropology and colonialism (Restrepo and Escobar 2005).

Of consequence for anthropological methods, the distinction between the “ethnographer” and the “native” became blurred as the concept of bounded and homogenous cultures became untenable (Rosaldo 1989). In Reinventing Anthropology, Dell Hymes (1999) and others called for dramatic shifts in anthropology including a more reflexive anthropology that would consider itself as an object of study. As literacy spread to the non-Western groups that traditionally had been anthropology’s object of study, natives began to read and respond to ethnographies written about their own cultural histories and to offer alternative accounts (Kuwayama 2003;

Rosaldo 1989). Increasingly critiques of power, knowledge, and cultural representation (for example, Said 1978), and postmodern contributions to theories of identity deeply complicated the concept of the “Other” (Clair 2003; Kuwayama 2003). Natives had typically been objects of thought, not the thinkers themselves (Kuwayama 2003), but these changes meant that anthropologists no longer held the “native discourse monopoly” (Trouillot 2003). With a rise in native anthropologists who were equipped with anthropological training to go back and study their own communities, Western anthropologists began to increasingly study themselves (Messerschmidt 1981a).

Early Debates The historical moments described above, with the undercurrent of calls for increased reflexivity ever present, set the groundwork for a shift in the anthropological object of study, and more people began what was termed “native anthropology.” While other sporadic studies in insider anthropology had been completed previously (Mead 2000; Douglas 2002; Frankenberg 1966; Frankenberg and Gluckman 1957), the increasing numbers of people studying their own cultures led to a thorough and ongoing discussion of the methodological issues involved.

Donald Messerschmidt (1981b) describes this as a shift away from cultures or places to an interest in issues. Debates then centered on the differences between methodological approaches of studying your own culture versus a foreign one. Some suggested that there was no essential difference between either site; both involved the same methodological commitments and challenges. Some deeply opposed the idea of “native anthropology,” while others debated the merits of each, pointing out strengths and weaknesses (Messerschmidt 1981a).

Proponents of “native anthropology” argued that “outsider” research was superficial as outsiders lacked the cultural competence to deeply understand the meanings and practices they witnessed. Insider findings would then be not only depictions of a culture but expressions of the culture. Similarly, they suggested that their unconscious inclusions are meaningful additions to the data as they were expressions of the native culture, whereas they are bothersome irrelevances in ethnographies written by outsider anthropologists (Messerschmidt 1981a).

Supporters of native anthropology argued that their status as a member would lead them to blend in and not alter social situations in the way that a foreign person may (Messerschmidt 1981a). On a practical level, with decreased funding for trips abroad and less access to foreign

Student Anthropologist, Volume. 3, Number 1

countries after decolonization, native anthropology was an economical alternative (Aguilar 1981). Additionally, application of anthropological skills to local situations was argued to be an invaluable resource for deepening understandings and finding solutions for problems of concern for anthropologists’ own communities (Messerschmidt 1981b). Finally, some early voices called attention to the ability of the “unique” native perspective to deconstruct colonial distortions on anthropological knowledge (Jones 1970).

Critics, however, asserted that an insider could never detach enough from their own cultural understandings to see the underlying patterns that are taken for granted in everyday interaction (Messerschmidt 1981b). The unfamiliar is easier to detect, they argued, and the familiar risks appearing to be true without question. Insiders, who are expected to know the norms, would be less likely to be forgiven for transgressions. Additionally, they suggested that being an outsider would provide more access to secrets, as an outsider anthropologist would have no reason to use such knowledge against participants. Being viewed as an objective observer, they argued, prompts participants to be more forthcoming in their disclosures (Aguilar 1981).

One of the key issues in the debate was the level of bias that might occur in native anthropology. Critics charged that insider ethnography would be inherently biased towards the native population. They raised concerns that insiders would approach their work as advocates, precluding them from the objective viewpoint required by science (Aguilar 1981). However, proponents argued that every ethnographer is biased, so “outsider” ethnography just slants the other direction. Some suggested that the role of a native anthropologist was to bring more perspectives into the discipline, so their inherent biases were welcome and important contributions (Jones 1970).

Largely these early debates centered on epistemological concerns. Those who opposed native anthropology still upheld the positivist values of objectivity and neutrality posited by conventional science. Proponents of the study of one’s own culture largely shifted away from those values (Jones 1970); instead they supported native anthropology as a possible “correction” of the historical exploitation of native people and employed a postmodern epistemology.

Current Methodological Issues In the present era, more anthropologists practice “native” ethnography than ever before.

The debate is not so much about whether should one study their own culture, but instead about what it means to study one’s native community. The issues emerging from early debates have evolved, and many appear in new forms in current methodological debates. Core concepts such as “culture,” “ethnography,” and “field site” were all subject to ongoing interrogations during this time, and their influences on the methodological aspects of native anthropology are clear. In

current methodological debates, these core interrogations continue in the following threads:

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