Participation or Observation?

By Joseph Grim Feinberg
University of Chicago

Two traditions have coexisted in the history of anthropology. One tradition analyzes ethnographic material from afar, explaining how other people act, think, and feel. Another tradition places itself within a society, engaging in its struggles and learning from it how to change the world. The traditions have never been entirely separate. They are two sides of the trademark method of sociocultural anthropology, participant observation.

We should not reduce this distinction to related distinctions between "theoretical" and "applied," "scientific" and "humanistic," or "value-neutral" and "critical" anthropology. The observational tradition is theoretical, but its results may be "applied" after the fact. It analyzes hard scientific data as well the "humanistic" material of novels or songs. And it is just as critical as it is value-neutral, criticizing others but hesitating to take stands itself. The central characteristic of this tradition is a distinction between the work of anthropology and the world that it studies.

The participatory tradition is just as concerned with theory, but it does not distinguish cleanly between theory and data, filtering them into separate realms. It takes its theory of out of the same world that is its object of study; and it studies its theories as part of this world-as something that can be socially explained, as well as created and used. The participatory tradition has an affinity for humanism, for studying the meaning of objects in the lives of people, and for participating in the creation of new works of "humanism." But this by no means excludes its participation in science. Participatory anthropology is also critical, as it questions the legitimacy of social formations and asks how they might be changed. But by the same token it is also affirmativeĐit does not only criticize, but also explores and participates in the production of the future. The central characteristic of this tradition is not the distinction between theory and data, but the attempted synthesis of theory and practice. Not the separation of the analysis from the analyzed, but the placement of the anthropologist within the world.

The "reflexive turn" in anthropology has, in recent decades, brought many of these issues to the center of debate. But this was not the first time that anthropologists considered their role in the societies they study, or attempted to integrate ethnographic insight into political projects. Moreover, the reflexive turn actually strengthened many of the principles of observational anthropology, even while it called them into question. It was at the height of the reflexive moment that the imagined gap between "the West" and "the Other" grew widest, with most anthropologists supposedly gazing over this impassible chasm from the "Western" side. When "Western" anthropologists did engage politically in the societies they studied (and sometimes even in "their own" societies), they were often criticized as naĽve romantics or as cultural imperialists in disguise, and although this may sometimes have been true, the criticisms often obfuscated the complexities of anthropologists' positions in the world. The distinction between "West" and "Other" is less useful now than ever before, when anthropologists come from many backgrounds (and foregrounds), and while people in distant parts of the earth increasingly participate in common sociocultural phenomena, facing common problems and joining in common social movements to overcome them. This does not mean that there is no reality in the West/Other distinction; it is a partial reality which anthropologists may either reinforce or attempt to bridge.

This discursive separation has been reinforced, for example, when anthropologists focus on the social construction and arbitrary nature of beliefs, or on the "invention of tradition," or on the objectification of concepts like "culture" and "folklore," while avoiding these concepts and beliefs in their own work. It is one thing to recognize that humans create their own concepts and beliefs, but after this realization, two different paths lie before us. On one path, participatory anthropology takes up such concepts even so, even though they are socially constructed and used in confusing ways. On the other path, observational anthropology shuns concepts that appear tainted with the confusion of mass use. If a social movement, for example, holds up its "culture" in a political statement, anthropology can study the political potential and theoretical value of this usage of the term, and then decide practically if and how to use it. Or anthropology can ask how it is possible for a movement to make use of "culture" in this way, which may appear logically inconsistent and theoretically irrelevant to anthropologists' analytic usage of "culture." It is a difference, we might say, between always being "meta," and sometimes being the thing itself.

The question of social participation also arises when we consider the audiences of anthropological writing. Many anthropologists publish articles intended for audiences other than the academies of the West. But the Western academies have remained the primary audience for almost all anthropologists' work, at least for those who work and are read in the West. These academies also provide almost all of anthropologists' theoretical inspiration. Anthropologists respect other people as people, but less often as theorists relevant beyond their immediate social contexts. In an increasingly globalized world, whose very globalization has long been the subject of anthropological inquiry; anthropologists remain largely within the old framework of the West, set apart from the rest of the world.

After decades of participant observation in anthropology, observation has almost always had the upper hand. Participatory anthropologists have remained in an uncomfortable corner of the discipline, though they have never been fully disciplined. There is no reason to ask all anthropologists to begin engaged participation. But participatory anthropology deserves to have its voice heard-lest it remain marginalized, fittingly playing the part of the people we are supposed to study.