Clifford, and Marcus & Fischer

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Clifford, and Marcus & Fischer Crib Sheet
November 24, 2004

Challenging the assumptions that ethnographic writing is relatively objective and straightforward, Clifford and Marcus & Fischer reflect on the changing context of fieldwork in the postmodern era. Their writings offer two basic questions: What is the nature of anthropological knowledge? How do we study and describe “culture”? Because the ethnographer is enmeshed in the process of describing cultures, he is in a privileged position and his purported authority necessitates critical analysis. The authors step back and look at the methods used to document findings, the nature of objectivity and authority, and the potential for experimental forms of textual ethnography.

Marcus & Fischer, “Ethnography and Interpretive Anthropology”

Marcus & Fischer look at the ways that an outsider can understand another cultural context. They are preoccupied with the form, rhetoric, and methods of description in anthropological writings. The article is both concerned with the way ethnography is done and with the kinds of ethnographies that are wanted in the discipline. In doing so, Marcus & Fischer document the shifts in ethnographic writing and suggest that emerging experimental forms are less concerned with finding universal truths and more with the importance of contextualizing cultures.

Interpretive anthropology is an approach that calls for anthropologists to interpret rather than explain culture. The emphasis is on studying the classifications, metaphors, and rhetoric embodied in the ways that informants describe their culture, and the methods used to interpret that description. Interpretive anthropologists are more concerned with acknowledging the problems of cross-cultural textual analysis (“hermeneutics”) than with creating new anthropological theories. Marcus & Fischer suggest that greater focus needs to be placed on the ways that communications happen within and between cultures, that ethnographic analysis is a process of mediating between native concepts and the ethnographer’s own preoccupations. In other words, the ethnographer cannot remove him or herself from the ethnographic account.

Marcus & Fischer also discuss trends in experimental ethnography. They explain the challenges presented to modern anthropologists, in particular the influence of colonialism in changing the landscape of fieldwork, and the skeptical reception of anthropological literature that is no longer predicated on independent, isolated cultures. Experimental ethnographies, according to Marcus & Fischer, should challenge established theories, question conventional ways of representing the world, and in the process develop new genres. They also suggest that conventional forms of ethnography have not sufficiently addressed the nature of cultural difference. The new trend in anthropology is the “ethnographies of experience” which are concerned with, “The knowledge that the anthropologist achieves from fieldwork, which is much richer and more diverse than what he has been able to distill into conventional analytic monographs” (43).

Clifford, “On Ethnographic Authority”

Clifford is concerned with the methods used to document findings and the nature of objectivity and authority in ethnographic writings. Questioning the methods of representing the cultural “other,” he objects to the supposed “authority” of anthropologists whose subjectivity is suppressed by a so-called objective, commanding voice. He argues against the common assumption that experience guarantees ethnographic authority. The experience of the ethnographer is subjective. Basically, all interpretation is situated in personal experience and this subjectivity needs to be accounted for in ethnographic writings.

In particular, Clifford questions the assumptions and rhetorical methods that ethnographers use to describe cultures. Conventional ethnographies – he gives careful analysis to Malinowski’s approach – obscure the process by which ethnographies are produced and falsely claim an objective, “purveyor of truth” approach. He also says that ethnographies often address a reader that is firmly situated in Western culture. Clifford suggests that the ethnographer cannot remove him or herself from their writings.

Clifford critiques the uniform style of linguistic representation in ethnographic writing. Reflecting on Bakhtin’s theory of “heteroglossia”, he suggests that there are many dialectical styles operating in a single culture, and ethnography must grapple with interpreting culture that integrates the subjectivities of both the author and “indigenous minds” (47). Clifford advocates for a method of interpretive ethnography, a collaborative approach that represents varied cultural expression. Collaborations between indigenous voices and the ethnographer’s perspective, such as including the informant’s own words, help to integrate these subjectivities, ultimately moving away from the realist perspective that shaped early ethnographies.


Are you satisfied with the critique of objectivity? By using Clifford’s collaborative approach to new forms of ethnography, how can the reader distinguish between facts, data, and real experiences?

If interpretative anthropology is premised on the endless, subjective reflections of culture, how can ethnography make any significant contributions to the human condition?



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