January 10, 2006

Argonauts of the Western Pacific and being an anthropologist

I'm reading Malinowski's description or the Trobriand Kula trade for the nth time, and I'm bored, but I guess that's what you get for starting yet another program in anthropology. But I cant help laughing a bit to myself when I read his poetic descriptions of life among the Trobriand islander, having read his diary and knowing how he hated being in the field.
"As we sail in the Lagoon, following the intricate passages between shallows, and as we approach the main island, the think tangled matting of the low jungle breaks here and there over a beach, and we can see into a palm grove, like an interior, suported by pillars. This indicates the site of a village... Soon we are seated on one of the platforms built in front of a yam-house, shaded by its overhanging roof. the round grey logs, worn smooth by contact with naked feet and bodies; the trodden ground of the village-street; the brown skins of the natives, who immediately surround the visitor in large groups - all these form a colour scheme of bronze and grey, unforgetable to anyone, who, like myself, has lived among these people." (Malinowski, 51).

Being bored of reading I tried to find some pictures on the internet by Gunnar Landtman, Malinowski's Finnish contemporary who did his research in a Papua-New Guinea. Landtman took some beautiful photos that were published in a book called "Satumaa" (Story land). But I could only find this one. I'm not sure why I find it so disturbing. Maybe its not just because I find the composition with Landtman sitting on a chair and his informant lower down on the ground disconcerting (for all that I know Landtman might have offered his interviewee a chair, but he preferred to sit on the ground), but maybe its also because I'm not sure how such power dynamics can be completely avoided in anthropological research. Truth is, no matter how you think of it, in the final run, the anthropologist is in the field to extract data for a project that will advance his or her academic career. I guess the only thing you can do, is hope you can give back at least something in return to the people you work with. But how do you do that?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you decided to write again...

1/21/2006 9:00 PM  

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