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The Native Anthropologist: Identity and Methodological Issues

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The native anthropologist: identity and methodological issues The aim of this paper is to explore some of the methodological problems faced by “native” anthropologists; in other words someone who studies his or her own culture. A good example is that an individual from, what is generally called the western culture (a Westerner) can study his or her own culture and thus, by definition, be a “native anthropologist” . I focus my attention in this essay on anthropologists from previously colonised societies, also called the Third World (Thapan, 1998).

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One recurrent work discussed by anthropologists while referring to this topic is Narayan’s contribution: ‘How native is a “native” anthropologist? ’ which constitutes the major part of this essay. Half-Indian and half-American, Narayan questions her own position as a native anthropologist, caught between academic research and her roots. Narayan discusses the issue of the ‘self’ identity which is at the same time is that of the ‘other’, agreeing with Abu-Lughod, who presents the issues encountered by native anthropologists and feminists in order to understand how the ‘self’ is constructed in relation to the other.

This struggle between identity and academic enquiry results in issues confronting the audience and the representation of one’s own society. It is commonly accepted that the discipline of Anthropology is partly based on the study of the other, born from Post-Colonialism, where the western seeks to study the exotic lands, the colonised civilisations, or the others. Thus, it was originally Western anthropologists that study the colonised civilisations.

However, global flows in politics, trade, media and migration have shaped the interrelations between the West and the ‘others’ long since the age of Colonialism. Increasingly in recent years, the ‘others’ have started to receive anthropological training, thus becoming what we would call their own ‘native’ anthropologists, or” halfies”. In a theoretical discipline where strong emphasis is made on matters of subjectivity and positionality with concerns about power relations and inequalities between the researcher its informants , the native anthropologist challenges the notions of subjectivity.

Situated knowledge is another point highlighted the by Narayan; for example: knowledge is always created from a particular perspective. Thus, the point of view of a native anthropologist may understand the same object from different view points. Finally, I also examine Narayan’s explanation of ‘multiplex’ identities in order to escape to the categorisation of the native or halfie anthropologist and put an emphasis of the possibility of building one’s cultural identity rather than being subject to it innately.

This urgent need of defining the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ can be explained from the historical perspective according to which the discipline of Anthropology emerged from the beginning of colonialism, where the non-West represented the ‘other’, who are studied by the ‘self’–the West (Abu-Lughod, 1991). In ‘Writing against Culture’, Abu-Lughod challenges Clifford and Marcus whose modern new forms of cultural description and discourse theory exclude two groups: native anthropologists and feminists. Although in different ways, both share the same dilemma: the dichotomy between ‘self’ and ‘other’.

Feminist theory suggests that “at least in the modern West, women have been the other to men’s self” (Abu-Lughod, 1991:139). Through this crisis of identity– or selfhood– anthropologists have come to understand better certain aspects about the ‘self’, which is a construction shaped by one’s condition and environment–in this case through the opposition to men or through the differentiation with the West– rather than something connate. From this perspective, the natives of the newly colonised civilisations were always ‘others’, and the western is perceived as the ‘self’ (Narayan, 1998).

Therefore, at least historically, one of the features of anthropology is to “make the communities they study seem other” (Abu-Lughod, 1991:139). What, though, happens when the native anthropologist, is the ‘self ‘but also the ‘other? As a result of the distinctions between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, halfies have been subjected to issues of positionality (Abu-Lughod, 1991) and even though anthropologists benefit from being innately immersed in the culture they want to study, their origins remain a “perpetual qualifier” (Narayan, 1998:165). The objectivity of the halfie is mainly questioned for reasons of partiality.

When a native studies his own community, he has to take a step backward and take enough detachment in order to offer unbiased judgement and description of the subject. The ‘other’ native anthropologist is also studying is the ‘self’, or at least part of it (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Thus, the selfhood of the halfie is split in two, with a struggle between local innate roots and anthropological education. Narayan and Abu-Lughod raise an important point when they say that a western anthropologist can partly become an ‘insider’, especially if he becomes attached to the place he studies.

Furthermore, an ‘outsider’ must not be categorised only by its Western identity, but for a complex set of traits, as I will describe below (Ibid). As I will explore most dilemmas described in this text derive from inequalities between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ and post-colonialism power relations. Native anthropologists must relate to the audience for whom they write. Halfies –and feminists– generally write for a specific academic audience, therefore they must describe their work in the way they are expected to do so.

As an anthropologist born in a Third World country, as Abu-Lughod puts it thus: “As anthropologists, they write for other anthropologists, mostly Western. Identified also with communities outside the West, or subcultures within it, they are called to account by educated members of those communities [… ] Because of their split levels, feminist and halfie anthropologists travel uneasily between speaking “for” and speaking “from”” (Abu- Lughod, 1991:142). The halfie is constantly influenced by the academic and his native context.

Whereas the interaction with his informants can be of sporadic nature for the non-native anthropologist, the native anthropologist is more likely to be personally involved with his community. Because of this emotional involvement, the native anthropologist is at risk of becoming egocentric in his representations. Pride could take advantage over academic duty and make the native anthropologist describe his object better than it really is, or simply omit certain aspects of it judged dishonourable (Mascarehan-Keyes, 1987). One important aspect of the native of halfie anthropologist discussed by Narayan is the multiplex identity.

It consists of many strands which are often latent, hence exist and co-define who we are. Some details about the background of her American mother and her Indian father along with her own personal experiences in different parts of India where she has travelled are set as an example to explain the notion of multiplex identity. In short, she defends that the community in which we are born leads to different life trajectories. Besides, because of her mixed background, she doesn’t consider herself a ‘native’ or a ‘not native’, but a ‘halfie’. Mixed ancestry is itself a cultural fact: whether patrilineality is stressed, the localised meaning of colour, the particular groups that have mixed, and/or the prejudices of the time, all contribute to the mark that mixed blood leaves on a person’s identity” (Narayan, 1998:167). Narayan refuses the division between ‘native’ or ‘not-native’ and prefers the idea of multiplex identity. In the same way, Narayan argues that anthropologists, native or not, have multiple subjectivities which can vary in many ways depending on the context.

However, as mentioned above, in practice “a ‘native anthropologist is assumed to be an insider who will forward an authentic point of view to the anthropological community” (Narayan, 1998:173). Regardless of factors of emigration or class or their high education, native anthropologists are labelled in the same way as their own society. “’Native’ anthropologists, then, are perceived as insiders regardless of their complex background” (Ibid). On the other hand, non-native anthropologists, or ‘outsiders’, often seek to become as an insider in order to have access to certain kinds of knowledge.

Collins argues that it is very rare for a non-native anthropologist to become an insider; they are caught on the middle between an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’: “Anthropologists have, in defining their field, generally taken for granted the all too solid existence of an ‘outside’ and an ‘inside’ in order to position themselves, advantageously, in that zone of shadows between the two” (Collins, 2002:79). Mascarenhas-Keyes summarizes perfectly the difference between the native and the non-native: “the outsider [… becomes a marginal native in order to gain access to natives” while the “(native anthropologist) becomes a multiple native in order to transcend the limitations of an a priori ascribed position and to deal with the cultural complexities of the field situation” (Mascarenhas-Keyes, 1987:191). Despite these differences, I would agree with Nayaran who affirms that “rather than try to sort out who is authentically a ‘native’ anthropologist and who is not, surely it is more rewarding to examine the ways in which one of us is situated in relation to the people we study” (Narayan, 1998:175).

Issues related to personal implication and scholar demand are a fact for native and halfie anthropologists. Although tend to be aware of their position as native anthropologists and in some cases such as for Narayan their background differs greatly from those of the native civilisation they study, they certainly face difficulties associated with their background and environment. While a Westerner anthropologist acquires a knowledge which is created by and intended for the West to discover the ‘others’, the native anthropologist must face an identity struggle and a positioned knowledge that challenges their beliefs and assumptions.

Nevertheless, these personal and intellectual dilemmas may seem less significant while asserting that all the anthropologists, native or not, exhibit multiple subjectivities depending on the context and the power vectors of the situation. Therefore, although native or halfie anthropologists are sometimes forced to think or act in different ways, we should not create a distinction between a native and non-native anthropology, since the whole process of anthropological knowledge always implies the subjectivity of the researcher and always includes a personal and cultural positionality.

Bibliography Abu-Lughod, Lila (1991) Writing Against Culture, in Recapturing Anthropology Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women. Mascarenhas-Keyes, Stella (1987:191) The native anthropologist, in Jackson, A. Anthropology at home. Narayan, Kirin (1998) How native is a “native” anthropologist? , in Thapan, M. Anthropological Journeys: reflections of fieldwork. Thapan, Meenakshi (1998) Anthropological Journeys: Reflections on Fieldwork.

Cite this The Native Anthropologist: Identity and Methodological Issues

The Native Anthropologist: Identity and Methodological Issues. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-native-anthropologist-identity-and-methodological-issues/

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