Misinterpreting People

How do we know that what we say and write as anthropologists bares some relation to the social realities that we are trying to capture?  This is one of the questions that dogged me throughout my fieldwork, and continues to worry me even now. For me, it seems to be a central question at the heart of the anthropological method. To tell you how I got here, let me start with a short story.

Making fieldnotes

Everyone has their own method for taking fieldnotes. I’ve spoken to some anthropologists who say they spend the whole day without jotting anything down, before sitting down for an hour or two every night and writing a lengthy summary of their experiences from the day. Others have told me they prefer to have a pen in hand and a notepad in their pocket, ready to mark down experiences as they go along. My experiences were a combination of the two.

I spent the first four months of my fieldwork doing the former, before switching, rather consciously, to taking down notes as I went along. As such, when I look back over my notes, I can pinpoint the exact date that I changed over, because both the quality and the quantity of the notes shifts markedly – not better or worse, just different.

Beginning my observations, I wrote down the first of what would become thousands of notes made throughout the day in my notebook:

People sit in the shade of the park, picnicking on the concrete, not the grass. Iranians don’t seem to sit on the grass. I wonder why?

How do we know we’re right?

Going over my notes that evening, I turned back to that example, and began to think. What did it say about sociality in Iran that people didn’t sit on the grass? What did it mean about the way public space was understood?

It was only after returning numerous times to the park that I realised that the questions I was asking were  wrong. It was not that Iranian families made a conscious choice to sit on the concrete in the park instead of the grass. Rather, it was that the park was heavily patrolled by an army of gardeners and park guards who made it their duty to ensure that no one sat on the grass, ever. They reasoned that in such a dry city,  maintaining the light, feathery grass required both a lot of water and significant effort. If on any given day, hundreds or even thousands of passers-by sat on, walked over, or otherwise perturbed the grass, it surely would have been uprooted and denuded in no time at all.  

Now, obviously, my ultimate realisation still invites analysis, and I don’t think any of my questions were totally off the mark. Nonetheless, my initial – perhaps kneejerk – jottings were based on a faulty premise. What does it say about Iranian sociality that people, for the most part, dutifully avoid sitting on the grass and perch instead on hot and uncomfortable concrete? But I think there is a broader issue here that goes to the heart of a lot of my anxieties as an anthropologist.

Falsifying anthropology

Anthropology has long ago dispensed with the notion that there is any ‘one’ truth. But I think most ethnographers still hope that in describing a group, the people within that group still see at least a reflection of themselves; still understand it as describing something that is legible to them.

But what if we don’t? What if something we read or interpret is widely off the mark? Anthropology is a social science. There are no results in duplicate or triplicate to determine whether or not that which we saw, felt, etc., was really ‘real’. Do we simply suggest that the world that I saw and observed was just as real as that of my interlocutors, even if we radically disagree about what each of us understood to have happened?

The obvious answer is to check with your interlocutors – to get them to affirm or deny that you’ve read. But what if you still don’t agree? For me, that remains one of anthropology’s essential questions.

[Image sourced at Wikimedia Commons: ‘Prince Picnicking with Female Attendants’ Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain]]

One thought on “Misinterpreting People

  1. Interesting piece, Simon. I’m in the very early stages of working up a piece on anthropological modes of questioning. I note that like lots of anthropologists, apart from answerable questions about people avoiding sitting on the grass (which you say were the ‘wrong’ questions), you pose mainly rhetorical questions or vague teasers. The overarching question of my little ‘questionology’ project would be something like: can we enrich our discipline and become more transparent and persuasive by becoming more conscious of what we ask, of whom, in what way, and why? in short: Can critical questionology improve anthropology? If you do publish further work on questions, I’d love to hear from you. And If I ever write a piece on questionology I’ll try to remember to let you know. (n.thin@ed.ac.uk)

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