Anthropologists sometimes study sensitive topics and it is therefore not uncommon for ethnographic work to attract serious criticism along such lines. In a recent social media thread, I encountered one such critic whose principal argument was, that both I the ethnographer and the academic study of religion in general had no business writing about religious traditions (Shaligrams, in my case), should not be participating in rituals or engaging with sacred objects. What should the ethnographer’s response to this be then? What is our role in all this?
perhaps the most perplexing item she had kept from her time was the empty casing of an artillery shell from World War Two. She told me that many of the ladies would find these shells (sometimes still live) and would commission a local Papua New Guinean man to convert them into modest flower vases.
As an ethnographer of porn, I entered the field with some hard limits and never crossed them. I never ended up doing anything I regretted, but the pressure to push myself and my boundaries was palatable that evening.
I was having second thoughts, but pressed on safe in the knowledge that I was performing an act that would raise my esteem in the eyes of those present and help to rapidly acculturate me. Biting down on the now-charred-still-white pieces, to be sure, the flesh was not as bad as I expected. Neither good nor bad, it was remarkably neutral in taste - flavoured only with a little bit of salt and eaten with lavash bread. My guide smiled as I ate. “They say it’s good for your virility”, he chuckled, “but not even us locals really eat it that much”.