Ethnographers have long struggled with the nebulous in-between spaces of science on the one hand, and story-telling on the other. It was what my frustrated seminar professor described as the tension between “a world” and “the world” in the writing of ethnography. Are we, the researchers, tasked to be faithfully re-creating the world as it actually was during our fieldwork? Or are we simply weaving a fiction; complete with dramatis personae, compelling character arcs, and promises of redemption that exist purely in a world of our own perspectives? Are we following the clues to solve our case, or are we leading our audience down a path that was already drawn from the beginning? A little of both and neither?
The Fallible and the Untrustworthy: Writing Culture as the Unreliable Narrator
The notion of the Unreliable Narrator is, for me, not a critique of the perceived moral failings of the anthropological project, but a methodological narrative construct integral to the work of writing culture. The question of unreliability is not a question of believability but of what parts of a complex and convoluted truth we the readers are willing to sign on to and invest in. It reflects an understanding and acceptance that no single truth is wholly accurate but also that no individual account is without some measure of reality.