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?
Dog keeping is a polluted, unholy, and prohibited practice in rural Pakistan. Many Sunni Muslims belonging to Hanfi jurisprudence consider the dog’s mere presence in a house a symbol of misfortune and distance from God. If a person touches a dog, s/he is asked to wash hands seven times, and if they touch a wet dog, they must take a bath.
One of the most popular jokes among anthropologists is how often our work is mistaken for palaeontology. Almost every one of my colleagues and even a few of my students can relate an anecdote involving a situation where they were asked if they “dug up dinosaurs.” Imagine the difficulty I now face in my own work where the answer is effectively, “Yes, but not for the reasons you’re thinking.”