Looking both ways: The ethnographer in the text

Looking both ways: The ethnographer in the text


Every ethnographer is in some sense marginal to the society being studied. That marginality is not a static condition, however, but entails a constant (if inconsistent) shifting to and fro across social boundaries that are themselves highly volatile. The condition of marginality allows informants, who are just as interested in the curious human intruder as the latter is in them, to include or exclude the ethnographer more or less at will. The ethnographer’s own dexterity thus consists of anticipating such shifts, but this is not always easy or even possible; if the ethnographer proves slow to learn the significance of certain reactions, disaster that a wiser or more experienced observer could perhaps have predicted may strike in a seemingly unpredictable way. The ethnographer’s marginality is not simply a passive structural anomaly or a safe perch on the cultural fence; most of the time, the ethnographer is either an insider or an outsider. But — and this is the real crux of the matter — no ethnographer can ever claim to have been one or the other in an absolute sense. The very fact of negotiating one’s status in the community precludes any such possibility. Anthropologists have to learn to adapt to events in which they themselves are significant actors. This creates a sense of imperfect closure every bit as disconcerting for us as taxonomic anomalies in a symbolic system.

In this essay, I propose to tackle three cogently interrelated issues: the negotiability of the insider/outsider discrimination; the articulation of that discrimination with larger (e.g., national) levels of discrimination; and the negotiation of the ethnographer’s status through the interplay between the various levels of differentiation. I do so using a set of somewhat unhappy field experiences of my own; the fundamental point of this exercise is to demonstrate the importance of recognizing one’s own mis-steps in the fieldwork process as a valuable source of perspective.

In particular, I want to stress immediately that part of my problem lay in a confusion of etiquette (an absolute code) with open friendliness (a far more conditional one). When people are polite, they are as likely to be excluding as including the visitor, or each other for that matter, and no amount of sophisticated refurbishment will make that old adage that ‘the natives arc friendly’ any less simplistic or naive than it ever was. More directly to the point at hand, the fact that villagers use a national form of politeness may well be their way of saying that the visitor is an intruder, a nuisance, someone who represents an external and perhaps unpopular power structure. Under normal circumstances, they may be unable or unwilling to express their hostility by more than an exercise of distant courtesy. But must we experience an abnormal situation before comprehension dawns? Whether we must or not, the imperative task is to learn to treat courteous behavior as a flexibly ambiguous system the interpretation of which, in actual social interaction, depends to an enormous degree upon the ethnographer’s own ability to be likable. Politeness can express warmth, certainly, but it can also, and simultaneously, express the threat of rejection.

In describing my own experience of fieldwork in ‘Pefko’, a small (pop. approx. 160) Rhodian village, I am therefore interested in showing how tactical misunderstandings on my part led me in retrospect to appreciate the ambiguities that the local code of etiquette masked. Once I learned to accept that much of the formal politeness to which I was treated had in fact been a way of keeping me out of things — getting ‘into the middle’ of the community was regarded generally as a sure source of confrontation and unpopularity — I could all the more readily appreciate how my failure to get the message must have irritated the villagers. Had I come to see things from their standpoint quickly enough, I might have turned the situation around; since the significance of courtesy is negotiable, the ethnographer’s very involvement allows for the possibility of recasting the entire set of relationships in a more productive way.

Indeed, I suggest that disagreements between ethnographers about the emotional quality of life in a given community — the Redfield-Lewis argument over Tepoztlan is a celebrated case — may spring from differences in their respective success at negotiating such seemingly intangible dimensions of fieldwork (on this, cf. also Karp and Kendall 1982). If that is so. it points up the futility of generalizing about the ‘friendliness’ or ‘hostility’ of a total community; the appropriateness of one or the other of these labels has to do with the ethnographer’s own involvement in the events out of which the ethnographic text is constructed, and may also represent a literalistic confusion of courtesy with warmth — a classic semiotic delusion, in which the signifier (code of manners) is interpreted as a static, irreducible signified (attitude). Each ethnographer learns (or should learn) on the job. My far warmer reception in ‘Glendi’, a Cretan village, may have owed as much to the lessons Pefko had taught me beforehand as to any substantive differences in social norms, though there were certainly enough contrasts at the latter level also (see Herzfeld 1980c: 1981a).

The problem for ethnographers is to make sense of how their informants make sense of them. It is far easier to conceptualize informants as a ‘source’ of information, and to forget informants’ own intellectual curiosity about strangers. The uncertainty of the ethnographer informant relationship, however, may replicate aspects of informants’ social experiences generally. If it does so, it tends to be seen by informants as so unremarkable that they have no real reason to enlighten the ethnographer or warn of possible gaffes. Take lying, for example. Even if the ethnographer does succeed in discovering a particular deception, this does not guarantee that the lies will necessarily either stop or become increasingly identifiable — ‘methodological’ exercises (e.g., Salamone 1977) to the contrary. There are, quite simply, too many unknown and indeterminate factors.

As ‘marginal natives’ (Freilich 1977), ethnographers usually get classified within an indigenous symbolic system that can itself be thought of as an implicit social theory (cf. also Winner 1977:133). Their behavior becomes self-evidently predictable to informants, who treat every gaffe and every success as further evidence that they have classified the strangers in the right way. Because the classification is so self-evident, however, it recedes into the background and becomes increasingly difficult to recognize, let alone describe.

Models of this sort are presumably contingent upon indigenous concepts of signification or meta-exegesis. These are essentially the basis of indigenous judgments as to whether a particular explanation is ‘relevant’, ‘significant’, ‘meaningful’, or the like. Thus, the first order of business would seem to be to identify the local semiotics of social interaction, the ‘meta-codes’ (Bean 1981: 576) of indigenous discourse that most closely resemble our own attempts at theoretically lucid description.


In the small Rhodian village of Pefko, overt violence is rare, and quarrels arc muted and concealed from public derision as far as possible. A literalist would simply ‘describe’ this fact as indicating a lack of discord in the community. There is, however, a great deal of barely suppressed hostility between individuals and households (cf. Herzfeld 1981b) as well as between Pefko and neighboring villagers. Animosity between surname- groups (soya or yenies) usually remains at the level of formalized verbal duels and veiled mutterings about other people’s discreditable origins. Violence itself appears most commonly in surrogate form, usually in assonant pismatika (‘teasing couplets’) of sometimes quite explicitly bloodthirsty tone: Outsiders don’t have the right to sing,/and [if they do] we skin them alive and send them off drenched in blood!’ The formal style of these verses serves notice that ‘this is not to be taken literally’ but it does not necessarily disguise intense feelings. Those who are on bad terms are expected to practice systematic mutual avoidance. When, as is often the case in so small a community, this proves practically impossible, both aggrieved parties act as though the other person were simply not there (cf. also the experience described by Geertz [1973: 412-417]). Potential and actual enemies are separated from one another by lines of silence, or at best by a kind of careful politeness, just as all houses are bounded by neatly painted lines of whitewash for ‘purity’ (kathariotita).

Conceptual social bounding, in village usage, is relative: categories of inclusion and exclusion are designated by social-group shifters (cf. Galaty 1981) that may be used to distinguish insiders from outsiders at several levels of a hierarchical or’segmentary’ model (Herzfeld 1980a, 1981b). The ethnographer performs as an ambiguous element in the implicit conflict between local and national levels of identity and inclusion. In the absence of precedents in village experience, the ethnographer may therefore be glossed by a variety of familiar roles and statuses according to context.

In Pefko, I presented myself as a ‘student’, and tried to explain the nature of writing a doctoral thesis. ‘Students’, however, were perhaps a somewhat negative category to the largely pro-junta villagers in the year following the Polytechnic uprising in Athens. Whether this was so or not, they generally described me, in my own presence, as an epistimon (‘scholar’). The neo-Classical (katharevousa) form of the word was evidently thought appropriate to that grandiose role. I was thus not only a foreigner, but also a virtual member of a category of Greeks who were locally understood to have been strongly influenced by ‘European’ ideals. These two aspects of my characterization by the Pefkiots were congruent with each other in suggestive ways. Foreigners are thought to be morally and genetically inferior to Greeks, but also more powerful politically; indeed, they are believed to direct Greek politics in ways that simultaneously reveal the Greek’s helplessness and the foreigners’ own fundamental baseness. This attitude is further reinforced by a long tradition of associating elite Greek culture with ‘European’ models, so that the ambiguity of Evropi sometimes inclusive of all Greeks, sometimes exclusive of them — makes the foreign scholar who resides in the village and speaks Greek a true outsider in both senses.

Thus, any display of urbane courtesy may confirm that outsiderhood. In my case, it also lulled me into accepting a rather self-important style of behavior because it seemed to be what was expected; I recalled other ethnographers who had encountered surprise at activities that were not felt to be congruent with their status (see Friedl 1962: 35). This was almost certainly a tactical mistake. Instead of allowing the role to be thrust upon me, I would probably have done better to note the resentment that even a local teacher’s pretensions had provoked and made a conscious and self foregrounding attempt to undermine the stereotype — as, for instance, I was later to do in Glendi by insisting that I was a student while the villagers were all my professors.

The ideological tension between elite and village values is a palpable facet of Greek social life. Its most familiar incarnation is the ‘language question’, the debate between exponents of a purist (katharevousa), neoclassical Greek and of the ordinary spoken (demotic) language respectively. The linguistic pattern diglossia (cf. Ferguson 1959) is merely one dimension of a radical polarity in many semiotic systems or co-domains, a polarity I prefer to call disemia in order to emphasize its ideological pervasion of all forms of discourse (see Herzfeld 1982a). Essentially, the H-forms represent an idealized European and elitist perspective, the L- forms a more everyday construction of national culture. What defines the terms of the polarity, however, is not form alone, but form in relation to use. For example, a lexical ‘H-form’ used in a recognizable L-context acquires L-status. There are many shadings and ambiguities, moreover, and the basic polarity is an organizing principle whose actualizations depend on particular contexts of interaction. Language is, as I have noted, only one dimension of the disemic phenomenon. It is nevertheless an extremely imporlant one, since its politicization has had the effect of making people acutely conscious of their own and others’ specch habits.

The Pefkiots’ attitude to me clearly illustrates the interactional, contingent character of disemic classification. They used language and other codes to place me in an H-stereotype, contrasting it with their own L- status as comparatively ill-educated rural people. (It should be noted, however, that L-status carried with it connotations of moral excellence and purity that are considered to be incompatible with the urban corruption or ‘foreign’ flavor of H-status.) Pefkiots — unlike my subsequent informants on Crete — made little or no attempt to encourage me to learn their local dialect. Instead, they either treated my formally demotic speech as katharevousa, or else, usually with a certain defensiveness, insisted that their dialect was. In the latter case, they could point to archaic elements in Rhodian Greek that correspond to archaizing elements of katharevousa. Both tactics had the effect of emphasising my categorical exclusion from the village community the former by stressing that the incomprehensible katharevousa was the language of corrupt individuals such as scholars and politicians, the latter by associating village identity with Greek ‘purity’ (kathariotita); Pefkiots claim that Mainland Greeks are full of Slavic and Albanian blood (Hcrzleld 1980a). This symbolic manipulation of the diglossia model produced some curious reversals. Thus, I was told that ghourouni ‘pig’ was a polite enough term, and could be used of a glutton with only mildly offensive implications: the near-synonym khiros, on the other hand, was described as ‘village talk’ and, as such, inappropriate as an epithet for persons. The rationale for this in folk philology was apparently the categorical dissociation of village from katharevousa forms, whereas in philological scholarship it is the form khiros that might be recognized as substantiating the local claim that ‘Dodecanesians talk katharevousa’.

Note the importance here of recognizing the negotiability of disemic attributions. Were we to adhere to the scholarly criteria for deriving etymologies, we would fail to recognize the fluid usage as well as the symbolic force of such categories as katharevousa, ‘demotic’, and ‘village talk’. These terms are used to indicate villagers’ interpretations of the social distance a speaker seems to be placing between self and other. The question of whether a university professor would recognize a particular form as katharevousa is tangential to the issue at stake here; what matters is whether villagers so classify the form in question, and what this tells us about a particular interaction and discourse. When a villager describes an utterance as katharevousa, this is a statement about the speaker, it means that the speaker is both ideologically right-wing, or at least conservative in matters of cultural attitude, and personally outside the commonplace nexus of everyday social relations. Such statements thus lay claim to legitimation and authority when they are made of the self (individual or collective), but may well be an expression of social rejection when applied to others. Applied to the ethnographer, they may indicate acceptance of the scholar or rejection of the non-Greek; in a sense, of course, they have both implications at the same time.

The katharevousa/demotic distinction thus affords the villager a means of conflating a national-level distinction between introverted and extroverted ideologies with personal distinctions between intimacy and authority (see Sotiropoulos 1977; Herzfeld 1982b; 18 21). This gives a more interactional cast to the very notion of diglossia (which has been interpreted literalisticallv all too often, as a pair of rigidly demarcated codes). The polarity of perspectives it represents is, as I have noted, not necessarily restricted to language. For this reason, I prefer to interpret the encompassing concept of disemia, not as a rigid taxonomy of cultural codes, but as a gloss for cultural disjunctions that are recognized indigenously. Thus, it matters little whether khiros is philologically H or L when it is consistently used as an L-sign in village discourse. This perspective moves the study of disemia, diglossia closer to recent developments in linguistic philosophy, especially in the area of performative utterances, that have strongly influenced anthropological theory. Likewise, the retention of an L-custom on the grounds that it is ‘ancient’ (arkheo) constitutes it an H-sign in that context. Such uses of cultural elements to define boundaries internal to a national culture may be seen as analogous to the broader phenomenon of Drummond’s (1980) ‘intersystems”. Philological or archaeological literalism is simply imperialistic when full exegesis directs us otherwise, and it is also a dangerous source of self-deception: as, for example, in the case of Greek inheritance terminology (Herzfeld 1980b), H-signs (with or without L-markers) may mask L- concepts that can only be deduced by close attention to actual usage.

The ambiguity of the ethnographer’s position in the community is amenable to treatment in terms of disemia. The principle and practice of ‘participant observation’ seem to demand self-constitution as an L-text, though this is in itself a gross oversimplification, as a scholar’s apparent inability ever to ‘speak katharevousa’ would be so nonsensical from a villager’s point of view as to provoke suspicion. Furthermore, what the ethnographer conceives to be L-signs in dress, language, and style of work (to cite three fairly obvious examples) may not always be so construed by the villagers. The ethnographer’s speech, though formally demotic, strikes them as Athenian and therefore a species of katharevousa; the casual clothes are obviously foreign, and have clearly not weathered many years of sweated labor; dhoulia. ‘work’, does not cover ‘writing’ (villagers usually call study dhiavasma, ‘reading’), and erghasia, a term for ‘work’ found formally in both katharevousa and demotic, is not a popular one in village speech and sounds too much like katharevousa for their comfort. Offers to help in the fields are regarded in Pefko as a category violation.

As ‘writings’, moreover, the ethnographer’s work looks like a tangible performance of authority; viewed in national rather than local terms, it then becomes the expression of foreign-power interference in Greek affairs and thus a form of’spying’. The ethnographer’s activity is thus a sign of H-ness — that of the scholar before the local rural community, as well as that of the foreigner when the villagers choose instead to think of themselves primarily as Greeks rather than as Pefkiots. This translatability between levels of a relativistic view of the social universe is characteristically revealed by a semiotic perspective (see especially Galaty 1981); a distinction between insiders and outsiders can be replicated at different levels of specific inclusiveness, so that one level can synecdochically represent a more inclusive one. The ethnographer’s difficulty usually lies in perceiving this elusive characteristic while actually functioning as a shifter. My own experience of elevated isolation as an epistimon, followed by expulsion from Greece at the instigation of certain Pefkiots during a time of national crisis (July, 1974), nevertheless illustrates the principle well. Perhaps I should not complain, in any case, since I was examining categories of social exclusion and these events furnished a dramatic, if discomfiting, form of participant observation!

Had there been no Cyprus crisis, I might never have been ‘translated’ in this way from ‘scholar’ into ‘foreigner’. Most villagers, most of the time, treated me with studied courtesy, not unlike that which I was able to observe in their own interactions. Yet I would be shirking the issue if I claimed this as the whole story. I probably had a choice of behaviors, some of which might have given me a more likable image in Pefkiot eyes. Any ethnographer is an ‘active sign’ in the ethnographic encounter. I was the representative of a despised and feared exteriority, of a world that has bullied Greece in general, and Rhodes in particular, for decades. Had I been more willing to challenge the stony politeness and get my hands dirty, stereotype or no stereotype, I might have succeeded better in redefining the whole relationship — as, with the advantage of hindsight from Pefko, I was later able to do during fieldwork on Crete.

To summarize: courtesy was not necessarily a sign of pleasure at my intrusive presence. Villagers actually do all they can to avoid confrontations: ‘Stay away from the bad moment, and you’ll live a thousand years!’ They even enjoin nonreclamation of loaned properly that has not been promptly returned, and avoid taking food in each other’s houses — not at all a standard norm in Greece — in order to minimize the risk of mutual involvement that is likely to turn sour. Pefko looked like a quiet, friendly village when I arrived. Had I handled matters differently, it is quite possible that I would both have retained that impression and have stayed longer and learned more. There is nothing contradictory about this: what you make of ‘your’ village reflects a good deal of what the villagers have made of you.

The Pefkiots’ everyday politeness with each other should certainly not be interpreted as indicating an absence of social tension. On the contrary, it is backed by a social idiom of courtesy that, as I shall argue, serves as a metaphor for social tension and uncertainty (cf. also Meeker 1979: 100). Since the boundary between kseni and dhiki (outsiders and insiders) is relative rather than absolute in village usage, one might well expect to find a good deal of anxiety about how to categorize people in various situations. The etiquette in question does not provide an answer for this problem, for which it should perhaps be seen as an epiphenomenon rather than an explanation. Rather, it explains in indigenously relevant terms how certain forms of good manners provide a relatively manageable alternative to the ‘lines of silence’ that effectively block people’s potentially threatening access to each other’s sense of personal domain.


First, let us examine the etiquette itself. It is customary for Pefkiots to ask an addressee’s pardon (me sinkhorisj-ite) before any mention of the following:

1. ghaidharos (and cognate forms) ‘donkey’,

2. zo(o) ‘animal’,

3. skor(o)dho ‘garlic’ (and sometimes kromidhi ‘onion’),

4. terms for excreta and genitalia, as well as pumpkins (kolokithia), perhaps on the basis of folk etymology linking this term with kolo ‘anus’.

The usual practice is to utter the apology immediately before the qualifying article, as in ikha, me sikhoritena ghaidharo (‘I had, excuse me, a donkey’). The usage is also found with khtima, not in its modern, legalistic sense of ‘property, possession’, but in its village usage of ‘pack- animal, especially donkey or mule’. It is also sometimes associated with moulari, ‘mule’.

All of the above usages represent entities implicated in the ambiguity of interpersonal boundaries. Villagers say that this form of etiquette is a way of avoiding even a remote danger that the addressee will consider himself/herself insulted:

1. ‘Donkey’

Here, the danger is that the addressee might take the animal term for an abusive epithet directed at him/her: ‘you donkey!’ The donkey is associated with atimia, an absence of social worth particularly associated with kseni at any level — i.e., with nonkin, nonvillagers, or foreigners, according to context. Thus, to call someone a ‘donkey’ is an insult calling for a possibly violent response, since imputing the absence of social worth is tantamount to rejecting social ties. The apology here is a form of social prophylaxis, avoiding the ‘evil moment’ in the idiom of the Pefkiot proverb already quoted.

2. ‘Animal’

Again, there is a slight — but potentially inflammatory — suggestion of the uncomplimentary personal epithet. Here, in fact, the potential insult is still more serious. Zo. as one who is ‘dumb’, means a person who is not quite “human’ — i.e. Greek-speaking and baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. Calling a person zo consequently has strong overtones of likening him to a Turk, the definitive outsider and national enemy.

3. ‘Garlic’

Garlic is used as a defense against the evil eye. When threatened by expressions of admiration, if one does not happen to be wearing an amulet with garlic in it, one can take action against the possibility that the person who has expressed admiration has thereby cast the evil eye, by exclaiming, skordha sta matia sou (“garlic in your eye!’). Thus, any mention of garlic in another context is thought to suggest a possible fear that the addressee has cast the evil eye. The evil eye is defined as an expression of excessive and potentially harmful interest in someone else’s property (ta ksena), and thus constitutes a violation of the kseno/dhiko boundary. It is one of the features that contribute to the composite image of the ghrousouzis  or khrousouzis, the insider to the village community who is nevertheless “outsider-like’ in possessing some fundamental moral flaw; it thus aptly expresses one area of confusion in the negotiation of the kseni/dhiki opposition (Herzfeld 1981b). Mentioning garlic may thus suggest an overly zealous protection of the speaker’s personal space and the insult is thereby implied that the addressee is morally flawed.

4. Excreta and genitalia

One might suspect that this courtesy is simply a reflection of the prudish behavior associated with elite culture in Greece. Given the polysemous nature of symbolic actions, and especially their ability to signify at more than one level of cultural inclusiveness, this explanation is possible, and does not necessarily conflict with another possible explanation that belongs more specifically to the general exegetical framework proposed here for the other examples of this particular form of etiquette. One is also reminded both of the general principle whereby bodily waste must not fall into the hands of others (kseni) who might use it to do one harm by sorcery; and of the specific concern with covering as a means of demarcating moral boundaries. The awareness of elite values is congruent with this; informants would whisper about sex and excretion, and seemed less concerned with concealing such things from me than with demonstrating their awareness that in revealing them they would be violating elite norms. The penis, moreover, is conceptualized as belonging to one who ‘enters’ the home of a virgin’s father. There were thus several ways in which apparently obscene references could be interpreted as boundary-violating, and all of these aspects may be implicit in the rule of etiquette here.

Note also (cf. #1 and #2) that the phrase ‘excuse me’ does not usually precede references to sheep, goats, cats, or (in most instances) dogs. Dogs are so absolutely equated with Turks in Pefkiot symbolism that (a) if one were to call a co-villager ‘dog’ the insult would be unambiguous and deep, and (b) such absolute metaphorical equivalence has no part to play in a system of etiquette that is concerned with — and itself metaphorically represents — social ambiguity. Oxen are usually mentioned with the qualifying ‘excuse me’ because, I suggest, they supply a common but by no means certain implication of ‘Turkishness’ (cf. Herzfeld 1980a: 297). When I asked why other animals were not thought offensive enough for mention of them to warrant the qualifying ‘excuse me’, I was told that one would not use other animal epithets of people, so that there would be no risk of misunderstanding if one mentioned a sheep, a cat, or a goat. I did once hear a bearded tourist contemptuously dismissed as a traghos, ‘he- goat’, and there was some embarrassment toward me about this, perhaps because the epithet was thought to carry sexual implications. But katsiki is a neutral (and grammatically neuter) word for ‘goat’ that appears to have no threatening association with person categories; nor is the feminine form katsika treated with special caution.

All these etiquette rules show a consistent concern with the maintenance of orderly relations. Bear in mind that etiquette itself means ‘label’ or ‘category’. The indigenous exegesis of the rules shows a sense of caution over the ambiguity of social boundaries. That the concern with ‘personal space’ is a pervasive feature of Pefkiot social theory and discourse is demonstrated by the importance given to avoiding expressions of envy (or cancelling them out with a suitable phrase; see Herzfeld 1981b: 567), and by such commonly heard disclaimers as ‘Not that I want to praise my dhiki, but…’ Social theory thus reveals a general fear of conflict over socially ambiguous roles and boundaries; this fear is presumably the outcome of accumulated experience since, given the moral value system of Pefko, those who do quarrel openly and violently soon find themselves despised by most of their co-villagers, no matter who was responsible for the initial outbreak of hostility.

The avoidance of conflict is no less eloquent a testimonial to the social tensions that exist than any violent affray; silence, too, is expressive (cf. Basso 1970), especially when avoidance is treated as the paramount mode of both conveying a message of social rupture and avoiding its possible consequences. These lines of silence, furthermore, embody a verbally inarticulate ideology in much the fashion suggested by Ardener’s (1971: xliv) ‘blank banners’: they follow a ‘segmentary’ ordering of the social universe that conflicts directly with the unitary view of Greek society explicitly propagated by the statist ideology of the authorities. The fact that Pefkiots rarely lift a hand against one another certainly does not mean that they dwell in harmony.


The ethnographer enters this world of ill-defined social relations, and is perceived through the prism of those relations without the benefit of either prior acquaintance or an intelligibly defined social role. The indeterminacy of the ethnographer-informant relations that results from this curious situation should not be confused with pure randomness; it is refracted through the villagers’ previous experiences of each other. In other words, it is not so much that the villagers don’t know what to make of the ethnographer, as that the ethnographer can be assimilated to the villagers’ own experience of not being at all sure of one another. The ethnosemiotic model described above provides us with evidence about the way in which that everyday experience is ordered conceptually, and enables us to explain the apparent contradiction between my informants’ politeness and the hostile character of their final act toward me. This interpretation gains force when we consider that the shift in level of inclusiveness was apparently tied to a disemic structuring of my relationship with the village as a whole.

By way of an open-ended conclusion, I want to set these observations in a wider context: the idea of ethnographic description as a form of ‘translation’ (Beidelman 1971, 1980; Crick 1976). For me, an anthropologist trained to look for such things as lineage segmentation and hierarchical taxonomies, the implications of the ksenos-dhikos (outsider insider) opposition were immensely interesting. The basic problem was that what I found interesting, the villagers found trivial, self-evident, and quite acutely embarrassing, and I had to approach the topic with care. But, as I hope I have at least partially demonstrated in the foregoing, I was myself ‘read’ as a sign of fluctuating significance. How, then, could I claim, translator-fashion, to be faithfully rendering the original ideas of my informants, if I was also foregrounding the very dimension of their social experience that they themselves conventionally ‘background’ (Douglas 1975: 3-4. 8)? Of course, in a sense, that was my job — to render the locally self-evident anthropologically fresh and interesting. But that very act should destroy the illusion that the ‘translation’ can ever be ‘faithful’. Without that guarded perspective, representing ethnography as translation leads to the very literalism it was designed to circumvent.

In ‘good’ translations, the translator is self-effacing. In ‘good’ ethnography, by contrast, the presence of the ethnographer must not be allowed to disappear from view. It is not just that, in some entirely trivial sense, we would like to know more about the personality behind the book. The fundamental problem is that the personality in question is virtually indispensable. For a literary translation, the ‘highest ideal... is achieved when the reader flings it impatiently into the fire, and begins patiently to learn the language for himself (Vellacott 1956: 37). In ethnographic reporting, despite all the imperfections and inconsistencies, the essence of the text itself depends upon the translator’s presence. It must be an aggressively ‘open’ text (Eco 1979), designed to foreground its own lack of closure. Anthropologists are notorious for their yearning to return to the field for that one last question, even though they should know that there is no such thing. Their products are actually more like elaborate tropes than literary translations, in that they depend for their impact upon the maintenance of a strong sense of difference (‘hierarchy’: Shapiro and Shapiro 1976) separating the original experience from the crafted text that seeks to convey it.12


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