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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Annals of Ostracism—Introduction

[a] Alone  RF

I have been thinking about ostracism for the past few days. I wish I had a more inventive reason for it. Some people haven’t been especially timely in replying to my e-mail messages, but I think that has more to do with calendar than calumny (I think). It so happens that I have been reviewing a number of classic ethnographies as I prepare to teach ANTH 206: Social and Cultural Theory this term, and the subject of booting people from the comfortable womb of sociability keeps appearing. So, in this series of posts, I am going to banish us to the hidden world of social anguish called ostracism. 

Here is a workable dictionary definition from Miriam-Webster (online) that we will surely begin to refine as we proceed:
verb \-ˌsīz\
os·tra·cize os·tra·ciz·ing
transitive verb
1: to exile by ostracism
2: to exclude from a group by common consent
She was ostracized from the scientific community for many years because of her radical political beliefs.
The other girls ostracized her because of the way she dressed.
Greek ostrakizein to banish by voting with potsherds, from ostrakon shell, potsherd—more at oyster     First Known Use: 1649

[b] Isolated RF
Ostracism is not easy to write about, not the least if it is one's own. If it is someone else's isolation, the problem lies "merely" in understanding the psychological, cultural, social, and often economic subtleties of the situation. But if it is us being kicked to the curb of social interaction, it is difficult to make a persuasive defense. It often sounds, well, defensive. Only a few people have done it well, and in every case they are honest with themselves and their readers. A larger point is buried here; it is important for ethnographers to acknowledge—indeed, engage—their presence in the ethnographic encounter. That the "student" is part of the social dynamic is so obvious that it hardly needs stating, right?


Tell that to a half-century of writers who hardly acknowledged their own presence or—this is much more common—did so in a way that gave them enormous "narrative control" (many of these ethnographies remain at the very center of the discipline, and are called "classics"). One author's works have been described as a "slide-show," implying that the main thrust of his books is geared toward what is on the screen, and not the person working the controls. This Wizard of Oz-like image is a telling characterization, and it would seem obvious that ethnographers need to write about how they felt and how they reacted in fieldwork encounters. Right?

It is obvious...except for one thing. 

The temptation to make it all about me is so great that all but just a few masters of the genre have succeeded without degenerating into id embracing ethnobabble. Suffice it to say that the writers I will be quoting in the vast majority of Ostracism posts have done this well—blending their stories with precise linguistic data and analysis of the social and cultural dimensions of the experience. 

[c] Ritual center RF
Not everyone does it well, though. I prefer not to name names here (although I am ever so sorely tempted). It takes enormous skill to write as clearly and analytically (while still telling a riveting story) as Jean Briggs, Colin Turnbull, Paul Riesman, and Carol Trosset do in the posts that will follow. Instead of describing people who do it very badly (you can imagine the hand-wringing self-absorption), I will rather retell an old anthropological joke about a postmodern anthropologist. I tell this, over-and-over, to students in my classes as I implore them to analyze, and not just to splatter their “feelings” on the page. Indeed, I warn them of my version of “(sic),” which is used (as many of you have probably noticed) to point out mistakes of grammar or syntax that are not those of the quoting author. I call my version “SIC,” and it stands for “self-indulgent-crap.” Please avoid this, I say. 

Here’s the old joke (with my expanded telling of it):

A thoroughly trained postmodern anthropologist finds a meandering path into the depths of a forest society and, in time, is introduced to rituals, dancing, and other wonders of ceremonial life. S/he watches fires crackle and listens to the feats and travails of the ancestors, who felled great beasts and painted their stories on cave walls. S/he listens, takes notes, and follows the instructions learned from many years of anthropological study, always dutifully mapping and transcribing. 

Finally, s/he can’t take it any more. S/he knows that s/he is a part of the very social fabric here. She has read her Foucault and Derrida. 

[d] Apart RF

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