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Monday, January 2, 2012

Middles (18)—Hirsute Ethnography

[a] Facial hair RF
We only scratched the surface the other day with the Seinfeld Ethnography post on facial hair. Toward the end of the entry, I mused about the relationship between big hunks of hair in the male facial "middle" (we often refer to these as "beards" and "musataches") and the history of anthropology. This may seem to be a bit of a stretch at first glance, but bear with me. Think about it. Hair in the field. It is a potentially fruitful topic that fairly bristles with possibilities.

[b] Beardless RF
After thinking over the matter for several days, I want to ask this question. Is it only for "practical" reasons that anthropologists tend to grow beards while in the field (many anthropologists have told me this)? And what, precisely, is the relationship between beards, mustaches, and anthropology? Is the "fieldwork beard" a kind of "vacation from ourselves," not unlike Jerry's and Georges? Moreover, why is beard growth that occurs while asking questions and typing notes on the Gambia River seen as de rigeur, while it is almost impossible to imagine "just" a mustache adhering to the upper lip of the culture-scholar in the field? Is it only a practical matter? Did any anthropologists go into the field with mustaches and keep them? While we won't answer all of these questions here, I think we have uncovered a hidden dimension of ethnography's history—the beginnings of a new chapter in the discipline. We shall call it hirsute ethnography.

Let's start with a scene from a fieldworker who traveled to central Africa fifty-nine years ago, almost to the day. Jan Vansina was one of the great innovators in the Western study of Africa, and effectively fused history and anthropology over six decades of scholarship. His memoir, Living With Africa tells of his first days approaching the continent. It tells of clothing changes, appearances, and preparations. It says nothing about shaving. Nothing.

       Finally the long-coveted day came, and I boarded the Copacabana, a mixed
       passenger and freight ship. It was a bitterly cold day, December 17, 1952, 
       when we glided out of the harbor of Antwerp...[After various repairs aboard ship],
       we limped southward into sunnier climes and quieter seas toward Santa Cruz
       de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, where we put in for repairs. For a few days
       the white and pastel town, nestled between a high barren peak and the bluest
       of seas, offered an idyllic interlude for us, being neither the Europe I knew nor 
       yet Africa: a dreamlike experience. Then we limped on.

       One after the other, passengers began to shed their familiar clothing. Officials 
       donned their khaki or white colonial outfits, helmet and all, nuns and male 
       missionaries shifted from black to white robes, the other women sprouted 
       flowery dresses and floppy hats, while the male settlers loafed around in
       somewhat disreputable beachwear. As I had read it would, one day the sea 
       turned brown, laden with clumps of vegetable material. The next morning we 
       turned into the estuary of the Congo River. All the novices, including me, stood
       at the railing to spot the first "ethnographic" houses on the Angolan shore, the 
       first "natives," the first palm trees, while the old timers were busy in the bar. 
       Gradually, the mountains grew wider and wider, the river narrower and narrower,
       and late that day we docked under the red-brown rocks of Matadi. We 
       disembarked amid an official fuss about passports and inspection of luggage,
       and tips and no tips for porters. We waited a while longer on a pier and then 
       went off along a steep slope to a fortress on a rocky spur: the hotel. 
       So this was Africa.[1]

Vansina continues to describe his transition. Prying open quinine capsules (until he knew better), living on credit in Léopoldville until his funding arrived, eventually hiring a jeep and learning to drive on steep mountain roads, and standing over a dying Jeep still many kilometers from his destination. Nowhere is there any word of shaving.[2]

       I learned the language all day long long and in the evening walked over to 
       watch a religious revival in progress at the small Bushong village nearby, from
       which the place derived its name. At long last, a month later, I felt confident
       enough to venture out, on foot, naturally, to town, and there I appeared one 
       day, the first European ever to speak some Bushong, a person whose existence
       was known by gossip but who nevertheless suddenly walked out of nowhere
       one day, someone who was neither government official, missionary, or trader:
       in one word, a conundrum. For a while people furiously speculated about my
       real identity. Some held that I was a Bushong soul reborn by a dreadful accident
       in a white body, and one day some women offered me condolences about that.
       Others rejected this explanation, but they had no other. So everyone just followed
       my every deed and word with Argus eyes to gather further clues. Soon people 
       realized that I was neither a danger nor a profit to them. Gradually they accepted
       me in their compounds, reluctantly began to believe that I was there to record
       their culture, and set about to educate me. Finally I was doing fieldwork.[3]

This is one of my favorite descriptions of how fieldwork "starts," and I might have made today's topic into "Beginnings" or even "Fieldnotes from History." On the other hand, fieldwork is all about being stuck in the middle and, if one is a typical Northern European male, growing a little facial hair. But still, we have no word from Vansina. We know that he was learning Bushong...but was he shaving? And with what?

[d] Fieldwork ADV
You have probably figured out by now that I am taking a rather winding approach to our subject. That is nothing new on Round and Square. And it should be obvious that I am stressing the lack of a shaving narrative with a bit of tongue-in-cheek levity. There is an important little nugget of insight tucked away in all of this, though. As any historian can tell you, we don't know much about how people actually lived at any time in the past. What I mean by that (and I am just the tail-end of a century-old historiographical tradition that focuses upon such questions), is that people almost never write down things about their lives that are so ordinary one would ever think to write them down.

Think about it. Even in our internet age, how much "literature" is there that deals with, say, unlocking your car door and getting in? How about preheating the oven or making instant coffee? You will notice that I have given examples that actually do have a little bit of "documentation" in our hyper-textual world. Well, that is about the level of interest that shaving seems to hold when it comes to understanding fieldwork. How can we know much about it if the fieldworkers themselves don't bother to mention it? Here I am, asserting that facial hair is an important (gendered) psychological dimension of the field experience, and anthropologists aren't writing about it. What sources could we use to plumb the depths of these questions?

Pictures. Pictures. We have pictures, my friends.

[e] Hairy ADV
And now we come to the real reason this topic began to intrigue me a few days ago. You see, I have been reading several memoirs written by Africanists the last few days, including Jan Vansina's, which I quoted above. Vansina has only one picture, on the back cover of the book, but it is telling. It shows a clean-shaven young Belgian man with a plump little child at a Kuba initiation ceremony. This got me thinking, so I pulled another book off the shelf, Philip Curtin's On the Fringes of History, a memoir of a lifetime studying African history and culture. In fact, Curtin was Vansina's colleague at the University of Wisconsin for many years. The picture on the cover shows a clean-shaven Philip Curtin standing next too a Jeep that will not be going anywhere, anytime soon. 

I opened the book and looked through the several dozen pictures. From the first photo of the author at seventeen through his Swarthmore and Harvard years, and all of the way to emeritus status at Johns Hopkins University, there is nary a facial hair to be seen. In the middle of the book, there is even a photo of a beardless Curtin talking with a bearded Senegalese man, reversing the common set of expectations of hairy fieldworkers talking with clean-shaven people in their homelands. 

And that is where we will leave it for today—incomplete, partial, unshaven. Anthropologists don't write much about shaving, but beards cut a large swath through the history of anthropology (just type in the name of a famous anthropologist and "images" in any search image, and you'll see). Today's example of two clean-shaven fieldworkers in Africa (as well as hairless faces in pictures of 1920s and 1930s ethnographic heroes such as Bronislaw Malinowski and E.E. Evans-Pritchard) leads me to think that shaving (or not) has almost nothing to do with the last century's technology. If E.E. Evans-Pritchard could keep a razor sharp in the southern Sudan in the 1930s, facial hair fieldwork must be a choice.

[f] Facetime continuum RF
That a whole bunch of anthropologists have (had) beards is a topic we will consider soon. I strongly suspect that a kind of "dermatological fieldwork" is going on, and that anthropologists who grow beards in the field are exploring dimensions of self and image in much the same way that they are studying rituals and customs in (faraway) locations. Stay tuned. We are just getting started in our reflections on male facial hair and anthropology. And don't even think that I am going to forget about women in the field, and the various identity challenges they have faced throughout the ninety odd years of anthropology's (professional) history. I'm on it.

[1] Jan Vansina, Living With Africa (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 14.
[2] Vansina, 15-16.
[3] Vansina, 16.

Vansina, Jan. Living With Africa. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. 
[g] Farcical hair RF


  1. This post is more than a year old, but it reminded me then and reminds me now of a passage in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. Another example of hirsute ethnography, in 1970s Italy:

    "This was the dawn of great changes in style. Until the beginning of the sixties, beards were fascist, and you had to trim them, and shave your cheeks, in the style of Italo Balbo; but by '68 beards meant protest, and now they were becoming neutral, universal, a matter of personal preference. Beards have always been masks (you wear a fake beard to keep from being recognized), but in those years, the early seventies, a real beard was also a disguise. You could lie while telling the truth--or, rather, by making the truth elusive and enigmatic. A man's politics could no longer be guessed from his beard. That evening, beards seemed to hover on clean-shaven faces whose very lack of hair suggested defiance."

  2. And apparently a year was all it took for me to completely forget I had referenced EXACTLY THIS PASSAGE in a comment to your other 'hirsute ethnography' post on mustaches. Oh well. Sorry Rob~