Gypsy Economy: the Promise and Limitations of Ethnography

By Keith Hart

The Promise and Limits of Ethnography

I am usually rather concerned when I observe how unreflectingly my younger contemporaries identify anthropology with “ethnography” and I had much evidence of the problems involved when listening to the papers presented here. Nevertheless, it is not a mistake for anthropologists to claim that our greatest achievements of the twentieth century were based on the ethnographic revolution. The move to join people where they live in order to find out what they do and think was revolutionary. It is still the case that the  administrative/intellectual class generally talks about people without encountering them directly. The first thing that ethnography is for is to report on this experience. Second, many  disciplines use the term ‘ethnography’, but not in the way that anthropologists do. But I feel  that anthropologists have been very poor at articulating why what we do is different from and superior to what other disciplines call ethnography. Sociologists, institutional economists, nurses and all the others equate ethnography simply with making qualitative observations on the spot. In other words, if you go somewhere and record your observations, you are doing ethnography.

Third, as Tim Ingold (2008) says, anthropology is not ethnography. The reason that anthropological ethnography is different is that we bring to it at least the aspiration to generalize about the human condition as a whole or to place our findings in the widest possible framework of comparison. The challenge we face, however, is to overcome the academic legacy of our discipline’s modern foundation. A century ago our predecessors needed to institutionalize the ethnographic revolution by finding a place in the universities – in order to reproduce ethnographers. In the intellectual climate of the day, we had to pretend that what we do is science. “Scientific ethnography” was the banner under which we sought to establish ourselves; and this drew attention away from what makes anthropology different. Our trademark is to our commitment to living with a people in a particular place for a long time with the aim of absorbing society (as Durkheim taught us) and internalizing it by participating in it. This generates a kind of knowledge which can’t be reduced to objective research material (field notes). It is in fact a sort of intuitive knowledge.

Let me explain this with an anecdote from my own experience. When I went to work with development economists around 1970, the big crisis of the day was thought to be Third

World urban unemployment. The cities were growing very fast and there didn’t seem to be many real jobs available. I lived for two and a half years in Ghana, mainly in Accra; but it actually took me quite a long time to work out why I didn’t like the way the economists described the contemporary crisis of the cities. It sounds rather pathetic, but it took me a year to realise what the problem was: these people were not unemployed, they were working. This was not based on field notes that I wrote down; it was based on living there. I had to excavate this idea from half-buried experience of living in society. This is why anthropologists get it right more often than the others, because we have made a more whole-hearted commitment to living in another society and we don’t fetishize the more tangible features of what we have learned.

Anthropological ethnography is also a fully paid-up member of the genre known as realism. This was a key concept for the British Marxist critic, Raymond Williams (e.g. 1958) from whose voluminous writing on the subject my memory extracts the following. He makes three points. The first and most important is that realism reveals a new class, at least to the middle-class readership for the media that we are generating. Thus the novel Trainspotting reveals Edinburgh drugs-users to an audience that has never seen them before. Second, realism is contemporary; it enables readers to be part of what’s going on now; and it differs from most stories, at least from the genres that preceded it, because they were usually situated in the past and involve a different kind of dialectic. Linked to this is a third point, that these narratives are secular; they are not sacred myths. He argues that unequal society depends on sacred stories to reproduce itself and realism is a democratic genre because it tries to blow away these myths of unequal society.

If you take these three points and apply them to Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Malinowski 1922), it is immediately apparent that his version of ethnography was realist in Williams’ sense. He says: this is something you have never seen before – complex international trade without money, markets or states and even without the principle of buying cheap and selling dear. Second, let’s ditch the evolutionist idea of “primitive societies” illustrating what the civilized might once have been; let’s study who they are now as contemporaries in our world. Finally, the point of this is to blow up Homo economicus which is one of the sacred myths of our own version of unequal society. Perhaps the relationship between ethnography and ideology deserves more critical inspection.

Ideology is the premise that ideas are more important than life. It’s like when the priest says to you, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you to heaven; just stick with the system”. The man who controls the ideas has the key to happiness, to life after death and so on. Ideology, as Marx (1867) says, is the camera obscura which turns the image upside down and makes it appear that life is derived from ideas and depends on them. Malinowski then turns the camera obscura upside down and says that ideas come from life. In other words, anthropologists can go into the field without any ideas, they come back and somehow they have discovered all their ideas through doing fieldwork. There is no attempt made to place the fieldwork tradition within intellectual history. I hated this feature of my education in the discipline: my teachers were very well-educated people, knew all about Marx, Freud and the rest, but they didn’t want to tell me where they got it all from. Instead it was “go off to the field and do your work, it’s where good anthropology comes from”.

This is the main problem with a version of ethnography whose philosophy is what I call the synthetic a posteriori (Grimshaw and Hart 1993). Kant has two sources of knowledge, the synthetic a priori which consists of the ideas that our minds bring to encounters with the world and the analytical a posteriori which are the sense-impressions we have of the world that we have to sort out afterwards. Our task is to bring these two together in a dialectic, according to Kant. Malinowski is saying that we get the synthetic ideas we have from our experiences in the field. This is clearly impossible. There was a time in the early twentieth century nevertheless when the object, theory and method of social anthropology formed a unity. The object was to study “primitive” or simple societies as a way of understanding the mechanisms underlying more complex societies. The theory was functionalism: find out what they do and see how it fits together. The method of doing fieldwork in such places was entirely congruent with this. We knew who we were studying and why, from what theoretical perspective and with what method. It was a whole. That is why the British school was so powerful and produced permanent classics of ethnographic description and analysis in the interwar period.

It all became very different later. Anthropologists first got rid of the object, the collapse of empire did that – they weren’t around anymore these so-called primitive societies. The theory was dumped and replaced by the latest fashions from France and America. But we retained the method; fieldwork-based ethnography makes us professionals. But once you have decided that your professional identity hinges on ethnography, ideas inevitably take a back seat. Anthropology has now become a species of writing. It isn’t the case that what anthropologists mainly do is fieldwork. This is concentrated in the early phase of our careers. The main activity is cranking out useless papers for publication in journals, books and conferences. But the authority of the writer still rests on fieldwork. All the ideas incorporated into this style of writing are made to fit the ethnographic argument. The ethnographer believes that s/he can actually choose what the ideas mean, depending on whether they help the empirical analysis or not. The notion that the ideas and their authors have a history that should be respected has no place in the ethnographic tradition. We pay lip service to “the literature”, but reduce that to sound bites, clips from sources that just happen to be useful for the ethnographic narrative. And this means that we lack a coherent theoretical universe to work in.


Keith Hart Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Goldsmiths College; Honorary Professor of Anthropology, University of Pretoria.