Ethnographers and Objectivity

Western ethnographers have long portrayed, intentionally or not, a unified, or at least, homogenous Africa, where everyone is the same dark color, and everyone suffers under great poverty and patriarchal oppression (native or Western). Knowledge in the ethnographic field must be cumulative, or we shall be forced to reconcile with the fact that we continue to make the same mistakes without progression. One of the most misleading subjects of ethnographical data throughout time has been any which concern themselves with some aspect of African people or culture. The Western tendency to lump people and things into broad categories is a deep-seated one. When one reads an ethnography about which one really has no practical experience, one tends to project one’s own biases on the biases of the author, with the further complication that one may not even be able to identify the author’s true biases at all. Of course, some authors’ biases may be readily apparent, as I think is the case with Walter Rodney. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney charges colonial superpowers with simply walking away from their messes, dusting their hands hastily in order to show that they are clean when they hand out government aid and subsidies to assuage their present consciences while still grabbing resources as aggressively as before (Rodney 1972: 22). He pulls no punches and spells out every major exploitation, every failed program, every destructive policy. There can be no doubt as to the culpability of Western nations’ colonial actions in the knots and difficulties which persist today in failed patrimonial states and nations struggling with still gaping and bleeding wounds.

Rodney further argues that even those attempting to write about Africa today are inherently biased and “seek to justify capitalist exploitation both inside and outside their own countries (Rodney 1972: 23).” Many ethnographers, especially those attuned to traditional models of descriptions in the present tense which neatly attempt to categorize a people in a way immediately comparable to Western society would question the need or relevance of such angry literature. But nothing can prompt others to respond so well as a work charged with the fury which can come only from one who has examined the damage that such a traditional categorization can cause. That is, an author who sets out a categorization of an African people’s lifestyle and culture as immutable facts without regard for changes past, present, or future, and with no attempt to reconcile the very arbitrariness of his own categories can be said to be effectively stereotyping those people, and even an educated person may lack sufficient insight to question such categorization, thus perpetuating the falsehood.

In E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography concerning the Nuer, as a classic example of a forced Western categorization which conveys a false idea of the true way of life for the Nuer people whom he observed in the 1930s on behalf of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’s administration. The government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, of course, principally financed his endeavors, and so keeping this fact in mind, any person with some experience of capitalist society must then come to the conclusion that to some extent Evans-Pritchard constrains his opinions with concerns for the interests of his employer. A reader must also keep in mind that scholarship contemporaneous with Evans-Pritchard’s did not refrain from making far more judgments, often negative, of whichever African society they happen to observe, since it was easier for many to simply reinforce racist views of superiority, which could then justify Western domination. Evans-Pritchard cannot escape some rather condescending remarks, and he makes no bones about his puzzlement at a number of things, but he is first and foremost doing his best to inform a government rather more impartially than most would of a people with whom the government must deal.

When Evans-Pritchard discusses Nuer concepts of time and space, he states that “Nuer are fortunate,” referring to their less detailed system of time; he tells us that the Nuer are rather more inclined to mark time by periodic activities (Evans-Pritchard 1940: 103). Here it is rather obvious to see two things concerning Evans-Pritchard: first, that he is quite puzzled by, and is unable to fathom functioning with, a sense of time defined only by the regular actions of life; second, one can also discern that he views this way of accounting time as being due in part to the Nuer not having as many cares and concerns as an Englishman would have in his modern, technological world, and so the Nuer can be called fortunate, for they pay no bills, must bear no burden of empire, and need not be concerned with global politics and trade.

Despite criticisms, Evans-Pritchard is still an extremely important ethnographer because when read cum grano salis, his work reveals quite a bit about the people he studied, even enough to formulate a different understanding of the culture than the argument he presents. Beyond the Western-colored outlook one can see that underneath his opinions Evans-Pritchard is one fantastic collector of data, and this becomes the truly important aspect of his work. Although in many ways it is scant or incomplete, it is remarkable when one considers that he faced some difficulty in even getting near his subject of study, and even after he was able to contact them, he worked primarily alone, without an interpreter, observing and learning on his own in a relatively short period of time a great array of information. If Amadiume also provides the reader with a vast array of information concerning her subject of study, the Igbo of Nigeria. Like Rodney, she demarcates her study into pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial examinations. Also like Rodney she is very angry, although she directs this anger primarily at fellow anthropologists in her preface; it bubbles beneath the surface occasionally throughout the body of the text but is not a continuous, bold expression as in Rodney’s work. Nevertheless it is a very real anger she expresses, and again many have questioned the relevance or appropriateness of such a jeremiad. However, it is precisely the point of her work to incite dialogue and discussion; some things must need be said or people may not infer that all is not well with what is rather a condescending modern Westernist view of African “troubles.” In fact, Amadiume is ready to throw out of the window nearly all scholarships written by Western white women concerning African women, considering such work “dangerous and unsatisfactory in the case of Africa (Amadiume 1987: 7).” Perhaps it should not be discarded completely, but she makes an extremely valid point that more scholarship by African women about their own selves and cultures could bring a fresh and meaningful aspect to African ethnography that white women may not be in a position to observe or understand. It is extremely necessary for harsh criticisms to come about lest we settle into some routine without questioning our motives or actions, as such criticism can cause us to reexamine methods which may have little validity or may be tainted with bias.

Yet this brings up the most curious point about Amadiume’s book: although it is entitled Male Daughters, Female Husbands, and it concerns itself to a very great extent with women in Igbo society, it rather firmly and thoughtlessly forces upon Igbo society a categorization quite similar to some of those she criticized in her preface. She defines Igbo society within a very Western binary sex and gender system, despite the fact that she gives us some evidence of a genderless or neuter quality to much of Igbo language and life. The word she gives as master or husband she states is neuter, yet she assigns a masculine quality to it which is then conferred upon the titled person (Amadiume: 1987: 217). Multiple textual references to male daughters/female husbands as di or di bu no are also gender-neutral, yet she states that “a flexible gender system mediated the dual-sex organizational principle in Igbo society (Amadiume 1987: 28). Also troublesome is the god(dess) Idemili, whom she emphatically depicts as female, although the term the Igbo use to describe the godhood is genderless, and here Amadiume gives a more ungendered English term for translation in “deity.”

A careful reading of Amadiume’s account of how the Igbo relate to and describe the deity seems to indicate a far more complicated, or perhaps, encompassing deity who harbors aspects of both male and female Igbo (Amadiume 1987: 103). Paul Richards is another ethnographer with an eye to the colonial ravages on Africa; though focusing as Amadiume does one a specific area of concern: Sierra Leone, and Liberia to the extent that Liberia’s actions have directly influenced Sierra Leone. His biases seem rather more subtle than the loud and angry styles, or the cold relation of information to an empire; and despite his stated aims at illustrating the present troubles in Sierra Leone as the people seek mastery of themselves and a rejection of the New Barbarism hypothesis (Richards 2002: xvii), he goes further, almost to an introspective questioning of contemporary Western ethnologists and big governments in perpetuating the snarls and quagmires created with colonialism even in the present.

The most useful aspect of Richards’ work is his earnest effort to place everything within context as much as possible; far from the early ethnographer who related factoids of a non-Western culture within a Western cultural frame, Richards provides both a local and global context for both past and present, much like Rodney but less angrily, with less emphasis on socialist reform and less evident judgment of the forces which played a part in the destabilization process. But Richards, though rejecting outright the New Barbarism hypothesis as racist and inaccurate, seems at a loss as to how he can fit the situation into a neat Western analytical model (Richards 2002: xviii, 164), and just like Evans-Pritchard, finds himself rather puzzled at some aspects of his own ethnography, particularly the role of the rebels and who they really are in society (Richards 2002: 174-5).

As stated above concerning Evans-Pritchard’s work, one must take these ethnographies cum grano salis; that is, one must read and interpret them within their own context. When one examines the background of the author and his intended audience, as well as the time period and what contemporary trends are, one comes to better understand the ethnography in relation to oneself. Each one is no better than the other, and each offers an important body of information and feeling key to interpreting a whole continent full of diverse peoples and cultures, about which the West is still quite puzzled; this growing body of information is also key to these various African societies in understanding and defining themselves.

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