Ethnographers love to travel. They will always assert that travel is necessary to understand a culture. You need to travel, to feel the culture. And without such exposure, we reason that what is written is less valid because it cannot possibly be written with the critical perspective that local context provides. Or as Bronislaw Malinwoski himself once wrote, field observation is necessary “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” On top of that, field work is the initiation ritual that gives academics “street cred” when preparing lectures about places exotic to your audience.
I like to travel too and truth be told, am a sucker for Malinowski’s point that you need to get off the metaphorical mission verandah, and into the village if you are going to understand what is going on in another social world. I put this into practice by encouraging my students to study abroad, join the Peace Corps, and seek out any and every opportunity overseas. So imagine my discomfort when I came across a comment in Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture by the historical economist Eric Jones. Jones points out that “straining for street cred can lead to the ‘eyewitness fallacy’ in which foreign travel substitutes for deeper inquiry.” And that “one can learn more about [China] in the British library than by visiting the country…the best ticket is a library ticket, because things may be found in books that are not apparent on the ground, and books offer more ideas than most of us can dream up for ourselves.” (Pp. 33-34). Huh, could he be serious? Whaddyamean that a library ticket is better for understanding culture than an airplane ticket to Beijing? What about the thick description? Emic and etic perspectives? The deep understanding of culture that comes from being on the ground? Thick description? And of course the awe that casual mentions about your last malaria attack brings in the antiseptic developed world. I bet Jones never had malaria, so what kind of street cred can he possibly have?
But then I read further, and I found out that Jones is not only uncomfortably correct, in fact had a really good point to make about the relationship between field experience and the deeper inquiry best done in the library. This is because the individual participant observer’s view is always limited to the contacts they personally make. Meaning that our personal contacts limit the ideas that we can dream up. How can a single observer, then write about a society as vast as China (population 1.2 billion) based only on what they themselves see? Indeed, even tiny Liechtenstein (population 35,000) is too big. This is because even the best participant observer can come in contact with only an extremely limited number of people on their own. Jones went on to point out that libraries (and presumably the massive electronic data bases that are their descendants) are a much better way to get to know a country—you come not only in contact with the people you know, but many times that number as well. What is more, you are not limited to the views of your own friends and acquaintances, but can delve into those of people with whom you are not familiar, and even those who are dead.
The really embarrassing thing for those of us who romanticize the importance of travel is that much of the world’s great literature—and social science—has been generated by library jockeys. Indeed, Jones made his point particularly well by pointing out that one of the leading translators of Chinese poetry, Arthur Waley, never went to China, because he wanted to protect his “personal image of the scene.” Better known is Jules Verne who wrote fantastic stories about the world without leaving France. Karl Marx did the bulk of his research in the British Library, and various archives. Max Weber wrote much about the Protestant Ethic of the United States before leaving for his first (and only) trip to the United States. Charles Darwin never went back to the Galapagos after his only visit while on The Beagle, either
The problem is that I still like to travel, as does, for that matter, Eric Jones who himself has a well-used passport. And travel does continue to shape my thinking about the world, and I still encourage students to leave the United States and experience the world. Travel can still be a good corrective to world’s imagined up in the library. But does an airplane really ticket replace a library card? No, not yet. And neither does being an “eyewitness” or even surviving malaria automatically create a more valid viewpoint. Indeed, on the critical variables of wisdom and validity, I am afraid that the library ticket still trumps the plane ticket until proven otherwise.
Eric Jones (2007) Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture