The Eyewitness Fallacy: Are Studies of China Best Done in China, or the British Library?

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

The Top Three Things I Have Not Been Blogging About

3. The New Lead Singer of the Band Journey

I intended to call this one “World Systems Cinderella,” and in it I would have recounted the story of how Arnel Pineda, onetime street performer in the Philippines, was chosen to be the new lead singer for the rock band Journey.  He was discovered, they say, on Youtube, performing with his ’80s cover band and rocking out like nobody’s business.  Does this story represent a triumphant democratization of fame?  The truly talented will rise to the top and be plucked from obscurity and swept to their global destiny?  I really don’t know!  Some friends and I traveled to see the band on their recent tour, and it really was a great show.  It was different from any amphitheater rock show I have ever been to: for example, middle-aged Filipino women were disproportionately represented in the audience – hooting and hollering for Arnel, carrying posters, dancing with glee, and singing along with every word.  It was a super-fun evening and Arnel was brilliant.  His voice was truly soaring, very Steve Perry, but with its own crystal-clear tone.  During the ballads, his face contorted in soulful ecstasy; during the anthems, he was exuberant and powerfully leaped around the stage.  He was engaging and charming – a golden, glowing presence in front of the other members of the band – who appeared to be a posse of waxy, static, (LATE) middle-aged white dudes twice his size.  They looked pleased and proud, and dare I say, a little bemused.  (Or was I projecting?)  Arnel’s fans were fervent.  An audience member was heard agreeing with her friend that Arnel was so cute, she “just wanted to tuck him into [her] eco-bag” and take him home with her (this is San Francisco, after all, we fantasize about bringing home our eye-candy in appropriate packaging).  In an instance of cultural confusion, the phrase, “We love lumpia!”** flashed across the big screen during the break (audience members can text their comments to see them on the giant display).  Asked a Euro-American friend, “Who’s lumpia?” Giggle, giggle.  Oh, globalization!  Oh, technology!  On your benign days you do create some humorous juxtapositions…

**Lumpia are a delicious Filipino food that resemble an eggroll.

2. Same – Sex Marriage Rights and California’s Proposition 8

This summer I actually wrote a blog entry about marriage.  Thanks to the Supreme Court of California, I had just had the pleasure of performing a legal marriage for two wonderful women friends.  It inspired me to want to go public with my own blueprint for a better system, one in which there is no such thing as civil marriage.  We just let it be a completely religious/spiritual union, and instead allow all adult Americans to chose one person to be a legal partner.  These legal partners would have financial, insurance, medical rights together, but could be any relationship – your grandmother, your brother, your adult child, your college roommate, or your sweetie.  You’d file papers and have a variety of legal rights vis-a-vis each other, rights that have traditionally been reserved for husband and wife.  We should all get to have a life partner, regardless of whether we feel like having sex with him/her.  Now don’t jump down my throat – I haven’t ironed out all of the details, and in the end, that’s why I never posted the blog I was working on.  I just think that with paternity (and maternity, if necessary) being determined through scientific means, legally responsible parenting would be pretty much the same without civil marriage, as would divorce settlements – palimony, etc. have made the marriage papers irrelevant.  Declare your commitment to God, or whomever you please, leave the state out of it. Until that day, marriage is a critical right, however.  Tomorrow, Californians will go to the polls and among the many propositions they will vote on is Proposition 8, designed to overturn the same-sex marriage rights upheld as constitutional by the state supreme court.  I will vote no and then come home and bite my fingernails down to the nub as I watch the election returns.  Please, oh please, let all of those hours and sections of Anthro 1 taught all over the state pay off!!  If Proposition 8 is defeated, I will give contemporary anthropology some of the credit, and if it passes and same-sex marriage rights are revoked, I will vow to redouble my efforts to teach for the appreciation of human difference.  There have been some powerful ads on both sides of the Prop. 8 debate, and I would tell you about them – but remember, the gimmick for this list is that it is the things that I have not been blogging about…

1. Any and All Things Sarah Palin

Talk about a made for blogging babe.  On the one hand, commentary on her political presence could have been a full-time job, and then some. On the other hand, Tina Fey so nailed her that most of the rest of us felt safe in taking the last few months off.  Honest to god, it was like Tina stepped up to the plate and called out to the rest of us, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this one,” and hit it out of the park.  I have chosen to address only one of the many things I have not been blogging about when it comes to Ms Palin – the inane idea that women don’t like her because she does not toe the feminist line – that is, *cough*, that somehow she is a maverick feminist, *double cough*.  Such a maverick, a reverse double maverick a-la McCain on SNL, that she is just plain not a feminist, you might say.  OR you might even say that nobody cares whether she calls herself a feminist or not, or whether other feminists call her a feminist or not…because I simply do not share MANY of her opinions and values. Good lord, people, male/female, black/white, short/tall, don’t like her because she is a completely unqualified vice presidential candidate.  She has dubious ideas about dinosaurs, sex-education, funding for sexual assault victims, and foreign policy, to say the least.  Apparently there were some folks in the Republican party that thought that the fact that we both have wombs and know how to use them would create an instant bond.  I do like her hair.  I think she has worn some very nice suits.  Her glasses are cute, and they really suit her face.  I’d vote for her to get her own reality show – Alaska is a very popular venue for such things, there is plenty of family drama to capture, and interesting careers.  Maybe one of the younger Palins can sing?

And just like that I would have so much more to not blog about.

Part 2: As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military

I used to listen to right wing radio like Rush Limbaugh from time to time or the yahoo’s on FOX news and be amazed that people actually listened to that crap as if they were credible new sources. I feel the same sometimes about my continuing engagement in the rants (others and my own… I am certainly not off the hook) about anthropologists in the military and HTS as the focal point for that conversation. What I read rarely makes me happy, it does not inform, clarify or improve understanding, and generally focused on tearing down what’s misunderstood in favor of the moribund status quo of anthropology. As I said in my previous entry, I am not expecting to change minds and I find the rhetoric on the topic is best classified as hysteria. Yet, I still listen, read, often roll my eyes and on occasion I get to have a conversation with a critic that’s interesting, useful, challenging and fun. Usually it’s a conversation that ends with neither my mind nor the others persons being changed, but helping each other refine and clarify our positions for ourselves and each other. Those are always grand conversations to have.

But yet I still read and listen, as you are doing now. Granted, my rants are informed by actual current experience working with the military, so it is true enough that I am one of the few people in this conversation it seems with actual, albeit limited, field experience to contribute (there are a LOT of people out there with a great deal more experience working with the military than my paltry 3 months, but I have not seen them weighing in so far. I wish they would as they are to me far more credible critics). But, I am hardly wringing my hands and stressing about if I am being fair and balanced either. If you are looking to a blog for peer-reviewed unbiased data, your dissertation committee may want to check into those reference sources you have been using one more time.

Yet, we continue. In one of these conversations I realized the big issue that I care about is that anthropologists don’t close the currently opened door on an opportunity to be effective change agents in military, intelligence and strategic policy. Sounds lofty sitting here in a wooden building in Iraq, but why not? That’s how it works sometimes, you start with a small piece of the problem and people see the value of what you bring and then you are handed a larger bit of the problem and so on. After a while, say 10 or 15 years, you have created a form of the discipline were you have policy makers consulting anthropologists as trusted advisors before taking action. We did it in the corporate world, why is it so hard for anthropologists to believe it’s possible for anthologists to be individually very influential in the governmental, military and intel worlds?

However, as one of my friends reminded me, and in my ranting had forgotten, I don’t have a dog in the HTS vs. Anthropologist fight, who’s “turf” this work belongs to is not my concern (This is a contract, not a career), but I do care about anthropologists turning their backs on an opportunity to be effective over half-baked ideology. All you have to do is mention the military in many anthropology circles and people will create a haunted house of oppression and tyranny (sorry for the Halloween reference) in their minds with no real understanding or factual basis as to why, other than some vague historical references and a few stories from nearly a half century ago. Yet, it’s a topic people love talk about but very rarely actually come face to face on facts with. I wonder if a lot of people continue the conversation out of something akin to morbid curiosity, like peeking over the wall when you were 9 years old at the crazy old guy in neighborhood that everyone was afraid of. We all had the bogeyman in the local area, or sometimes just that big abandoned house, and it was not until we go older we learned it was just a lonely old man or an empty old house and the story we grew up with was far more tasty and interesting than the reality behind the curtain.

And really, isn’t that what all the hype around the HTS boils down to for anthropologists? Just the neighborhood bogeyman made manifest? Nothing people complain about in the HTS is new or unique in this situation: take a look at USAID, State Department, any numbers of NGO’s. All the same issues exist, why is the HTS singled out for special hysteria on the part of a few people?

I don’t know all the reasons but one that strikes me is part of the bogeyman theme. For all the complaints about a lack of transparency, this is the first time that a military/attempt-at-an-anthropology-partnership has been directly brought forward that people can see, feel, talk, to, debate and touch. People have been forced to grow up, borrow some flashlights from the closet and explore the spooky house down the road. Every odd sound makes you scream and every irregular dark patch is imagined to be the blood stains that complete and confirm the long told story of gruesome murder in the adolescent mind. But gradually, as the eyes adjust, the creaks are just an old house settling and the stains are evidence of nothing more than water rot. This is a potential time for the discipline to grow a little bit more and shake off some of the more childish notions about the nature of what evil and oppression means in the world and see it as it really is. Or maybe its anthropology going back to adulthood after a stint in 2nd childhood? True, it’s not as exciting, you don’t get to feel as self-righteous as much, but you cannot live in illusion forever.

This is also why I don’t see much point in the military or intel communities to bother engaging with the AAA at all. I’ve said it before on this topic:  why try to date someone that does not want to date you? It’s as silly for a program like the HTS to seek the approval of the AAA as it would be for a corporation employing anthropologists too. There is no legitimate reason to worry about currying favor with the larger community of anthropologists, none. It confers no credibility, it is not interested in providing a hiring pool, and there is little interest by the AAA in moving a potentially new field forward unless it conforms to the very limited and ideological box of a vocal minority. Trust me, never once in my corporate career or since I have been here has anyone inquired as to the status of my membership in the AAA. If you provide good, credible, actionable results that all that is asked.

As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military –Part 1

Yes, I know. I rant about the AAA and yet I still download the PDF of the conference program. I wonder why we all do things like that? It’s not like I’m looking to change the stance of the AAA or the stance of people that get hysterical over anthropologists working in the military or intel communities. To me, those are all done deals, my mind is not going to change (at least not by the arguments presented so far) and I am not going to change someone else’s. Everyone may as well go to their separate corners and be done with it. But yet I still feel the need to raise a voice from time to time. Not to change peoples’ minds, but perhaps to let other people (students?) know that anthropology can be much more than what (I believe) a small group of people have been trying to limit it to. Political ideology and political correctness are not substitutes for doing the work and analysis in order to get to the clearest answers and insights… it’s not about hunting for a way to prove the other person right or wrong, or at least it shouldn’t be. Maybe you do harbor a secret desire to work for the CIA or NSA. Sure, given the oppressive political environment some anthropologists want to create, you may not want to advertise that fact, but know that there are others out there like you but they might not have the title “anthropologist.” It’s not news that I am ethically fine with people that have anthropology training working in all areas of the military and intel communities, not just contributing to the stabilization and community building kind of work that people we partner with are engaged in. Hell, I am fine if people want to use their skills to move forward the political agenda they are most passionate about. But use your skills and don’t just lay down in front of the agenda laid out for you. How many anthropologists that were against the invasion of Iraq actually used their skills, expertise and training as anthropologists to prevent or shorten the escapade? Lets count the hands up… anyone, anyone? Sorry, scribbling a poster to hold up as an anonymous face at a rally is not using your advanced training to change the direction of government and neither is a signed statement of protest. Use your skills to do fieldwork, use the fieldwork to generate insights, us those insight to create plans of action and recommendations. The reason why corporations and the military have been working with anthropologists for years is that they get value from the anthropologists doing what they are trained to do. Why is it when anthro’s decide to protest something they don’t bother doing any of that same work to further their own agendas? Creating real change requires doing real work.

Students: There is good and honorable work out there in non-profits, political groups, all levels of national, state and local governments, military, corporations, and more, no matter what your convictions but rarely is it called anthropology and would benefit greatly from the mind set of an anthropologist. Anthropologists have a lot of opportunities for a seat at these tables, they just have to be willing to get off the high horse and take it.