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

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

  1. Interesting post Tony and I think one that is very relevant to Applied Anthros in particular. When I was in school, the idea of getting a holistic view of the world was closely tied to getting into the field. That was one reason to go: to get as complete a view of the context as possible. As we sit here in 2008, to me getting that holistic view on a topic means information from fieldwork is just one source of data among many. That completeness that we once went into the field to get is now gained by marrying field work not just with the previous studies done, but also with the work done in multiple hard and soft sciences. Wait… isn’t that what we have always done?

    It also speaks to the idea (and weakness) of treating the anthropologist as the all-knowing cultural expert / lone wolf researcher when the question at hand may better be served by a multi-functional teams of diverse skills. I am biased, I believe that a diverse small team almost always generates more interesting insights.

  2. Cindy


    I’m sure Tony and others are aware that there is a well-established critique in anthropology, as well as other philosophy of science quarters, on the idea of experience being the ultimate arbiter of truth and knowledge. However, that is the very cornerstone of most of Mark’s ranting about any critique of applied anthropology! This is a fact he seems to have utterly overlooked in his comment on this post. “They don’t know what it’s like because they haven’t done it…” “Until they’ve walked a mile in my boots, they have no right to even raise questions about my practice…” Mark has based most of his objections on the underlying assumption that knowledge gained through presence & proximity is inherently superior.

  3. Oh Pish Posh Little Missy! I don’t see a contradiction at all. I have never suggested that fieldwork is the one and only source you should ever use. (Or what I find to be the worse sin, that anthropologists are the only authoritative voice about culture.) But all things being equal, if I have two people that have both studied the folkways of a particular group in China and one has done all their research in the library and the other library and fieldwork, I am going to be looking to them for different kinds of information.

    People that have “been there an done it” from an ethnographic point of view are going to enjoy the advantage from having recent experience to put the historical context of the library research in and vis versa.

    Now, when you are talking about people that are blowing hot air based on speculation, paranoia, conspiracy theory and ideology on a topic, then yes… i am going to go with the “been there done that” that can speak to the topic with the authority that comes from good fieldwork and solid analysis. Which of course, the local university library should be full of fine ethnographies that fit that description.

  4. Tony

    Pish posh, and holy hypocrisy? There is enough here for a couple more blogs, I think.

    One that comes to mind is the lone ranger ethnographer, vs. the gang-up version of consultancy teams. One is known for being insightful but irrelevant in academic circles, the other often helps build consensus for a particular policy position, but is irrelevant in academic circles. For now I will let you guess which is which…

  5. My comment (cross-posted from Savage Minds)

    The important question here is “Why vs.?” Why not see the fieldworker’s eye-witness account and what can be found in libraries as complementary sources of information?

    To me, Clifford Geertz’s account in the introduction to Islam Observed nails the critical issue. We go into the field in search of insights that only first-hand experience produces—but their value can only be assessed in conversation with scholars pursuing other approaches. That conversation starts in the library (or, nowadays, on line).

  6. Anonymous

    John of course is correct in his point. But still, too often the street cred of a “I saw it myself” trumps “I read about it in the library.” I do it myself in class when I show my slides from Tanzania, or whereever, to provide my legitimacy on the point I am making.

    A more recent example came up in the recent campaign for the US Presidency when John McCain asserted that he was more informed about the war in Iraq because he had made six fact-finding trips to Iraq, as opposed to Barack Obama’s one trip. Frankly, I think their time would have been better spent in the libarary reading about Iraq itself and the nature of insurgency in general. Such a use of time would have provided the context necessary to evaluate the masses of pseudo-ethnographic data coming from Iraq in the form of memos and reports.

  7. John

    No question about it: the eye-witness account works wonders in classrooms. But that raises another issue: Is the classroom the only place anthropologists want to be heard? When Geertz talks about testing our ideas in conversations with other disciplines or Marcus and Fischer note that ethnography now competes head-on with genres like journalism and documentary film as well as other scholarship, they are warning us that speaking only to each other and our students and depending on “I was there” in a world where travel is increasingly common is a recipe for extinction.

  8. Tony

    John raises a good point. How is ethnography different than journalism, documentary film, etc.? I like to think that what separates ethnography is that the use of systematic methods of data collection, and theory are at the center of what ethnographers do.

    Journalists quite often have good methods of data collection, and throw in a little theory, too. But the core purpose (it seems to me) is to tell a good story. Ethnographers may well do this too, but it is not central.

  9. Donna

    Ah, but Tony, no one will (voluntarily) read the ethnography if it’s not also a good story.

  10. Tony

    Yes, Donna, I agree. But the problem is that some of the best story-tellers never leave the library (or write ethnographies, for that matter). As for me, I am still angling for a trip to somplace exotic. If I get some blogging energy up again, I will perhaps write about why ethnographies are best done in the field, even if you never go to the library.

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