Assessing Theoretical Perspectives Introduction

Because ethnographies are essentially descriptive, it is hard for students to identify the theoretical perspectives that define them. By asking students to detect and analyze the application of a specific theoretical position in an ethnographic piece of writing, they are encouraged to "look behind the lens"--the theoretical lens anthropologists inevitably use in selecting and interpreting fieldwork data. In so doing, students learn to contextualize ethnography at the intellectual as well as at the cultural level.

This type of analysis can only be expected from students who have a solid understanding of the history of sociocultural anthropology in general and of culture theory in particular. Thus, in lower-division classes such as ANTH210 ("History of Anthropological Theory"), students generally engage in contrast-and-compare discussion of the various theoretical approaches which have characterized the discipline, both to historically situate them, and to gain insights into the dialectical process--often interdisciplinary--leading to their alternation. In turn, this discussion needs to be built on a clear comprehension of the basic definitions and concepts characterizing various theoretical approaches, and there is no better vehicle to demonstrate such comprehension than through a "précis"--the concise, focused summary of an academic argument. 

Any "theory assessment" analysis of ethnography can only be built upon the ability to write a lucid précis, and an excellent example of this ability is provided by the piece by Justin Lancon, written for ANTH445 ("Culture Analysis Seminar"), a "culminating course" for majors. The piece by Jan Habarth, written for a Special Topics class (ANTH479) on "Ethnography" taken almost two decades ago, offers instead an outstanding example of the full-fledged critical review and analysis of a book-length ethnography in reference to the theoretical perspective defining it. Besides stimulating analytical and critical skills, and firming up the students' grasp of disciplinary history, these assignments also serve to demonstrate that the central methodological approach of Boasian anthropology--participant observation through fieldwork--has not been fundamentally modified by any of the various theoretical perspectives that have alternated "in fashion" since the emergence of modern anthropology. What has changed in the social sciences since the rise of postmodernism--as discussed in Habarth's piece--is instead the adoption of "ethnographic methods" unanchored by a theory of culture built upon the records collected through more than a hundred years of anthropological research. But ethnography of this kind is neither "fiction" (as many of its critics have labelled it), nor "science"--it is simply journalism, and students must understand the great differences in research objectives which are behind writings that may superficially appear quite similar. 

by Justin Lancon 

by Jan Habarth

Return to the table of contents for 3.1 Writing for Cultural Anthropology