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Introduction to Anthropology

1.7 Reaching for an Insider’s Point of View

Introduction to Anthropology1.7 Reaching for an Insider’s Point of View

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define the notion of insider’s point of view.
  • Critique the notion of insider’s point of view, explaining how it is never perfectly achievable.
  • List and describe the distinctive methods anthropologists deploy in their attempts to represent an insider’s point of view

Bettina Shell-Duncan’s work on FGC demonstrates the importance of setting aside your own values and opinions in order to see an issue from the point of view of those directly involved. This often means working across contexts, whether studying another group or another culture. Anthropologists across the four fields apply this technique. Cultural anthropologists talk to people and participate in social activities in order to understand cultural life. Archaeologists rely on artifacts and fossils to reconstruct the sociocultural life of peoples in earlier times and different places. Through these different methods, anthropologists all aim for the same thing: they want to understand the perspectives of the people who practice a particular culture, sometimes called an insider’s point of view.

The Challenge of Representing Others

The anthropological goal of representing an insider’s point of view is controversial. Is it truly possible to step outside your own identity to really understand a different perspective? How can a researcher from a particular culture possibly understand exactly how it feels to be a member of another culture? Even anthropologists who study their own cultures may find themselves researching people from different classes, ethnicities, or gender categories. Is it possible to accurately represent the perspectives of people whose lives are so different from your own? Is it ethical? Is it valuable?

For decades, White European and American anthropologists conducted research and wrote ethnographies as if the challenge of representing cultures very different from their own was really no problem at all. Empowered by White privilege and ethnocentrism, many earlier anthropologists believed that long-term intensive fieldwork was enough to give them cross-cultural insight into the perspectives of the people they studied.

Too frequently, those anthropologists reduced the complexity of the non-Western cultures they studied to just one point of view, as if the people in that society all interpreted their cultural rules the same way and never disagreed or changed the rules over time. In her book about Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes Japanese people in terms of common personality traits, such as reverence for the emperor and a moral sense guided by shame. Critics have argued that her conclusions are skewed by her overreliance on very few informants, all of them Japanese people confined to internment camps during World War II. As we have explored in this chapter, every culture comprises multiple perspectives that often contradict one another, generating sociocultural conflict and change. Recognizing this situation, contemporary anthropologists often conduct research among several different subgroups and geographical locations, integrating insights from these various arenas into a comprehensive and dynamic view of cultural complexity.

Then there is the question of deep-seated bias, often operating unconsciously among researchers and the people they study. Consider the situation above in which a White American anthropologist conducts research in an African country previously colonized by Europeans. European colonialism left behind a legacy of White privilege in postcolonial African countries. Earlier anthropologists did not often recognize how racialized power dynamics might shape their research and writing, distorting their representations of the peoples they studied. In the 1960s, anthropologists began to think more carefully about these issues, realizing that an insider’s point of view is never perfectly achievable. As human beings, our own perspectives are conditioned by our own enculturation, our own ways of seeing and thinking about the world around us.

If an insider’s point of view is never really possible, should we give up on this aspirational goal of the discipline? In such a scenario, researchers would only study and write about people from the same sociocultural categories as themselves. So, for example, Americans would only research and write about other Americans. But are all Americans really members of the same sociocultural category? Could an upper-class Asian American from Manhattan research and write about a poor Black community in the Deep South? Could a Latino man write about a group of Latinx/Latina/Latino people consisting of all genders? American culture is not unique in its complex array of identities. In all cultures, people have multiple identities as members of multiple sociocultural categories. While you may be an insider within your culture in some respect, you may be an outsider by some other measure. The ethical question of who can represent who is riddled with difficulties.

Moreover, resigning ourselves to studying “our own people,” whoever they might be, is tantamount to giving up on cross-cultural research and the insight, empathy, dialogue, and transformation that frequently result from it. Anthropological insights have been key to rethinking American notions of sexuality, family, and race, among so many other pressing issues. We need the skills of cross-cultural research now more than ever. While perfect representations of different communities and cultures may be impossible, many anthropologists now deploy innovative methods designed to address the problems of history and power at the heart of the discipline. The aim is not to achieve perfect ethnography but to work ethically and collaboratively to produce what contemporary cultural anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has termed “good enough ethnography.”

Collaborative Methods of Representation

Faced with the challenges of representation, many anthropologists practice methods of collaboration with the individuals and groups that they study. Collaborative ethnography has a very long history in cultural anthropology, traceable all the way back to early Euro-American ethnographies of Native Americans. Often, anthropologists began their research by employing a local person as a translator or field assistant, a role that usually evolved into something much more cooperative.

A black and white portrait of Francis La Flesche. He is dressed formally wearing a suit and tie.
Figure 1.10 Francis La Flesche (credit: “Francis laflesche” by National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Researching the Omaha peoples in the early 20th century, anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher began working with a young Omaha man, Francis La Flesche. Through their collaboration, La Flesche became an ethnographer himself. While most anthropologists of the day merely acknowledged their local collaborators (if they did even that), La Flesche became a full coauthor of their joint ethnography, The Omaha Tribe (1911).

Today, anthropologists collaborate with the people they study in a number of ways. Some involve local people as readers and editors of their work, sometimes including community responses in the published ethnography. Some conduct focus groups to generate local feedback on particular chapters. Some anthropologists hold community meetings or forums to talk about the major themes and implications of their work. And some, like Fletcher, collaborate with members of the local community as equal coauthors on books and articles. Such methods strengthen ethnography by ensuring accuracy, promoting multiple perspectives, and striving to make anthropological work more relevant to the communities being studied.

Collaboration also draws attention to the personal side of ethnography. Instead of extracting ethnographic “facts” from the process of fieldwork, many contemporary anthropologists focus on describing particular people, insightful conversations, and cooperative practices encountered in their research. Through this kind of representation, culture is represented as a constellation of personal perspectives, each one shaped by the position of each person in that community. Anthropologists also now acknowledge that ethnography is shaped by the personal background and identity of the researcher as well as the motivations and intended audience of the research. Collaborative anthropologists frequently describe their research in the first person, openly acknowledging how their personal and cultural biases influence their research.

Anthropologist Luke E. Lassiter takes a collaborative approach in his study of the song and dance of contemporary Kiowa communities of southern Oklahoma (1998). Lassiter describes how he became interested in Kiowa song as a boy through his involvement in the Order of the Arrow, an affiliate of the Boy Scouts. Moving beyond the superficial representations of Native American culture in Boy Scout teachings, Lassiter went on to attend powwows, where he met singers and learned more about Kiowa culture. He developed a close friendship with renowned Kiowa singer Billy Evans Horse, who taught Lassiter how to sing Kiowa songs and encouraged him to pursue his interest in Kiowa culture in graduate school. Instead of foregrounding his own description of Kiowa song and dance, Lassiter highlights the individual experiences and opinions of his local collaborators as they describe how songs are created, passed down, and interpreted in the community.

Collaborative anthropology is not only more ethical and accurate; it is also more socially conscious and political. When anthropologists collaborate as equals, they often become socially involved and politically committed to the welfare of the communities they study. There are various terms for this, among them engaged anthropology, public anthropology, anthropological advocacy, and applied anthropology. When those communities face struggles over land, food security, medical care, or human rights abuses, many anthropologists support their interests in a number of ways. Anthropologists often speak out publicly, write sympathetic ethnographies, testify in court, participate in protests, and coordinate with organizations that can provide material aid. Anthropologist Stuart Kirsch was researching magic and sorcery in a Yonggom village in Papua New Guinea when he became concerned about pollution from local copper and gold mines nearby (2018). As the community he was studying mobilized to protect their environment, Kirsch became involved in their lawsuit against the Australian owners of the mine. He contributed to a social and environmental impact study and advised lawyers representing the affected communities. He spoke out to local media and scholarly publications, explaining the environmental problems caused by pollution from the mine.

Working across Cultures toward Common Goals

Stepping back for a moment, consider the problems facing us as humans on our shared planet. Climate change threatens the survival of humanity and the biodiversity of plants and animals. Forms of deeply entrenched inequality fuel racial, ethnic, and class conflicts within and between nations. These are global problems, transnational problems, cross-cultural problems. Human beings need to find a way to communicate and cooperate across the sociocultural boundaries that divide us, always recognizing the power dynamics involved in that process.

How can we do this? Anthropology teaches us that we may never understand exactly how it feels to be a member of a different culture or group within our own culture. But if we want to work together with people of different sociocultural backgrounds to solve these pressing global issues, we have to try. Long-term fieldwork and cross-cultural collaboration are not perfect solutions to the challenges of cross-cultural understanding, but these methods give us a place to begin. And anthropological methods and insights can be transformative, making possible the kinds of empathy and dialogue necessary to solve our global problems.

The goal of this anthropology textbook is to guide you in this process of transformation as you learn about the cultural lives of the various peoples with whom you share this planet.

Mini-Fieldwork Activity

Representation and Otherness


List three characters from fictional movies or television shows who represent people from cultures different from your own. What adjectives would you use to describe these characters? How are they made to appear? How do they act? Are they central or marginal characters? What role does each play in the plot or theme? What might be the consequences of representing cultural groups in this way? Do you see evidence of ethnocentrism, primitivism, and/or orientalism as described in this chapter?

Suggested Readings

Engelke, Matthew. 2018. How to Think Like an Anthropologist. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hastrup, Kirsten, ed. 2014. Anthropology and Nature. Routledge Studies in Anthropology 14. New York: Routledge.

Otto, Ton, and Nils Bubandt, eds. 2010. Experiments in Holism: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Anthropology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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