Tag Archives: Anthropology

Geertzian moments (or, ‘when ethnographers lose their shit’)


Fieldwork photo (2008)

Returning home from hunting on our Husband’s country, fieldwork (2008)


There are certain moments during fieldwork that anthropologists refer to as ‘Geertzian moments’ or sometimes ‘Geertzian cockfight moments’. These are pivotal moments when something in one’s disposition and social relations shifts dramatically. Often it’s a moment of losing oneself and behaving in a way that one wouldn’t have expected or couldn’t anticipate, and it’s not until afterwards when you pause and reflect that you realise what has just occurred. It is in that moment of reflection that the ethnographer realises they’ve reached some tipping point of enculturation. This tipping point, in turn, changes the way that the ethnographer is perceived and treated. You become less of an outsider and start to be considered and treated more like ‘one of us.’ In this sense, there’s an element of intimacy and trust involved and I suspect this is because so-called ‘Geertzian moments’ are often triggered by some stressor and the ethnographer’s response often leaves them vulnerable or exposed in some way.

To give you a sense of Geertz’s now classic ‘moment’, the following is an excerpt from ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight‘. It begins with Geertz and his wife accompanying their extended family to a cockfight in Bali. Cockfights are illegal in Bali, the police stage a raid, and so it begins . . .


‘On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves . . . .


The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and, most especially, amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had fled like everyone else. They asked us about it again and again (I must have told the story, small detail by small detail, fifty times by the end of the day), gently, affectionately, but quite insistently teasing us: “Why didn’t you just stand there and tell the police who you were?” “Why didn’t you just say you were only watching and not betting?” “Were you really afraid of those little guns?” As always, kinesthetically minded and, even when fleeing for their lives (or, as happened eight years later, surrendering them), the world’s most poised people, they gleefully mimicked, also over and over again, our graceless style of running and what they claimed were our panic-stricken facial expressions.


But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.’

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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

The way value inheres: Yolŋu riŋgitj and its relationship to Malay ‘ringgit’


Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.

Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.


There are many loan words from Malay and other Austronesian languages in the Yolŋu languages of east Arnhem Land (see Evans 1992). These derive from pre-colonial exchange relations between Yolŋu people and seafarers from the port of Macassar (now Ujung Pandang) in Sulawesi. Collectively referred to as ‘Maŋgatharra’ in Yolŋu-matha, these seafarers made the annual voyage to Arnhem to collect trepang and engage in broader exchange relations with Yolŋu people.† A number of Yolŋu people also accompanied Maŋgatharra on return voyages to the Port of Macassar, as evidenced by oral history and art work such as that pictured above.

Among this body of loan words is the Yolŋu-matha term riŋgitj, derived from the Malay term ringgit, meaning ‘jagged’ and originally used to refer to the serrated edges of silver Spanish dollars which circulated widely in the region during the 16th and 17th century. Today, of course, ringgit refers to the national currency of Malaysia. (It was officially adopted as the name of their currency in August 1975.) Continue reading

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A pluralistic approach to the anthropology of morality: Yolŋu reverse role-play

‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’

– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.


I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.

This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this. Continue reading

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Head + ghost + dog = blunt ears: a curious language note




One of my few PhD fieldwork regrets is that I didn’t take the time to learn Yolŋu sign language. I had the great fortune of having a beer conversation with two long term researchers in this area last night, Dany Adone and Bentley James. Adone and Maypilama (2013) define Yolŋu sign language as  both an alternate and primary sign language. It is used on a daily basis on the Homelands, as a way to talk to each other from a distance (when out of hearing range), as a way to communicate when out hunting (when you want to be quiet for obvious reasons), and as a means to communicate things you just don’t want others to hear. Children also often use it just because. My little gaminyarr, for example, tells the most hilarious stories in sign-language, made all the more funny on account of her overly exaggerated manner of signing.

Anyway, the other day Bentley shared with me the hand-sign for the idiom buthuru-dumuk, and I found it a little big bit more than curious. Buthuru-dumuk (literally ‘ears-blunt’), is a Yolŋu-matha idiom used to refer to people who behave in an unthinking or unfeeling manner (and who upset or affront others as a result). It has connotations of being insensate, ignorant and unaware. The hand-sign for buthuru-dumuk, however, is comprised of three separate hand-signs: the sign for liya (head), the sign for mokuy (ghost, evil spirit) and the sign for watu (dog). Head + ghost/evil spirit + dog = buthuru dhumuk. How could one not find this impossibly curious?

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A tiny little fieldnote in an otherwise ellipsis.


Jörg Schmeisser. Mangrove and Notes, Etching, 2010.

Jörg Schmeisser, Mangrove and Notes, Etching, 2010.



Warrnyu mala



yukurra butthun




out of



[the] mangroves.





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February 20, 2014 · 11:01 pm

Moral Misrecognition: Misrecognising the Other as Self in cross-cultural relations


self other small

*A long read


I began my thesis with a puzzlement about an evident margin of misunderstanding – a pattern of cross-cultural misunderstanding – in social exchanges between Yolŋu and Balanda, which I eventually came to describe or refer to as ‘moral misrecognition.’ This initial puzzlement led me to ask a series of basic questions:  How do people consider and critically evaluate the morality and value of everyday social exchanges and social relations? What shared understandings underlie or underwrite local ideas and expectations about what is ab/normal, good/bad and/or un/desirable in everyday life? This, of course, turned into an ethnography of emotion and morality ‘toward a local theory of value and social exchange on the Yolŋu Homelands,’ [1] but in this post I want to briefly (hopefully) give a sense of what ‘moral misrecognition’ looks like.

The idea or concept of moral misrecognition is very loosely based on Lacan’s notion of méconnaissance. I use it in an intercultural or cross-cultural sense, however, to refer to situations in which the Self observes or experiences an exchange or interaction with or between a cultural Other or others and –  failing to recognise or understand the existence of cultural difference – interprets and evaluates their actions ‘as if’ they were the Self. This is a common experience for Yolŋu people and a phenomenon they are acutely aware of for this reason. People or situations of this kind are referred to as being dharaŋan-miriw (lit. ‘lacking or without recognising/understanding [something or someone’]). All this may sound rather abstract but hopefully the following excerpts give a sense of what I mean and what I’m referring to. The first is an excerpt from a John Leavitt paper, the second from a chapter by Markus and Kitayama.


“These were emotions with which I could empathize, especially given the circumstances that my wife and I faced at the time: far from home, in what for us seemed difficult  physical conditions, with each receiving frightening news of the bad health of a parent back home.


At the same time, however, differences emerged between the sadness I carried with me and Ganganath’s udekh-bairag. Because I will discuss the specificity of Ganganath’s imputed experience below, let me cite a different example here. We were walking down a hot, dusty mountain road, coming home from a wedding with three or four other people. One woman had her small daughter along, and the child was hot, tired, grumpy and wanted to be carried. The mother was tired too, had no intention of carrying the girl, and, annoyed by her whining, gave her a smack. The daughter screamed. So far so good: I recognized the opening shots in a battle of wills between parent and child of the kind that one could see at any time in a North American shopping center. What happened next, however, gave me pause: the mother did not get angry; she laughed. She found her daughter’s screaming funny and kept giving her a little whack from time to time, apparently to provoke the tears of rage that she found so amusing.


This was clearly a different emotional scenario than the one with which I thought I was uncomfortably empathizing, and it implied different meanings: in particular, a set of definitions of children that were not those that I had brought with me.”


– John Leavitt (1996, p. 520).


And an excerpt from Markus and Kitayama, which is not quite so clear cut and which draws the reader into the dilemma of potential moral misrecognition a little more:


“In December 1992, the Japanese royal family announced that Crown Prince Naruhito had chosen Masako Owada, a bright, highly educated, fast-track member of the Foreign Ministry, to become the future Empress. Most Japanese were pleased at the prospect of having such a lively and accomplished Princess as part of their monarchy. But according to American press reports, many Americans, as well as many young Japanese women, could not begin to fathom how such a thoroughly modern, internationalized woman, even if she liked the Prince, could toss away a brilliant career to marry him and disappear into the conservative, humourless, controlling royal family where her life would never be her own again and her primary goal would be to produce a male heir to the throne. As the June marriage approached, it seemed evident, according to analysts on both sides of the Pacific, that Masako Owada felt that it was her “duty” to marry the Prince.


From an American perspective, the decision seemed to reflect forced compliance, self-denigration, and self sacrifice. In giving up her hard-won career, she seemed, in the eyes of many, to be betraying the cause of individual determination, feminism in Japan, and ultimately, herself. The local controversy surrounding this particular social event is unlikely to be remembered for long, but it illustrates a classic problem in the analysis of social behavior and one that is at the heart of this chapter. From many European-American perspectives, the Princess’s decision was “obviously” self-sacrificing and “naturally” accompanied by the emotion of unhappiness at not being able to realize some important defining attribute of the self. However, what is not evident in this analysis is the multi-leveled, dynamic interdependency among socially appropriate behavior, the self, and emotion.


The American understanding of this Japanese behavior is anchored in a particular individualist approach to the self. From a different orientation, one in which the individual is cast not as an independent entity but as one fundamentally interdependent with others, the decision to marry the Prince could be understood differently. It is possible from this other perspective that the Princess may not have felt sacrifice or injury to the self, but rather affirmation of a more connected, obligation-fulfilling, social self. She may indeed have felt content or “good’ as a result of her decision to respond to the desires and expectations of others and marry into the royal family. As is evident in this example and in studies from anthropology and cultural psychology (for recent reviews see Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Moghaddam, Taylor, & Wright, 1993; Shweder, 1991; Shweder & LeVine, 1984; Smith & Bond, 1993; Stigler, Shweder, & Herdt, 1990; Triandis, 1990), what is regarded as positive or negative normative social behaviour can vary dramatically from one cultural group to another.’


–  Markus and Kitayama (1994, pp. 89-90).


After hopefully conveying a sense of what I mean by ‘moral misrecognition’ and what it looks like – this is how I begin my thesis:


‘I begin with a case study to illustrate the potential for what I refer to throughout the thesis as ‘moral misrecognition’ in intercultural relations.[2] The thesis also ends with a discussion of moral misrecognition. I have chosen to bookend the thesis in this way because the subject and focus of the thesis is, in many ways, a response to my experience and observations of this phenomenon;  the thesis is in many ways an account of my own gradual ‘coming to terms’ with, and eventual understanding of ‘what is going on’ in instances of misrecognition in intercultural exchange or cross-cultural relations.

The most significant thing about the findings of this thesis, in my mind, is their potential to promote a better understanding of the Yolŋu ‘side’ of the intercultural,and in this way encourage recognition and understanding of cultural difference – to work against that which leads to moral misrecognition in the first place. In short, I hope to impart some of what I learned (or was taught with much patience) about the potential value of cultural difference. As I have mentioned hereon before, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my  Yolŋu family and the wider Yolŋu community is that difference may be realised as a value as it forms the basis for ongoing relationships characterised by interdependence and reciprocity. Valued difference affords opportunity to ‘carry and hold’ one another (gäma, ŋayathama), to ‘help and assist one other’ (guŋgay’yun-mirri), to ‘care for and look after one another’ (djäka-mirri) – all of which are important aspects of what it is and means to be gurrutu-mirri (‘to have kin, to have the quality of kinship for one another’). Without further ado, a case study illustrating the potential for moral misrecognition in intercultural relations:


‘It was the beginning of the wet season when social spacing becomes oppressive and mobility a luxury. The stalwarts of camp, luku-man’ka-mirri yolŋu (‘people whose feet possess the quality of the clay’), which was about ten of us, had been sitting around expectantly from morning ‘till night for ten consecutive days waiting for the mechanics from the local government service provision agency to fly in. The mechanics were expected to fix one of the three cars in camp.


Having a functional car in the wet season affords an invaluable expansion of social space and a degree of food security at a time of the year when both are scarce. They had also agreed to fix the ride-on lawnmower, which would have drastically reduced the time and energy we were spending cutting the grass around camp in order to keep the snakes and mosquitoes at bay. In short, their visit was expected to dramatically increase our quality of life at a time of the year when it’s at its lowest.


Each day of waiting family had called the office a number of times, but for whatever reason there was a general misunderstanding. We sat expectantly and no plane arrived. On the tenth day Wäwa said he was going to rakuny-thirri (‘become dead, “die”’) if he rang again, and asked me to call instead.


I got through to the head mechanic who explained that they were still waiting for a part for our car, and even then, wouldn’t come until they could double up the flight with  other workers to avoid costs. He explained that they’d probably make it out in the next few days on the builders’ plane, that the builders were intending to fly out to fix the diesel-generator shed, which had been damaged in a storm. I thanked him, buoyed by the prospect of mobility, and relayed the story to family outside. However, my excited relief was short lived. Yapa  reacted angrily, insisting she had told the builders not to come.


“I told them to stay there and do whatever their work, bits and pieces. They were supposed to fix the diesel shed LAST year! Because they made us wait, so this one [the diesel shed] can just sit here now until June or September!” I was baffled.


“But if you stop the builders then the mechanics can’t come and fix the cars and the lawnmower . . . ”




Not only had we been waiting for the cars and lawnmower, but family had been complaining about the need to have the shed fixed for months. They’d even had me take photos of the damaged shed to send the office in order to press the urgency of the matter, with the wet already upon us. However, when office administration rang the following day to organise the logistics of the builders’ and mechanics’ visit they were told in no uncertain terms not to come, “because the builders were supposed to have done it last year.”


After the call, crestfallen, I joined the rest of family, who, in contrast seemed rather excitable. They posited what they would say and do if the builders attempted to fly out, making general insults and complaints about them, about Balanda (‘European/s, white person/people’) at the Service Provider, and about the Service Provider in general. They speculated as to whether they’d heard the builders in the background during the call, and felt they had reason to suspect they might try and ‘sneak in’. The more they talked about it, the more their sense of defiance increased, until Yapa posited we dhal’-yurra (‘close [up], block [off]’) the airstrip, in case they did try to ‘sneak in.’ It was a perfect idea, a strong one – and within half an hour there was a lawnmower, children’s toys and a number of other stray objects right in the middle of the airstrip.


All the while I sat, frustrated, wondering what the hell type of strategy this was, and how the hell it was going to get the car fixed.’


Ideas and expectations about sociality and sociability entail evaluative, moral understandings about the nature of Self and the relationship between the  Self and Others.  These shared understandings are largely tacit or taken for granted (and largely a product or result of child socialisation), however, there is now a large body of literature detailing considerable cross-cultural variation on these themes. Foreshadowing the themes that run through this thesis, Markus and Kitayama write on the topic thus:


‘The shape of the self (i.e., its various meanings and practices) will . . . determine the nature of “good” feelings and of the social behavior that will promote and foster these good feelings. This means that what is experienced as joyful or happy or as sad or angering depends on the mediating self. Aside from the good affective reactions that accompany sweet tastes or smells, or the bad affective reactions that result from extremely loud sounds, bright lights, or hissing snakes, most “good” or “bad” feelings depend on extensive emotional socialization. Through this process, people come to “have” feelings of the shape and variety that reflect the specific value commitments of their significant social groups. Basic to this argument is the idea that being moral (i.e., proper, right, or appropriate) according to one’s group, feeling good, and being a person are all intimately connected’ (1994, p. 93).


My experience with Yolŋu people suggests that when the actions and interactions of one cultural group are cast exclusively in the terms of another (as often happens in intercultural relations), the significance and value underlying or motivating these social actions or social forms is not only lost or effaced but often misunderstood or misrecognised in an evaluative, moral sense. Non-recognition, in such cases, begets misrecognition. The resulting interpretation may be positive or negative. In the case of the latter, such misunderstandings or instances of misrecognition may be cast as moral judgements in evaluative terms of deviance or disorder.[2]

A marked asymmetry of power relations, such as sometimes occurs between cultural minority groups and the State, make certain people particularly ‘visible’ or vulnerable to ‘reparatory’ or disciplinary measures. These range from the disciplinary gaze of negative cultural or racial stereotypes, to ‘targeted’ forms of governance enacted or imposed by the State. The over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the legal system and in jails can be seen as an unfortunate outcome or exemplar of this phenomenon. As a corrective of sorts this thesis seeks to build upon the work of Frances Morphy (e.g. 2008) and that of Yolŋu people themselves, to ‘make visible’ the underlying socio-moral system in North East Arnhem Land, to present something of the local Yolŋu experience of intercultural relations – morality and value in social relations.’






**Endnote: It should come as no surprise that Balanda behaviour often seems not only incomprehensible but downright asocial and immoral from the Yolŋu point of view. Indeed, there exists a poignant, pointed local critique of Balanda patterns of sociality and the Balanda political and economic system also – the way it is structured, organised and run. The difference, however, is that Yolŋu people acknowledge, recognise and respect this cultural difference and continue – in spite of everything – to hope that they can one day expect the same from Balanda.


[1] In the following chapters of the thesis I outline the local model of social organisation and introduce a key body of terms and concepts associated with affect and morality in Yolŋu-matha. In the middle chapters I analyse a series of ethnographic case studies and observations from various aspects of everyday life. This is done drawing on the terms and concepts introduced in previous chapters. I show that these terms and concepts – and the shared understandings comprising them – not only inform the way people consider and evaluate morality and value in everyday relations, but motivate and shape culturally recognised and culturally recognisable forms of social exchange and patterns of sociality throughout the region. In the final chapter I consider this body of knowledge a model of exchange and theory of value in its own right – comparable to any academic or scholarly model/theory.

[2] In this case, the misunderstanding or ‘misrecognition’ obviously occurs between myself and my Yolŋu family as well as between the service providers and my Yolŋu family.


Filed under Anthropology, Indigenous Rights, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

More exclusion please: Gove Land Rights (1971) and Justice Blackburn’s ruling against Yolŋu claimants


Private Property


The Gove Land Rights case – Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (1971) 17 FLR 141 – was the first litigation on Native Title in Australia. Justice Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants on a number of issues, rejecting the doctrine of Aboriginal Title in favor of terra nullius. His ruling says a great deal about the Balanda (white people, European) concept of ‘private property’ and the social relations that comprise it.


‘I think that property, in its many forms, generally implies the right to use or enjoy, the right to exclude others, and the right to alienate. I do not say that all these rights must co-exist before there can be a proprietary interest, or deny that each of them may be subject to qualifications. But by this standard I do not think that I can characterize the relationship of the clan to the land as proprietary.


It makes little sense to say that the clan has the right to use or enjoy the land. Its members have a right, and so do members of other clans, to use and enjoy the land of their own clan and other land also. The greatest extent to which it is true that the clan as such has the right to use and enjoy the clan territory is that the clan may, in a sense in which other clans may not (save with permission or under special rules), perform ritual ceremonies on the land. That the clan has a duty to the land-to care for it-is another matter. This is not without parallels in our law, which sometimes imposes duties of such a kind on a proprietor. But this resemblance is not, or at any rate is only in a very slight degree, an indication of a proprietary interest.


The clan’s right to exclude others is not apparent: indeed it is denied by the existence of the claims of the plaintiffs represented by Daymbalipu. Again, the greatest extent to which this right can be said to exist is in the realm of ritual. But it was never suggested that ritual rules ever excluded members of other clans completely from clan territory; the exclusion was only from sites. The right to alienate is expressly repudiated by the plaintiffs in their statement of claim.


In my opinion, therefore, there is so little resemblance between property, as our law, or what I know of any other law, understands that term, and the claims of the plaintiffs for their clans, that I must hold that these claims are not in the nature of proprietary interests.


That disposes of the question in general terms, but it is proper also to consider the applicability of the Lands Acquisition Act 1955-1966. That Act does not define “property” but defines ” interest,” in relation to land, as “(a) a legal or equitable estate or interest in the land; or (b) a right, power or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” (s. 5 (1)). The earlier Act had substantially the same definition, applied to “land,” with the inclusion of the word “easement.”


The Solicitor-General submitted shortly (the point, in his submission, did not require extensive argument) that the Act does not apply to any interest other than one already known to the law of property at the time when the Act was passed.  It therefore could not protect the plaintiffs’ interests. I do not think I need decide the theoretical question whether a proprietary interest of a new kind which was created, or held to exist, after the passing of the Act, would be protected by it. Mr. Woodward submitted that the words “right, power, or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” were wide enough to cover “communal native title” which was shown by the evidence to be vested in the Rirratjingu and the Gumatj in respect of the land attributed to their respective clans. With respect, I think this is begging the question. It amounts to saying that whenever aboriginal natives are found in occupation of land under a system which does not recognize private property in land, that is “communal native title,” and that that alone is sufficient to attract the protection of the words “right, power, or privilege over, or in connexion with, the land” in the Act.’



Federal Law Report, Milirrpum and other v. Nabalco Pty. Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia (1971, pp. 272-273)







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Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Rights, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

An incidental typewritten note: MAUSS AND PROUDHON










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Theorising ‘value’ makes me frustrate in the head









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A critical note: ‘Marriage’ and its applicability in ethnographic description




This is an updated version of an older post, revived for students in my tutorials today.


There are infinite possible kinds or forms of long term intimate relations, or at least as many as there are possible combinations of persons alive at any given moment. It is unsurprising then, as feminist studies of kinship remind us, that there exists a great deal of diversity when it comes to socially recognised forms of intimate long-term relations. And yet pick up any ethnography, turn to the index, and there you will find the term marriage duly noted in between those things that come before and after. (Birth and death or maq– and mas-.) Flick back through to the relevant page and there you find an ethnographic description of marriage practices and marriage relations in the society or region in question.

In using these terms unproblematically anthropologists risk unwittingly translating over or effacing whatever it is that might be different, unique or idiosyncratic about socially recognised forms of intimate, long-term relations in the culture or region in question. Moreover, such habits of methodology unwittingly reproduce dominant norms[1] when it comes to understandings and expectations of what is ‘normal, proper and right’ in intimate relations. (“You mean they don’t have marriage!?!? *imagination goes wild*)


What is marriage?

Marriage relations are contractual relations (i.e. alienated relations) between two persons recognised, conferred and regulated by the Church and/or State. The relationship between husband and wife is first and foremost an exclusive status recognised, conferred and regulated by the Church and/or State (i.e. the personal relationship existed before and outside the institution of ‘marriage,’ it did not come into existence as a result of it.) In conferring this exclusive status the centralised authority also confers certain exclusive rights to persons involved who agree, by way or means of a binding contract, to accept certain obligations in turn.

There are further defining characteristics of ‘marriage’ which include: the ceremonial ‘signing’ of said binding contract;[2] the fact that the contract can only be terminated by the Church and/or State (i.e. a married couple cannot just ‘declare’ themselves no longer married), and crucially –  the fact that the exclusive rights conferred upon persons involved include rights and interests to persons and property, which significantly affects (if not determines) socio-economic patterns of succession/inheritance (i.e. the intergenerational transmission of socio-economic rights and interests to persons and property).


This doesn’t really sound like an ahistorical, cross-culturally neutral concept or institution, does it? So why do anthropologists so often employ it as if it were? A number or combination of reasons I think, chief among which is the difficulty in describing terms and concepts that do not have direct equivalents in the language in which the anthropologist is writing. Writing ethnographic descriptions of culturally recognised forms of anything, is a lot more difficult and involved than drawing on familiar terms and concepts from one’s own language and culture. Thick description takes forever! [3]

From Schneider and Strathern to Keen and Morphy, many anthropologists have written about and proposed ways and means to avoid translating over social and cultural difference. The most recent I have come across and enjoyed is the Introduction in Howard Morphy’s ethnography Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories (2008), where he writes, in part thus:


‘The development of a meta-vocabulary for anthropology, consisting of categories that are applicable cross-culturally, can be justified on a number of different bases. The pragmatic justification is that the meta-vocabulary is simply a formalisation of something that anthropologists do anyway. An anthropologist brings certain concepts with her or him into the field and uses them as an aid to analysing the data gathered from that society. The concept is then re-defined in terms of the categories and concepts of that society: so that gender in Melanesia, for example, is differently constructed or conceptualised than it is at a particular time and place in European history (see Strathern 1988).


It is better that anthropologists apply these terms in a considered way that reflects , even challenges the sense in which they are understood within the discipline than that they should apply them unreflexively and without definition.


A more theoretical answer is that the meta-vocabulary that anthropologists construct is indeed an acknowledgement of the existence of cultural categories that have general relevance. Not all cross-cultural categories are going to be universal; some may apply regionally or temporally. . . . To be valid in the sense in which I am using it, however it [the cross-cultural category] needs to be interrogated in the contexts where it is applied and to make sense to the people whose categories are under scrutiny. In practice such testing of the proposed category will proceed through ethnographic research . . . ‘ (2008, pp. 5-6).


In closing, a final note from Howard Morphy:


‘It is quite possible that as a result of investigation the anthropologist concludes that no such phenomenon exists in the society concerned, though it is more than likely that something will have some relationship to the phenomenon marked by the cross-cultural category. Of course it is precisely this mismatch that can result in a revision of the category itself’ (2008, p. 6).



#Occupy your own tools of analysis






[1] Assumed/dominant norms in the anthropologist’s culture or context (is what I mean here).

[2] As a cultural ceremony or ‘ritual’ most weddings follow Victor Turner’s three phases of ritual down to a tea: separation, transition/liminality and reintegration/incorporation.

[3] For non-anthropologists, ‘thick description’ is a term coined by Clifford Geertz. See the relevant wiki-entry, here.


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