Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Postmodern Ethnography in Standing Ground by Thomas Buckley

In his book, Standing Ground, Thomas Buckley uses postmodernist methods to understand and explain the culture of the Yurok Indians of Northern California. Central to his methodology is “the most ancient of intellectual strategies, storytelling” (Buckley 2002: 23). By privileging the stories told by native authors involved in the Yurok culture he was describing, Buckley allows the reader of this ethnography to wade through a larger pool of voices through which the reader may emerge with a changed understanding of the culture being investigated and explained. For Buckley, this approach “is, if nothing else, a more modest undertaking than constructing a line of data and argument...along which the reader is marched toward a foreordained, explanatory conclusion: ‘I have shown that….’” (Buckley 2002: 23).

By privileging storytelling as ethnographic strategy, Buckley embodies three postmodernist concepts of ethnography: (1) Ethnography as ‘Thick Description,’ (2) Ethnography as Discourse, and (3) Ethnography as a Process of Knowledge. This paper will examine how Buckley uses these three approaches in his ethnographic work.

Ethnography as ‘Thick Description’

Clifford Geertz, in his essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” argues that the concept of culture is essentially semiotic or shaded by nuances of multiple possible meanings (1973: 5). For Geetrz, an ethnographer is faced with a “multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit” (1973: 10). The ethnographer must first understand and then render these conceptual structures through a ‘thick description’ or narrative that allows for the multiple meanings that are present during observation. Geertz argues that the whole point of his semiotic approach to culture is “to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them” (1973: 24).

Buckley acknowledges that his work is influenced by Geertz (2002: 21) and that he feels the best way to achieve a ‘thick description’ is to “let everyone tell stories” (2002: 23). Buckley uses this strategy throughout his ethnography but his treatment of the stories of “men doctors” may best exemplify his understanding of thick description.

According to Buckley, A. L. Kroeber insisted that the Yuroks always took for granted that a sucking doctor (kegey) was a woman (2002: 162). Kroeber seems to have disregarded the information provided to him by Native Authors such as Fanny Flounder and Robert Spott and in his quest to reconstruct Yurok culture, he negated the significance of men as kegey for five possible reasons ranging from a limited understanding of the word kegey to a predisposition to creating a hypothetical ethnographic present and a disregard for an emergent regional culture (2002: 162-163). In fact Buckley asserts: “I believe that Kroeber was wrong on several accounts and that his errors resulted precisely from his conception of cultures in northwestern California as having segregated ‘compartments’ of traits and his consequent failure to appreciate the complex integration of various domains and associational spheres in those cultures” (2002: 164).

In contrast, Buckley weaves the narratives of Lucy Thompson, Robert Spott, Fanny Flounder, and others to demonstrate that the kegey also included anyone, male or female, that “drew spiritual power from the upper world and applied it to the well-being of individuals and communities” (2002: 163). Kroeber expressed dismay at the term kegey being applied to men that contributed to the deerskin dance because he viewed the world renewal and doctoring activities as occupying separate compartments of culture. For Kroeber, culture was segmented and compartmental while Buckley understands that culture is a multiplicity of complex structures that are knotted and messy.

Ethnography as Discourse

James Clifford, in his essay “Partial Truths,” asserts “[e]thnography is actively situated between powerful systems of meaning. It poses its questions at the boundaries of civilizations, cultures, classes, races, and genders” (1986: 2). Because ethnography is inscribed as text, it is constructed, objectified, and subject to “the powerful lies of exclusion and rhetoric” (1986: 7). In order to accommodate native speakers, culture needs to be seen as “an interplay of voices, of positioned utterances” (1986: 12) and ethnographers should move towards a specification of discourses that addresses who is speaking and writing, who they are speaking with, and under what institutional and historical constraints (1986: 13). For Clifford, ethnographers no longer hold “unquestioned rights of salvage” (1986: 16) but must include native informants as co-authors while recognizing their own role as interpreting observer (1986: 17). In other words, cultures are not scientific objects but “contested, temporal, and emergent” (1986: 19).

Buckley recognizes Clifford’s call for a dialogical ethnography but struggles with the fact that an ethnographer acts as a final editor (2002: 22). Still, in his analysis of the Jump Dance, he opposes the scientific objectivism of the ‘world renewal cult’ by Kroeber and his student Gifford and casts world renewal as cultural discourse. He criticizes the ‘totalizing approaches’ of Kreober as excluding both individuals and history from ethnographic analysis by creating systems that are closed to individuals and change (2002: 266-267). Buckley argues that world renewal cannot be reduced to elements or structures but that fixing the world “is also the goal of a discourse into which these elements enter as central motifs or themes and is thus a process, something emergent, rather than a reduced ‘system,’ ‘pattern,’ or ‘organization.’” (2002: 267). For Buckley, although discourse theory may provide an interpretive mode for understanding what people do, “what they do is a mode of discourse, of oppositions simultaneously yearning toward wholeness” (2002: 268).

By listening to the dialogue of story telling, Buckley illustrates his point by using Kroeber’s own recorded narratives of two myths surrounding the deerskin dance (2002: 272-273). In both myth narratives, the parties involved negotiate on how and where to perform the dance and “[t]hus these myths suggest that the constant effort to get it right is of equal importance and interest to getting it right” (2002: 273). Kroeber, in order to classify a timeless closed system, missed the important evidence of an emergent, living process of negotiation into a native understanding of world renewal.

Ethnography as a Process of Knowledge

George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, in their book Anthropology as Cultural Critique, summarize interpretive anthropology as operating on “two levels simultaneously: it provides accounts of other worlds from the inside, and reflects about the epistemological groundings of such accounts” (1986: 16). In other words, “the effort to conceive of culture primarily as systems of meaning has come to focus on the process of interpretation itself, that is, on ethnography as a process of knowledge” (Ibid.).

Buckley casts himself as a witness with political, moral, and ethnographic commitments to his academic readers (2002: 20). Throughout his book, Buckley steps back to allow native authors to tell their own stories before stepping back into the narrative to explain the significance of those stories.

An excellent example of this strategy is in Chapter 4 (“Seeing With Their Own Eyes”) when Buckley explores the physical aspect of Yurok spirituality (2002: 90-101). Throughout this section Buckley weaves the words and perspectives on ‘training’ supplied by native peoples like Frank Douglas, Philip Drucker, Dewey George and others into a process of understanding how Yurok men trained both as an individual and as an actor community life (2002: 91). This training enabled those who practiced to achieve the social ideal of male (2002: 91), commune with past traditions of daily life (2002: 92), compete in the stick game in lieu of warfare (2002: 95), and compile spiritual power that may result in supernatural feats of strength, endurance, or mien (2002: 96-101). By weaving the narratives as seen through the eyes of multiple native informants, Buckley demonstrates that the distinctions of mind, body, and spirit within Yurok spirituality is a process that is messier and more interwoven than any closed classification can reflect in reality.

-Safari Bob

References Cited

Buckley, Thomas
2002 Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality, 1850-1990. Berkley: University of California Press.

Clifford, James
1986 Introduction: Partial Truths. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Eds. Berkley: University of California Press, pp. 1-26.

Geertz, Clifford
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Marcus, George E. and Fischer, Michael M.
1986 Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.