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Toward the end of "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage," Rosaldo suggests that "the classic view of culture as a self-contained whole made up of coherent patterns" is no longer acceptable. What does he suggest in its place? What is the relationship between his revised concept of culture and his idea of the ethnographer as "positioned subject?"


Mark Smith

I agree with what Heddy says about the Brazilian Travestis.  While in theory any anthropologist could study any aspect of any culture, there are often cultural restrictions within the culture being studied.  By this I am referring to distinctions made in many cultures (between males and females, between homosexuals/heterosexuals/transgendered/asexuals/etc., distinctions in age, status differences, "race" distinctions).  There are many criteria that can strongly influence the success of an ethnography.  Of course in the past there were many cultures that anthropologists knew very little about.  Therefore, some of the earliest anthropological fieldwork had to deal with these previously unknown cultural restrictions.  Today with globalization, etc, much more is known about the world's cultures.  Therefore, anthropologists may design their fieldwork based on where they "fit in" most.  Possibly though, the anthropologist does not have to apply to a different culture's rules (i.e. film crews who are able to film rituals when typically such technology would never be acceptable by members of the culture). 


To me, Anne Menley's Tournaments of Value exemplifies well the concept of the ethnographer as a "positioned subject."  Menley points out that specifically due to her gender, she was able to study upper class Yemeni women more effectively than any man (who oftentimes could not be in the presence of women in certain circumstances).  This transforms the "classic view of culture" because not all anthropologists are alike when studying a given culture.  I'd like to argue, though, that this previous knowledge of a culture somewhat categorizes the culture.  Cultural practices/restrictions are minimally stereotyped and as a result anthropologists find that certain cultures are more apt for them to study than others.  So, there are some believed coherent patterns (whether true or not) yet the new specialization of anthropologists is the postmodern method for handling this.  (I hope most of that makes sense!)


Culture as an Intersection

Savannah Fetterolf

Instead of viewing culture as an encompassing entity, Renato Rosaldo suggests that “culture can arguably be conceived as a more porous array of intersections where distinct processes crisscross from within and beyond its borders” (549-550). Rosaldo, by saying this, clearly states that culture is not something that can be defined as a microcosm, but must be viewed as something much more fluid. Culture, therefore, is not timeless, but set distinctly within its history and the particular set of individuals who comprise its members.


In proposing a new view on the definition of culture, Rosaldo also emphasizes a change in the role of the anthropologist. Along with other postmodern anthropologists, Rosaldo believes that the line between etic and emic perspectives is not as clear as traditional anthropologists would suggest. Instead, the ethnographer must take on the role of “positioned subject” in which they use their own experiences as well as their age, gender, race, etc. to relate to – and distance themselves – from the society in which they conduct research. Therefore, in the postmodern view of the role of the ethnographer, personal experience plays a central role in making culture accessible to readers. If the ethnographer attempts to remain fully objective, the ethnography is a product devoid of real human quality. Rosaldo, then, urges that ethnography must have room for personal reflection, looking at both the culture of study and the culture from which the ethnographer hails, meaning that, “anthropology then becomes a dialogue – a negotiation of interpretation between ethnographers and the cultures they purport to study” (543 – footnote 14).


Postmodern Critique of 'Observer'

Heddy Waters

I agree with everything Savannah has said. Rosaldo’s postmodern critiques of traditional anthropological theory and approach seem to draw our attention to the fact that we can never really be objective. No matter how culturally relative and critical we may be, we still were raised in a certain culture, were exposed to a certain set of ideas and opinions, and were surrounded by certain issues. No matter what, an ethnographer is marked and affected by the experiences he/she has made and where he/she has come from.


The footnote on page 549 remarks that “there is no longer an observer and man observed. Instead there are individuals prepared to know certain thing and not others.” This makes complete sense, considering that an ethnographer (observer) cannot go into a community and maintain unseen, unheard, and simply observe. One is an individual interacting and with preconceived notions and expectations through which one’s experiences are filtered. One might only hear things that conform to preconceived notions or focus on events that one can relate to (like with Rosaldo and the grief felt after his wife’s death). Thus, the “positioned observer” refers to the ability of certain people to be in the right state of mind, or “position,” to accept, grasp, and validate certain phenomena; “He or she occupies a position or structural location and observes with a particular angle of vision” (549). This new notion of “positioned observer” is in contrast to the more traditional view that we (as anthropologists) must remain objective without becoming biased, maintaining a stance, or getting personally involved.


A good example is a book on Brazilian Travesti’s (transgender prostitutes) that we recently read in Anthropology of Gender. In this book, the anthropologist doing the research is a homosexual male from northern Europe. Only because he was (a) a male, (b) gay, and (c) from northern Europe could he form a close bond with them, because they did not feel threatened, felt he could not be sexually interested in them, and knew he didn’t have Brazilian cultural biases, respectively. Thus, his “age, gender, status of being an outsider, and association with a neocolonial regime influenced what the ethnographer learned” (549). Only because he was correctly ‘positioned’ could he receive the information he did.


Alexandra Gagne

Rosaldo's opinions in "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage" truly seek to change the overall structure and framework of ethnographic work. His view of culture is generated from his ideas about the relationship between ethnographers and the culture which they are observing. As footnote 8 states, postmodern anthropologists make it a point to include an introspective account of the fieldwork, as well as providing information about the "observed." In fact, Rosaldo finds issue with this idea of "us" and "them," or the "observor" and the "observed." "The ethnographer, as a positioned sudject, grasps certain human phenomena beter than others. The notion of position also refers to how life experiences both enable and inhibit particular kinds of insight" (p. 549). There are to be no boundaries in the ethnography that Rosaldo describes- personal accounts need to be chronicled in order to gain insight into the feelings and motives of certain actions. Etic and emic boundaries are artificial. Therefore, objectivism is not an applicable concept in ethnography. Instead, Rosaldo takes pains to understand the local history and context of the headhunting tradition.. This, according to his ideas, in addition to his personal growth with the death of his wife, is what allows him to more successfully understand and study this culture.


Therefore, Rosaldo's idea of culture is drastically different from common anthropological theorists. "Culture can arguably be conceived as a more porous array of intersections where distinct processes crisscross from within and beyond its borders" (p. 550). Again, the idea that there are no boundaries in the study of culture is prevalent here. All factors must be observed within their specific context to get a clear picture. Also, Rosaldo states "my effort to show the force of a simple statement taken literally foes against anthropology's classic norms, which prefer to explicate culture through the gradual thickening of symbolic webs of meaning...Do people always in fact describe most thickly what matters most to them?" (p.538). He would opt to believe that culture is no a complex "webs of meaning" which build upon themselves. Geertz's idea is in fact in direct opposition to Rosaldo- he believes that meaning may not always be hidden under numerous other layers.


Cultural Dynamics being Dynamically Understood

Chelsey Megli

I think Rosaldo is very correct in arguing against "the classic view of culture as a self-contained whole made up of coherent patterns" (it is arguable, however, if this would be considered the 'classical view of culture'). For one thing he recognizes the capacity for culture to be seemingly incoherent, especially to anthropologists. After the waves of anthropological structuralism, materialism and linearism tried time and again to prove the dissectability of culture it was time for a new mind, like Rosaldo, to step up and point out the innate sloppiness in human life. Political systems, those institutions in society we strive to create for organization's purpose, are often incoherent in their patterning, so how can we expect contained coherancy in something as complicated as culture, in which change is much more sub-conscious?  Rosaldo tries to point to this fact when he talks about extreme the grief and anger that is found in headhunting. At first he found the practice to be incomprehensible, but continued to analyze it as some sort of systematic cultural expression, based on balancing some unspoken score sheet. He was expecting too clear of a pattern to have an accurate grasp of what he was actually witnessing in the culture. It was only when he experienced his own personal tragedy that he was able to understand that human emotions and actions don't always fall into some clear spreadsheet of culturally appropriate options for societal balance. Sometimes (often even) human activity and culture is simply incoherent.


Rosaldo also makes the very valid point that culture is not self-contained. Cultures do not exist in separate spheres from each other, rather they make up a series of linkages and blendings. I think a big part of the reason people believe culture is self-contained is because anthropologist tend to describe culture as being self-replicating. Just because a culture's influence on people tends to return back to shaping the culture itself does not mean that that culture is isolated to the group of people it most directly affects. Rosaldo rightly makes this point as well.


Interpretations of Interpretations

Abigail Parker

In response to Alexandra’s conclusion that Geertz and Rosaldo have opposing views, I would like to agree, but with a caveat.  In this particular instance – that is, Geertz views culture as layers of webs of meaning whereas Rosaldo view’s culture as less easily explained than that  -- yes, Rosaldo is responding to what he sees a faulty conclusion by Geertz about thick description.  That being said, I found the implications of Rosaldo’s essay and interpretive anthropology to mesh quite well.


“Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage” urges ethnographers to place occurance in a context.  As many of you have said, Rosaldo is disputing the objectivity of the ethnographer in a priviledged position.  The view of culture as a self-contained whole isn’t compatible with Rosaldo’s explanation of head-hunting in Illongut culture, which centers around the fundamental paradigm with which culture is viewed.  This paradigm of culture is fluid to an extent.  Instead of an organism, structured by ritual, as put forth by Spencer, Rosaldo’s concept of culture involves a greater fluidity of cultural features, personal behaviors, and cross-cultural trends in life.  Ultimately, Rosaldo concludes an interpretation of events is all the ethnographer can give, and this will be from a certain position.


Similarly, Geertz recognizes that “anthropolical writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third order ones to boot” (Taking Sides 2005:  185).  Thick description requires a recognition of the context of an action, coming to know that even description will be inadequate to a point.


Both men use an interpretive frame for human behavior, however they differ in the degree they use interpretation.  Geertz may see “turtles all the way down” in everyday events, whereas Rosaldo questions whether sometimes a turtule is just a turtle.


(this is what we call an stretched metaphor.)


RE: Interpretations of Interpretations

Lauren Deal

I think that Abigail has done an excellent job of synthesizing these two arguments. Whether we see cultures a text or a point of intersection, what both of these authors stress is that it is constantly in motion. Moreover, both also stress that the ethnographer can only interpret what they are seeing, which Geertz describes as "reading over the shoulder". I think also, that both acknowledge that the ethographer cannot be objective and removed but is rather specifically and uniquely positioned in his involvement in the society. What I find most illuminating about Abigail's post is the use of the turtle metaphor. I think it serves nicely to accent the fluidity of culture and the limits of this fluidity in the two perspectives. Where Geertz sees layer upon layer of interpretaion and, as Kitty said, opens the door for post-modernism, Rosaldo is content to accept somethings as they are. I think this is an important stance to take because without any cultural study will prove to be fruitless in the end. I really think Abigail has laid this out so well that I don't have much more to contribute but to say bravo.


Ojaswi Kafle

In place of “the classic view of culture as a self-contained whole made up of coherent patterns”, Rosaldo suggests, as Savannah has quoted in her discussion, “a more porous array of intersections where distinct processes crisscross from within and beyond its borders (pg 449-550).” He then adds that these distinct processes are derived from the differences in age, race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. Rosaldo’s post-modernist thinking is evident in his insistence that anthropologists view culture as an integrated system and that their study is not objective nor filled with absolute truth because their ethnographies reflect their individual stance and experience.

        As a “positioned subject”, he is not an unbiased outsider conducting an objective study. Instead, he “observes with a particular angle of vision (p.549).” The characteristics of a person derived from the different processes mentioned in the previous paragraph becomes a great player in the game of fieldwork research. In other words, the experiences and status a person has because of his/her age, race, gender, etc., and even general life experiences angles the camera that the ethnographer looks through. Just like how a culture isn’t simple, but rather it is complex, the ethnographer’s fieldwork cannot be tidy and clean, for who he/she is and what he/she has experienced will heavily influence his/her ethnographic experience.

         Rosaldo’s own experience with Michelle Rosaldo’s death portrays this view very clearly. Somewhat up until his brother’s death, and then finally until his wife’s death, he did not understand the Ilongot association of anger, rage and headhunting with bereavement. Before Michelle’s death, Rosaldo had been trying to be an observer by questioning the Ilongot people of the idea of rage that rises with the death or loss of someone. By simply being an observer and not taking who he is into account, he had been failing to understand the emotions and experiences of the Ilongot people. Only after he felt the rage and anger upon his wife’s death did Rosaldo understand Ilongot emotional rage and anger. He had moved from being an object studying the subject, the Ilongot, to becoming a positioned subject who experienced the same bereavement as the Ilongot did. It is important to note that Rosaldo did not become the positioned subject simply by having to go through his wife’s death, but I think that he became aware of his positioning as a subject. Even if he had not gone through this heartbreaking experience, he would have still been a positioned subject. The moment one becomes involved in the lives of the group of people being studied, may he/she be an actual member of the group or an ethnographer, he/she becomes a positioned subject.


John Curran

        The alternative that Rosaldo suggests seems to be a concept of culture as a complex of intersecting "processes."  In this view, each culture's "boundaries" are porous and overlapping with others.  Rosaldo's view of culture emphasizes the subjectivities and lived experiences of its members.  There is a recognition that individuals each have different experiences -- often a matter tied with age, ethnicity, gender, etc. -- and are thus positioned better or worse, relative to others, to understand some things about life in a given society.

        Rosaldo illustrates this point (to use our shorthand, "ethnographer as positioned subject") by recounting how he came to understand the rage that Illongot men experience and express in bereavement (and which animates their headhunting (along with other emotions, though he downplays this fact)) only after the accidental death of his wife, Michelle.

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