Practising Methodologies


Esther Priyadharshini

University of East Anglia, Norwich UK

Copyright © 2002 by Esther Priyadharshini, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Bal, Mieke, ed. The Practice of Cultural Analysis: Exposing Interdisciplinary Interpretation. Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 1999.

Marcus, George E., ed. Critical Anthropology Now: Unexpected Contexts, Shifting Constituencies, Changing Agendas. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 1999.

  1. The two books reviewed here are both exemplary collections of essays on 'Methodology' -- defined in its widest sense as the means by which knowledge is produced, accumulated and classified. These essays, read together, are a record of both the sorts of challenges facing researchers and the innovative responses that they have elicited. Both books address the challenges raised by post-modern thought and post-structural theory to traditional methods of practising research. Both capture the excitement that such a shake-up has infused in the humanities and in the social sciences. Both provide an exciting picture of where interdisciplinary, critical research that need not be confined to these two categories can draw inspiration from and also, the new areas that they might open up. All of this is not to suggest that this review will be a comparison of the two books or imply that they say much the same things. Marcus' book is firmly situated in the US academy and preoccupied with the changes occurring in the discipline of anthropology, while Bal's book considers the practice of cultural analysis drawing more contributors from Europe than from the US. They each deserve to be read and understood within those frameworks. However, they both have something to say about 'Methodology.' But first, I would like to indicate the sorts of grounds that the two books cover.

  2. First, George Marcus' book. As would be expected, the volume shows an awareness of the impact and varied reception that Writing Culture had in the late 80s. It picks up a decade later, where the earlier influential volume left off, focusing on continuities and highlighting previously ignored aspects. This volume arises from a seminar, just as Writing Culture did, and sets for itself two specific tasks: one, to address the changing research process; and two, to undermine (if warranted) the sense that critical reflexivity is insular, abstract and self-important. Hence it focuses on the changes in anthropology brought on by the 'vibrant intellectual trend' of the 80s (pg.6) -- a trend that led to the "bracing critical self-examination of habits of thought and work leading ultimately to destabilizations of the conditions of fieldwork, the subject position of the fieldworker, and the ways that these have been typically imagined." Following on from that development, this volume is about "case studies of some of the destabilizations now underway" (pg. 28, note 2). This is achieved by assembling essays located in a range of contexts, working with unusual constituents with widely differing agendas -- from corporate boardrooms to cyberspace, non-profit and non-governmental organisations to biotech companies.

  3. Apart from pointing to the need for rethinking doxic assumptions about the main elements of research -- fieldwork, its settings and the writing -- the book also reveals the presence of what it calls 'critical reflexivity' in varying degrees in different locales. Its chief contribution lies in its attempts to show how anthropology could be a useful political tool by nurturing a deconstructive impetus -- the stance that critiques from within -- even in the most unexpected places in which anthropology gets practised. Thus there is room to consider a concept like 'citizen anthropologist,' which conceives the researcher as one who participates in 'circumstantial activism.' In a broad sense, one could read the volume as a very laudable, empirical attempt to reveal the entanglement of theory and practice or, in Spivakian terms, to show how theory 'norms' practice and vice versa. It attempts to cast doubt on the strict division between the critical theoretical agenda in academia and the 'real world' concerns of "lawyers, corporate officials and scientists variously engaged with a profoundly transforming world" (pg.8). From this point, it goes further to critically consider academia's implication with/in the agendas of the powerful. Such an approach seems to unfix the researcher from her/his traditional stance of merely 'studying up' or 'studying down' from an academy assumed to be outside either position.

  4. This same sense of working within a changing environment that leaves its mark on the researcher also emerges from Mieke Bal's book. Bal's introduction to the volume explicitly foregrounds this awareness by making reference to the presentness of the past as well as the pastness of the present -- reinforced by the fact that the volume is part of a series titled Cultural Memory in the Present. Hence it is very aware that its assignment involves taking account of the past, but in and from the present, and thus different from the way that historians have traditionally analysed the past. This cognisance leads to the book's central theme: the need for explicitness of method in any form of critical analysis. The book itself is arranged in an interesting manner, designed to stimulate discussion. It is served well by Bal's introduction followed by a 'Prelude' in the form of a visual dialogue between two artists (Janssen and Lam). It is then divided in three sections, each of them again succinctly introduced by Bal, and each of them continuing the debates on which closure is not forced. At the end, there is a 'double afterwords' from Bal, finally closing with a 'dual postface' -- all of which cannot but emphasise both the need for dialogue across differences as well as the importance of continuing the debates without succumbing to the teleological need for closure.

  5. The first section of the book deals with the theme of visuality, of looking as a means to knowing. The theme that repeats over and over in the chapters of this section (which are centred on looking through microscopes, films or photographs at high art, pop art, cultural icons, ethnic histories) is that the relationship to the past is both the object as well as the subject of cultural analysis. Thus it moves further than 'New Historicism' by insisting that looking is intervention but also equally, thoroughly contaminating, leaving no pristine points of origin. The second section attends to the theme of close reading but one that is aware of the gap between close readings focusing on the particular and those focusing on the larger critical concerns (say of feminists and post-colonialists). Here the project of close reading that the 'New Criticism' embraced is overtaken by the insistence of cultural analysis that the object/text does not speak for itself but rather speaks back and needs to be listened to without theory taking over its subtleties and nuances. As Bal herself notes, all the essays in this section are about 'demonstrating what they argue.' In this very intimate, yet rigorously attentive way, the impasse in the older subjective-versus-objective debate over close readings is bypassed. The third section, aptly titled 'Method Matters,' is about methodology. Here four of the chapters are arranged in opposing pairs. While the dichotomies of old are destablised (universalism-relativism), the fruitful and necessary tensions between cultural diversity and specificity are still maintained. Covering a range of domains from historical music to art rooted in a specific culture to Foucauldian analysis, to the contemporary university, all the essays maintain a balance between being self-critical, self-reflexive, as well as politically accountable.

  6. In a highly unusual but welcome move, both books include a chapter each from the publisher. Trenchant, ironic and sometimes despairing, these voices from the academic publishing industry remind the reader of the sheer economic and physical nature of knowledge production and dissemination, and reveal in a very literal sense the interwovenness of theory and the material world. This, to me, captures what is common to both volumes. Both books are engaged in trying to identify an area -- anthropology and cultural analysis -- through its practice, i.e., through their methodologies. In Marcus' book, the emphases are on the reconfiguration of the space of fieldwork, the multi-sited nature of ethnography, the rearrangement of concepts of elites, anthropologists and subalterns, the way in which relationships with participants come to occupy multiple, conflicting and ambiguous positions. All of these emphases draw attention to the way in which anthropology itself is shifting positions in relation to subjects and discourses. In the case of Bal's book, the stress falls on the 'methodological explicitness' (pg. 4) necessary for cultural analysis -- the way in which an exposition (always an argument) also involves an exposure of the hand/self that exposes. One cannot help but notice that this commitment to an intense self-reflexivity that both books share is in itself an exposition of the deconstructive stance of 'saying no to what you inhabit,' of 'critiquing a structure that you cannot not wish to inhabit' (Spivak). Reading the two volumes together, what is particularly heartening is that their demonstration of a common deconstructive praxis, located in fields as distinct as the social sciences and humanities, also reveals the potential for a post-disciplinary research practice through the common ground of a methodology that need not be 'muddled.'

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