Critical Review: “On Ethnographic Authority — Clifford

In his article “On Ethnographic Authority”, Clifford cogently traces the historical processes that have taken place in the field of anthropology, through which the present state of the ethnographer has come to be. Clifford vacillates between a number of theoretical trends and schools of thought throughout the growth of the academic discipline, often in association with key figures such as Boas, Malinowski, Mead, Evans-Pritchard and others. The general arc that emerges is the rise of the ethnographer-anthropologist, the fusion of the fieldworker-theorist, the scientifically trained onlooker and participant-observer, insider-outsider, and what Clifford interrogates is how his “authority” has been shaped and formed over the course of the twentieth century, and from where it is derived, and how it has become the chief defining aspect of anthropology.

However, what was most interesting to me was Clifford’s lengthy discussion of the theoretical work of twentieth-century literary scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin. This part was fascinating to me because I had to read much of Bakhtin’s literary criticism for a course on the novels of Dostoevsky, and in particular we read the work where he primarily sets forth his notions and theories of dialogism and polyphony. To see these concepts, along with heteroglossia used in application to the process of ethnography and “writing culture” was very interesting. It seemed a bit strange at first, but I suppose it’s quite fitting that Clifford invoked this discourse with Bakhtin’s theories because Bakhtin was intensely concerned with deep semantic issues and their ramifications—very post-modern. But Clifford took the core of Bakhtin’s principles—irreducible multi-voicedness, dialogism between totally autonomous beings, that interact and co-write each other simultaneously, and also temporally, such that the present always has a past to which it is responding.

However, though this be a compelling and most-likely true presentation of what “culture” is, what does it say about the authority of the ethnographer? Does Clifford come up with a satisfying reconciliation of that authority in light of all this? Or does it just seem like a hopeless enterprise to reconcile the fact that the ethnography has in the writer a unifying authority, a total subjective self to the fact that culture that the ethnographer is trying to write is polyphonic, dialogic? Is true heteroglossia in ethnography possible, when everything is filtered through the subjective lens and selfhood of the ethnographer, who puts everything in his own words, frames everything in a published book (a presumptive declaration of scholarly authority), and selects, reworks and organizes all that is in it?

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