Doctoral Seminar, Fall 2003 Sam Howard-Spink

Taste of Ethnographic Things, Paul Stoller

The Reconstruction of Ethnography

(Chapters 8/9 provide the best outline of Stoller’s reasons for an adoption of, and methodological approaches towards, sensual ethnography).

Stoller’s initial effort to learn about the Songhay through a questionnaire – a technique “based on an epistemology in which the goal is to produce ideal, verifiable, and replicable knowledge that we might use as a data base for comparison” – is an “unqualified failure” (129). He finds more success with a subjective approach, letting the Songhay teach him about their culture and society (130), but realises this can only occur through long-term study.  These two ideas are the key elements of Stoller’s call for a new ethnographic methodology.

Stoller recaps the history of epistemology and approaches towards the establishment of Truth, or the search for “the One among the Many”:

Most anthropologists are metaphysicians seeking Platonic Truth by way of a “universal observation language” that attempts to locate “the hidden reality in the mirage of data” (134).  The consequence of this membership within the Platonic tradition is that, in terms of value, theorising trumps vivid description.  This produces flat, “sludgy” prose that reflects the alienation of the anthropological episteme; the objectification of the other compels one to objectify the self (137).

The search for Platonic Truth also draws a clear dividing line between art and metaphysics, but Stoller believes “art and science should complement one another” (138).  In ethnography, this means examining the texture of a society, its tastes, sounds and smells.  It involves an approach to methods and language that is more humanistic in order to confront language in its “full being” (139), as opposed to a positivistic approach that sees language as a “neutral mechanism of representation”.

The reconstruction of ethnography is a call for a “humanistic anthropology” that offers “meaningful descriptions of… ‘human being’”.  It demands a “fundamental epistemological shift toward others and away from ethnographic realism” (140).  It is characterised by “multilayered texts” that acknowledge the “presence of the ethnographer in dialogue with his or her subjects”.

Stoller concludes his book by advocating a turn (“detour”) towards “the pragmatist notion of radical empiricism”, which would allow “latitude to play with established disciplinary and literary conventions” (153).  In the case of anthropology, this entails two forms of expression: film (eg the work of Jean Rouch) and narrative ethnography (the work of Stoller himself).

Brief chapter outlines:

Chapter 1

The tale of Djebo’s terrible sauce – its symbolic expression of her anger and the social structures it sheds light on (“it reeks with meaning” 25) – becomes the launch pad for Stoller’s call for a sensual ethnography.  

Conventional, realist ethnographic discourse seeks the reality of the whole of a given society, employing analyses that “constantly evoke a social and cultural totality” (25).  It limits itself to scientific methods and restricts what is published and accepted by other anthropologists.  “Tasteful fieldwork” (29) and “tasteful writing” (30) would take us beyond the mind’s eye and into the domain of the senses of smell and taste, senses of deep importance to the other but disregarded by the Western tradition and its adherence at all costs to empirical objectivity.

Chapter 2

Eye, mind and word

Chapter 3

Gazing at space

Chapter 4

Signs and the bush taxi

Chapter 5

Visions of the other, son-of-Rouch

Chapters 6 and 7

Sound in Songhay possession and sorcery