Exchanging skin: making a science of the relation between Bolivip and Barth

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Author: Tony Crook
Date: Summer 2009
From: Social Analysis(Vol. 53, Issue 2)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Essay
Length: 6,995 words
Lexile Measure: 1430L

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This article proposes a theory of what knowledge is and a method of how knowledge comes about. To separate epistemology from knowledge provides the starting point for questioning epistemology in two ways. Firstly, the analytical relations by which anthropologists claim that they have gained ethnographic knowledge are examined and compared to the claims to knowledge made by male initiates in Bolivip, Papua New Guinea. Secondly, these aesthetics of epistemology are compared with the social relations by which anthropologists and Bolivip men come to know through other persons. The article then takes up Wagner's 'relative objectivity' and considers how it enables an ethnographic comparative method between Bolivip and Barth's interpretive paradigm of 'secrecy'. Having unhinged epistemology from knowledge, the article closes by reconnecting them, with a different view of each appearing as a result.

Keywords: Barth, Bolivip, knowledge-making, Min, relative objectivity, secrecy, self-similarity

... every understanding of another culture is an experiment with our own.

--Roy Wagner, The Invention of Culture


An ethnographic description is also a description of the anthropology producing it. The correlate notion that descriptions of other cultures emerge from experiments with our own may sound like a license to abandon the ambition of anthropology as a theory of knowledge--the suggestion even appears deliberately to confuse the means with the ends of anthropological inquiry. But what are the consequences of holding that a theory of knowledge is also a theory about itself? After all, the conventional Oxford English Dictionary definition of epistemology as the "theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge" also posits both a particular notion of knowledge (something that takes a science to detect) and a theory about itself (as such a method), and so appears to carry a similar circularity. (1) In fastening knowledge to knowing, epistemology is a relational construct. Put bluntly, there is a compelling self-similarity here: epistemology is a theory of knowledge, and knowledge also is a theory of epistemology. The proposition carries an assumption that the endpoint of knowledge is bound up in the means of approach. Consequently, it stands to reflect any characterization given to knowledge back onto the characteristics of arriving at it. Indeed, before proceeding further we might pause to consider the path leading to this point.

It is telling that the so-called reflexive turn in anthropology, which directed attention to the means of production of its own knowledge, should have followed closely on the heels of an epoch of interest in Marxism (loosely, the decade from 1967 to 1977). The turn, characterized as deliberate experiments that sought to question previously held structural certainties, carried obvious allegorical overtones of the political ambitions of a generation that had lived through the turmoil of the late 1960s and the freeing up of the doors of perception. In Britain, at least, this turn is often attributed to the influential collection Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and the origins found therein for an epoch whose theory of knowledge was also revealed to be a theory about itself. But the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A216270694