The Native Anthropologist: Identity and Methodological Issues

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The native anthropologist: identity and methodological issues

The aim of this paper is to explore some of the methodological problems faced by “native” anthropologists; in other words someone who studies his or her own culture. A good example is that an individual from, what is generally called the western culture (a Westerner) can study his or her own culture and thus, by definition, be a “native anthropologist” . I focus my attention in this essay on anthropologists from previously colonised societies, also called the Third World (Thapan, 1998). One recurrent work discussed by anthropologists while referring to this topic is Narayan’s contribution: ‘How native is a “native” anthropologist?’ which constitutes the major part of this essay. Half-Indian and half-American, Narayan questions her own position as a native anthropologist, caught between academic research and her roots. Narayan discusses the issue of the ‘self’ identity which is at the same time is that of the ‘other’, agreeing with Abu-Lughod, who presents the issues encountered by native anthropologists and feminists in order to understand how the ‘self’ is constructed in relation to the other. This struggle between identity and academic enquiry results in issues confronting the audience and the representation of one’s own society. It is commonly accepted that the discipline of Anthropology is partly based on the study of the other, born from Post-Colonialism, where the western seeks to study the exotic lands, the colonised civilisations, or the others. Thus, it was originally Western anthropologists that study the colonised civilisations. However, global flows in politics, trade, media and migration have shaped the interrelations between the West and the ‘others’ long since the age of Colonialism. Increasingly in recent years, the ‘others’ have started to receive anthropological training, thus becoming what we would call their own ‘native’ anthropologists, or” halfies”. In a theoretical discipline where strong emphasis is made on matters of subjectivity and positionality with concerns about power relations and inequalities between the researcher its informants , the native anthropologist challenges the notions of subjectivity. Situated knowledge is another point highlighted the by Narayan; for example: knowledge is always created from a particular perspective. Thus, the point of view of a native anthropologist may understand the same object from different view points. Finally, I also examine Narayan’s explanation of ‘multiplex’ identities in order to escape to the categorisation of the native or halfie anthropologist and put an emphasis of the possibility of building one’s cultural identity rather than being subject to it innately.

This urgent need of defining the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ can be explained from the historical perspective according to which the discipline of Anthropology emerged from the beginning of colonialism, where the non-West represented the ‘other’, who are studied by the ‘self’–the West (Abu-Lughod, 1991). In ‘Writing against Culture’, Abu-Lughod challenges Clifford and Marcus whose modern new forms of cultural description and discourse theory exclude two groups: native anthropologists and feminists. Although in different ways, both share the same dilemma: the dichotomy between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Feminist theory suggests that “at least in the modern West, women have been the other to men’s self” (Abu-Lughod, 1991:139). Through this crisis of identity– or selfhood– anthropologists have come to understand better certain aspects about the ‘self’, which is a construction shaped by one’s condition and environment–in this case through the opposition to men or through the differentiation with the West– rather than something connate. From this perspective, the natives of the newly colonised civilisations were always ‘others’, and the western is perceived as the ‘self’ (Narayan, 1998). Therefore, at least historically, one of the features of...
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