“In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.”
- Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
It is not only war stories that create confusion, both for their writers, and their readers, about the nature of the truth they tell. Is the truth in a “true” story what the writer experienced, or the truth of what “really” happened? If the story is about other people, is the truth what the writer sees them do, or what they think they are doing? If the writer does not know the whole truth, does the story become false?
All these questions become even more pertinent if posed about ethnographies. An ethnography is, by nature, meant to be a description of a people (the dictionary definition actually refers to “scientific description of individual cultures,” but that brings up questions about the meaning of “scientific” and “culture”). How can a people (or a culture) be described truthfully? And what is the relationship between the idealized pursuit of truth and ethical practices?
In writing an ethnography, both what the ethnographer sees (as objectively as possible) and what the people themselves say is happening must be incorporated in a reasonable manner. The people’s words must be evaluated by the ethnographer for purposeful distortion, and taken into account with that possibility in mind. Parts of the truth may be left out if they make for a story that the people being studied do not want told about themselves. Reality may be portrayed inexactly, as long as a more general truth of it is preserved—ethnographers often make use of collective characters that are combinations of several people in real life.
These general guidelines, prescribed from a 21st-century vantage point by someone who does not have very much experience reading ethnography, have not always been followed by ethnographers. Ethnography has undergone a process of drastic evolution (or, some might say, oscillation) in the century or so that it has existed as an anthropological tool. Many aspects of ethnography have changed between two extremes that I will term “traditional” ethnography and “postmodern” ethnography. Everything from the declared goal of the anthropologist to the approach to possible objectivity or subjectivity of the anthropologist’s writing, from views on the concept of culture to the ethnography’s intended audience, even to choice of topic to explore, has changed. I will explore these differences using Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead as an example of traditional ethnography, and Poetics of Military Occupation by Smadar Lavie as an example of postmodern ethnography. Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod will serve as something of a mix, poised between the two extremes.
I must first, however, explain my choice of “postmodern” as a label for the kind of ethnography that Smadar Lavie produced in 1990 (based on fieldwork done throughout the 70’s). The aspect of postmodernism that I embrace in...