Is ethnography fact or fiction? Writing ethnography is always a sensitive proposition since it involves representing a culture and social realities with countless factors to be taken into consideration, for example: power. Although, at times one still hears of it referred to as ideal and neutral ethnography that yields reality in the way it is presented without being questioned, criticized and diagnosed by personal values (Pratt, 1986:27). Ethnography cannot be easily pinned down and categorized as to whether it is fact or fiction.
That type of labeling could robbery never do justice to the concept and practice considering ethnography metamorphosis over time; as in the immortal words of James Clifford, “ethnography decodes and recodes, telling the grounds of collective order and diversity, inclusion and exclusion. It describes processes of innovation and saturation, and is itself a part of these processes” (1986:2). It varies to suit certain expectation in any given social context and history. It should be borne in mind that to most people; the very word ‘fact’ is generally associated with truth whilst fiction is a concept that deals with reiterative and imagination.
However it must be noted that the borderline between fact and fiction is very much a grey area and in many cases and situations – especially, it seems ethnography, they actually blend and fuse together in many situations (Clifford, 1986:25). Therefore and consequently, it will be posited that ethnography is neither fact nor fiction rather a fusion of both. The debate surrounding ethnography has always hinged on this very question: is it fact or fiction and how can this be satisfactorily and effectively resolved for the general academic community, especially proponents of pure science, so that the ethnographer does not become a laughing stock.
It is in here that the problems encountered by ethnographers in writing ethnography shall be reviewed. It is important to note, the very notion of ethnography will be examined further and should be treated as problematic. Therefore, the question that emerges is: how useful is a given ethnography regardless of whether it is fact or fiction? Ethnographers have tried to collect as much truth as they can by involving themselves intimately with various cultures or societies. However, one aspect has been conveniently overlooked: the great likelihood that in any given tuition, the underlying nature for a human being to tell lies.
The ability to lie to each other, to make up stories that seem so real yet ironically even the fact can be surreal. Humans doubt themselves as if they are not sure what truth is. This is illustrated by the Cree hunter where he hesitated “I’m not sure I can tell the truth… I can only tell what I know” (Clifford, 1986:8). This could be said that the concept of truth is contestable considering that truth is a form of knowledge that is influenced by various social elements like political stance for instance.
As a result Clifford (1986:7) asserted that, “ethnographic truths are thus inherently partial – committed and incomplete”. Incorporating to this is a study case by Peter Metcalf in Borneo. He demonstrates the idea of lies and truth where the boundary is already blurred, influenced by certain power and authority and how it affects his ethnography juxtapose to fact and fiction at the same time. For him writing some aspect of fiction in ethnography does not necessarily mean a negative connotation just because it is not based on facts, rather it is an experiential learning which ironically is true and realistic for him.
Metcalf sees ‘fiction’ as an important tool in the way of learning process and aligning himself with Clifford idea of fiction that summarizes his whole research that: “Ethnographers often present themselves as fictions of learning, the acquisition of knowledge, and finally of authority to understand and represent another culture. The researcher may with a child’s relation to adult culture, and end by speaking with the wisdom of experience. It is interesting to observe how, in the text, the author’s enunciating modes may shift back and forth between learning from and speaking for the other.
This fictional redeem is crucial to ethnography’s allegorical appeal: the simultaneous reconstruction of a culture and a knowing self, a double “coming of age in Samoa. ” Clifford (1986, cited by Metcalf 2002). Consequently, it is probably safe to make the proposition that ethnography tells a story mostly about people on a very intimate level such as “feelings, frustrations, aspirations, tragedies and delights” (Miller, 2008:1-2). Stories are such a high profile element in our lives that some way or the other, everyday of our lives is inevitable and irrevocably are influenced by stories consisting of fiction and fact.
This is considering that “a story is itself always already a retelling of events, and there is always something more and other to be said” as pointed out by Steward (1996:78). This is also portray in Metcalf research in ‘They lie, we lie” (2002). Another factor to consider would have to be experience. Experience is a personal encounter. It is not shared “because learning experiences vary enormously in their effect” (Metcalf, 2002:18) particularly on gender basis amongst the anthropologist. A classic illustration would have to be the debate between Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman on the subject of Samoa.
In which, Derek accused Mead Of collecting hoax and bias information since she focused on females as part of her research and generalizing from it as a whole culture; hence giving fiction instead of sticking to the facts. However, it is undeniably a very difficult situation to represent experience scientifically when it is more common to see it written down in narrative or descriptive style. Nevertheless, Trek’s attack on Mead was discredited since it was agreed by anthropologists that: “Cultures are not scientific ‘objects’ (assuming such things exist, even in the natural sciences).
Culture, and our views of ‘it’, are produced historically, and are actively contested It just simply shows that whatever it is given or collected as ‘scientific’ data and produced in ethnography does not mean it is entirely factual since “in cultural studies we can no longer know the whole truth, or even claim to approach it” (Clifford, 1986:18-25). Even with the complications made by contemporary anthropologists trying to be politically correct and “being sucked into a vortex of epistemological anxieties” (Metcalf, 2002: 1 1 Ultimately, it comes down to the one certain monumental goal of what ethnography is as promoted by Mammalians.
To him, the whole point was “to grasp the natives point of view, his relation to life, to realism his vision Of his world Perhaps through realizing human nature in a shape very distant and foreign to us, we shall have some light shed on our own” (Mammalians, 1984:25). It is this that anthropologists should be focusing on – the understanding of the other and thereby shedding light ultimately on ourselves. Furthermore, perhaps it would be better for an academic to be asking what can we learn and gain through such ethnography and how it fulfils as a role of n anthropologist no matter whether it is fact or fiction.
Surely that aspect is irrelevant to a great extent. Although it is impossible to ignore, writing fiction in ethnography may raised issues of empirical but “in recent textual theory has lost its connotation Of falsehood Of something merely opposed to truth” (Clifford, 1986:6). This is to concede that changes are happening since “writing and reading of ethnography are predetermined by forces ultimately beyond the control of either an author or an interpretive community” (Clifford, 1986:25).
This is a fact that Testing was trying to draw attention that “global injections are everywhere” (Testing, 2005:1) and that everyone is involved and constantly interacting “whether we place ourselves inside or outside the West, we are stuck with universals created in cultural dialogue” (Testing, 2005:1). We should appreciate such ethnography since sometimes fiction can be a model based on a real story also, not only limiting diversity of life and experience. In reality, it can be both a truth and an insight.
As Pool (1 954, cited by Urbanize 1 976) would have convey that “for we know ourselves by our extremes perhaps thinking about horn-skinned bloodless aliens from another planet will teach us something about getting along with the divergent races, creeds, and sects who are our own cousins”. Ethnographic fiction should be treated as a tool that cannot only contribute ideas but also useful ideas that may apply in the real world itself. Humans are meaning-making beings and we escape the harsh realities of the world through imagination. Why limit it and not acknowledge it?
It should not be limited to a sad rather limited view of how life is. Nonetheless ethnographic fiction gave ideas and controversial debates that are applicable in real life. We would therefore perhaps not hide our ability to think and write creatively and pretending as if they do not exist at all in order to achieve academia facts (Leanness and Frank, 1978:20). In addition to this, it allows for the emergence of new ways of writing and as Clifford (1986:25) puts it “what counts as ‘realist is now a matter of both theoretical debate and practical experimentation” rather than questioning whether ethnography is fact or fiction.
So maybe it might be a simple conclusion to reiterate here that it does not really matter whether the ethnography resembles factionalism or factual type portage, what matters the truth and relevance of the material is being revealed. Bringing human evidence to light is a very complex activity and needs a subtle blend Of both approaches. It is not helpful or appropriate to try to locate ethnography on some artificial fact-fiction continuum, hoping that this makes it more acceptable.