Friday, December 9, 2011

"Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory"

A new online journal has just started publishing. "Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory."

 According to its mission statement, the journal:

"aims to situate ethnography as the prime heuristic of anthropology, and return it to the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline.

The journal is motivated by the need to reinstate ethnographic theorization in contemporary anthropology as a potent alternative to its 'explanation' or 'contextualization' by philosophical arguments, moves which have resulted in a loss of the discipline's distinctive theoretical nerve. By drawing out its potential to critically engage and challenge Western cosmological assumptions and conceptual determinations, HAU aims to provide an exciting new arena for evaluating ethnography as a daring enterprise for 'worlding' alien terms and forms of life, by exploiting their potential for rethinking humanity and alterity."

In looking around the journal website and its first issue, I became confused about the meaning of the term "ethnography." I always thought it meant fieldwork, the first-hand gathering of social or cultural data through participant observation. The initial article, by David Graeber, is a reworking of ethnographic data from others about Shilluk divine kingship. The second, by Marshal Sahlins, is about kingship in ancient Sparta, which doesn't seem very ethnographic. I guess if you can get a paper by someone as prominent as Sahlins, you don't worry too much about sticking to your specifications. Or maybe I am mistaken in my conception of "ethnography." I have to admit that I pay less attention to anthropology than I used to, particularly since resigning from the American Anthropological Association. And then there are some papers on kinship, a few theoretical papers, English translations of three papers by Maurice Godelier, and some reprints of classic anthropology articles by Evans-Pritchard and others.

I guess this is what they mean by ethnography (also from the mission statement):

"Topics addressed by the journal include indigenous ontologies and systems of knowledge, forms of human engagement and relationality, cosmology and myth, magic, witchcraft and sorcery, truth and falsehood, indigenous theories of kinship and relatedness with humans and non-humans, hierarchy, materiality, perception, environment and space, time and temporality, personhood and subjectivity, alternative metaphysics of morality."

Hmmm, what about economics and politics? Personally, I'm more interested in how Shilluk or Spartan kings collected taxes than in the symbolism and meaning of divine kingship. The topics covered in this new journal reside in one corner of the universe of cultural anthropology, leaving out big portions of scientific anthropology (or scientific ethnography), from medical to economic to cognitive to political anthropology. But still, this new journal looks much better than many offerings in cultural anthropology today, particularly in its focus on theory that is more empirically grounded and less philosophical (see my urban theory paper for my views on philosophical theory). Take a look at Hau.


Marcus said...

Thanks for pointing this one out. To me it seems more like 'classical anthropology' of the kind practiced by people like Evans-Pritchard. This is a rich tradition of research and it deserves to be developed further.

David Graeber said...

Shilluk kings were utterly unsuccessful in collecting taxes. If you'd read the essay in question you'd have realized that this, and the reasons for it, were one of the big points of the piece. If you're not even capable of being empirical and evidence-based enough to read an essay before presuming to pronounce to the world what the contents of that essay are, what's in it and what's not, and therefore what's wrong with it, then I have no idea why you go around claiming to be some kind of advocate of "science."

Michael E. Smith said...


I don’t think I am the one most guilty here of describing a text inaccurately (which seems to be what you accuse me of). Please compare my text with your comments. I don’t describe your article at all. I don’t claim to “pronounce to the world what the contents of that essay are” and I don’t say anything at all about “what’s wrong with it.” Perhaps it’s a great paper, perhaps it’s terrible; I haven’t read it yet, so I would not presume to make a judgment.

I apologize if my off-the-cuff comment about being more interested in taxation than in divine kingship somehow offended you. I think your paper is probably about the latter topic, given its title:

“The divine kingship of the Shilluk: On violence, utopia, and the human condition, or, elements for an archaeology of sovereignty.”

The word “tax” does appear in the paper three times, and the term “divine” 73 times (but the term “archaeology” is absent from the paper after the title).

If I were to “pronounce to the world” about the contents or quality of your paper, I would be sure to read the piece first. But I did not intend to describe or critique your paper, and I did not do so. I was merely pointing out the existence of a new journal to the readers of my blog.

Anonymous said...

"The lack of review and comment moderation associated with most genres of online publication can lead to the amplification of misunderstandings" (Boellstorff 2011:542)

Boellstorff, Tom
2011 From the Editor: Three Comments on Anthropology and Science. American Anthropologist 113(December):541–544.

Giovanni said...

Thanks Anonymous for the Boellstorff quote. However, there's a major scholarly difference between "most genres of online publications" and an open peer-review journal (considering that very few people read articles from printed subscription-only journal issues these days). Thanks Michael Smith for reviewing the journal.