Navigators of the Contemporary: Why Ethnography Matters

University of Chicago Press
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As the image of anthropologists exploring exotic locales and filling in blanks on the map has faded, the idea that cultural anthropology has much to say about the contemporary world has likewise diminished. In an increasingly smaller world, how can anthropology help us to tackle the concerns of a global society? David A. Westbrook argues that the traditional tool of the cultural anthropologist—ethnography—can still function as an intellectually exciting way to understand our interconnected, yet mysterious worlds.

Navigators of the Contemporary describes the changing nature of ethnography as anthropologists use it to analyze places closer to home. Westbrook maintains that a conversational style of ethnography can help us look beyond our assumptions and gain new insight into arenas of contemporary life such as corporations, financial institutions, science, the military, and religion. Westbrook’s witty, absorbing book is a friendly challenge to anthropologists to shed light on the present and join broader streams of intellectual life. And for those outside the discipline, his inspiring vision of ethnography opens up the prospect of understanding our own world in much greater depth.
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About the author

David A. Westbrook is the Floyd H. & Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar and professor of law at the University at Buffalo Law School. He is the author of City of Gold: An Apology for Globalization in a Time of Discontent and Between Citizen and State: An Introduction to the Corporation.

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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
May 15, 2009
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Pages
160
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ISBN
9780226887531
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Language
English
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Genres
Social Science / Anthropology / General
Social Science / General
Social Science / Sociology / General
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This content is DRM protected.
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The first time that we, the editors of this volume, met, a chance remark by one of us, newly returned from fieldwork in Fiji, quickly led to an animated discussion of our experiences doing anthropological research with children. Following that occasion, we began to seek each other out in order to continue such conversations, because we had found no other opportunity to discuss these significant events. We knew our experiences were rich sources of cross-cultural data and stimuli to rethinking anthro pological theory and methods. A cursory review of the literature on fieldwork revealed, to our surprise, that fieldworker's experiences with children were rarely and only briefly mentioned (Hostetler and Huntington, 1970, are an early exception). In order to learn more about research that included the ethnographers' children, we organized a conference on the topic at Michigan State University on May 1, 1982. This volume includes papers from that conference, as well as insights and ideas from the formal and informal discussions among the conference participants and audience. This volume, like the conference which preceded it, is intended to be the effects of accompanying children on anthropological an exploration of field research and on the effects of fieldwork on the children themselves. Additionally, we see this book as part of an anthropological inquiry into research as a cultural process, by which is meant the effects of the researchers' cultural identity--class, gender, age, ethnicity, and other characteristics--on fieldwork.
In this fascinating and inventive work, A. David Napier argues that the central assumption of immunology—that we survive through the recognition and elimination of non-self—has become a defining concept of the modern age. Tracing this immunological understanding of self and other through an incredibly diverse array of venues, from medical research to legal and military strategies and the electronic revolution, Napier shows how this defensive way of looking at the world not only destroys diversity but also eliminates the possibility of truly engaging difference, thereby impoverishing our culture and foreclosing tremendous opportunities for personal growth.

To illustrate these destructive consequences, Napier likens the current craze for embracing diversity and the use of politically correct speech to a cultural potluck to which we each bring different dishes, but at which no one can eat unless they abide by the same rules. Similarly, loaning money to developing nations serves as a tool both to make the peoples in those nations more like us and to maintain them in the nonthreatening status of distant dependents. To break free of the resulting downward spiral of homogenization and self-focus, Napier suggests that we instead adopt a new defining concept based on embryology, in which development and self-growth take place through a process of incorporation and transformation. In this effort he suggests that we have much to learn from non-Western peoples, such as the Balinese, whose ritual practices require them to take on the considerable risk of injecting into their selves the potential dangers of otherness—and in so doing ultimately strengthen themselves as well as their society.

The Age of Immunology, with its combination of philosophy, history, and cultural inquiry, will be seen as a manifesto for a new age and a new way of thinking about the world and our place in it.
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