Alternative pedagogy of learning and teaching Anthropology: Process and legitimisation by Celayne Heaton, Tomoko Kurihara and Jakob Rigi

Alternative pedagogy of learning and teaching Anthropology: Process and legitimisation

Celayne Heaton, Tomoko Kurihara and Jakob Rigi, SOAS

This paper is a first attempt at presenting a multi-authored ethnography of e@tm in its second year. It is open to further elaboration through the contributions of readers. It aims to investigate the contradictions inherent in our own practice, as subalterns within an academic institution attempting to create a space for the production of alternative but equally legitimate knowledges. The notions of communitas, and creativity or innovation which the formation of communitas supports, have been used in the past to describe this seminar, but as practices, these can in some instances sit uneasily together. Here their coexistence is found to be rendered problematic through the requirements of legitimisation of the seminar and the form this process takes.

KEY WORDS: communitas, creativity, legitimacy

In a village square, three large wooden tables have been laid out, in anticipation of a long awaited meeting with representatives of an international development organisation. Members of a relatively prosperous and well connected village community have taken up their seats around one of the tables. Facing the first table, sit representatives of village B who suffer from poverty and have little contact with the establishment. The third table is placed perpendicular to the other two, and still awaiting its occupants.

Finally, the donor representatives arrive. The brouhaha is contained by the local representative of the organisation, who stands up and introduces the team’s development specialists, anthropologists and its economist before setting out the purpose of this important visit: ‘Your water project is now in its final stages: all that is left is for you to decide on the location of the tap stand. This we cannot do for you, but have come to try as best we can to arbiter your discussions, as we have heard that this decision is still contentious. We would like both sides to present their views on the matter.’

As the representative’s voice dropped, the square of village A burst into activity, members of both villages plotting their lines of attack, hunched over the large tables.

Again the local representative broke the commotion, asking villagers A to present their case. Silence. The priest of Village A began to argue for the tap stand to be placed near their village: on the road side, the tap would benefit local travellers, as well as villagers; its upkeep would be made easier. ‘On our backs!’ interrupted a member of village B, who was booed by other villagers of A. Villagers of B began shouting in the direction of the organisation’s representatives: ‘Our fields need water! Village A already has water from the river.’ The organisation’s representatives soon called a halt to the proceedings, without much success; they sheltered from the pandemonium as best they could, to confer and come to a decision as to where the tap stand would be installed. Paper was being chucked from the table of villagers A to villagers B, notes promising a bribe were passed from villagers A to influential members of village B, a cow was offered to a member of the donor organisation in exchange for their support in the final decision. The donor representatives were still debating the matter when from one corner of the village square came the suggestion: ‘Shall we put the kettle on?’

After tea and biscuits, participants settled again in their respective groups. Group A, the ‘rich villagers’ and group B, the ‘poor villagers’, were asked by the session’s facilitator to read out the ‘fieldnotes’ they had been asked to record during the performance. This exercise brought to the fore the complexities of producing fieldnotes when the problems of ‘situatedness’ of the researcher become acute.

Writing workshop

The session was part of the Writing Workshop, one of the year’s landmark events for many SOAS research students. It was held in SOAS on 22 February 1999 and counted among participants research students from SOAS departments of anthropology and musicology, Kent University and the Institute of Education.

Planning for the workshop began in November ’98 with a meeting formally arranged by E@TM participants; dates were set, the time-tabling and contents of individual sessions agreed upon, facilitators appointed from among those present and invitees discussed. Several months and a number of meetings later, the workshop got underway.

The first session was led by Professor Richard Fardon from the department of anthropology and sociology at SOAS in a familiar lecturing style illustrating the developments within anthropological writing genres over the past 40 years, reading passages written by well-known anthropologists. Malinowski, Mary Douglas, Raymond Firth, Clifford Geertz, and Evans-Pritchard were drawn upon for examples of good and bad writing practice and the different genres that emerged in relation to different theoretical schools in anthropology. Finally, Richard made recommendations for thesis writing, ranging from strategies for structuring PhD theses – including the use of titles and lists of contents – to a discussion on the crafting of individual chapters. In contrast to the animated exchanges of the afternoon’s session, the talk was followed by an orderly succession of questions from the floor; issues raised broadened the discussion from the production of a thesis to the preparation of materials for publication generally, such as the drafting of books.

The rest of the day dealt with other aspects of writing fieldnotes, and the writing of shorter pieces, such as journal articles. Besides participant observation in the performance of a conflict over a local development project, sessions included group interviewing of other participants on their writing practices; interpretation and recording of images and spaces; and small group discussions that led to the critical evaluation of the writing styles of various journals.

The writing workshop was declared closed by one of the participants who pointed out that the day’s activities had worn us all out and was best concluded in the restaurant which had been booked in advance to nurse our stomachs and raise our energy levels. At 6.30pm, participants adjourned to a nearby public house.

A training departure?

We identified several ways in which the workshop was a notable departure from conventional SOASian research training in writing, which are outlined briefly below.

It touched upon subject matters that were felt to be insufficiently addressed in training, namely the practical questions and possible guides to writing ethnography. Relatively speaking, the majority of theses, which are grounded in what can be accurately described as a mass undertaking of ethnographic writing, are attempted by novices. So far, we have written critical undergraduate essays exploring both monographs and sociological works based less on ethnographic data, to ground ourselves with various theoretical assumptions and debates within the discipline that inform particular works.

We are familiar with the theoretical problems revolving around the practice of doing or writing ethnography: for example, the prominence of the ‘ethnographic gaze’ in the production of representations of the ‘other’, where the balance between objectivity and subjectivity in a discipline which calls itself a social science were problematised. 1

In this post-modernist task of self-reflexive examination of its own texts the authoritative voice of the anthropologist was put to question as was, equally, the importance of maintaining the voice of informants within the text. Embracing the above debate was a call for recognising the multiplicity and shifting identities of the anthropologist’s own position among informants within the field, in which exploring alternative styles of writing – ‘experimental’ ethnographies – was expounded through a concern with reflexivity. 2

Yet our encounter with the topic of ‘writing’ ethnographies within the above contexts leaves a distinct sense of unease as, clearly, little training has been offered in ways of actually writing an ethnography. Hence, the post-fieldwork process of organising and framing vast amounts of often emotionally charged fieldwork data becomes ever more daunting. It is more or less assumed by most academics that we will come to draw upon the styles of our favourite anthropologist/s, somehow effortlessly appropriating these through a process of osmosis.

The workshop built on the emphasis on theory and style through an exploration of the mechanics and complexities of fieldnote production in addition to academic writing. While fieldnotes are now acknowledged as a form of writing, anthropological research training undergone by the majority of E@TM participants in the 1998-99 session did not treat these as such, and training on ‘writing’ dealt almost exclusively with the drafting of academic texts.

Rather, fieldnote production is summarily treated under a separate (‘methods’) course and is not subjected to the same problematising gaze as the process of writing in a course specifically meant to deal with ‘writing’. Moreover, it was felt that research training had not adequately addressed the problematical relationship between fieldnotes and writing the thesis.

In effect, the workshop sought to reaffirm what is a basic tenet of anthropological thinking, namely the centrality of writing and its problematics to the anthropological endeavour, but relocating it at the heart of our research training practice.

In addition, bringing within the framework of a writing workshop these various practices facilitated a broader reflection on the practice of fieldwork, and of the differences between the kinds of models which inform field practices (for instance, interviewing practice that seeks to eradicate contradictory statements made by an informant in the course of a single, which stands at odds with post-structuralist thinking on the self) and post-fieldwork writing.

Thus while it cannot be said that the ideas generated during the workshop broke new theoretical ground, the ways in which we integrated on-going debates into our own practice, within the framework of SOAS research training, was innovative. First it was not bound by departmental definitions of what constitutes ‘writing’ and what kinds of practices are earmarked as worthy or unworthy of comment.

The method of training through ‘play’ enabled us to tackle areas of practice conventionally associated with ‘privacy’, ‘unpreparedness’, ‘weakness’ or even ‘vulnerability’, as for instance the largely taboo domain of fieldnotes. The ‘unworthy’ or even ‘backstage’ could be made ‘worthy’. 3 ‘Play’ as a pedagogical method in our own postgraduate training, was both facilitated by and constitutive of E@TM ‘communitas’. 4

We return to the notion of ‘communitas’ and consider the ways in which it was constructed below. First, we give an outline of the year’s activities.

E@TM 1998-99: Activity

The workshop provides a good instance of E@TM’s practice over the year. E@TM 1998-9 also involved students in the organisation of and participation in several other workshops held at SOAS: a video workshop, in which we discussed and practised the techniques of shooting and editing ethnographic films, and familiarised ourselves with the operating of video equipment; a consultancy workshop run in co-operation with the department of development studies at SOAS during which participants explored the role of anthropologists in the field of development; and a national research training workshop (Innovations and Alternatives: imagining the future of research anthropology), in which we discussed the policies and politics of the institution of higher education in relation to students. The last workshop involved research students from anthropology departments across the country and resulted in the drafting of a document which addressed common concerns in relation to existing training programs, in particular in the pre-fieldwork stage of training. The said document was forwarded to the ESRC and was positively received (see Appendices).

The weekly E@TM seminars covered current anthropological concerns in the following areas:

* Post-modernism and anthropology

* The status of anthropological knowledge; the relations of anthropology and philosophy

* The use of visual materials in anthropology; anthropology and media studies

* Anthropology of sounds; musicology and anthropology

* Urban anthropology; movement, innovation, change, complexity, alienation, plurality and marginalisation

* Life after PhD; planning for a career in anthropology

* Anthropology and history

* IT and anthropology

* Publication in anthropology

* Translation in anthropology

* Multi-sited fieldwork and globalisation

The seminar was perceived by participants to fill a gap in our department’s research training programme, which currently has five main components: 1) MPhil seminars; 2) contact hours with supervisors; 3) post-fieldwork seminars; 4) departmental seminars; and 5) various taught courses available in the department and school.

Both pre-field and post-field work seminars respond to some of the needs of research, but pressures on departmental time means that their scope is necessarily narrow. The first prepares students for writing their research proposals and the second is oriented towards helping students write their dissertation.

A wide range of issues are left unexplored by either of these seminars, and sessions with supervisors, focused on actual writing, also leave no time for discussion of many contemporary themes. The departmental seminars, while providing a space for the debate of crucial theoretical and ethnographic concerns, are necessarily selective and, like other training fora available in SOAS, cannot address many of the issues of interest to students.

Besides these lacunae in research training from the thematic point of view, there is no systematic training focusing on the transfer of professional skills, nor career development advice for students; this is often left at the discretion of individual supervisors. To some extent E@TM sought to remedy these deficiencies. First participants were given the opportunity to acquire teaching skills through running E@TM and workshop sessions. We experimented with a variety of pedagogical and teaching methods such as flexibility of topics, structure, a combination of large and small group presentations and discussions, the use of film live performances, and role-playing. A further initiative that arose out of E@TM activity is the present journal, designed, edited and produced wholly by E@TM members.

On occasion, members of staff from the department were invited by individual facilitators to share their knowledge and experience with participants, which served to strengthen relations with staff as well as broadening students’ knowledge of higher education institutional policies and practices affecting their own research and future careers. Through the seminars and workshops, E@TM also worked towards establishing links with other departments in the school as well as other institutions and universities.

The workshop described above also differed from our past experience of ‘writing’ courses or sessions in that it brought together students at various stages of the PhD programme; its atmosphere was relaxed and informal; and participation more extensive.

‘Communitas’ and ‘legitimacy’

From its incipient stages, ‘communitas’ has been central to E@TM rhetoric and practice. Efforts throughout the year were made to suspend hierarchies based on gender, ethnicity, or institutional categories of pre and post fieldwork. The seminars brought together students from different stages of the PhD programme for the duration of the E@TM sessions and afterwards, in regular pub sessions, the occasional meal and end of term party.

It provided a space for participants to share personal experiences, from reflections of fieldwork to expressions of self-doubt and insecurities relating to the process of PhD production. In addition, E@TM’S identity was continually reconstructed with reference to the department and the department’s pedagogical practice; intellectual jousting, for instance, of the kind encountered in departmental seminars, was deemed unacceptable as a mode of academic exchange.

The teaching body provided our Other in relation to which we built our student selves. Discussions of the institutional context of our own research also compounded our awareness of the precariousness of our own situation, our common subordinate position within academic relations of power. All these factors nurtured E@TM solidarity, and the sense of our own communitas.

To some extent, however, our communitas was ‘imagined communitas’, founded on the experiences of participants, and not necessarily that of occasional attendees. The absence of a number of MPhil/PhD students does suggest that E@TM did in some ways reproduce hierarchies of knowledge which themselves reinforced social hierarchies.

The reproduction of hierarchies of knowledge was itself associated with the problem of legitimacy of E@TM in the eyes of student researchers at SOAS. In E@TM 98 the quest for legitimacy, it is suggested below, cast ‘expert knowledge’ and ‘lay knowledge’ in opposition and was articulated around their tension. E@TM’s existence is conditional upon it being recognised as legitimate by various categories of agents.

Minimally, E@TM must be considered as such by the department’s teaching body – to secure access to a classroom for its weekly meetings, allow bookings for other events such as the workshops mentioned above, as a backing for E@TM’s applications for external funding to support some of its activities – and the postgraduate student constituency, as students’ estimation of the seminar as a more or less worthwhile investment of their research time is significant in determining the fate of E@TM, not least through providing a justification of its existence in the eyes of the Department.

For the writers of the first E@TM (E@TM’97) ethnography (Mills et al 1998), themselves participants in the seminar, the fact of patronage by an influential body featured prominently among those factors lending the seminar legitimacy. ‘Whilst controversial’, Mills et al commented, ‘the fact that we had gained funding in an open competition legitimised our seminar as part of the departmental timetable, giving it credibility and status that we would have been unlikely to receive otherwise’ (Ibid:3).

This credibility and status, in turn, opened up a space for the articulation of discontent and calls for reform in teaching and supervisory practice in the department. The ‘symbolic confidence’, nurtured through HEFCE largesse, made for a politicised and theoretically more daring seminar.

For other E@TM98 participants, involvement in the seminar found its raison d’etre in terms of its output, mainly the seminar’s perceived contribution to the production of MPhil reports and theses. For yet others, maybe evaluators and other categories of interested observers, E@TM would be legitimised though an assessment of the extent to which E@TM fulfiled objectives as laid out in the initial proposal and reinforced through ethnographies and brochures produced for attracting funding: fostering a more supportive research community, developing professional skills, engaging with cutting-edge debates in anthropology.

In its second year, E@TM no longer benefited from the legitimising approval of higher education bodies as concretised in the act of funding. The withdrawal of funding support for E@TM instigated a shift in the bases of E@TM’s legitimacy. Lack of funds meant that E@TM98 activity had to become more localised – fewer participants were sent to events in far-off institutions, workshops were more modest in their scope; the ‘research community’ that E@TM was meant to foster in great part limited to the SOASian research community.

As it turned inwards, so did the search for legitimacy. The ‘contents’ or output of each E@TM session became the focus of this search, of the scrutinising attention of participants. The worth of the seminar came to be measured in terms of its ability to approximate ‘expert’ or ‘official’ anthropological knowledge; for many, official knowledge in effect became the standard against which E@TM came to be evaluated by a large proportion of participants.

Statements would be recognised as authoritative through the citing of recognised names, or the correct anthropological language use by their enunciator.

In the early sessions of E@TM98, the absence of a figure that would lend authority to E@TM emerged as a particularly strong challenge to the seminar, in a way that it hadn’t in its first year. The lack of an ‘authoritative figure’ – a lecturer, a senior PhD student constituted as such in the context of the seminar – arose out of the main facilitators’ commitment to ideals of participation and the constitution of a non-hierarchical forum, and also the way in which E@TM98 became organised. The lack of funds required that the way in which E@TM was run in its second year be altered, as no research student was willing to take on the full load of work that its organisation and weekly facilitation required without some remuneration or minimally, being recognised as a teaching assistant (TA) by the department. It was decided that while two main facilitators would deal with administrative tasks, such as the electronic circulation of E@TM agendas and other information, the weekly sessions would be facilitated by E@TM participants exclusively.

This departed from the preceding year’s practice in that participant facilitation was generalised to all E@TM sessions where formerly the main facilitators had been in charge of facilitation for a significant number of sessions. This work arrangement did not encourage the constitution of authoritative figures, nor did the seminar’s fluctuating constituency.

The initial reluctance of facilitators to present themselves as an ‘authority’ was met with unease – to the extent that, during one of the early sessions, E@TM’s ‘permanent member’ of staff, otherwise remarkable for his low-profile, was prompted into ‘summarising’ the session after an uneasy silence. Subsequently, participants agreed that each week’s facilitator would have to produce a ‘summary’ or ‘concluding statement’ to his or her session.

The implications of the need for authority – of the shift in the basis of E@TM legitimacy from its recognition by HEFCE to its output – are several. A lesser concern is its role in the reproduction of hierarchies constituted through institutional practice, namely, the distinction of pre and post fieldwork in terms of their respective (presumed) stores of officially recognised knowledge; we wrote ‘lesser’ as there was never more than a hint of expressed post fieldwork ‘superiority’ during the year.

A more serious concern – and one central to the present paper – was the devaluation of other, ‘lay’ knowledges that on occasion resulted from the search for authority. One session stands out: post/modernism(s). The session was opened by two facilitators marking on a board the words modernism and postmodernism. We were invited to suggest words by ‘free association’, our ‘gut reaction’ to the terms written onto the board. After an initial pause, participants began throwing words at the facilitators – the board space was rapidly filled up. The facilitators then suggested we begin ‘grouping’ the terms on the board. The exercise was not completed: from the crowd of seated participants came a rendering of Lyotard’s views on postmodernism. The facilitators stood still in front of the board; a rival definition of postmodernism from another scholar was ventured from the front of the room; other voices had fallen silent while the official versions jousted.

E@TM’s two hours passed, but we did not return to the board, nor were the initial levels of participant involvement reached again on that occasion. In the above situation, the bases of E@TM legitimacy in terms of ‘contents’, and the fact that all participants recognised the authority of citations from a shared body of anthropological knowledge meant that knowledges dominant in the institution became hegemonic within the context of E@TM too. This meant that knowledge produced through role play, or free association games, or ‘indigenous’ or ‘lay’ as opposed to ‘expert’ knowledge, found itself devalued, and the creative potential of E@TM restricted.

The effect was to limit the extent to which we were able to be innovative, and fulfil the vision of its initiators by ‘creating an environment in which anthropology research students would rethink and challenge disciplinary practices and institutional presumptions’ (Mills et al 1998:2).

Final remarks

Imagining ourselves as communitas allowed E@TM to be creative, improvise and give value to ‘uncertified’ knowledges; this communitas was created through a variety of socialisation practices which helped to foster a sense of solidarity between E@TM members.

As Mills et al before us, we sought to qualify through this brief ethnography of E@TM’98 the claims of E@TM to being non-hierarchical and creative, and one unsurprising conclusion is that it was neither consistently creative nor conservative, and neither was it totally non-hierarchical.

We showed that the ideal of ‘communitas’ was only partially achieved in practice, constrained by factors external as well as internal to E@TM sessions. Among these factors we highlighted the problem of ‘legitimacy’, suggesting that the ways in which E@TM’98 sought to legitimise itself made it partially dependent upon institutionally defined hierarchies.

Even while critical of our own practice, we are convinced of the value of such student-led initiatives and advocate a greater involvement of students in the management of their own learning.


1 See for example articles in eds. Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. E. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press, Ltd. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California and London, England. back

2 See for example (eds.) Okley, J. and Callaway, H. (1992) Anthropology and Autobiography. London. Routledge; Abu-Lughod, L. (1993) Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories. University of California Press, Ltd. Oxford, England.; eds. Ellis, C. and Bocher, A. P. (1996) Composing Ethnography: Alternative Forms of Qualitative Writing. Ethnographic Alternatives Series, Vol. 1. Altamira Press, Sage Publications. Walnut Creek, London, New Delhi. back

3 As defined by Goffman (1971). back

4 As Turner (1974:274) writes of ‘communitas’ in juxtaposition to structure: ‘Structure defines all that holds people apart, defines their differences, and constrains their actions is one pole in a charged field, for which the opposite pole is communitas, or anti-structure, the egalitarian "sentiment for humanity" of which David Hume speaks, representing the desire for a total, unmediated relationship between person and person, a relationship which nevertheless does not submerge one in the other but safeguards their uniqueness in the very act of realising their commonness. Communitas does not merge identities; it liberates them from the conformity to general norms, though this is necessarily a transient condition if society is to operate in an orderly fashion.’ back

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