Metaanthropology. An Epistemic Poetics of the Ethnographic Form

During the 1970s and 1980s, heightened interest in ethnographic representation signaled the impact of postmodernism in US-American anthropology. Interestingly, the genealogy of these debates is closely tied to earlier developments in historiography. In anthropology’s sister discipline, bitter disputes about the role of language and narrative have a long history. In fact, they can be traced back to the 19th century, when proponents of the philosophy of history and historiography fought for supremacy in the discipline. In the second half of the 20th century, these debates were revived, primarily through Hayden White’s groundbreaking Metahistory (1973). The reception of White’s work, in turn, has been a major stimulus to the discussions of ethnographic representations, which gathered momentum roughly a decade after the publication of Whites monograph.

The doctoral project will begin by examining the historical connection between historiographic and ethnographic discourses, before considering its implications: Although White has been widely read in anthropological circles, there is no systematic account of ethnographic representation in the 20th century that follows in his footsteps. One reason for this, it seems, is that the meaning of narrative in ethnographies differs fundamentally from its role in historiography. Whereas narrative may indeed be seen as central to the structure of historiography, in ethnography, descriptive text types predominate.

Building on Hayden White and the historical contributions to the critique of ethnographic representation, this project develops a systematic approach to the history of ethnographic writing. To this end, it takes into account the rhetorical tradition, more precisely the re-examination of metaphor theory in structuralism (Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Kenneth Burke, Stephen Pepper), the tradition at the core of White’s contribution. The fundamental idea of this theoretical approach is to expand the notion of figurative language: It is not only figurative speech that is based on stylistic devices, other uses of language are also fundamentally structured by metaphorical principles. In this extended sense, historiography and ethnography are poetic by nature. While this type of poetics has so far been elaborated in linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, and historiography, this doctoral project designs an equivalent system for ethnographic representation.


Figure above:
Comparison stencils for determining human eye color. In: Notes and Queries on Anthropology. Third Edition. Edited for the British Association for the Advancement of Science by John George Garson and Charles Hercules Read. London: The Anthropological Insitute 1899, p. 17