Lecture / Workshop 2

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Lecture 2:
The Ethnographer

Anthology texts to read:

Ethnographer or Travel Writer?

There are two basic models for the traveller:

  1. The Scientist

    Biologist, geologist, anthropologist. Basically, you go to a far-off (or nearby) place to do fieldwork - to observe, record, and finally write up and analyse your observations. In the case of the human sciences, this is the role of the ethnographer.

  2. The Writer

    This is a far more eclectic and unpredictable personage. Some writers are very well informed about the places they visit, others make a point out of emphasising just how little they know, thus stressing the freshness of their perceptions and insights. The bottom line here, though, is that if the end result isn't entertaining or interesting, the enterprise has failed.

The most important thing to remember is this: both characters have a lot of the tourist in them, also. If you go to a place you don't already know well, then it goes without saying that your attitude to it will not be quite that of a native. There's a lot they know which they can't (or won't) communicate to you, but there's always the chance that you'll see things they don't because you have a wider scale of comparisons to apply.

Don't be ashamed of being a tourist, then – just try to minimise tourist vices such as superficiality, complacency and resentment of the unfamiliar.

Travel writing is now seen as a distinct genre, but it's instructive to realise just how recent a development this is. In the nineteenth century, a traveller such as Charles Darwin, hired as ship's naturalist on the surveying ship H. M. S. Beagle, was unaware of any such distinctions.

It was expected that he should keep notes on what he saw and collected, which would eventually form part of the official record of the voyage, but precisely what form this took was largely up to him. There were few precedents for what to include and what to leave out.

Darwin's Journal of Researches is a classic adventure story in its own right, but also because the discoveries he made then would eventually lead to the Origin of Species (1859) and the theory of evolution through natural selection.

It's worth noting that, though, that while Darwin's Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. 'Beagle' was included as the third volume of the official account of the voyage, edited by Captain FitzRoy and published in 1839, his specifically scientific results were issued as The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. 'Beagle', in 5 vols (1839-43); and The Geology of the Voyage of the 'Beagle', in 3 parts (1842, 1844, and 1846).

Darwin's Journal was a popular success, and was therefore reissued separately from the rest of Captain Fitzroy's account. Darwin subsequently revised and expanded it (slightly) for the second edition in 1845, the one we still read today as The Voyage of the Beagle.

If you want to talk about the theory of how one can observe and record details of an alien culture, though, perhaps the clearest analogy is with Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle (1927), which states that it is impossible to know both the exact position and the exact velocity of an object at the same time.

This is not only a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, following the tenets of logical positivism, it is a statement about the nature of the system itself. [Wikipedia]

In other words, by observing something, you alter its nature. The allegedly objective eye of the committed ethnographer cannot enter a cultural situation without altering it to some extent. The only question is the degree of influence exerted by his or her presence there. It is therefore not simply desirable, but necessary to admit some amount of subjectivity in the nature of one's observations of other cultures.

The relationship between observer and observed is a complex one, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing to be observed, and no distinctions to be made between the various ways in which you may choose to report your discoveries ...

Charles Darwin: Journal of Researches (1839)

Reasons for Travel

“The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality,
and instead of thinking how things may be,
to see them as they are.”
– Samuel Johnson

Discussion of requirements for Close Reading Test.

Practice: Close Reading exercise.

  • Why did the author go to that particular place?
  • What did they hope to find there?
  • What particular restraints / perspectives did their particular academic discipline / vocation impose?

Analysis of past tests.

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