The Book in the Coffin: On the Ambivalence of “Informants”

Essay Excerpt

The impact of the Muchona article in the 1960s should not be taken to imply that fieldworkers had previously failed to notice how subtle was the business of acquiring informants. Turner's contribution was to write about an aspect of fieldwork that had previously been only a subject of anecdotes. With the shock of recognition, teachers realized that their own experiences in the field had not been as idiosyncraticas they had thought, and graduate students were provided with a model with which to work, in place of mere anecdotes. To find out more about Muchona, I interviewed Edith Turner, whose recollections of fieldwork with Victor are vivid, and I consulted the Turners' fieldnotes, now preserved at the University of Virginia.

In the process, I began to reflect on how different my own experiences with informants had been. In particular, I began to think about my old nemesis, the formidable old lady with whom I began. She was no Muchona, to be sure:if anything, just the reverse. The point, however, is not to turn Muchona upside down, nor to set up some competing stereotype. Instead, I aim to probe the range of "ethnographic intermediaries" and the quandaries that they produce, even if it is not possible in a brief account to spell them all out. My portrait of the Widow Kasi, as she was known, is suggestive of broader issues, as was Turner's of Muchona, and it is offered in the same spirit.  (Metcalf, 328)

About the Author

Metcalf is a Professor at the University of Vrginia. 

"Before coming to the United States, I worked at the Universities of Singapore and Papua New Guinea, and conducted research in both of those countries. But most of what I now write and teach is motivated by the experience of living in longhouse communities in Borneo in the 1970's. It was the beginning of a period of rapid change; most obviously, the integrity of traditional world views were challenged by conversion to Christianity. Thinking about that led me into a century-old tradition of comparative religion in anthropology, which places emphasis on ritual. Ritual is, however, an infamously slippery category, so I was drawn into a wide range of semiotic or interpretive approaches, which have played a major part in anthropological theory in recent decades. These I applied to death rituals, in Borneo and elsewhere, and to the ethnopoetics of prayer.

In recent visits to Borneo I find that it is the integrity of the longhouse communities themselves that is now threatened. They were never static, but now the destruction of the rainforest has disrupted upriver life so much that people are migrating to the coast. New senses of identity are emerging. My current writing concerns the historical dynamics of community. It deals with the key institution of Bornean societies, the longhouse, and it continues the anthropological tradition of dealing with broad issues, such as community and identity, within a small compass.

In all of this, I am interested in assessing our ways of writing ethnography. Postmodern theory has directed attention to this, but I am glad to say that it has been a concern of our curriculum for many years."

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