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Where Interpretation Ends and History Begins: Questions of Scale and Scope in Anthropological Analysis

By Amanda Harvey-Sanchez

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

One of the questions which I have had to navigate in my research at Massy College has been that of scale and scope. As is the case in most ethnographic endeavours, my research centers around a few people in a particular community, in a particular city, in a particular province, in a particular country…and so on and so forth. Specificity is part and parcel to the anthropological project. Adding to what is already inherent to anthropology is the specificity inherent to my particular project, where I have focused on small and subtle means of politics. In many ways, my research is “microscopic” by its very nature. And yet, I have also been forced to consider when it may be useful to extend my scale of analysis, broadening the scope of inquiry in order to better situate the “microscopic” within the “macroscopic”. It is this delicate balance, and the fine tuning that is required to “zoom in” or “zoom out” which I discuss here.

Ethnography as Interpretation and the Role of Fiction

Clifford Geertz describes ethnography as a form of interpretation. It involves piecing together different symbols, events, conversations, words – situating them within and viewing them in dialogue with the broader “webs of significance” which we come to understand as “culture” (Geertz 1973: 5). Anthropological interpretation is “tracing the curve of social discourse; fixing it into an inspectable form” (19), thereby allowing “culture” to be imagined as a form of “text” which may be read. In some situations, as is the case in my work, the ethnographer’s tracing is “microscopic”: we synthesize and make broader-level claims, but approach them “from the direction of exceedingly extended acquaintances with extremely small matters.” (21).

In my work, I focus on what I have been calling “petty politics” – a form of politics where critique is coded, subversion is subdued, and positioning within broader fields of power is acknowledged but the field itself is largely left as is. “Petty politics” often transpires through very subtle means, with language and humour emerging as essential tools in the “practices of politics” at this scale. Finding this form of politics and deciphering its meanings requires the kind of interpretation that Geertz describes. I take a conversation that may at first glance appear innocuous – sometimes even a single word out of place – and place it within the broader “webs of significance”, using this process of piecing and arranging to help discern what is “really happening” just below the surface.

Beyond helping me make sense of my research content, turning to the work of Geertz has also helped me reconcile some of the tensions and anxieties that emerged out of more reflexive analysis of my own practice as a novice ethnographer. One of the main concerns I faced was in offering a “true” and “complete” depiction of my interlocutors, who also happen to be my close friends. Alongside this, I also felt an anxiety around never truly getting to the bottom of things – the sense that my work was always somehow incomplete. Geertz’s analysis of ethnography helped lead me to an understanding of ethnography as “real fictions” – a term I employ to refer to the dual nature of ethnography as both relaying of events and construction of a “story”.

The fiction in ethnography, according to Geertz, is two-fold: 1) arrangement, and 2) fixing. Everything that the ethnographer pieces together is “real”, but the act of piecing, arranging, situating within the webs of significance is a construction – “fiction” in the sense that it is “something made”. As ethnographers, we try to “rescue the ‘said’ of [social] discourse from its perishing occasions and fix it into perusable terms” (Geertz 1973: 20), but there are always fragments left behind – some of which are known to the ethnographer and others which may never be known. Those moments that we do “rescue”, Geertz explains, are captured and transformed from “passing events” into “accounts” which may be revisited as they become fixed into the anthropological record. But there is always something left behind, those pieces of the “said” which are left to their “perishing occasions”.

In my own work, I came to understand the pseudonyms I use for my interlocutors as representations of reality: “real” in the sense that they are depictions of real people, but fictitious both in the sense that they are constructed and in the sense that they are always incomplete – merely a slice or a cut of the “full person” existing in reality.[1] Coming to this realization helped relieve some of the pressure I felt in fully representing my interlocutors. It is also helped me to accept what Geertz so clearly articulated, that “cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is.” (Geertz 1973: 29).

The Limits of Interpretation and the Role of History

Having come to this realization, I felt much more at ease with my work as an ethnographer. That is, until I was faced with a new crisis. The crisis is one I describe in my final paper as a crisis for my interlocutors – one which forced them to revisit processes of critique, politics, and the undiscussed at Massey – but it also served as a crisis for myself in forcing me to revisit the uses and limitations of interpretive anthropology. The “crisis” was essentially a meeting where much of the history of relations of power at Massey were quite jarringly revealed. This made clear to me the need to extend my scope of analysis, and I turned to political-historical anthropology for guidance.

In his book Sweetness and Power, anthropologist Sydney Mintz discusses some of the limitations of interpretive anthropology. The book is a history and biography of sugar, tracing its lineage through production and consumption and revealing the systems of power that were created and maintained to give rise to the assumed naturalness of the place of sugar in society today. Attention to history, Mintz argues, is crucial to an understanding of culture today. His reflections on finding “meaning” are worth quoting at length here:

‘Meaning’ in this case is not simply to be ‘read’ or ‘deciphered,’, but arises from the cultural applications to which sugar lent itself, the uses to which it was put. Meaning, in short, is the consequence of activity. This does not mean that culture is only (or is reducible to only) behaviour. But not to ask how meaning is put into behaviour, to read the product without the productions, is to ignore history once again. Culture must be understood ‘not simply as a product but also as a production, not simply as socially constituted by also as socially constituting.’ One decodes the process of codification, and not merely the code itself. (Mintz 1985: 14)

Mintz’s work may be viewed as a response to the work of Geertz. One of the major critiques of Geertz and interpretive anthropology more broadly is that it effaces power; for Mintz, history is how one attends to power. While Geertz positions culture as the “webs of significance” which “he [those who make up the culture] himself has spun” (Geertz 1973: 5), he does not question how the webs materialized as such. This is where Mints steps in: rather than accept the naturalness of the place of sugar today, taking the “webs of significance” at face value, he asks what kind of spinning of threads had to occur to get to where we are today. Who spins the thread? Who writes the text? What kind of arrangements had to occur to arrive at this particular historical moment? A subtle but nonetheless essential point is that the literary metaphor is not entirely erased: there is still a “code”, but now there is an added layer of meaning – decoding not merely the code itself (interpretive and symbolic anthropology) but also the process of codification (history and power)[2]. Thus, I situate Mintz not so much as a replacement of Geertz, but rather as a crucial extension, bidding us to look deeper backwards into the past in order to better situate all that extends outwards in the present.

In the case of Massey, this led to some recalibrating of how I position my research. I came to understand interpretation as residing within something much larger; the “microscopic” within the “macroscopic”. As Mintz explains, the “webs of significance” which Geertz so astutely describes “reside within other webs of immense scale, surpassing single lives in time and space.” (157-158). In my research, it is perhaps not necessary to stretch back as far as

Mintz does in the case of sugar, but it is still useful to “zoom out” just a bit. History of how the college was founded, how the successive Principals came to power, how different administrative positions were created or altered, and how different alliances were formed are all histories that help form the present conditions. History shapes the “field” of Massey College, and sets the parameters that my interlocutors operate within. It sets the stage for the subtle pushing, nudging, and maneuvering I interpret.

Conclusion: On Pieces of Puzzles

Having turned to both Geertz and Mintz, I want to be clear that I do not view one as the replacement of the other. Cultural analysis, like politics, is a matter of scale. It requires analysis at different levels, from different angles, and over different periods of time. An excellent anthropological work, I would argue, makes moves towards analysis at varying scales, but it is very rarely possibly to give each scale equal attention. The anthropologist’s particular research questions will help determine which scales are prioritized as the primary scope of inquiry and which are used more as framing devices.

For the purposes of my research, my interests still lie, for the most part, in the present and in the minute means of politics. Thus, I still find value in turning to interpretive anthropology for some of the analysis I undertook. My awakening to Mintz, however, is what helped me to better see the “big picture”. It helped me situate the “microscopic” within the “macroscopic”, even if many of the “ethnographic moments” I analyze are still “microscopic” in nature. Even as I “zoom in” on “petty politics”, it is still essential to be able to “zoom out” and see what processes of production created the field in which these practices emerge.

My final paper, as it would happen, draws on neither Geertz not Mintz and relies most heavily on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, attending to how practices of “petty politics” are maintained (and why “revolution” is so rare). To borrow a phrase from Marcus and Fisher (1986), I would argue that “theoretical eclecticism” is perhaps the only theory worth ascribing to absolutely. There is no “grand theory” which can explain everything, but there are several which can each explain “something”. If the anthropological endeavor, that overarching task of “cultural analysis”, is taken to be a puzzle, we can see how different theories offer different pieces of the puzzle; it is up to each anthropologist in each of their projects to make use of those pieces which best suit their particular puzzles.


Clifford, James

  1. Introduction: Partial Truths In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds.  Berkeley: University of California Press, pp.1-26

Geertz, Clifford

  1. Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, pp. 3-30.

Marcus, George E., and Michael M.J. Fischer

  1. 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.vii-44.

Mintz, Sidney W

  1. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

[1] Put another way, a “partial truth”, as James Clifford (1986) would say.

[2] Geertz actually distinguishes between the metaphor of a code and the metaphor of a text, rejecting the former in favour of the latter because he prefers to consider the anthropologist a “literary critic” rather than a “cipher clerk” (9). Still, the general essence that I wish to draw attention to is that Mintz is not tearing down the metaphor, but rather adding another (crucial) piece to the puzzle.

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