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NYHW - This is part one of my final Anthropology 101 paper that I wrote concerning which of the four ethnographies we'd read was the most successful at portraying the point it set out to make.

Harems, Herders, Harlem, and Housemaids

Anthropology seems to have no bounds on its limits of inspection. Every place that contains people, it seems, can have an ethnographer present to examine it. What it really comes down to is just how well the particular ethnographer presents their data. In comparing them one must look not just at whom they are covering but how they are going about it. The methods and procedures in conjunction with the thoroughness and explanations make up an ethnography’s greatness. In our particular case we had a plethora of subjects being discussed (not to mention a plethora of locations) but some quite different methods of going about their discussions. My conclusion shall be that though each of the four ethnographies had their merits and downsides; it was Michelle Gamburd’s The Kitchen Spoon’s Handle that best handled its goals.

Elizabeth Fernea, our first female anthropologist, presented her work, Guests of the Sheik as more of a journal than an ethnography by today’s standards; a chronological recollection of her unplanned stay in Iraq. And while she writes in an amazingly well fashioned tone, her ethnography itself lacks coherent ethnographical methods that are crucial to making conjectures about her data. She does make some speculations sparingly among the extensive dialogs between the women yet lacks experience in terms of anthropological explanation. In presenting the ideas of societal customs, child rearing and marriage she takes a too neutral stance as to what should be done to remedy the situation. These very theses are hard to determine from the onset and must be searched for within the text. She does come across as self-reflexive, yet, again, lacks the further analysis needed to back up the context of these discoveries and make conjectures as to what should be done. She quotes the discussions extensively, then falls short of backing them up. Her neutrality leads her to almost take the side of the Iraqi women as she bends to their customs even though she was morally against them initially. This may be due to the fact that she had hardly time to express her own opinions within the conversations among the women as they were quick to interject their own. She was seen as a curious Westernized object to be observed but also to judge and make statements in the name of. Their community had had generations to develop whereas Fernea was an outsider who was silenced to be little more than an observer. This subdued stance leads her to have little say in how things should or will change, if at all.

Colin Turnbull’s ethnography, The Mountain People is quite the opposite of Fernea’s in that it uses very little dialog, and instead explains most all of the actions taking place within the Ik village. The negative aspects of his work occur instead in his failure to back up the reasons behind why things were. He successfully observes and analyses the present conditions on top of making recommendations for future actions, yet fails to explain the past and why things came to be as they were. Turnbull proclaims that that the Ik are not worth the effort of attempting to reconcile, but has little to offer as to how things became so bad. His strongest aspect lies within his ability to be self-reflexive about his statements. He continually talks of being drawn into the horrid lifestyle of the villagers, “I knew that the Ik as a society were almost certainly finished, and that the monster they had created in its place, that passionless feelingless association of individuals, would continue, spreading like a fungus, contaminating all it touched. When I left I too had been contaminated, I knew, by the lack of feeling as the house that I had tried to make a home was invaded, the stockade broken down, and the things I had left to be shared were despoiled by avarice, I was not surprised, nor did it upset me” (Turnbull 265). At the same time he seemed often too confident in his actions and convictions and forced himself into matters which he didn’t always have rights to. The sacred caves are the best example of such, and as the natives try to prevent him from entering he simply wrote them off as being appeased once he displayed a genuine interest in the drawings on the walls. In this respect Turnbull seems altogether too ethnocentric even though he outright admits it. Simply by admitting that you may be wrong should not justify your being so.

Once again, the next ethnographer does better in their regard to both the previous histories and ethnocentrism. Phillipe Bourgois handles such matters by showing that although a crack dealing gangster may be viewed as a self-determined position, it may just simply have been the environment in which they were raised that made them so. This idea of Agency and Structure shaping individuals lives is backed both by the direct dialogs of those already within the system coupled with the statistical research to prove its prevalence on the whole. Bourgois’ strongest point about Agency is also its major drawback. Because he chooses to focus so much of his efforts on explaining the problem on a local level, he fails to come up with a solution to the whole and leaves us instead with a feeling of the drug issue being an irresolvable dilemma. Although he does show some individual cases in which dealers had escaped the system, he offered no model to bring about change as a societal whole. His argument is that first there must be a breakdown of racial status, but again has few recommendations on how this is to be done. While quite revolutionary at breaking down the previous “organic whole” theory of the past, his theories are restrained by the many constraints of Agency without enough focus on the structural aspects.

We are finally left with Michelle Gamburd, who most successfully addresses all the previously mentioned faults in making the perfect ethnography through her own, The Kitchen Spoon’s Handle. Her ideas flow in a particularly well-organized fashion that makes everything clear to even the lowliest of college students. It comes complete with personal insight combined with historical and statistical citations. She makes sure to address the issues she sets out to by using a multitude of methods and theories such as Feminism, Marxism, and Structure and Agency. If you can bring about faults within her work it would be that she uses entirely too much explanation to back up her statements. Even then, though, she successfully addresses all of the concerns that she outlines initially and leaves little to be debated. She starts discussing, “women’s lives in a rural Sri Lankan village in the context of the global movement of petroleum products, petrodollars, migrant laborers, and Western free-market ideologies” (Gamburd 5). She further explicitly outlines how she’ll go about this in her section entitled Preview of Chapters within the Introduction through the following process:

“I discuss the transnational movement of goods (oil), people (labor), money (petrodollars), and ideas (development ideology)…; how government bureaucracy, private job agencies, and local money lenders play significant roles in migration…; the power dynamics and money flows surrounding money lending…; the complex relations between female migrants and the people responsible for spending and saving the money those migrants remit to the village…; how individuals use money earned through migration to improve their social standing…; how local men have dealt with identity issues emerging from the migration of a female family member…; the effects of migration on the children left behind, the role conflicts experienced by migrant mothers, and the growing awareness of the value of women’s work…; and finally, the wide circulation of a genre of ‘horror stories’ about migration”.

It is due to this clear outline of issues that come to be address that Gamburd creates such an outstanding ethnography. Her chapters to reflect her own views backed by either stories from the housemaids themselves or data collected in prior studies. Her conclusion follows by offering reasons and conclusions behind each of the parts.

Where Fernea falls short (in lack of opinion), Turnbull takes over but is too confident in his own. Bourgois fulfills this modesty requirement yet needs Fernea’s complete explanations to bring about conclusiveness. Each ethnography that we read could easily be argued to be have the most interesting topic and be most well written, but it truly comes down to the methods and how thoroughly they are utilized that make up a great ethnography. Though I personally must admit that I was the least interested in trans-migrant housemaids from the start, Gamburd’s insightful and thorough work led me to indeed think it to be the most attention-grabbing of the four. Its recent publication also helps it out as being a fairly modern interpretation involving an area of much debate.

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