Thursday, May 24, 2012


I have no excuse for not updating my blog on schedule (that would have been three days ago according to the syllabus). This week has been difficult, my brain is exhausted from understanding only 5-30% of the Kichwa spoken to me during the majority of each day, despite the feeling that I understand at least 80% of the words spoken. When I'm not listening to or attempting to speak Kichwa, I'm usually listening to or attempting to speak Spanish. Or reading something in English in order to "relax," which hasn't been helping lately.

I have probably also been worn out by the constant attention to trying to behave in a culturally acceptable manner, which instead of being calm and self-possessed about I have decided to handle with the maximum amount of anxiety possible. I know this is counterproductive but I do it anyway. But enough complaining.

First an update on the situation I wrote about last time. I am now living in a small town outside of Puyo and I have noticed that the harassment here is much less. People here often greet each other as they pass, and if I am walking in town with my landlady we will undoubtedly run into several people she knows along the way and stop to talk for at least a minute. If I am out alone I still sometimes get stares or whistles, but I'm going to attribute at least part of that to my foreignness rather than my gender, and the rest doesn't feel nearly as aggressive as it did in Quito. So overall it has become much less of a concern, and I'm not slipping into the paranoid antisocial spiral that I feared at first.

However I still have a few questions about how to build a working cultural framework for concepts like sexism. What I mean to say is, in the United States I have no problem feeling indignant about all sorts of things that happen within my culture and which I think should change, manifestations of sexism, racism, homophobia and the like. And in a lot of ways our collective culture has changed in a positive direction, even though there are plenty of things to be concerned about. But when I'm in another culture, I'm not sure I have the right to judge anything. I'll go for racism and marginalization of indigenous communities within the larger context of Ecuador, but that's about it. Mostly I want to be an effective ethnographer and participant observer, so I want to be in a descriptive mode for the time being rather than an evaluative one. But somewhere along the way, that breaks down.

On one hand, I'm concerned that I will compare the two cultures and judge my own to be superior. This would be anthropological blasphemy, wouldn't it? At first I think of course I don't think my culture is better, if I consider the culture of the US to be mine, because there are a lot of things about it that I reject. But then I realize, the US is not "my" cultural region if I reject so much of it, and besides it's too heterogeneous to count as just one region. My actual cultural alignment is in large part to a very small sector of the population, actually several different groups including linguists, NPR, and academia as a whole (obviously some overlap). And the strongest cultural attachment I have is to questions of Right and Wrong. Luckily I don't have too strong an attachment to the Right and Wrong ways of eating, drinking or riding on a bus, so I can adapt to new ways of doing those things mostly without judgment. (Although I will admit to slight apprehension on the drinking clean water front--it's my weakling American body, can't handle the same types of microbes as strong Ecuadoreans can.) Even in the realm of religion I feel I have a very strong opinion that the Right way to handle things is to pretty much always respect other people's beliefs and when possible to try to understand why their spiritual beliefs are valid and valuable to their lives. So that seems to balance things out-- I explicitly don't have an opinion about whether or not other people's religions are right or wrong for them, I just trust that they are right for the most part.

Interestingly though, I'm finding there are still lots of things* that I have a moral attachment to or judgment on, and I don't know quite what to do about it. *(See previous list including racism and sexism, those are big ones.)

Okay pardon the rambling since I'm composing this without much editing, but I suppose I do know what to do about it. First, observe my judgments without necessarily trying to prevent them. Second, allow this question to remain unsolved in my mind without being an anthropological "sin." That's how it's done, right? Apologies for the lengthy and quite possibly confusing blog post. If I stop to edit any more this will never be published.


  1. First off, I love rambling without editing. I swear by it. Don't apologize, just call it "stream of consciousness" or "experimenting with self expression" and reference Virginian Woolfe and/or James Joyce. It tends to shut people up because most people have never read them anyhow, if they've even heard of them, and stream of consciousness sounds very impressive.

    In other news, I am not an anthropologist. I took a couple classes and decided I couldn't handle the way they taught it. However, I do have opinions on the topic. I might be a heretic or something, but in some ways I kind of believe in anthropological Darwinism. I mean, it seems like a lot of anthropologists are obsessed with preserving all culture anywhere, but I kind of feel like anthropology puts too much of the emphasis on the Western side of things. I don't think it is our job to preserve culture. We should try not to do stupid imperialist things and actively destroy places, but I believe it is up to a people to make their own culture relevant. If they can't be bothered to maintain their religion, I mean, then who's job is it?

    ...I am not saying what I mean. I guess what I mean is, I think comparing a society to the U.S. and finding the U.S. better in some ways is perfectly acceptable. As an extreme example, female genital mutilation is a cultural practice that is different than in the U.S. that is most certainly wrong and must be unequivocally rooted out and eliminated.

    I think the point of anthropology is not to judge, but to be able to maintain two sometimes contradictory thoughts in your mind at once. With your knowledge of the people you are studying and your background growing up in the U.S., if you can't judge, who can? However as an anthropologist, you are supposed to objectively record what you see.

    So I think you should consider both. Record the culture without judgement. Evaluate what it means, and how the people are, but record your interpretation as well. I would only completely avoid it if you are getting stuck on it, in which case you might need to just stop and force yourself to think of only the good things about the culture.

    It is important to respect people's rights, but it is also important to go beneath that and respect a human beings universal rights.

    Actually I think I am just going to make a blog post about this because now I am thinking of other things to say and this will be ten pages long if I don't stop and think more about it.

    So sorry, I kind of didn't really say what I wanted to here, haha.

  2. Rem,
    I appreciate you heretical input. Personally I feel that anthropology is one of the only things out there trying not to be too Western, and so I want to do a good job at that.

    I guess it's impossible to be completely objective about these things, so at some point I have to admit that I would prefer cultural practices everywhere to reflect my ideal of gender equality. And I have to own the fact that my ideals are culturally based, but that doesn't mean that they're ethically meaningless either. I mean you mention rights but isn't that in itself a Western concept?

    And I think you're spot on that accepting ambiguity is a huge part of the answer. I think being aware of my judgments keeps them from being too harsh. As long as I can say, "hmm, it looks like I don't like this but it's possible that it's not objectively wrong," I can think about it more and not be reactionary, try to understand it fully before condemning it (if I still want to).

  3. I'm glad someone else feels the way I do--particularly about the issues you're getting at with being very opinionated and critical of our American culture while having the inability to be critical of your host culture. I'm coming into the same problems here in France. I want to love everything about the culture because I feel I'm somehow supposed to--like I'm supposed to see it for its beauty. But frankly, whether or not its right or wrong, there are some things about French culture I certainly don't like--and some things I do--in comparison to American culture. It's hard, with our culture of things being either right or wrong, to separate yourself from that methodology and just let things BE.