As a Reader of Social Anthropology, my interests include new participatory research methods, language, dance and music. Since culture is embedded in human bodies, ways of doing and interacting, the body and its engagement with culture is central to anthropological research. The oxymoron ‘participant-observation’ reflects both the method we employ and the tensions involved in so doing. If you observe you are no longer participating, and if you participate it is hard to step back and observe, yet somehow this label reflects well what generations of anthropologists seek to do. Participation – using your body to do things as people do in the culture you are seeking to understand is the central method for gaining anthropological knowledge and what I’d like to focus on here. We think of an object as having some representational value for a culture (like statues, houses or carvings), but at the deepest level, culture is stored in humans’ bodies. If that’s the case, then how do we get to the knowledge of that culture within human bodies?
25 years ago, I arrived in a forest in Central Africa to live with the Mbedndjele people. Everything was new: the species, the density, the particular configurations. There was a very basic perceptual issue of how to orientate myself, such as how to figure out landmarks in the dense forest. I quickly learnt that particular trees could help me find my way home again when I’d gone off looking for honey or gathering something.
I honed many different skills during my time in Africa. For example, the people I worked with in the Congo have about six different verbs for different styles of looking: shifting your head side to side and up and down allows you to penetrate between dense foliage in front of your face, whereas throwing your eyes around to disperse them rapidly across your field of vision
Specialised activities like hunting and gathering taught me even more skills that I could embody. Whatever animal you are hunting, you become adept at thinking like them. If you talk to hunters, they speak about becoming the animal – they enter their consciousness and a close relationship develops between the hunter and the hunted. I’ve discovered I can call fish in the Atlantic and Mediterranean by applying the same principles my Mbendjele friends taught me in the forests of Africa. When you find yourself in new contexts and situations, those same skills can be transferred in unusual and surprising ways.
When I first arrived in the field, I’d been researching the Rwandan genocide, which was deeply distressing. We came across very tragic stories, and one of the consequences of hearing such awful stories was that I lost my laughter – for about three months after finishing the research, I just couldn’t laugh, things weren’t funny any more. But the Mbendjele quickly noticed this and started performing comical enactments of things that had happened that day in the evenings. That was so nice, and it re-educated me and now I can laugh again.
Public speaking was another skill that I soon honed. In the evenings, the camp would speak to itself through a particular institution they call Mosambo. From very early on, they encouraged me to do Mosambo, and I was terrified because my language skills were so poor. But finally, because of continued encouragement, I started to participate. What I realise now, years later, is that they taught me the art of public speaking. Mosambo is not widely understood, but the principles of public speaking are worldwide.
The idea of participant observation as the main method with which anthropologists gain insight into other cultures is very relevant, because what it really means is that you need to spend a year or two living with a group of people, learning how to do things their way so that you can experience it for yourself, as well as understanding the principles of their experience.
If we’re not attentive to the ways in which our body engages with a different culture, we’re not able to understand or translate that culture into the language of our own culture – which is essentially what anthropologists do. How your body interacts with the environment of another culture is the main source for learning what cultural knowledge is in that context. This is particularly relevant when you study rituals, because you have a deliberate process of establishing relationships between people, symbols, perceptions of the spirit world and aspects of what they believe are beyond the perceptible.
In my opinion, there is not much support or training to enable students to make embodied reflections, that translate the data they get from their participant observation in the field into research data. It’s difficult for students to critique the carefully written articles they’re given to read and appreciate the extent to which bodily experience and the difficulties involved in trying to understand them in a very different context have on the texts that anthropologists produce. Having more opportunities to
This article was taken from an interview that Jerome did with NCRM researcher Eline Kieft for her podcast ‘Remember your body’, where she interviews academics who pioneer the body as a research tool in anthropology. Listen to the full interview at www.somaticstoolkit.coventry.ac.uk
Submitted by Dr Jerome Lewis, University College London on Wednesday, 26th June 2019