Reflective analysis on cultural practice in Africa

Posted on Fri 06 August 2010 in Rumination

Recently I posted a link to a very interesting essay by Alan Fiske "Learning a culture the way informants do: observing, imitating, and..." (2000). The paper generated a fair amount of back and forth on whether or not members of any culture reflect on their own cultural practices in equal degree, so much so that Alan Fiske was asked by Neil Turner to to justify some of Fiske's observations and arguments presented in the paper. In another blog post I would like to present what I take to be Fiske's main and substantive arguments on the nature of cultural practice and ethnographic practice presented in his paper.

Here I'd like to summarize the debate, highlight some of the main points, and present the view of my friend Scott MacEachern, professor of anthropology at Bowdoin specializing in African ethnoarchaeology.

In his essay, Alan Fiske argues that "practice, even the most refined practical competence, need not necessarily give rise to reflective analysis". Fiske asks his (American) audience:

"...if I grilled you about why you carve faces in pumpkins—and why pumpkins, rather than watermelons? Why on October 31? “That’s just what we do!” That’s what Halloween is!” Similarly, most Americans would probably be at a loss if I asked them why they eat cake and ice cream at birthday parties, why they light candles and then blow them out—or why they celebrate birth anniversaries at all. Could you—or most American informants—give any answer that reflects an articulated understanding of birthday rituals that was in your mind before I asked the question?

I take this to be an accurate generalization of Americans. It is important to point this out because it is also true that USAian society does have a long and sustained tradition of inquiry and analysis of its own practices, for example in anthropology and sociology. We even have looked at birthday parties and Halloween celebrations (We need look no further than Richard Wilk's and Lisa Cligett's chapter in their book Economies and cultures: foundations of economic anthropology). Nonetheless, such reflection on one's cultural practices needn't occur uniformly in the same degree across all practitioners in a society.

Fiske takes this one step further, writing:

"In some cultures, people do describe and discuss their rituals with each other. However, like many other peoples in Africa, the Moose have no indigenous tradition of reflective analysis of their own practices. They have a rich, elaborate religion, but no theology. They have a complex society, but no ethnosociology. Like many other African peoples, they have virtually no mythology or cosmology. They have a sophisticated political system, but no political science. They live their lives in practice, but without any great interest in reflecting on it, analyzing it, or trying to explain it."

I personally find it quite believable that societies differ in the extent to which reflection on cultural practices is engaged in, encouraged, tolerated, or communicated, but that as the aforementioned example of reflective practices in the United States illustrates, things aren't simple. The kinds, sorts, capacities for, and roles of reflection on one's practices and beliefs needs to be delineated more carefully for Fiske's audience. As it stands, Fiske's statements have left him open to some (in my opinion misguided) accusations. At the request of Neil Turner, Fiske responded to some of these accusations and characterizations of his work. But neither has it resolved what I take to be areas of more legitimate concern. In particular, how African-ness is being used here, and the empirical question of the forms and occurrence of native reflection on cultural practices across the African region. Indeed when first read the aforementioned passage in Fiske's paper, I immediately asked my friend Scott Scott MacEachern for his views on the matter. He offered the following viewpoint to be published at the OAC in response to this discussion, the essay, and Fiske's aforementioned response.


“You’ve asked me about reflection and self-reflection in the areas that I’ve worked in in Africa. I’ve been doing archaeology and ethnoarchaeology in the northern Mandara Mountains of Cameroon and
Nigeria since 1984, with work ongoing: this included 16 months of
ethnographic fieldwork in the late 1980s among Plata and related
Mandara montagnard communities, and approximately 3.5 years of
fieldwork in the area in total. I was reasonably capable in Plata at
that time, although my skills in that language have deteriorated as I
worked in other areas of the mountains and switched back to doing
mostly archaeology.

There’s no doubt that Plata and related populations reflected on lives
that were often difficult and sometimes tragic. I was among other
things interested in montagnard religious conceptions, because these
are reflected in particular realms of material culture. I talked to
montagnard people about their religious beliefs, in conversations that
ranged from the silly to the not-so-silly: about where gods and spirits
came from, and why they would want to inflict suffering on humans;
about why good and bad fortune are distributed unevenly among people;
about whether, if twins are so dangerous, a woman can humanly bear
triplets; and about why certain supernatural forces are indentified so
strongly with particular places. In the course of those conversations,
montagnard people reflected upon those questions with at least as much
insight and inquisitiveness as I’ve seen when I’ve had similar
conversations in the West. (Perhaps more so: what the original author [Alan Fiske]
seems to be doing is mistaking professionalisation for reflective
analysis: under his terms, the vast majority of people in Western
societies arguably have no theology, no cosmology, either.)

Of course, the Plata and their neighbours are people in just one small
area of Africa, and I wouldn’t presume to make judgements about
‘Africa’ as a whole from them. That’s the second point: claims of the
sort that the original author made collapse Africa down into one
unitary thing, as if there’s some essential African-ness that
characterises the whole continent. This can then be compared to
essential ‘Asian-ness’ and ‘Euroamerican-ness’ (and, inevitably, found

It all starts to sound rather like Nicholas Sarkozy’s little lecture to
‘the Africans’ in Dakar from a few years ago: “ …Le drame de l’Afrique,
c’est que l’homme africain n’est pas assez entré dans l’histoire. Le
paysan africain, qui depuis des millénaires, vit avec les saisons, dont
l’idéal de vie est d’être en harmonie avec la nature, ne connaît que
l’éternel recommencement du temps rythmé par la répétition sans fin des
mêmes gestes et des mêmes paroles. Dans cet imaginaire où tout
recommence toujours, il n’y a de place ni pour l’aventure humaine, ni
pour l’idée de progrès. Dans cet univers où la nature commande tout,
l’homme échappe à l’angoisse de l’histoire qui tenaille l’homme moderne
mais l’homme reste immobile au milieu d’un ordre immuable ou tout
semble être écrit d’avance….” Sarko was reflecting a worldview of
medium antiquity in Western culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct.

-Scott MacEachern

I would like to thank Scott for his comments.

As a final note: it is my personal belief that a careful delineation of the sorts of reflective analysis as they occur in a society should go a long way to resolving these problems and potential misunderstandings. If we are to allow that different cultures are different from each other in more than just place and time, then we must also allow for the possible presence of those differences even when they violate our sense of fairness or of the obvious. At the same time, such characterizations require careful scrutiny and communication.