Workshop 1 - Christina Toren, 'Ethnography as ontological experiment'


Christina Toren (Anthropology, University of St. Andrews) opened her presentation by explaining that as a form of experiment, ethnography demands a great deal of us because, properly done, it leads us inexorably to questioning our fundamental understandings of the world and human beings and thus to a re-thinking of the analytical categories that inform the human sciences.

She emphasized that ethnography gives rise to many of our most telling insights not only about others, but about ourselves and, specifically, ourselves as human scientists.

Toren argued that to grasp the power of ethnographic analysis we have to be able fully to credit as materially warranted by the world, ideas and practices which, our from our own perspective, are evidently untrue. Consequently, the effort of imagination that this requires is what enables the analyst to realise why our own received analytical categories may not work even for ourselves.

Toren illustrated her argument on an example derived from long-term participant observer fieldwork in Fiji. In particular, she referred to Tabua: ‘a whale’s tooth (…) much prized in Fijian tradition. It takes precedence over everything else and occupies first place in Fijian ceremony, whether for family, intertribal or state occasions. It is regarded as a sacred bond between two parties. It is used as a symbol of peace and disputes or quarrels can be smoothed over by its presentation’.

Toren argued that we cannot assume that the world as lived by other people is in all respects the same as the world that we ourselves take for granted. She explained that for her as a researcher Fijian gods can exist only in the imagination, not in material form - but pointing out that this rationalist approach helps her sometimes to realise the absurdity of rationalism in itself.

She followed by claiming that all humans do experiment, but in a broad sense of inductive reasoning. But in anthropology one is really doing virtually impossible research, imagining what it is to live the world of someone other than oneself, someone whose history diverges significantly from one's own.

Toren’s paper prompted an engaging debate about not only the meaning of experimentality but its implications for the meaning of the reality and us as a social beings.