Anthropology and The Other:
Mediation Through Digital Story Telling
Eric R. Paison, MA
Claremont graduate University
Traditional Anthropology has been viewed predominately as a “white western male”, endeavor. Of course there were the icons such as Margret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Jane Goodall, Mary Leaky, etc…; but the truth is that it has been more about the “western male” perspective, who’s goal was to “give voice” to, and more importantly describe the “other”, generally the “male other”. Therefore, we must first define some key terms, and then we will be in position to discuss just how mediation through digital storytelling will allow anthropology to stay a viable and relevant discipline.
So what is anthropology? Anthropology in general terms is “the study of humans in all places and all times”. This simplistic sounding definition is actually anything but simplistic, it is actually all encompassing. In the United States, contemporary anthropology is typically divided into four sub-fields: cultural anthropology (also called “social anthropology”), archaeology, linguistic anthropology and biological/physical anthropology. The so-called “four-field” approach to anthropology is reflected in many undergraduate textbooks as well as anthropology programs. At universities in the United Kingdom, and much of Europe, these “sub-fields” are frequently housed in separate departments and are seen as distinct disciplines.
Anthropology is often referred to as the “holistic” social science precisely because of its multi-disciplinary nature. However, to be a bit more precise for my purposes here,
“one of the most common definitions of anthropology is that [it is a discipline (or a conglomerate of disciplines) that deals with the other]. In presenting, describing, analyzing and evaluating the other(s), anthropology constructs its own field of study and defines itself. Thus, anthropology owes its very existence to the existence… of alterity”.
Alterity describes the actual state of otherness, and the awareness of that otherness. This awareness points to the pseudo-hegemonic relationship that western social science in general has had with the “other” over the past one and a half centuries.
When contemplating the place of anthropology and the anthropologist within the context of global twenty-first century social science, and the role of accepted [expert] in relation to the otherness of one’s subject, in my opinion presents a major barrier when defining the roles and responsibilities of the anthropologist. In this context, each of the actors is placed within the hierarchy of the researcher/researched relationship which translates to an authority/authored relationship.
“The notion of place or position from which one postulates itself as “the authority” to judge others and to determine them as others. This authority always involves a notion of universalism or universal values, and is to a large extent dependent on the actual enforcing of one’s (dominant) values or ideologies as the “proper ones”.
In discussing the concept alterity and the hegemonic relationship which I perceive the anthropologists of the past to have been engaged in, I am not implying that anthropologists intentionally and physically control their informants, and certainly not by any type of coercion or act of violence, at least not consciously—let us not revisit Darkness in Eldorado.
What I am looking specifically at is the act of appropriating the “others” story and exhibiting it as the “bottom line” of social and cultural analysis. This appropriation of the others story is precisely what I see as a form of hegemony in that it precludes the other from refuting what the [authoritative anthropological expert] has claimed to be the “cultural truth”. Having discussed the concept of alterity, let us define what is meant by hegemony within this context.
“Hegemony (Greek: ἡγεμονία hēgemonía, English: [UK] /hɨˈɡɛməni/, [US]: pronounced /hɨˈdʒɛməni/; “leadership” or “hegemon” for “leader”) is the political, economic, ideological or cultural power exerted by a dominant group over other groups, regardless of the explicit consent of the latter. While initially referring to the political dominance of certain ancient Greek city-states over their neighbours, the term has come to be used in a variety of other contexts, in particular Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony. The term is often mistakenly used to suggest brute power or dominance, when it is better defined as emphasizing how control is achieved through consensus not force”.
Thus, with the consensus of the anthropological community, and perhaps the academy as a whole, and not through any type of physical force, the anthropologist takes authorship of the others story as not only a right, but a responsibility—insert images of “The White Man’s Burden” here.
The main issue I have, and make no mistake as to my dedication to the field of anthropology, is in the way(s) in which anthropology was, and in many respects still is (re)presenting the others. Apart from the issue of alterity (which in itself is a very complex issue which includes gender, race, ethnicity, age, etc.), it is important to note that the other gains its status in the production of “our,” “civilized,” or “non-other” cultures.
Going back as far as The Histories of Herodotus, accounts of contact with those that were different or other-like, have preoccupied the minds of academics, explorers, as well as potential imperial powers. Evaluating and labelling the others as “non-human” or “sub-human”, “barbarian”, “savage”, or “primitive”, in an attempt to create a set of universals, has been common. And of course, being inferior, the other [is] in need of the “White Man’s” help into [modernity], right?
We must subvert the tendency to view ourselves as superior and relize that,
“…the actual consequences of all these evaluating discourses were never as globalizing and universalizing as their creators wished or hoped for (this goes for the ancient Greeks and Alexander the Great, as well as for the Roman Empire, or the Buddhist emperor Asoka, or even Christianity and Islam as they emerged on the world stage). For the “real” trends towards universalization, one should look at the time after the epoch of the “great discoveries'”.
In fact, within the post-colonial context, as well as the age of new media, the other can now (if so empowered), speak for themselves, which of course is indicative that we are past any perceived [age of evaluation].
If they have access to the technology and are taught the basic skills, anyone should technically be able to have a voice. There are problems of course. Globally, access to new media is very selective. Socio-economic situations vary greatly throughout the globalized transnational currents that carry information at light speed to all [corners] of the globe. As a result, a vast majority of people in developing and underdeveloped nations are denied access to that information for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list is of course poverty, but that in fact can be further divided into two types that I term as “individual” and “societal based” poverty. Individual poverty happens at the intersection of the individual and familial spheres, but is not indicative of the society as a whole, which may otherwise be economically fit. Societal based poverty on the other hand, affects a majority of the population and is usually attributed to either instability in the economic base of the society, or corruption at the level of the governmental superstructure, to put it in Marxian terms.
Advanced nations such as Great Britain and the United States (former imperial powers no less) suffer more from issues of individual poverty than with the more encompassing situation of societal based poverty, with inner city and minority populations most at risk. This is not to say that there are not issues at the societal level, merely that the current class and economic structure does not bind the way it does in other systems. This is of course most prevalent in class based capitalist societies such as ours.
A gross example of societal based poverty would be the former states of the now defunct Soviet Union. In fact, it has been the position of many observers that Russian citizens are more impoverished now than before the split. The so called “digital divide” is certainly at its greatest in environments such as the former Soviet Bloc, simply due to the overall economic disparity. This goes for all impoverished regions of the world, which in turn is the reason access is so limited.
Digital Story Telling is one answer to this dilemma. The anthropologist of today has access to a multitude of technological tools that have the power to give voice to the voiceless—allowing the anthropologist to offer access to those who have something to say, and not merely “report” on them. After decades of going into the field and documenting the “other”, the table has been turned, and the “spy glass” has been aimed at the researcher. We have become “the other” as well! This need not be the end of anthropology, but a new phase in which the anthropologist opens access for the other to tell their story, whom ever that other may be. Through the process of mediation, facilitated by the anthropologist, allowing the story to be heard in the actors own voice, digital storytelling has the power to liberate traditional ethnography and at least ease the tension between the anthropologist and the other.