Teach thy tongue to say I do not know

I just came back from attending a very intense and useful workshop on ethnography, an anthropological method that I always find very interesting and something which I have always wanted to learn. For those not in social sciences, ethnography is the systematic method of studying people and culture. The ethnographer in the practice of classic ethnography would stay with the group of people they are studying for months and sometimes up to years doing participant observation, in-depth interviews, recording, and other non-intrusive methods in order to document their values, their activities, their attitudes, their practices, and many more. This is a good introduction to the practice of ethnography, if you would like to know more.

I always loved (but then who didn’t) a well-researched and well-organised workshop, and I was glad to know that this workshop was one of them. Every speaker who talked about the experiences of doing ethnography — with indigenous people, with a marginalised community, among the migrants, among the village folks in Langkawi, etc. — definitely knew their research topic very well, even after some of them have conducted the research years ago.

One of the biggest questions about anthropology that I still had till this day is how to deal with the idea of anthropology as the ‘handmaiden of colonialism’ — which what it was rooted in. This, strategically as I had in my mind, is quite limited as this was how classic ethnography started, and academia has the reputation as not being completely flexible in its whole technicalities. But I was awestrucked when the keynote speaker, Dato’ Dr. Wazir Jahan Karim, who conducted her ethnography among the indigenous people in Carey Island, kindly answered my question by relating to her own experience, “I deviated from the classic ethnography approaches to show more humanism despite the protests from my professor. After all, we have to prioritise the people.” There were also many wise anecdotes coming from Dr. Wazir, among them “minorities everywhere experience a form of cultural genocide” hence “find out how these communities can progress in their own native ways, instead of inflicting our ways upon them.” Also as a curious person, I sometimes have a number of questions to ask at the end of the session, but I found that these questions were practically already answered in those talks themselves e.g. “how do you deal if the results of your research indeliberately inflict harm upon the community you’re studying?” (answer: you yourself must be aware of the politics and your own biases yourselves, if it happens, fix them) and “how do you deal with Hawthorne Effect with the people you are studying?” (answer: reframe interview questions in a form of chats, not a rigid set of interview questions. Built rapport. Make friends. Be friends.)

We also observed that some of these researchers still kept in touch with the families of whom they were staying with during their research till this day, even calling among themselves ‘dad’, ‘mum’, ‘sister’, ‘brother’ etc. “Unlike some Western researchers who came to study people and then go home to their privileged lives in their first world country,” one of them remarked, and I noticed the shade. “They are practically family,” one of those speakers beamed while speaking about the family she had been staying with. One of the participants asked, why the attachment? One of the speakers said, “Maybe it’s the social activist in us. Maybe we care too much.” And in that whole few minutes, the infamous superiority of academia we are often presented to is discarded — the certainty or the perception that you must have all the answers, the technicality, the effrontery, the performativity of intellectuallity — dispersed, just humanity, just the maybes. There was also a question posed (of which I forgot what it was about) but one of the speakers comfortably said, “I don’t know, but that’s a great question. I guess we have to find out.” I am aware that this might be the barest minimum here, admitting you do not know, but it is comforting hearing that from experienced researchers. My faith in social science and academia was restored, and I am glad that I took the time to attend this workshop.

Ben Shahn's 1954 painting Maimonides, shown here with one arm raised and the other holding a book in which is written a statement attributed to the sage that says "teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress."

Ben Shahn’s 1954 Maimonides, shown here with one arm raised and the other holding a book in which is written a statement attributed to the sage that says “teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress.” (via Austin Kleon)

Some related, some not:

  • “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know,’” said the poet Wislawa Szymborska in her 1996 Nobel Prize lecture.
  • Now reading Comparative Revolutionary Movements while waiting for my on hold copy of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, TIL: The word ‘revolution’ derives from astronomy, that was initially used by philosophers to imply a cyclical process in human events, and that it entered common political parlance only after the French revolution of 1789.
  • “Like offering thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting or natural disaster, listening and learning become ways to offer condolences without committing to the messy, crucial work of preventing tragedies before they come to pass.”
  • Chanel Miller does not give a damn. Prepare some tissues.
  • “I shall love you always. No matter what party is in power; No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied interests wins the war; Shall love you always.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s