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Hau: a new open access journal of ethnographic theory

19 May, 2011

I recently learned of the establishment of a new anthropological journal, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. This is, I think, a potentially very interesting development and this has generated a fair bit of interest around various anthropology-related mailing lists. I have to say I got quite excited reading about the journal’s focus, which seeks to address two important issues in contemporary anthropology: open access to anthropological thought, and the relationship between ethnography and theory.

According to its own blurb:

The journal is motivated by the need to reinstate ethnographic theorization in contemporary anthropology as a potent alternative to its ‘explanation’ or ‘contextualization’ by philosophical arguments, moves which have resulted in a loss of the discipline’s distinctive theoretical nerve. By drawing out its potential to critically engage and challenge Western cosmological assumptions and conceptual determinations, HAU aims to provide an exciting new arena for evaluating ethnography as a daring enterprise for ‘worlding’ alien terms and forms of life, by exploiting their potential for rethinking humanity and alterity.

As I see it Hau is also an attempt to reinvigorate what is important and unique about anthropology that means that it isn’t simply derivative of other fields of enquiry. It doesn’t do this by locating anthropology’s uniqueness in its ethnographic methodology alone, or in a core concept such as “culture”, but in the particular relationship between theory and methodology that anthropology enables. The heart of anthropology, it seems to say, is its ability to generate theoretical insights through ethnography which cannot be reduced to pre-existing philosophical categories. The goal is to return theory to a more intimate relationship with ethnography, as something that emerges as much out of ethnography as much as being applied to it.

The title of the journal is also worth noting. It references of course Mauss’s foundational essay on The Gift, a text that has been extremely fertile within, and beyond, anthropological theorising. In it Mauss famously argued that that something intangible of the giver remains a part of the gift and demands to be returned — and he used the Maori term hau to indicate this “spirit of the gift” to capture the way gift-giving produces the need for reciprocity and therefore forms the basis of various kinds of social bonds. What was particularly daring about the way Mauss employed hau was that he didn’t limit its application to the Maori context but used it to say something about gift giving in general. Instead of remaining confined to ethnographic specificity, hau became part of an attempt to say something about being human in general.

This has been controversial. Is is appropriate, for example, to apply this term in contexts where the concept of a “spirit of the gift” doesn’t exist? But this difficulty is precisely the point that the journal is trying to address, at least as I see it: is it any more appropriate to take Western philosophical categories and assume that they can say something about being human in general? Can we assume that we can just treat different cultural contexts as variations on a universal theme which can all be explained with the same theoretical language? Or do we need to take culture, difference, more seriously than that and acknowledge that there is always going to be a certain impossibility in bringing the particular and the general together? Is cultural translation always going to be a fraught process because there isn’t a universal framework in which we can map all human variation?

These are the sorts of issues the journal’s blurb references when it describes its debt to Mauss and his use of hau as a theoretical construct. Unfortunately it is expressed in a near impenetrable piece of text:

HAU takes its name from Mauss’ Spirit of the Gift, an anthropological concept that derives its theoretical potential precisely from the translational inadequations and equivocations involved in comparing the incomparable. Through their reversibility, such inferential misunderstandings invite us to explore how encounters with alterity occasion the resurgence and revisitation of indigenous knowledge practices.

The paragraph has been the subject of some discussion (and mockery) on the Australian Anthropological Society’s mailing list. And indeed, what are we supposed to make of this passage? If this kind of writing alienates many professional anthropologists how are the wider publics that the journal is trying to reach through its open access policies supposed to react?

Alex Golub of  Savage Minds provided his own improvement of the above passage to the AAS mailing list which I hope he doesn’t mind me repeating here. I think it does a much better job of conveying why it’s interesting to use hau as a sort of guiding motif for the journal:

HAU takes its name from Mauss’s Spirit of the Gift, an anthropological concept that is powerful because it cannot be adequately translated. By standing with a foot in two worlds, concepts like the Hau invite us to explore how encounters with difference can be occasions to revisit and empower indigenous knowledge practices.

This is an important issue for a journal that seeks to promote open access anthropology. Open access, if it’s taken seriously, shouldn’t just be about making it possible for a general public to gain access to anthropological texts;  these texts also need to be accessible. In other words, there are more barriers than just paywalls to getting anthropological thought out into the world as knowledge that connects with and inspires people outside the discipline. My feeling then is that a journal that professes both to want to affect philosophical debates outside the discipline and to be openly accessible should take a broad view of that project. A commitment to clarity of language as a foundational principle would help the journal to more effectively achieve its stated goals. However I’m not arguing that the writing should be dumbed down. Obviously a journal dedicated to cutting edge anthropological theory should encourage sophisticated thought and challenging ideas. But I agree with the adage attributed (correctly?) to Einstein: “Say things as simply as possible, but no simpler.”

In a way both of the above areas of focus — of revitalising the relationship between ethnography and theory, and of open access anthropology — revolve around similar core concerns. In both cases the central question has to do with the tensions inherent in translation, of communicating across difference, and of bringing the specific in relationship to the general. How do we communicate the specificity and uniqueness of an indigenous worldview, or that of a tribe of anthropologists, to the wider world without at the same time destroying what makes it specific and unique?  The project of reinvigorating and “worlding”  indigenous knowledge therefore parallels that of reinvigorating  and “worlding” anthropological theory. And indeed it would appear that these projects are not only analogous but interdependent.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 May, 2011 7:28 pm

    Since anthropologists “translate” from one culture to another, using overly academic words removes intersubjectivity and makes the anthropology unscientific.

    This is even more visible in Swedish anthropology (or other non-english anthropologies). The word “context” is only used in academic contexts, never when talking about contexts in general. And the same applies for alot of other words aswell. It has raised enough attention that people almost automatically say “we have a normal, regular word for that. no reason to be pretentious”.

  2. 19 May, 2011 9:02 pm

    These are difficult and tricky matters and I find myself, as with a lot of things, in two minds. On the one hand, I agree that the purpose of writing is communication and that in order to do this effectively we shouldn’t put unnecessary hurdles in the way of comprehension. If it’s possible to say something more simply without doing violence to the idea (and this qualifier is crucial) then do so. On the other hand, I think it is a mistake to go to the other extreme and assume that it’s possible to take recourse to a “plain language” in which things can be expressed as they truly are. Anthropologists and other academics are often accused of “not using plain English”, of obfuscating and complicating what should be simple. These can be legitimate criticisms. However, what is often behind criticisms of this kind is a sort of positivism (yes, here’s the jargon) which assumes that the world can be known in some sort of direct or transparent way. I don’t agree with this, and I think that really taking culture seriously means recognising that there isn’t a meta-language which we can use to make different cultural worlds equivalent. That is to say, even “plain” language is culturally shaped.

    I’m also not allergic to academics using language in novel or unusual ways. First, what might seem like unnecessarily complicated or pedantic use of language might just be because they are trying to be precise, or to say something that is actually quite complex. Another way that language can be unnecessarily difficult is when words are used imprecisely. This is the bane of many undergraduate essays, and can be a pitfall of assuming that plain language is superior to “jargon”. Second, anthropologists, precisely because they are engaged with the impossibility of cultural translation, may attempt to make use of language in unusual ways in order to capture something of the poetics of difference. This could lead to the coining of neologisms in order to capture or hint at something that is difficult to express. Last year the AAS mailing list was filled with a lot of, in my view mean spirited, commentary on a paper by Kathleen Stewart and her use of the word “rinding”. I’m not sure how successful this use was, especially because the term had other unfortunate connotations, but I don’t think these attempts at using language in novel ways should be dismissed out of hand.

    So if academics use “context” in ways that regular folk don’t, this might be either because they are trying to be precise or because they are trying to get at something that isn’t easily expressed in “plain language”. In short, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with academic language sounding different from other more general versions, or using specialist language.

    In response to your comment, can I ask what you mean by “intersubjectivity”? Do you mean that between the ethnographer and her/his informants, or between the writer and her/his audience? Also, what are the conditions for anthropology to be “scientific” in your view? I wasn’t able to follow how the use of overly academic words makes anthropology less scientific — unnecessarily obscure perhaps, but unscientific?

  3. 19 May, 2011 10:34 pm

    It depends on where your field is situated. If you are studying something more “exotic”, like cannibal behavior, then using overly academic language is hindering the readers in understanding this “exotic” behavior. This is the intersubjectivity I am referring to. If your text is not understood, if the intersubjectivity is lacking, then it is bad science. This is especially so for anthropologists, since we are directly trying to translate meaning from one culture to another.

    If the field is closer to home, it becomes more important to define the words used, as there is a greater risk of the text losing clarity if the reader assumes that a word means something else than what the anthropologist is speaking about. If you use the Japanese word Kuruma in your text when talking about cars, because the word is imbued with different connotations than the word Car, then the definition comes more “naturally”. If you talk about American cars in America, then defining the word Car becomes more important (since it is more easily forgotten to do so).

    There is no such thing as a perfect translation. Each subject’s life-experiences will make personal interpretation a very solipsistic venture. When I say car, you might think Ford while I think Volvo. The details will always elude us. But that doesn’t mean we should just pack up and go home. People still communicate and understand eachother. Empathy, is the key word. And empathy is also the main ingredient in intersubjectivity. All sentient beings have some sort potential for empathy, social animals maybe even more so, so there is always some way of making oneself understood, and making other people understand eachother’s behavior.

    There will never be any sure way of making sure people understand what you are talking about. Revising and listening comes a long way though.

    Personally, I prioritize intersubjectivity over clarity. Clarity, as in being precise about what you’re talking about, is useless if people still don’t understand the point. Clarity is also part of “good science”, but if your business is translating, as it is for us anthropologists, then intersubjectivity should come first. In my humble opinion 🙂

  4. 21 May, 2011 12:44 am

    Hmm, I don’t really see a contradiction between what you call intersubjectivity and clarity. I mean, I don’t think that there’s a need to prioritise one over the other. Clarity is something that I think we always need to strive for in communication and can only be beneficial to establishing an effective relationship with your reader — empathy as you call it. I’m reminded of something that the author Jonathan Franzen wrote as the first of ten “rules” for writers: “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” I like this sentiment and think it’s something worth bearing in mind while writing, even if you might be writing in quite an adversarial mode — e.g. while critiquing someone’s work or engaging in an argument.

  5. 27 May, 2011 3:54 am

    Intersubjectivity relies on empathy. Empathy is a kind of shared understanding about something. Shared understanding can only be achieved through generalizations. Clarity is the opposite to generalizing.

    Think of it like this, you get the best clarity if you speak about what happened to yourself in that specific situation in that particular time at that particular place with those particular people in this particular world. There is less room for interpretation. It is descriptive. Intersubjectivity on the other hand, needs you to take that specific situation and make an analogy to something closer to home. Perfect clarity, saying that shamans are shamans, isn’t going to help anyone understand what shamans are. Intersubjectively speaking though, one can say that shamans are persons of high authority and practitioners of healing, like doctors and psychiatrists. Makes much more sense.

    In another way, one can say that clarity is a total EMIC perspective. Going native. Like Carlos Castaneda. Intersubjectivity on the other hand, needs a balance between insider’s perspective and outsider’s perspective. A critical distance. Like a bridge connecting two worlds, it is a text translating one world’s world-view before another world’s world-view.

    Now, this is so in all science, but even more so for anthropologists. We are not just talking from lab to public, or from peer to peer, we are talking literally from culture to culture.

  6. 27 May, 2011 5:14 pm

    I think we’re talking at cross purposes here so I won’t go on about this. When you talk about clarity I think you mean something like simple statements of fact. If you’re saying a shaman is a shaman then it’s tautology. This may be the most efficient way to convey information but, you’re right, it isn’t necessarily going to do a very good job of bringing a reader into relationship with the lifeworld of the people you’re trying to evoke. Obviously this is generally not what anthropologists try to do. Most socio-cultural anthropology attempts to convey the complexity of other lifeworlds and this often involves a lot of description. Geertz’s notion of “thick description” is very much based on the insight that things will only make sense to the reader if they are located within a rich cultural context. The “meaning” of things is not transparent and therefore cannot simply be stated; it needs to be revealed through the process of bringing a cultural world to life, and this is inevitably a process of translation. Like you said in a previous comment, the idea of “car” might be different from a similar Japanese notion. So how do you convey to readers this difference? You need to locate the Japanese context for the reader, to locate it within a cultural context where the connotations of the notion become clear.

    Note, too, that this is also a little bit different from saying that a shaman is like a doctor, psychiatrist, etc. Yes, such comparisons might be useful at one level, but there’s also a sense that a shaman is like none of those things. All our categories have culturally-based assumptions too which means that relying on them will obscure as much as they reveal. This is why I said that there is no “meta-language” that we can use to describe culture objectively. The job of translation is not just rendering indigenous terms in their nearest equivalent in the target language. Good anthropology, I think, challenges this very notion of the possibilities of this simple 1-1 translation. Instead, it shows the inadequacy of our own categories to understand other social realities. It shakes our confidence that our categories can adequately render the world “as it is”.

    So how do you render the specific qualities of the shaman in a particular context? Not so much by explaining — “she’s like a doctor” — but by showing. This requires a lot of description, a lot of story telling, a lot of talking about various aspects of the society in which she lives in order to make the category of shaman make sense in its own terms. Of course, we only have our own language in which to do this, but it’s a project of somehow getting language to transcend itself. It’s these sorts of things that the editors of Hau are pointing to when they talk about the impossibilities of translation, and why one of their aims is to shake our confidence that we can know other cultural worlds through the application of Western philosophical categories.

    As you see, I’m not really talking about simple statements of fact when I talk about clarity. I’m talking about using language in such a way that you don’t make things unnecessarily difficult for the reader. Anthropological writing can (and should) be rich, textured, complex and nuanced, but it should also be clear, limpid and efficient in achieving its goals. And this is why I like Einstein’s (?) notion that you should “say things as simply as possible, but no simpler”. It’s the second part of this statement that we need to pay attention to.

    So that’s me “not going on about things”.

    But as a rider to this, could I also say that the issues of translation and its (im)possibilities also tend to reinforce a fairly bounded and static sense of culture. This notion has been out of fashion for a while in anthropology and people have instead focused on cultural dynamism, interaction and flow. I think this is something that anthropology is struggling with right now: how to take cultural difference seriously — i.e. not trivialise it — without rendering it static and bounded.

  7. 27 May, 2011 7:10 pm

    When I talk about clarity in scientific contexts I mean definitions, problematizations and operationalizations. It is about being precise. It is about text production, situating the field, delimiting the object of study, and other things like that.

    The best clarity is found in research where the particular case is not generalized, when the particular case is unique and will always be so. This is so because in order to bring something useful out of the case, such as a moral or thick description (in our language), the definitions need to broaden.

    If I talk about the Japanese word for car, kuruma, and imply that kuruma is not the same thing as car, whilst never talking about kuruma as car, then kuruma will continue to be a particular Japanese phenomenon that we’ll never understand. It would be as if Ford and Chrysler are totally different things, or as if eating with chopsticks and eating with silverware are totally different things, or as if two humans are two different things. As if there was no such thing as culture, no sub-cultures, no social group identities…

    Sure, the devil is in the details. All humans are different. All atoms are different. But that wouldn’t really help us understand eachother, just saying that “that’s the way they are”. That if anything would be reifying cultures as bounded entities.

    The interesting thing is instead that people actually do understand eachother. There are common denominators. There are similarities. There are analogies. There are stories. Because, simply put, no man is an island.

    I don’t mean toss out clarity altogether. Just that while clarity is important, intersubjectivity is indispensable. If the reader don’t understand a thing about what you’ve written, then what you have written was written in vain. I mean, what’s the point of answering in Japanese when someone asks you about Japan, it would be like “only those from their own culture can ever truly understand their own culture, and trying to understand their culture without truly being a part of their culture is impossible, so we should all just go home and study ourselves instead”.

    We do know that people can understand eachother. Humans are social animals after all. And cultures change. Over time and over space. If cultures were bounded with ironclad borders, then it would be impossible. But then we wouldn’t define ourselves as humans as a broad category. The other would be an alien, a demon, an angel.

    Using intersubjectivity and acknowledging that people can understand eachother, using overly academic words feels rather trivial doesn’t it. Sure, we can all write our own little papers with high clarity, but if there’s no intersubjectivity that would be like writing page after page of mumbo-jumbo. Like a prophet who noone can understand. “I know why they do what they do, more than you do, but whenever I speak to you about it you will only hear weird noises”.

    Or like this, pointing to several red apples and saying red apple, that is intersubjectivity. Pointing to several red apples and describing each and every sun ray and every electron in every atom on the uniquely shaped surfaces of what most people call apples, that is very high clarity. Less room for interpretation, less room for generalization. Each case is what it is, and nothing more. Analogies and metaphors would only ruin the clarity. “Killing two birds with one stone” isn’t about how it went about when one specific person in a particular place killed two birds with one stone. Talking about that specific person killing two birds with one stone, is like talking about that specific car you once saw in Japan. Talking about “killing two birds with one stone” as something applicable to other cases, that is like talking about cars as something that alot of people use to get to and fro work or school.

    Intersubjectivity is isomorphic, or really rather amorphous. Clarity on the other hand, is like a giant spreadsheet, with each and every quantifiable object within it’s own little square.

    Funny thing is, if there is such a thing as an objective reality, there wouldn’t be any borders or categories anywhere. So aiming for high clarity is just another cultural construction(ing). Kind of like the ethnoscience-project in the 1960’s, or Radcliffe-Brown’s idea of filing each marriage system as uniquely belonging to it’s own culture.

    It’s all about a balance, but intersubjectivity has that balance inherent in itself. While there can be lack of balance in the quest for clarity, a lack of balance would mean a lack of intersubjectivity. A quest for intersubjectivity doesn’t automatically give high clarity though, as the common denominators are less defined than the specificities.

    I don’t know if I’m making myself understood here. It feels like the more I say, the more confusing I make myself sound. I’ve never really been good with metaphors and other non-literal ways of communication.

    Added to all this though, I would like it to be stated that I find the postmodern search for a more EMIC perspective by going more native, is a counter-productive approach. Letting informants be co-authors and stuff like that, is just focusing too much on form and not enough on content.

    Cultures didn’t become more dynamic and processual just because it became popular to say they are. Cultures have always been hybridifying and changing over time and space. That is nothing new. So, if it is nothing new, then that means that anthropology hasn’t been doing nothing for the past hundred years. We can actually come up with life-changing theories and give people more opportunities to more understanding of eachother.

    Letting the other write the ethnography or present all of the ethnography in his/her own voice, we could just aswell just order literary books from each culture and present as ethnography. But that is not ethnography, that is travel journals or journalism at best. And anthropologists showed this a hundred years ago aswell, when they showed that the anthropologist’s theoretical knowledge is what makes him/her stand out from other non-scientific writers/”researchers”.

    A balance between objectivity and subjectivity, a critical distance, or just intersubjectivity. That is the whole foundation for the science part. Even skepticism comes second to intersubjectivity…

  8. 27 May, 2011 7:25 pm

    By the way, in case it seems like I am arguing (which I am not), I also agree with the Einstein quote 🙂

    I don’t agree with his non-Euclidean geometry theories though. They are too unscientific 😉

    Not that labeling something as more or less scientific actually does anything, it just that that is the context we’re in right now.

  9. 27 May, 2011 8:21 pm

    Ugh, I’ve turned off the “nested comments” function. Those thin bits of text were starting to get on my nerves.

    But I’m really, really not going to go on with my reply this time. I think on the whole we’re talking about similar things but using different terminologies. Your take on clarity is a bit different from mine: you’re referencing a whole approach to writing, or a genre, while I’m treating more as a technical matter of making your texts as clear as possible.

    What’s interesting, or perhaps ironic, is that we’ve been talking about cultural translation and struggling so hard to find a common terminology. Talk about the impossibilities of translation! Still, I find it can be a productive process.

    I do feel like I should clarify/note a couple of things. When I talk about anthropological approaches to culture emphasising dynamism etc, I’m not trying to make any point about the “nature” of culture. There are good reasons to think that contemporary developments make it harder to maintain the illusion that people live in cultural bubbles but this is much a change of perspective as anything objective happening in the world. My point was about the struggle to find a conceptual approach that takes culture seriously while acknowledging dynamism.

    Second, I don’t agree with tarring all attempts to produce collaborative ethnographies with the same brush. I really think that these cases need to be judged according to their individual merits. Remember that a lot of collaborative ethnography is about making explicit relationships that were previously kept individual, usually in order to maintain the authority of the ethnographer. Anthropologists have collaborated all along and informants have often also been authors. I don’t see any essential problem in acknowledging that fact.

    But I think that’s enough from me for one day …

  10. 27 May, 2011 10:36 pm

    I also noticed the irony here, tried to avoid mentioning it 🙂

    It is definitely a struggle. Different words dont mean the same thing. Using academic wording has it’s purpose. Explaining concepts like postmodern or social construction instead of just saying it, well, it takes too much focus away from the real object of study. At the same time using everyday wording takes away transparency and availability, creating a kind of academic elitism.

    It is a matter of balance, and choice. It depends on who you are writing for, and why you are writing. Some new academics choose overly complicated words just to prove themselves, to position themselves, to assert themselves. And in position to them, I try to choose more common words when I can. I have noticed my audience appreciates it. And so do I.

    That is about the intersubjectivity between text and reader. But then I have also noticed this almost political correct wave of getting closer to the subject(s) as an ideal. That kind of intersubjectivity, between researcher and research subject, one should be critical to. It opens up for populism and bias in the research. That was why I “tarred” collaborative efforts with the same brush. I agree it depends, on subject and audience. But it is also about choice, from the researcher. Then the consequences and risks should be known by the researcher.

    As far as ‘good science’ goes, it is also about choice. There are criteria for what makes science good or bad. But it could be alot about the form, when it should be about the content. A critical eye is probably best here aswell.

    Thanks for the feedback. It is not often comments receive this much attention. Usually they just disappear in the blur of static on the Internet…

  11. 27 May, 2011 10:38 pm

    I am sorry, I noticed a mistake in my last reply and I cannot edit. It should ofcourse be the academic wording that (can) takes away transparency and availability, atleast from the general populace.

  12. doe permalink
    22 July, 2011 12:35 am

    Anthropology is, no matter which specialized field you look at, not about translating cultures!

  13. 22 July, 2011 7:35 pm


    I think Clifford Geertz would have disagreed about that.

    Anthropology is about understanding, and how would anyone understand anything if the meaning was not “translated” from one culture’s frame of reference to another culture’s frame of reference?

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