ITP 2012: Day 16 – Akram Ijla

During our visit to the Horniman Museum, we have acquired an amazing knowledge and insight concerning the relation between space and people and how one can interpret this relation through the ethnography.  Curator, Robert Storrie, has inspired me by his explanation of this relationship in terms of contemporary ethnography. He noted that Anthropology is an enquiry into what it means to be human – it has often been said that it makes the ‘strange familiar and the familiar strange’. Anthropology forces us to question preconceived ideas and to engage with different ways of being. Anthropology prompts us to explore meaning from the other’s point of view, to understand different perspectives. In this way, as a discipline it hopes to document the enormous diversity of human experience, while holding up a mirror to our own ways, illuminating them through comparison with others.  It is above all about communication; face-to-face communication, of seeing and being seen, and the production of dialogue.

Anthropology and ethnography are unique in that the source of their knowledge is long-term co-residence with other people.  (In my case I spent more than 3 years with Amazonian hunter-gatherers known as the Hoti).  It is a study with, rather than of, other people.  ‘Anthropologists work and study with people’, immersed in the same environment they learn to see the world in the same way as their teachers.

Anthropology teaches us to be open to other possibilities, other ways of seeing the world.  It teaches us how to learn about the world, to be always aware of other different ways of being. Immersionist fieldwork induces a profound culture shock.  Everything one took for granted is de-stabilised.

When the strange becomes familiar, the familiar must become strange.  We learn that others – however seemingly different – are just like us but living very different lives.  We can never hope to understand ourselves let alone what it means to be human if we look only at our own ways of being and knowing.  Only by always being suspicious of certainties and absolutes, suspicious of un-questioned beliefs can we guard against the ethnocentric assumption that what “we” do based upon “our” culture and history is normal, universal or natural.

This questioning attitude, this resistance to ethnocentrism can of course be challenging particularly to power.  The most pernicious ideologies deny that they are ideological – but rather they are ‘natural’.  Racisms and nationalisms often rest upon assertions about ‘human nature’, and arguments about the impossibility of forcing people to behave in ways that are ‘against nature’.  These beliefs are exposed as unfounded when you can point to other ways of being human which appear radically different: take my example of the Hoti – a culture where interpersonal violence is virtually unknown, where they know that feeling anger harms others who they love, and they learn not to feel anger; where their fundamental morality is based upon peacefulness and generosity towards all persons in their world – a morality that is almost universally observed and yet is un-policed by any coercive sanctions, or any threat of violence or restraint.  Where does this leave the argument that without the coercion of the state human nature is predatory, violent and anarchic?  It reveals it as culturally contingent.

We can learn truly profound – fundamental – lessons from other ways of being.  We can see other possibilities for our own lives; perhaps ones not based upon violence, hierarchy or fear.

The anarchist axiom applies equally to anthropology: “whatever exists is possible”. 

The objective of ethnography is to describe the lives of others, with an accuracy and sensitivity honed by detailed observation and prolonged first-hand experience.  Ethnographic collections tell countless fascinating stories about other people – and therefore also about ourselves.  They provide ways of documenting the human and the particular that allow us to approach and make intelligible both daily life and great, global events. 

We have a wonderful opportunity to place objects that speak of other human histories in dialogue with each other and to discover that the diversity of human culture rests upon a common humanity.  My belief is that through this we can encourage respect for other ways of being and compassion for others, and bring about an awareness that these ‘others’ are just us living different lives. 

The objects can tell stories that connect to the universals of human experience.  They can tell stories that will engage and excite and interest.

Akram Ijla