Accepted paper:

The ethnographer's magic as sympathetic magic


Kath Weston (University of Virginia)

Paper short abstract:

A reconsideration of the role of sympathy in ethnographic practice, using biography and Enlightenment texts. "The ethnographer's magic" can take the form of a sympathetic magic whose efficacy depends on sentimental "action at a distance" rather than culturally inscribed forms of closeness.

Paper long abstract:

Many of the reforms in ethnographic practice tendered in the wake of the post-colonial and reflexive critiques that rocked anthropology in the late 20th century centered on moral passions, if not moral sentiments per se. Discussions of research ethics underlined the importance of "respect" and "sympathy" or "empathy" for informants (duly reincarnated as participants or collaborators). Ethnographers often looked to biographical context, tethered to wider forms of sensibility, to provide a wellspring for such ethically reconfigured, emotionally animated fieldwork engagements. If sympathy was understood to make fieldwork possible, it was through a bridging effect of identification that brought researcher and researched into a more intimate and presumably less exploitive relationship, so long as fieldworkers critically acknowledged the power differentials that marked ethnographic encounters. By taking a closer look at 17th and 18th century texts on sympathy--both medical and sentimental--this essay calls into question the assumption that sympathy arises from, even as it generates, culturally inscribed forms of closeness. I argue that what Malinowski called "the ethnographer's magic" is (or can be) a sympathetic magic that depends for its efficacy on concealment and "action at a distance" rather than emotional appeals or unmediated contiguities. Sympathy, in this sense, is not reducible to empathy. Nor need such distance, in its 18th century formulation, usher in an alienated objectivism. Discussion of brief biographical passages from my ethnographic work on political ecology and kinship will serve to illustrate the argument.

panel P07
Reason and passion: the parallel worlds of ethnography and biography