This panel asks how we know when to take something literally, and when something is 'just a metaphor'. Especially when people are not consistent (and know it) in what they say or believe, this becomes a challenge that needs to be worked through ethnographically.
This panel's provocative title seeks to engage with a recurrent problem in anthropology. How do we know when an expressed statement or belief is 'just a metaphor', and when we ought to 'take it literally'. While it seems self-evident that the answers to this kind of question can only come from the ethnography, in some situations the ethnographic data may itself be confusing and contradictory. How then do we not only make sense of what might be going on, but also theorise and work with it anthropologically? We could take a heuristic rather than an analytic approach to our ethnography, allowing all definitions to come from the field as it were (see Henare, Holbraad and Wastell, 2006, Introduction). However, people are not always consistent in the ways in which they define and classify things. Furthermore, what people do, what they say they do, and how they reflect on the distinction between the two raises interesting questions. Multiple epistemes may exist within the same person or group without them being coterminous, ie their boundaries and meanings may clash at times and not at others. This specific form of diversity forces us to re-examine the implicit assumption of mutuality within the anthropological project. This is not just a crisis of representation, it is a challenge to the core principle of empathy and thus the possibility of understanding through the ethnographic encounter. We invite contributions to this panel that focus on these problems and think through them ethnographically.