Accepted Paper:

Ghosts, maths and ethnographic practice  

Author:

Penny Harvey (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

The paper suggests that an appeal to ‘literal meaning’ is not necessarily an appeal to transparent meaning, but a call to slow down the interpretative process, to not assume we know what something means to those involved. I suggest that ethnography can be patient rather than sceptical, and can compel rather than efface hesitation.

Paper long abstract:

Working ethnographically on a major road-building project in Peru, I was party to a conversation between an engineer and a young woman who was interested in ghosts. She asked him if he believed in ghosts. No, he replied, I believe in maths. How might scepticism help me, the ethnographer, work out what is going on in this exchange? Do people believe in maths in the same way as they believe in ghosts? Might we question the belief in maths in the same way as we might question the belief (or lack of belief) in ghosts? Thinking through this example, ethnographically, the paper questions what it means to take something literally. I suggest that an appeal to 'literal meaning' is not necessarily an appeal to transparent meaning, but a call to slow down the interpretative process, to not assume we know what something means to those involved. I suggest that ethnography can be patient without necessarily being sceptical, and that ethnography is our best chance of complicating the data in ways that compel rather than efface the hesitation.

Panel W023
For a sceptical anthropology?