Accepted Paper:

The anthropology of the possible: the ethnographer as sceptical enquirer  


Lee Wilson (University of Queensland)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores scepticism as the basis for ethnographic engagement with the extraordinary claims made by informants. Scepticism, associated negatively with rational subjectivism, might provide the ground for mutuality in the anthropological project unfettered by the constraints of relativism.

Paper long abstract:

Associated with the martial art of Pencak Silat in Indonesia is the development of 'inner power'. Through a series of breathing exercises and bodily postures exponents claim to be able to cultivate their inner power to the degree where it can be channelled to any part of their body. Those in possession of inner power are able to perform seemingly incredible feats, such as striking assailants from afar, sending them hurling through the air without physically contacting them. Or to develop sensitivity to the vibrational frequencies of objects, allowing them to 'see' while blindfolded. Since the beginning of the 1990s schools teaching the development of inner power have blossomed throughout Indonesia and internationally. Yet the practice of inner power is controversial, and many are sceptical of the claims made by practitioners. The paper explores the place of scepticism in ethnographic engagement with informants making public claims to the efficacy of inner power. It argues that often the default, though by no means overt position of anthropological exegesis is sceptical of the truth claims made by informants. While valid and interesting they are often seen to be metaphorical or explained via recourse to sociological argument. When confronted with extraordinary claims, the practice of scepticism provides a more intellectually robust basis for the exegetical framing of ethnographic encounters. An acceptance of scepticism as a legitimate mode of enquiry opens up intriguing possibilities for mutuality in anthropology unburdened by liberal ideals and the desire to treat all forms of knowledge as equally valid.

Panel W023
For a sceptical anthropology?