At Savage Minds Rex has opened up a can of whoopass on the idea of ‘culture shock’ as a pillar of anthropological method. Rex thinks anthropological study can be transformative, but he doesn’t think it’s culture shock necessarily doing the transforming. And he argues that keying on culture shock reifies cultural boundaries at the expense of cultural fluidity, creates false dilemmas about studying ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, narrows the anthropological imagination, and “reduces an ethics of connectivity … to an impoverished series of debates about how best activist anthropologists can help those poor, poor people.”
I might go a little farther and say that the idea of culture shock can exoticize and romanticize native ‘others’ while allowing us to be lazy and complacent about our own weirdness. Rex captures this nicely by contrasting anthropology with sociological ethnography, in which the study of ‘us’ is robust and unproblematic. Symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, sociologists of culture and so on know that “there are lots of different lifeworlds to be explored, all of which are finely textured, unique, and deserving of description.” In a sense Rex agrees with Rachel that when it gets all pantybunched about culture shock anthropology is Otherness for Dummies © — hunting the Big Splashy Technicolor Other rather than all the little ordinary shades-of-grey others of everyday life.Which, along with Asher’s last post, brings me to a thought I’ve had in the back of my mind for a long time about Miss Jane Marple, one of my favorite fictional characters.
I should say off the bat that my Miss Marple is imaginary at least three times over, since she is based mainly on several different movie and tv adaptations and I have not actually made a study of the twelve novels in which Agatha Christie invented and developed her (1930-71). This is even less than usually a trivial proviso, because screen depictions of Miss Marple range from the robustly athletic, even swashbuckling cinematic Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple of the early/mid ’60s to Joan Hickson’s iconically prim and frail BBC/A&E/PBS Miss Marple of the mid-’80s/early ’90s.
As much as I enjoy the dynamic first-wave gumption of Rutherford’s Marple, it’s Hickson’s more deliberate cerebrality that really captures my imagination. Behind the placid tea-fussing biddy surface is a keen observer and shrewd analyst who nothing escapes and for whom nothing comes as a surprise. Christie’s Marple has some moderate worldliness in her backstory, justifying Rutherford’s take, but the fundamental premise of her character as captured by Hickson is that she has become a profoundly wise old woman by staying put and closely observing the doings around her ordinary little English village, St. Mary Mead. This exchange with Cherry Baker from The Mirror Crack’d (1962, ch. 12) sums it up:
“You’re always surprising me,” [Cherry] said. “The things you take an interest in.”
“I take an interest in everything,” said Miss Marple.
“I mean taking up new subjects at your age.”
Miss Marple shook her head.
“They aren’t really new subjects. It’s human nature I’m interested in, you know, and human nature is much the same whether it’s film stars or hospital nurses or people in St. Mary Mead….”
Miss Marple is interested in everything, notices everything, thinks about everything with the dispassionate rigor of the puzzle-solver. The thing about human nature is a bit of a red herring (or rather, the ‘much’ in that sentence is important): she doesn’t have a grand theory of human essence. Instead, she has a vast and growing database of detailed human observations against which she checks each new case for analogies. The whodunnit gimmick is that she has learned so much from close study of her own little village that she is able to detect patterns and puzzle out manners and motives that baffle more worldly investigators. She is most definitely not shocked by culture.
Part of what I take Rex to be chewing at in his post is how the desirable decentering of self happens, when we awaken from our pre-Copernican slumbers into a world of differences and relations. He’s troubled by the version of the anthropology metanarrative in which to experience this transformation we must go out into the distant corners of the world and engage heroically with shockingly different Others. What both sociology and Miss Marple suggest is that others can be pretty shocking right around the corner; as Gregory Starrett says in the post’s comment thread, “culture shock … might be experienced anywhere practices are unfamiliar, even if some people might define such experiences as being ‘within’ some imaginary bounded culture.” The question then becomes how we sometimes manage to miss the profound otherness of ‘our own’ Others, and whether going where folks wear bones through their noses and eat bugs on purpose is really going to fix that.