The following is something I wrote for a thread on Savage Minds. The topic is the relation of theory to ethnography. In it I recommend that we take seriously the metaphor that likens anthropological theories to tools and see training in anthropology as preparing people with a toolkit filled with a rich diversity of tools, some of which may prove useful at the sites where we do fieldwork.
Once we get past the “love a theory and apply it” trap — the one with the consequences implicit in the maxim that to someone who only has a hammer everything looks like a nail—the virtues of entering the field with a diverse toolkit of theories and methods quickly become apparent. Whatever else ethnography is, it is clearly exploratory research, an attempt to get oriented in a space that at first is largely unknown. Every fieldworker rapidly discovers both unanticipated opportunities and unexpected barriers to doing what their grant application says they are planning to do.
Could I have anticipated that a Daoist healer I met in Taiwan would pull me aside one day and tell me about a vision in which the Jade Emperor had told him that I should become his disciple? No way. Should I have foreseen that, while Victor Turner worked in Africa with a people who live in villages with an average population of a couple of dozen people, I would be working in a Chinese market town with a population of 35,000, with people who keep much of their lives private behind the brick walls of their houses? Probably, but nothing in my training had taught me to think like that.
And it wasn’t just me. I remember a seminar in which Terry Turner told us about going to Brazil intending to do the kind of extended case studies of social dramas that Victor Turner had done in The Drums of Affliction. He quickly discovered that, while the Ndembu might have long memories and be ready to tell you who did what to who going generations back, this wasn’t at all true of the people he found himself studying. What they would rattle on about was myth.
I also remember hearing something that made the opposite point, someone remarking on how the African peoples studied by British anthropologists all had complex social structures but the African anthropologists studied by French anthropologists all had complex cosmologies.
The point of all these anecdotes is a recommendation that we avoid looking for the Theory with a capital T that will be our key to understanding everything and, instead, see theories as tools that direct our attention to some particular aspects of whatever we happen to be studying. Take the toolkit metaphor seriously. No one gets much work done by staring endlessly at the hammer, screwdriver or wrench that catches their eye when they look in the toolbox. The work begins when we recognize that, for this or that particular problem, this or that tool (or, more likely, combination of tools) is what we need to use. Some of us may recognize that for the problem they are working on, none of our tools works very well, and invent a whole new tool. But trying to do that without first becoming familiar with the uses and limitations of the tools already in the toolkit is foolish, indeed.