Book Review: DAVID ZEITLYN and ROGER JUST, Excursions in realist anthropology: a merological approach, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2014.


Based on an understanding of the world which constrains but does not determine us, a world we understand through our observations and actions, but which nevertheless exists independently of social construction, Excursions in realist anthropology asks: ‘what if we accept our limitations and start thinking seriously and positively about partial views and incompleteness?’ (5) This is a symptomatic question for this intellectually provocative book, which challenges readers to investigate the essence of contemporary anthropology, how it should be practised and theorized, where the discipline is now and where it should or could be heading.

This gripping investigation of the fragmentary nature of our enterprise sheds light on the challenges, problems and limits of our methodological and theoretical toolkits, and encourages us to question, rethink, reformulate, reshape and improve them. It should be a seminal text.

Today, strong currents aim to pull anthropologists towards extreme postmodernist, (de-)constructivist subjective viewpoints. These paradigms champion complete context dependency and inundate realism and empiricism with all-encompassing social construction.

Zeitlyn and Just provide us with an alternative option. As a technique based on fieldwork, their approach provides an interface between realist and relativist objectives by opposing both absolute positivism and the view of universal social construction. Book reviews 121 Stimulated by their own ethnographic experiences in conducting fieldwork in Australia, Cameroon and Greece, and inspired by a wide range of theories, the book’s nine chapters, three of which take the form of excursions, provide the reader with thoughtful reflections on a broad variety of topics, offering inspiration for further inquiries.

The six previously published articles on which the book is based are still clearly recognizable. The chapters stand on their own and can be read independently. What weaves them into a coherent, interrelated text are philosophically inspired contemplations on the nature of anthropological research and the specificities of its products.

Drawing mainly on philosophy, the authors examine forms of understanding, investigating, knowing and believing encountered both by anthropologists and their interlocutors. Incompleteness is presented as a strength, which allows for overlapping and complementary accounts. In calling for a reflexive, nuanced understanding of reality, the authors recognize and respect the complexity of social life.

The sophisticated realism they adhere to is bound neither by the requirements of exhaustiveness and certainty, nor by the pressure to resolve or conceal ambiguity. On the contrary, they include and readily discuss any equivocality that arises. Zeitlyn and Just analyse the possibilities of cultural translation and cross-cultural understanding as a dialectic and heuristic exercise, thus challenging the radical translation problem.

Additionally, they offer a unique and insightful critique of Bourdieu’s theory of practice and probe questions of culture. The authors also discuss various forms of realism and relativism applied by anthropologists when investigating ‘ways of living in the world and modes of attending to the world’ (6).

The book convinces with clarity of expression; highly accessible writing meets multi-layered, complex, provocative content.

But what is novel about this sharp, inspiring account when compared with other works? Highlighting partiality and incompleteness is nothing new in anthropology: indeed, ever since the ontological turn of the 1980s, when postmodern scholars voiced their criticism in the Writing culture collection of essays edited by Clifford and Marcus (1986), it has become a modus operandi in the discipline. It is not the ideas in themselves that are new, but rather their combination, their interweaving into a unique merological approach connecting a biased and subjective standpoint with a realist view of the world. Moreover, this account radically strips anthropology of the illusion of ever being unproblematic and serves as a timely advocate not only for the deliberate emphasis on Book reviews 122 partiality, but also for its reduction. Consequently, inevitable incompleteness does not absolve researchers from their obligation of due diligence. The value added by this book lies in the evidence provided. Zeitlyn and Just render visible the presuppositions and assumptions that accompany our work and call on us to develop ways of limiting them, thus ‘avoiding the extreme claims either that the problems are insurmountable or that they do not exist’ (111). However, this is not a book in which readers should look for concrete, practical tips. The authors offer us an approach that incorporates their understanding of anthropology into a methodological framework, an overall attitude, but no explicit methods. In fact, some lines of argument are merely touched upon without being investigated further. Zeitlyn and Just do not attempt to fill gaps where currently they have no stuffing and so live up to the partiality they champion. However, through their unusually honest account of their ethnographic experiences, they unmask stereotypes connected to fieldwork and offer readers lessons to remember, such as how Zeitlyn dealt with his difficulties in believing respondents’ statements that cocks could lay eggs and Just that boats were women. They provide readers with critical ideas, possible toolkits with which to construct their own product. The book should thus be kept as a companion, a questioning partner in our anthropological work. Additionally, the authors are very critical of their colleagues, especially postmodern theorists and researchers like Callon, Behar or Spivak. These sharp discussions are an exciting read, and the often well-deserved criticism encourages readers to form an opinion. If the challenging questions that this book poses inspire debates about a possible future for anthropology, I am certain they will stimulate our enquiries about how we can best understand and embrace our ‘otherness’ (122) and accept ‘discomfort and elements of bad faith’ (126). The book offers a different path on which to continue what anthropologists do best: in-depth, socio-culturally sensitive research, aimed at an understanding of ‘how different social groups around the planet live and understand their lives’ (1). By being ‘realist without assuming a single definitive or synoptic overview’ (3), the book is in fact a ‘manifesto for a “realist” anthropology, for the militants occupying the middle ground’ (10).

Sources: Clifford, James, and George Marcus 1986. Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography, Berkeley and London: University of California Press.