This guest post is by graduate student Hannah Bennett (currently doing an MPhil in Social Anthropology and hoping to do a PhD studying the evolving golf course culture in modern China). She writes on the Foundation Lecture given by Professor Maurice Bloch at Fitzwilliam on 19 November 2015.
Since completing his PhD at Fitzwilliam College in 1968, Maurice Bloch has become one of the most renowned academics working within British anthropology, an Emeritus Professor at the LSE and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has published extensively on topics ranging from kinship and ritual, to the relationship between anthropology and cognitive science. While it was this extensive back catalogue, and his prominence within the discipline, which attracted such a large audience to his recent Foundation Lecture at Fitzwilliam College, it was his humble but powerful message about the importance of anthropology which made it so memorable.
When working within anthropology, as with any other discipline, it is easy to become sidelined by, and focused on, the problems and limitations of your own research and to lose sight of the bigger picture. Namely, what initially made the discipline appealing as well as its broader utility. What made Maurice Bloch’s lecture so enlightening was the manner in which he reminded us of the continued relevance and significance of anthropology. For Bloch, what makes anthropology so crucial is also that which traditionally distinguishes it: the practice of undertaking long-term field work to produce ethnographies which draw heavily on participant observation. Simply put, this involves spending a prolonged period of time living within the culture of study, observing and participating in the social life of the group, and cultivating personal relationships with local informants as a means of learning about a culture. Bloch, and many others, argue that as the knowledge most of us live by is implicit, the only way to properly understand a culture is by being around people.
Throughout the lecture, Bloch stood beside a projection of a photograph taken of him while in his 20s doing field work among the Merina people in Madagascar. The image shows him outside with a group of people preparing maize so that it can be hung from the rafters. In his description of the scene and his life in Madagascar the unique benefits of fieldwork became clear. When the woman in the photograph told him to “take a rest!”, Bloch knows – having learnt about her life and Merina rules of politeness – that this simple utterance is an indication that he is doing the task wrong. Certainly participant observation is flawed in many ways, the most obvious of which is implicit in its name; the observer being actively involved in a manner that can negate the ever-elusive concept of objectivity. However, from these difficulties also arise interesting levels of interaction between observer and subject which foster ever-changing and ever-intriguing relationships. Arriving in Madagascar Bloch’s relationship with his hosts was originally one of perceived superiority; it was assumed that he was rich, or associated with the one large institution which penetrated their daily life, the Catholic Church. However, as Bloch gradually became integrated within society this relationship transformed into one of dependence; dependence on his hosts for food, shelter, and perhaps most interestingly for the tools of sociality. He was a learner, and they were his teachers. It was in this way, not just from nights spent in the library, that Bloch added depth to his understanding of the Merina – an understanding forged in a continual process of interaction and engagement.
While working in Madagascar Bloch was involved in negotiations with international development professionals trying to convince locals to switch to transplanting as a method for growing rice. It was not that locals were unaware of this method; most knew very well how to employ it, but rather preferred their existing method of planting rice through broadcasting. Bloch’s attempts to present each party’s point of view fell on deaf ears; he hypothesized that the complexities of living one’s own life were preventing each side from understanding the other. Accordingly Bloch argues that while an understanding derived solely ‘from the outside’, such as through medical science, can certainly help us know the actions of humans (just as we can understand other living beings by a similar method), this method will always be incomplete without including a view ‘from the inside’, a personal point of view of the people studied. For this reason, to this day, Maurice Bloch, now in his 70s, continues to undertake field work. And the message he brings from it is simple: “Shut up, listen and learn”.