Consciously or not, anthropologists are always in search of stories

6 November 2015

In his new book, Anthropological Encounters, UvA Professor of Comparative Anthropology and Sociology of Asia Mario Rutten describes how his training as an anthropologist has shaped his relationships with people and how he himself learns something from each new encounter. ‘It strikes me that a lot of the anthropological research being done nowadays consists of discourse analyses. That's a shame, because our field centres on people.’

‘“We are not going to search for Gujaratis or Patels, mind you!”, my wife Rienke warned me at the beginning of our vacation in the USA in 2013’, opens Rutten's book. ‘Although Rienke has regularly travelled to Asia and we often have friends from India staying in our house, she insists that we try to keep work and life separately, especially during our holidays. She therefore prefers to spend our vacations in countries where there are less chances of meeting Indian migrants. Rienke's warning at the beginning of our trip was crystal clear: we are on a holiday and you are not going to try and start a conversation with every Indian migrant you can find in order to collect information!’

Later, in Yosemite National Park, Rutten describes how an older couple approach them to ask if his wife would take their picture. They chat for a while and Rutten's wife asks if they happen to come from India, and then from which state. It turns out they're from Gujarat, the state where Rutten has done a great deal of research. What's more, the woman's surname is Patel – the caste to which many Gujaratis living overseas belong, and with whom Rutten is very familiar by now. One thing leads to another, and before they know it the anthropologist and his wife are enjoying part of their holiday at the home of the American-Indian couple in Los Angeles.

And so the anthropologist in you came out to work, even during your holiday.

‘Yes, for an anthropologist it's difficult to keep those things separate, I think. You've always got your instruments of investigation along with you and you participate in small groups, which is precisely the locus of an anthropologist's research.’

In the book, the encounters are categorised under Family, Migrants, Colleagues and Other. The section on Family also includes a number of inhabitants of Gujarat, one of whom you even call ‘my brother’. Doesn't good research demand that a scientist preserve a certain degree of distance?

‘Certainly. But at the same time you've got to realise that it's crucial to forge a bond of trust if you want to do more than scratch the surface. Often, participant observation stalls in observation and there's little participation to speak of. But I really try to submerse myself in a community for the purpose of my research. Naturally, you don't reveal everything. Even when you're treated as a member of the family, you're still a researcher and you have to retain your critical perspective.’

Your son expressed it like this: ‘An anthropologist is someone who stays with people in their houses, enjoys their hospitality, and then writes about them critically afterwards.’

‘I did bluster a bit when he said that, but actually he was right. André Köbben, who was a professor at the UvA, sometimes referred to our work as “pious fraud”. But on the other hand, you're also just a person who's genuinely interested in other people. I am convinced that my research work is good precisely because I cultivate a bond of trust with people.’

Do you advise your students to do that too?

‘Well, what I tell them is that it's important to be patient. Some students think that they'll get everything they need from a single conversation, or that they'll understand how a village works after just one day. So I always say: wait, be patient. Something will happen on its own and suddenly people will spontaneously tell you things that can help you in your research. Men have an easier time of it than women, I'll grant you that. When female students tell me, “The family I'm staying with see me as their daughter”, then that's beautiful, on the one hand, but on the other I also know it's a good bet that they're also treating her like a daughter. And daughters aren't allowed out of the house in the evenings after six to conduct interviews. That can make things tricky. Yet that interpersonal bond remains essential. Sometimes I'm surprised at how lacking in manners and rude some of my colleagues are in their behaviour towards other people in the Netherlands, and I have to wonder how people like that can go about their work properly in the country where they're doing research.’

Even so, in the book your daughter remarks that there's a palpable difference between her father the anthropologist in India, who arrives with gifts for everyone and enjoys attending weddings and parties, and her father the guy in the Netherlands who can't always drum up the enthusiasm for yet another family birthday or marriage.

(laughs) ‘She's right about that. In India I see weddings and birthday parties as good opportunities to pump people for information in an informal way – you get to know people quickly and they tell you more at an occasion like that than when you'd meet with them in a more formal setting.’

Your book contains dozens of highly readable columns, interviews and life stories. Who do you think should read your book?

‘My book is intended for colleagues, students and for the people I've met. It's not a scholarly work to be cited, but more of a sketch of the work of anthropologist. It strikes me that a lot of the anthropological research being done nowadays consists of discourse analyses. That's a shame, because our field centres on people. There's not enough in-depth, empirical, ethnographic research. Of course, it's not easy for anthropologists, given that the value of your scientific work is measured on the basis of how many publications you have to your name and citations in scientific journals. Books don't seem to rate very high anymore. But true anthropological research, the kind based on fieldwork, often doesn't fit into a scientific article; books are essential to our work, as are, for example, documentaries. At the same time, I've noticed that many anthropologists choose to use language that's completely incomprehensible in their articles and research proposals. We've got to realise that we're being paid from public funds and so our articles should in any case be comprehensible for fellow practitioners and other social scientists.’

In your book you also describe meetings and conversations with fellow anthropologists. What makes their stories so interesting to you?

‘In the village with my “brother”, I'm still a bit of an odd duck, but when I'm with colleagues I'm just one of the bunch. Among colleagues I'm mainly a participant, but as an anthropologist you can make observations in those settings, too, and my colleagues' stories often offer fascinating insights. Consciously or not, anthropologists are always in search of stories – whether far away from home, or next door. Like I said, for us the line separating private and work life is not quite as clear cut.’

- Interview by Esther van Bochove (FMG) -

Published by  Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences