Saturday, 8 February 2014

Chinese Culture or Taiwanese Culture? An Epistemological Quandary in Anthropology

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        There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the 1990s, as post-colonial anthropologists vilified the history of the discipline as handmaidens of colonialism. Taiwan was no exception. Hong and Murray accused American anthropologists of colluding with ethnic domination, “looking through Taiwan to see China” (Hong 1994, Murray and Hong 1994, Hong and Murray 2005). Chiu (1999) similarly criticized Taiwan-based anthropologists for complicity in domination of indigenous peoples, although some anthropologists supported a nascent indigenous rights movement. 

        Part of the problem is the assumption that anthropologists study “culture,” hence the need to debate politics of writing culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Hong mused, “Gatekeepers confronted with our earlier writings had expressed discomfort that it was ‘political’ to write ‘Taiwanese culture’…not recognizing that writing ‘Chinese culture’…is also political” (Hong 1994: 7). Also unrecognized here is that the study of “culture” – the mainstream “Boasian” approach in America – is only one intellectual school among many. British social anthropologists have long argued that culture is too vague of an abstraction to be of scientific use (Radcliffe-Brown 1940: 2). One problem, exemplified in the Taiwan debate, is that cultural boundaries are arbitrary.

        An alternative is to write dispassionately about nationalism, as has Charles Stafford. It is no coincidence that Stafford studied with Maurice Bloch, whose work in Marxism and cognitive anthropology led him to emphasize ideological dimensions of culture. Stafford begins on a materialistic note, showing that Beicun is socially different from received ideas about “Chinese society” because it is a fishing village with weak patrilineal institutions. He observes that Chinese Nationalists have been on Taiwan only since the 1940s, and that clan organization has less complexity and power there than on the Mainland (Stafford 1992: 369).

        The originality of Stafford’s approach is that he examines the cognitive worlds of individuals, especially conflicting loyalties to state and family. He reveals the sentiments of Beicun people, who were formerly Japanese and threatened by Allied bombings, but are now required to study Sun Yat-sen’s nationalism and (men, at least) serve in a Chinese military (the ROC). People perceive a certain opposition between village and school, as “both the schools and the army are viewed with some scepticism as institutions controlled by non-Taiwanese” (373). In the end, both nationalist and kin-based ideologies “face a dilemma when confronted with women” (375). Women, finally, have much more power than imagined by either nationalist or patriarchal constructions of Chinese culture.

        As Bloch wrote, “the constructed image of a still, permanent order that spurns exchange, movement and, in this case, women, is in the end self-defeating” (Bloch 1989: 163, cited in Stafford 1992: 375). Culture has long been tied to nationalism, which makes cultural anthropologists seem complicit in nationalist ideologies that in any context are inevitably about power and domination. Avoiding the intellectual strictures of this concept, as do Bloch and Stafford, is certainly a good idea for anthropologists eager to study structures of power in any society. Viewed from social anthropology, the problem with culture is more epistemological than political.

Chiu, Fred Y.L. 1999. “Nationalist Anthropology in Taiwan 1945-1996: A Reflexive Survey” In Jan van Bremen and Akitoshi Shimizu (ed). Anthropology and Colonialism in Asia and Oceania, pp. 93-112. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus. 1986. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hong, Keelung. 1994. “Experiences of Being a ‘Native’: Observing Anthropology.” Anthropology Today 10 (3): 6-9.

Hong, Keelung and Stephen O. Murray. 2005. Looking through Taiwan: American Anthropologists’ Collusion with Ethnic Domination. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Murray, Stephen O., and Keelung Hong. 1994. Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society: A Critical Review of Social Science Research Done on Taiwan. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1940. “On Social Structure.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 70 (1): 1-12.

Stafford, Charles. 1992. “Good Sons and Virtuous Mothers: Kinship and Chinese Nationalism in Taiwan.” Man 27 (2): 363-378.

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