Establishing Authority

Summary here

Anthropologists employ a diverse range of textual strategies to establish themselves as credible authorities on their respective subjects. These strategies include displaying a command of the relevant scholarship, ex- plaining one’s own positioning vis-à-vis the subjects of one’s research, or piggybacking upon another scholar’s previously established authority. But perhaps the most distinctively anthropological technique for establishing authority consists of describing and elaborating upon unique observations made in the field. We provide one example of this move from Yemen Chronicle, by Steven Caton: 

I assumed at the time that there was such a thing as an “authentic” tribal poetry, whose heart beat in a rural and seemingly remote setting such as Khawlan al-Tiyal and not in a complex urban setting such as Sana’a (where later I fact I would study the works of many tribal poets, who had migrated from Yemen’s drought-stricken countryside to enlist in the army or become taxi drivers or private security guards). But after only six months, I realized how simplistic that assumption was. The urban-rural dichotomy and the cultural dichotomy of tribal-nontribal, not to speak of the political one of state-nonstate were, if not exactly wrong, then misleading. .For example, the “hottest” tribal poet in Yemen in 1979, Muhamman al-Gharsi, whose cassette tapes sold out before everyone else’s in the stereo stores, had his main residence in Sana’a, where he was in the army. 

At first glance, acknowledging the shortcomings of one’s initial notions might seem like an unlikely way to establish authority. Yet it is precisely by showing how and why he was forced to set aside specific preconcep- tions that Caton demonstrates the robust and authentic nature of his field research. Such moments of narrative disclosure often work subtly in a longer ethnographic work to lend credibility to analytical claims advanced further down the line. Incidentally, this passage also illustrates a common device in anthropological writing: the use of a “lightbulb moment” to succinctly evoke an incremental process of discovery. Here, Caton uses the example of the urban tribal poet of Sana’a to show the reader why he was forced to rethink the relationship between rurality and tribal poetry, thereby condensing a six-month-long process into a few short phrases.