Lila Abu-Lughod’s Ethnographies of the Particular

In “Writing against Culture” (1991), the influential feminist anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod forwards the writing of “ethnographies of the particular” as a way to counter the potentially “othering” effect of the concept of culture. She was concerned with the ethnographic accounts of culture she was seeing produced, which commonly presented culture as something that is static, discrete, homogenous and coherent, ignoring the connections between different societies, the reality of sociocultural change, the different positions through which people experienced culture, and the contradictions involved in the course of everyday life. I have found Abu-Lughod’s article greatly instructive in helping me think about anthropological theory and the writing of ethnographic texts, and for this contribution, I would like to look into the ways in which ethnographies of the particular can draw out the contradictions, complexity and incoherence of culture as it is lived in everyday life.

Abu-Lughod contends that culture exists in embodied experience: people do not think about culture in the reified way that anthropologists have traditionally done. Other anthropologists I read concurred. For instance, Arthur Kleinman (1995) writes that when making decisions, people do not appeal to some abstract set of rules; rather, they look at their more immediate, particular situation and the social relationships that are involved in the decision, and act accordingly. As the details of individual situations are different and people occupy particular positions in a specific time and place, each enactment of something based on the prescribed set of beliefs will be unique (Abu-Lughod 1991). Moreover, people are often placed in very difficult and painful situations where following a prescribed course of action may simply cause too much suffering for the individual concerned (Kleinman 1995). It seems that rather than it being the case that people necessarily act in a certain way because of “culture”, the way people act is largely influenced by pragmatic considerations, either (as Vivienne Wee put it to me) to make one’s everyday life liveable, or to take advantage of certain opportunities that crop up in the course of life.

Professor Abu-Lughod provides a number of examples in her article, but here are some examples I can think of that also illustrate the points above. In Kim Longinotto’s The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), Amina, a young, newly married woman from Kenya’s Muslim Somali minority seeks help at Nurse Fardhosa’s clinic. She is hoping to have the stitches from her infibulation opened surgically, on the advice that it will prevent infections and other medical complications that might occur if it is opened in the process of sexual intercourse with her new husband instead. This is something that is not prescribed by “culture”: women have usually been opened by their husbands. Yet, Amina is afraid of the pain, so she seeks help at Fardhosa’s clinic. Her husband, who she describes as kind, has agreed to her having her stitches surgically opened and to not have sex with her for at least two weeks after the surgery.

Unfortunately, when Fardhosa attempts to inject local anaesthesia, Amina is too afraid after her traumatic experience with infibulation that Fardhosa is unable to carry out the surgery. Fardhosa asks Amina if she would like to have the surgery under general anaesthesia at a hospital instead, or if she would like to ask her husband first. Amina says that she would prefer to get her husband’s permission before doing so.

Fardhosa then speaks to Amina’s husband, Yasin. He is a devout Muslim, and expresses his support of infibulation in his conversation with Fardhosa. When Fardhosa relays Amina’s request to have the surgery done at a hospital, Yasin refuses and replies that he will open Amina himself. In response, Fardhosa tells him about the medical problems that might arise from doing so. She says, “[Amina] loves you and will follow your decision, but why don’t you help her?” Yasin is visibly uncomfortable and conflicted, eventually admitting that he can’t allow her to be surgically opened in a hospital because his friends will find out and it will be an embarrassment for him. Looking distracted and frustrated, he reiterates his decision and walks out of the clinic.

I think the incoherence of everyday life is brought out very well in this example. Both Amina and Yasin set out wanting Amina to have the surgery, yet both could not bring themselves to do so as the situation unfolded. Amina intends to have the surgery done to avoid suffering and pain; yet her fear of pain stops Fardhosa from being able carry out the surgery. Amina is breaking with religious tradition by seeking a surgical opening of her stitches, yet she later decides to follow tradition in giving her husband the final say in whether her surgery will be carried out, out of love for her husband. Yasin, meanwhile, is a religious man, yet he initially agreed to let Amina undergo surgical opening of her stitches because he is concerned about Amina’s well being. However, fearing embarrassment when he finds out that Amina’s surgery will have to be carried out in a hospital, he hesitantly decides to rescind his agreement to surgery. It seemed to me that he did not think that he was doing the right thing in opening Amina himself, neither that he was happy with this decision, but like Amina and her fear of pain when faced with the injection, he could not bring himself to do otherwise.

The example also illustrates how simply referring to a fixed, shared canon of cultural beliefs may not be able to provide an adequate explanation of the actions taken by Amina and Yasin. While Amina and Yasin’s actions were performed against the background of a traditional set of beliefs, these beliefs were not set in stone and the couple also demonstrated agency in choosing not to abide strictly by the prescribed paths. Beliefs were changing in the context within which the couple acted — Fardhosa was one of the women in Kenya who was working to change the traditional practice of infibulation.

Amina and Yasin also did not exist in an isolated, discrete culture. They were a part of an ethnic minority in a bureaucratic nation-state, where most citizens did not practice the sort of circumcision that was commonly carried out in Somalia, and where the government was imposing new regulations relating to the practice of infibulation. Then, there was also the introduction of Western biomedicine, with its germ theories and the separation of medicine from religion.

Referring to a shared set of cultural beliefs is also problematic, considering that people inhabit different positions and social roles within a society. As a woman and man respectively, Amina and Yasin did not experience the patriarchal Somali culture the same way; resultantly, the two were invested in culture to different degrees and even in contradiction to one another. Amina was less invested with “traditional” Somali ways of doing things that were harder on women, while Yasin had a greater incentive to maintain his image as a traditional head of the household by following tradition than to break with tradition in the interests of avoiding infection and physical pain.

Moving from the general to the specific, the case of Amina and Yasin demonstrates the particular complexities of everyday situations, and the many details that come into play when people choose courses of action, whether it is more or less consciously decided. The case above makes clear that courses of action are taken in the context of social relationships and dynamics at different levels. Within the couple itself, Amina and Yasin have slightly different interests in this situation, but their decisions are influenced by their feelings for each other. Not every couple has the same kind of feelings for one another, so that Amina and Yasin’s choices cannot be fully explained by culture. The dynamic of their relationship with one another interacted with the situation of their culture within a nation-state dominated by a different ethnic group, and their living in a time where Western biomedicine has impacted practices in Kenya, and their meeting with Fardhosa.

Moreover, rather than appealing to an abstract canon of cultural beliefs, what seemed more important in choosing a course of action was the pain and suffering Amina might have to experience and the way that culture shaped behaviour amongst other people Amina and Yasin came into contact with. Ethnographies of the particular, as exemplified by the case of Amina and Yasin, have great potential to shed light on the experience of culture as embodied in particular lives, and as practices that are recreated constantly by individuals embedded in social relationships. By providing a rich description of particular individuals, ethnographies of the particular are able to draw out complex narratives of structure and agency and highlight the humanity at the centre of all social and cultural life.



Bibliography

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. “Writing Against Culture.” Pp. 137-62 in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by R. G. Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
Kleinman, Arthur. 1995. “Anthropology of Bioethics.” Pp. 41-67 in Writing at the Margin: Discourse between Anthropology and Medicine. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Filmography

Longinotto, Kim. 2002. The Day I Will Never Forget. Women Make Movies.

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