Translation, Interpretation and Observation – Anthropology

Translation:

There is really a paradox in the task of translation. On one hand, we have to understand the society and culture of the other people in their own terms, and on the other hand, we have to employ the social an­thropological concepts for explaining the field situation.

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It is possible that at some points, we might find the existing conceptual framework inadequate. If such a situation we shall have to formulate new con­cepts. This has happened in the field of social anthropology in India. The concepts of dominant caste, sanskritization and parochialization have emerged out of the social and cultural life of the simple societies.

There are some questions which are related to the problem of translation: How can we translate an alien way of experiencing the world into our own mode of thought? How can we be certain that we do not misinterpret or distort the society when we try to describe it in our own terms?

And, how can we be entirely certain that we under­stand the alien society and culture-at all, imbued as we are with our own cultural background, concepts and values? These interrelated problems are fundamental to anthropology.

Within the discipline of anthropology, it is necessary to use ab­stract terms such as kinship, social organization, social control, religion and so on. These terms are necessary for the discipline to be comparative in its scope.

How could it be possible to compare, say the kinship system of the Trobrianders with that of the Yanomamo, if we did not have a general concept of kinship?

However, the abstract, technical terms used by anthropologists exist only rarely in the socie­ties we study. They form a part of our world, not theirs. How can then we justify according to an alien society in terms which are de- monstrably not its own, if the aim of anthropology is to understand societies and cultures from within.

The fact of the “matter is that all ef­forts should be made by social anthropologists to provide an honest description of the state of affairs of the alien society.

Interpretation:

Traditionally, fieldwork monographs are poor in their interpretation. Historically, the ethnographic data are presented in the form of narra­tion. For instance, Risely talked about different races and castes of India.

His work is wholly descriptive. He could hardly give concepts like sanskritization and parochialization. These concepts emerged only during the 1950s.

The monographs resulting from fieldwork to­day have a stronger input of interpretation. What is important is that the researcher should understand the difference between description and interpretation. The descriptive aspect of an anthropological ac­count is usually close to the native conceptualization of the world.

When describing a social and cultural life-world, the anthropologist will often resort to direct annotations from information, to give an ac­count of the world as it appears from within.

The analysis, on the other hand, will try to connect the society at a theoretical level, to other societies by describing it in comparative terms of anthropology.

Observation:

Fieldwork is done through the method of observation. When the re­searcher goes to the field he must observe all that he encounters. Participant observation defined as a research technique may serve as a convenient blanket term to conceal both ethical and methodological shortcomings in the actual research process.

One problem could, per­haps, be the fact that one develops an antagonistic attitude towards the people one studies.

It must be admitted that the method of fieldwork essentially goes with the technique of participant observation. Participant observation is both capital-intensive and labour-intensive. The researcher is re­quired to stay in the field for a protracted period.

And this involves money as well as time. Observation in the field is essential, for he has to see the world as the locals see it. Even if this kind of prolonged ob­servation is not possible for a variety of reasons, the anthropologist must do his best to participate in the affairs of the people.

We have mentioned in the beginning of the chapter that social an­thropology, quite like other social sciences, has a methodology. Right from the times of Spencer, Tylor and Durkheim, social anthropology has tried to agree to a methodology which is acceptable to all the prac­titioners of the discipline. There is even today as much disagreement among them as there was in the past.

It is doubtful that we will ever have a wholly agreed upon method. But, it appears that there is a broad consensus on some of the methods which can be fruitfully util­ized in social anthropological research.

The Trend Reports on the Survey of Research in Sociology and Social Anthropology since 1959 to the present day sponsored by ICSSR very clearly show that the most favoured methods of social anthropology today are: (1) field- work including observation, (2) comparison, (3) historical, and (4) functional. We have already discussed above the fieldwork method. The other three methods are discussed below in the remaining part of the chapter.