Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork

Don Kulick and Margaret Willson (editors)
London: Routledge
0 415 08819 4 (pb); 0 415 08818 6 (hb)
£37.50 hb, £12.99 pb
xvi+283 pp.

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There is often a fine line (if any) between the exotic and the erotic. The fields of anthropological ethnography have often been charged with a heady mixture of images and emotional responses. The 'other' - whether Oriental, African or Polynesian - has often been associated with perverse or excessive sexuality. There is a long tradition, for instance, of visual representations, through painting and photography, of 'natives' that convey implicit messages of sexual availability and perverse pleasure. These images and resonances have been kept in the margins - captured only in peripheral vision - of social anthropology. In contrast with the erotic field, the anthropologist has been portrayed as an ascetic. For all the revelations of Malinowski's diary, anthropological fieldwork has normally been represented as a matter of stern self- discipline.

In this collection of essays the editors have sought to make desire and sexuality central to the authors' reflections. Here, perhaps in the ultimate topic for the 'confessional' mode of ethnographers' tales of the field. What could be more revelatory than accounts of eroticized fieldwork and the subtle mingling of intellectual curiosity and physical desire? In constructing this volume it would have been all too easy for the authors to engage in self-indulgent kiss-and-tell revelations. They avoid the prurient, however, and for the most part make useful contributions to the collective understanding of the personal dimensions of ethnographic fieldwork. Moreover, the range of standpoints and experiences explored here is wide. Indeed, the collection serves to emphasize the diversity of biographies and identities that shape and are shaped by ethnographer's fieldwork. We know perfectly well that there is no neutral vantage point for the ethnographer's gaze: these essays remind us of the many positions and relationships that constitute ethnographic encounters.

Ralph Bolton writes about his ethnographic work on gay sex and AIDS. He succeeds in capturing something of how a place (in his case, Brussels) may become symbolically and erotically charged. His essay succeeds quite well in conveying the interplay of personal desire and the ethnographic spirit. Blackwood contributes an account of her lesbian love-affair in the field. In a sensitively nuanced chapter she uses her personal experience to explore the multiple identities that were in play: of gender, sexuality and social position. She argues that her own lesbian identity marginalized her in many social contexts and that as a consequence she brought to bear on her field research a heightened sensitivity as to the 'margins and disjunctures' of culture. Her relationship with her lover in the field, and the necessity of abandoning her when the research was over, exemplify the complexities of engagement and separation that are - in various guises - pervasive of the anthropological project.

In contrast with these bitter-sweet accounts of sex and love is the chapter written under a pseudonym in which the author recounts her experience as a victim of rape in the field. Over and above the distressing experience itself, this autobiographical account is a sharp reminder of the ambiguities of ethnicity, gender and power in the field. This is parallelled by Gearing's account of the thread of violence that runs through heterosexual relationships on the island of St. Vincent. This is given particular relevance by Gearing's marriage to her main informant in the course of the fieldwork.

In a rather different vein again, Attork provides a more 'impressionistic' personal account. She reflects on how the textual work of ethnography is permeated with the sensual and the sexual. In many ways this is a more gripping intellectual exercise than the more literal accounts of 'sex' in the field. Equally intriguing is the chapter by Dubisch which explores a variety of sexualized encounters in the course of fieldwork in Greece. The lasting value of this chapter lies in the opportunity taken by Dubisch to reflect on broader themes of gender and cultural dominance.

With an excellent introductory essay by Kulick which places the volume in an intellectual context, the chapters I have referred to, plus others, including Killick's on being white and straight in Korea, add up to a valuable collection. At times, perhaps, the authors and editors could have done even more to draw out the broader epistemological issues. It is also a matter of regret that only one contribution really engages with recent developments on textual representation. Finally, the authors are all guilty of a narrow emphasis on anthropologists and anthropology: you could never guess that sociologists had very heavily engaged in and written about ethnographic fieldwork. One can, however, recommend this collection to anthropologists and sociologists alike.

Paul Atkinson
University of Wales, Cardiff

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996