Learning from Dances with Wolves

Dances with Wolves

Twenty years ago, I watched Dances With Wolves, a movie that was starred by  Kevin Costner. This movie tells about John J Dunbar, a U.S. soldier who served on the frontier and had frequent contact with the Sioux, one of American Indians tribe.
At first, John thought like other American soldiers who saw Indians as primitive, barbaric and should be abolished. He also saw the Indians as a group of people who lived with ancient ways. At the border, he was often faced with a situation when an Indian tried to steal his horse. In order to solve the problem, he visited the Indian village to start a dialogue with them.
Interestingly, John recorded all his experiences through personal diaries. Every time he met the Indians, he would write about experience and made sketches of clothing, weapons, equipment used by some Indians. Late, John learned the language and some of the rituals, including dances that were often performed by the Indians and was given the name Dances with Wolves. After several meetings, he changed his views about the Indians. He no longer saw them as a barbaric or primitive group. He began to learn the knowledge of the Indians, including the customs and way of life.
He learned to see the world through an Indian perspective. He began to ask many questions about why the Indians should be hunted down and eliminated. He questioned the Indian history, and built a sense of empathy for them. At the end of the film, he chose to be one of the Sioux Indians. He played his role as a hero who helped them escape.
I remembered the story in this movie when I read the articles from Joseph-Marie Degerando, Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski. They are important figures in the history of ethnography. Their articles describe about the position of a researcher or ethnographer in a native community. I see a similarity among them since both rejected the view from the top approach. For them, the society must be explained with a grass roots view. An ethnographer is someone who learns from the community and illustrates the knowledge using the values learned from the community.
I was especially very interested while reading the Joseph-Marie Degerando. This paper criticizes travel notes made ​​by explorers or researcher in 1800. At that time, the European people entered a period of enlightenment. They repeatedly questioned dogmas taught by religion. The industrial revolution was also on the rise so there was a need for a variety of natural resources to sustain the industry. Various explorations were conducted in other continents such as Asia and Africa to gather natural resources.
As a philosopher, Degerando questioned how the scientists conducted the data collection. He recommended thinking inductively while using data collection methods. He emphasized the importance of observation, and how the data should be collected through first-hand, unbiased, holistic, and should always be confirmed.
The method that was offered by Degerando is a scientific method, as applied by biologists when they conduct research. However, often a biologist sees nature as an object to be conquered by the scientific method. Unlike biologists, Degerando recommended inductive methods to understand society. He placed people as a subject that should be firstly understood. This is the reason why he said that the data should always be confirmed. In this way, human beings are not like objects in biological research. A human being is a thinking subject, and sees the world with his or her own view.
Degerando contribution is to provide a roadmap for ethnography. Although Degerando suggestions were not used as a method of data collection for scholars and traveler of the period, he has recommended some principles that became a handbook for ethnographic research. These principles are participant observation, first hand observations, use an emic point of view, understanding the local meaning, immerse in the host society, learning the native language etc. Degerando’s idea affects two modern thinkers; Franz Boas and Malinowski, particularly in terms of the development of ethnographic research.
Franz Boas is a very important figure in anthropology. He contributed scientific methodology to the modern anthropological study its scientific methodology and emphasized the importance of empiricism, that is theories must be developed only after research and not the other way around. At the time it was common to base research on preconceived theories, which led to stereotyping, false generalizations, and racial bias. Boas had previously rigorously studied natural sciences and adapted their empiricism to anthropology for the first time.
Boas was also among the first to reject the linear progression of cultures across the globe. Boas proposed that evolution is based on adaptations that are unique to their circumstances. As result he contributed to anthropology the term “cultural relativism” and the idea that each culture is a product of its own history and circumstances, not by race and environment.
I think the concept of cultural relativism is an important concept in the study of culture. This concept explains that all people have different values​​. A researcher must try to understand the different values ​​in order to gain a holistic understanding. In research, this concept uses the emic point of view that puts the researcher as a person who studies the community from within.
Boas significantly contributed to the development of methodology in anthropological research, makng extensive survey of variety of cultural aspects, such as religion, marriage, physical appearance, food, art, and so on. He emphasized the importance of ethnographic work on site, learning the language, and use of extensive surveys, which became the minimum standard for later anthropological studies.
Similar to Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski also developed ethnography. He conducted field research on the Trobriand Islands for several years. He stayed with the local community, followed their daily activities, and learned to understand their way of thinking. In 1922, he wrote a book called Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Several years ago, I read this book. The first question that arose was who were the Argonauts? After reading the book, I got the information that the Argonauts term is derived from Greek mythology. Argonauts were a group of people who accompanied Jason to sail and to face danger. Malinowski used this term to describe people who sailed across the Trobriand islands for trade.
Later Malinowski developed his ideas on fieldwork. In his writings, he always stressed the importance of experience and living with local communities. I like Malinowski’s article, entitled Method and Scope of Anthropological Fieldwork. He wrote a reflection on his experiences in the Trobriand. He explained that an ethnographer should do fieldwork, living with local people and build rapport. I also like the idea to reject the use of the term 'savage' culture because the term is so biased and derogatory.
One of his most important contributions was that he popularized fieldwork and ethnography. Most anthropologist before him based their research on structured interviews and did not mix their work with the daily life of their subjects. In contrast, Malinowski more than any other researcher before immersed himself in studying the mundane aspects of his subjects’ life.
He based all his work and subsequent revolutionary theories on participant observation, particularly in his famous studies of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea. The emphasis on fieldwork and immersion in daily life, as well as other aspects of Malinowski theories, were adopted by the American School of Anthropology, particularly through the work of Franz Boas.
            In the future, I hope to follow in this ethnographic tradition by continuing similar fieldwork in my own country.

Athens, January 22, 2013

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