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The Sensation of Moving, While Standing Still

Author(s): Sidney W. Mintz

Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Nov., 1989), pp. 786-796
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/645121
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the sensation of moving, while standing still

SIDNEY W. MINTZ--ohns Hopkins University

ethnographer and informant: two views

Life histories and autobiographies are different from other sorts of ethnography, and useful
to anthropology in different ways. Books such as The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian
(Radin 1963 [1920]), Sun Chief (Simmons 1942) and Nisa (Shostak 1981) open up to view
particularsegments of the ethnographic anatomy, while raising specific questions for modern
theory. They enable one to look more closely at the relationship between informant and eth-
nographer. Indirectly,they address the ethnographer's vision of the context and purpose of the
work itself. Because different people say who and what they are-how their lives were lived-
in different ways, the space between personal experiences and the events to which they are
attached will be differently constructed in each case. Whatever the space, the ethnographer
cannot avoid playing a role in that construction. What the ethnographer thinks of his findings;
what his or her relationship to the informant signifies for the findings; what is done with the
informant'swords and thoughts-such questions take on added meaning when the outcome
of the cooperation is the written life of somebody. Finally, changing professional opinions
about the usefulness of life histories, and about the nature of the relationship between "native"
and ethnographer,suggest how prevailing orientations in the discipline may be pushed this way
and that. Looking at what life histories are interpretedto mean is also a way of looking at what
anthropology is thought to be. I want to discuss some of these issues in terms of a particularlife
In 1960, I published the life history of a Puerto Rican sugarcane laborer, "Taso" Zayas. The
book is called Workerin the Cane. It received relatively little attention when it was published.'
But a review of it in the American Anthropologist pointed up what was seen by the reviewer,
Joseph Casagrande, as a defect in the book's methodology. Taso, he writes, was never paid for
being an informant;the relationship between him and me:
was based on mutualregardand esteem ... this very relationshipmay have servedto makeTaso a
poorersubjectforan autobiography. As Mintzhimselfnotes,". . . yet he mustalwayshavebeen on his
guardto tryto protectthe imagehe would have me retainof him." In a relationshipmarkedby reci-
procity,would not such a need also be reciprocatedby the anthropologist?
This comment embodies a canon of effective fieldwork of that era. Mutual regard and esteem
could not prevent distortion; they might even encourage it. Implicitly, an informant who was
not a friend could provide more "objective" findings than an informantwho was.
In his introduction to In the Company of Man (1960), Casagrande enlarges his position. Here
he enumerates those relationships he regards as analogous to that which takes shape between
anthropologist and informant, declaring that the relationship "has many of the attributes
of... student and teacher, employer and employee, friends or relatives ... psychiatristand his
patient" (1960:xi). But because the dyads Casagrande lists are radically different from each
other, and because each is quite differentfrom the informant-ethnographerrelationship, the list
is not helpful. All that seems firm in Casagrande's view is that the informant,whatever else he
or she may be, should not be a friend.

786 american ethnologist

This is not as odd as it may sound to modern ears. We have always had some practitioners
who "go native" with a vengeance. Such persons still pop up occasionally, and the results of
their immersion are not always beneficial to the hosts, let alone to science. Raymond Firth
I regardwith scepticismthe claimof any Europeanwriterthathe has "beenacceptedby the nativesas
one of themselves".... such a claim is usuallyfoundedupon a misapprehension of nativepoliteness
or of a momentaryemotionalverbalidentificationwith themselvesof a personwho sharestheirsym-
pathies.... Thisproblemof identificationwith the nativecultureis not merelyan academicone. Eu-
ropeanswho allegethatthey "havebecome a memberof the tribe,"or "areregardedby the nativesas
one of themselves,"areproneto layclaimto knowingwhatthe nativethinks,to be qualifiedto represent
the nativepointof view. On a particularissue this may be in substancetrue,but too often dogmatic
statementsaboutideasaresubstitutedfordetailedevidenceof observedbehaviour[Firth1936:10-11].
Nadel said some of the same, differently:
Thescientificvalueof fulladoptionintoa nativecommunityis also limited.Theacquisitionof a definite
placeandsocialrolewithina communitymayinvolvethe lossof the advantagesof a detachedobserver.
Instratifiedor rigidlysubdividedsocietiesa social placecan be assumedin one stratumor sectiononly,
and estrangementfromthe people belongingto otherstrataor sections,and even theirenmity,may
result.Thusin the Nigeriansociety in which I worked,close friendshipwith the alien, Mohammedan
rulercaste arousedthe suspicionof the paganaboriginalpeasantpopulation,and vice versa.Theonly
solutionis to emphasizethe detached,impartial,scientificaim of an investigatorfromoutside,and so
to capitalizewhathas been termed. . . his "strangervalue" [Nadel1949 [1939]:327].

Though Firth,Nadel and their colleagues recognized that things were not really as simple as
all that, they were prudent. An overidentification with one informantor the befriending of one
segment of the community were dangerous practices, to be avoided. The maintenance of af-
fectless relations between ethnographer and informant was a way to keep the facts straight.
Brandes,writing a decade ago about Taso, invoked Nadel's strictures:
Itis of courseessentialto be on good termswith an informant,says Nadel,butthe desirabilityof estab-
lishingclose emotionalties with himis questionable.Mintz,as if inadvertently
to substantiate thispoint
of view, admitsthathis autobiographical informant,Don Taso,withwhom he was close friends,"must
alwayshave been on his guardto tryto protectthe imagehe would have me retainof him"(1960:9).
Stranger valueconsistspreciselyof the informant'slackof deep emotionalstakein his relationshipwith
the interviewer;theoretically,this situationenablesthe informantto confideof his life historyin a free
andemotionallyunfetteredway to the interviewer[Brandes1977:6].2
These writers address a common problem. They conceptualize in broadly similar ways the
relationship between the fieldworker and the person of different culture with whom he or she
is working. Firthis subtle but authoritative; he neither believes complete identification with the
informant is possible, nor does he think it beneficial to science. Casagrande and Brandes, in
their view of Taso's story, see a failure to achieve objectivity (which they apparently believed
was otherwise possible) when the ethnographer and the informantare friends.3
But there is a quite different way to conceptualize such relationships. Here, ethnographer
and informantare equals, ratherthan friends. One version of this contrasting view comes from
the pen of Kevin Dwyer (1982). Dwyer's book on his work with a Moroccan farmer takes the
form of uninterrupteddialogues, each such treating an event which took place during the time
they spent together. Dwyer sees this format as one step-if, indeed, there is any-toward es-
caping from the built-in asymmetry of powerful Outsider (subject) and defenseless Other (ob-
ject). Today's world, he tells us, challenges "conceptions of an independent Self and Other,
and calls into question views that break the tie between individual action and its social con-
Forit is a worlddominatedby ideologicalsystemsthatclaim universalityand governedby economic
forces and institutions that weld geographically distant regions into tightly connected net-
works... wheredifferencesbetween,and varietywithin,humangroupsare remodeledintohierarchy

Dwyer's objection to what he calls a "contemplative interpretation of human reality" is

aimed at the illusion that the anthropologist is an uninvolved, somehow culture-free lens

comments and reflections 787

through which the Other (other culture, other person) can be objectively described, explained
and analyzed. It is, then, an objection to everything that affectless neutralityseems to stand for.
In its place, Dwyer aims at a relationship of emerging equality (though he believes in fact that
the differences between the anthropologist's society and the informant's society make such
equality impossible). Startingfrom the assumption that the relations between poor countries
and rich countries are naturallyasymmetrical (and analogous to relations between, say, infor-
mant and anthropologist), Dwyer argues that by a totally faithful reportingof the dialogues be-
tween the two, and of the events with which they are concerned, redressof an initial inequality
may begin. Dwyer's book aims to deny to the anthropologist his armor of objectivity, culture-
lessness and positivism, and thus questions the underlying assumptions of a scientific anthro-
Inassessing the worth of life histories which, ratherthan seeking objectivity, aim at achieving
truth by intimacy without much dialogue (as in the case of Workerin the Cane), Dwyer's cri-
tique takes a differentform. He thinks it a fiction that Self and Other can attain real understand-
ing. He is especially wary of the penchant of life-history collectors to cut and paste the words
of their informants,which he sees as distortingthe truthwhile implying that Self and Other "are
only provisionally different" (Dwyer 1982:276-277). Of Taso's life history, Dwyer writes:
Mintzadmitsexplicitlythat"creatingautobiography" raisesimportantproblems,and he does not re-
duce dialogueto the appearanceof monologue,as Lewisdoes. Nonetheless,althoughrecognizingthat
he hadto severelyeditthe finalmanuscriptif it "wereto be readas autobiography"(1960:8),Mintzfails
to addressthe significancehis act impartsto the manuscript[1982:277].
Dwyer's view provides a contrast to those cited earlier. The text of the book in question is
the same as it was in 1960; but that is not an issue. When it first appeared, the book's biggest
failing was its alleged lack of objectivity, the result of working with an informant who was a
friend. In 1982, when Dwyer judged the book, it had a different, almost opposite, failing. The
relationship between Taso and me was tilted against Taso because we are not equals, and by
fiddling with the texts I maintained or increased the inequality between us. At first suspect be-
cause I was overfriendly, I had now become not friendly enough.
Both criticisms may have substance. On one hand, the book may be skewed and partisan
because Taso and I were so busily transferringand counter-transferring.On the other, it may
give a misleading picture because rearrangingthe text could violate the meaning of the en-
counter between Taso and me, and thus hide the way the relationship was linked to Taso's
view of his own life. But rightor wrong, these criticisms may be able to tell us something about
the course of anthropological thinking.
Dwyer says I fail to address the significance of editing Taso's manuscript, "if it were to be
read as autobiography." But the passage from which this phrase is taken reads as follows:
Iemphasizethedifficultyandthe risksof thisentireprocedure[eliminatingandrearrangingthe interview
materialsin chronologicalorder],andthe thoughtfulreaderwill see why. Theexactsequenceof Taso's
narrationwould revealsome clues to his character,butthe sequencecould not be entirelypreservedif
the finalmanuscriptwere to be readas autobiography. I believeone can learnmuchaboutTasofrom
readinghis wordsas they stand.ButI also wantto makeclearwhatthisbook is not,as well as whatit is
The book is, of course, a life history. Even more important. I believe, it is history, bared
through experience. In a concluding chapter entitled "History within History," the parallel be-
tween Taso's narrationand what happened to Puerto Rican society in the first half-century of
his life is spelled out. In a general way, I already knew well what Taso recounted for me-it
can be found in my chapter of The People of Puerto Rico (Stewardet al., 1956), and was written
years before Taso and I began work on the life history. I did not yet see how that history com-
posed the materialworld within which a single individual experiences what is happening, sees
it on reflection as what is happening to him, and narrates it in this way. The autobiographical
materialthat parallels the history is edited so that the autobiography will be chronological. Taso
reminisces like most of us, and events are not always presented by him in precise chronological

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order. My editing restored part of that order, but it did so by sometimes forsaking the order in
which Taso recounted his life.

finding Taso

Nearly 25 years afterthe book was published, during a visit to Brazilwhere I had been invited
to lecture on life history, a colleague asked me to write a paper for a special journal issue on
life history, to explain how I had chosen Taso. I wrote the paper (Mintz 1984) and explained
that I had not really "chosen" Taso at all. Briefly, the background to my work with him is as
InJanuary1948, I had been sent to Puerto Rico as a member of a student team assembled by
Julian Steward to carry out research there. Each of us selected the community in which he or
she was to work, but according to a theoretical design Steward had developed, consistent with
his own evolving theoretical view, called "cultural ecology."
I worked in a community I had picked as representative of the private sector of the Puerto
Rican sugar industry.That sector was principally corporate-only a few large plantations were
family-owned enterprises-and in large measure North American. The community Ichose con-
sisted of three small settlements in a rural barrio, BarrioJauca Primero, located in the south
coast municipality of Santa Isabel. I lived in BarrioJauca for over a year, and eventually wrote
my dissertation, a "community study," about it.
The person from whom I learned the most during my stay in Jauca was a sugarcane worker
named Anastacio (actually, as it turned out, Eustaquio)Zayas Alvarado, nicknamed "Taso." He
was one of a couple of dozen individuals whom I came to know well in Jauca the firstyear that
I lived there. They included males and females of widely varying physical type or "race," and
of all ages; most were born locally, but some had migrated to Jauca in search of work. There
were a couple of storekeepers and a few semiskilled persons-an electrician, a policeman, a
couple of public car drivers-and some fishermen. But most of the people whom I came to
know were sugarcane workers. All but a couple were seasonally employed. None owned any
productive propertyto speak of; none produced anything significant that he or she could con-
sume; all had to sell their labor, and to buy in stores everything they needed. Though there
were a few chickens and pigs, one cow, and some herbs growing here and there, this was as
purely proletariana community as I have ever seen.4 Nearly half of the people lived in company
houses and on company land at that time, but this feature of local life was changing fast. Also
about to change-though unforeseeable at the time-was the predominant place of sugar in
regional economic life (Ferguson 1985). "Taso" worked on the railroad,which belonged to the
reigning U.S. corporation of the region; it transported sugarcane and nothing else. The corpo-
ration operated three mills and supervised the production of cane on its own lands and on
leased or rented lands stretching over several municipalities. It had taken Taso half of his life
to achieve the dubious, poorly paid security his job provided, but that security was nonetheless
greater than what cane cutting or "seeding" or even operating a tractor or being a machinist
would have afforded him.
From my first encounters with him in the spring of 1948, Taso Zayas seemed to me to be
distinguished from his fellow Jauqueniosin certain regards. He was of course much like them
in most ways: he spoke the same language, wore the same kind of clothes, ate the same food,
seemed to seek his security in the same practices (for example, informal "water" baptism of
children, compadrazgo relations with friends and relatives, machismo expressed in sexual and
work attitudes, playing the illegal lottery)and symbols; and shared the same most importantor
most evident values (forexample, sexual jealousy, the subordination of women, the concept of
respeto, the rejection of birth control, distrustof the Catholic Church, and so on). But Taso had
a remarkable vocabulary; in his expressed opinions, he revealed a genuinely sophisticated

comments and reflections 789

knowledge of the political implications of events; he had a subtle sense of humor; and he
seemed to understand better than anybody else I knew in Puerto Rico (and not just in Barrio
Jauca)what I was trying to do there. That understanding, his startlingly high intelligence, and
my feeling that he somehow stood outside his community even though he was thoroughly part
of it, made him a rich source of facts and corroboration for me. I thought that he was an ex-
traordinaryperson for his time and place.
I lived in Jauca from the spring of 1948 until August, 1949. My study of BarrioJauca was
written (and accepted in thesis form) in 1951.5 Though I continued to visit BarrioJauca every
chance I got after 1949, I did not do fieldwork there again until 1953. Itseems importantto me
in restrospectthat I had done more than a year of intensive fieldwork there on my firstvisit, had
learned the language reasonably well, had gone home, and had done fieldwork elsewhere,
before thinking about more fieldwork in Jauca. During the intervening years I was able to visit
and to see my friends there. Four years separated the end of my first fieldwork stint in Jauca
from the reinitiationof my work there on the life history. By the time that I undertook the work
with Taso, I believe that I knew a good deal about Jauca, and a fair amount about Puerto Rico.
Itwas after I had returnedto the mainland in 1949 to write my dissertation that I learned from
Taso's nephew, Lalo, that my friend had become a member of the Pentecostal Church. He had
been in trance, he had spoken in tongues, and he had given up various kinds of behavior-
drinkingalcohol, swearing and gambling, among them-as partof his conversion. Iwas greatly
startled by the news of these events, and returned to Jauca to ask whether we might sit down
together to record his life history. Taso agreed without hesitation, and from our work together
there eventuated the book. Though my decision to ask to record Taso's life originated in my
surpriseat his conversion, his view was doubtless somewhat different. At the very least, I now
believe, he wanted me to understandthe conversion in terms of the whole of his life up to that
time. I think that, at the moment we agreed to work together, not only were the thoughts in our
two heads different, but also that his thoughts probably came much closer to being good social
science than my own.
As I explain early in the book, the first night we sat down to talk about his life, Taso asked
for time to think about it. I did not turn on the wire recorder that night. The next night, before
we began to talk, he produced a few sheets of paper torn from a notebook, on which he had
written a life statement. A couple of days later he produced a second such statement. Taso has
only a fourth-gradeeducation, and he is not accustomed to write at length about anything. Such
facts make these written statements all the more remarkable. I reproduced them in translation,
unaltered, in the book; they form its third chapter, and they are presented exactly as he wrote
them, chronologically. The firstends around 1932, the second startsaround 1945.
At the time that Taso gave those statements to me they exerted a strong influence over my
choices of subject matter in our discussions and the order in which I sought to elicit informa-
tion-including the period the statements did not cover. In this and other ways Taso affected
deeply the form and the outcome of our work together. It is especially worth noting that, as we
moved ahead with his story, he interpreted his conversion as being only one in a series of im-
portantturning points in his life. His efforts made visible for me the whole of his life trajectory
as he experienced it, thereby reducing to more understandable, life-size proportionsthe events
he sees as articulating it.

foreground, background

I have noted that Taso's life parallels significantly the history of his community and region.
His recounted experiences embody-incarnate-that history. Surely not everyone in Jauca ex-
perienced those things in just the same way. But our outsiders' knowledge of what happened
to the community becomes more immediate, richer, through having the testimony of a person

790 american ethnologist

who did experience those events, and then interprets them for us as lived perceptions, re-
counted in spoken words. Those larger events-I think here particularlyof the imposition of
U.S. economic power through the growth of the sugarcane plantation system-provide, like
hurricanesor war, what is often called the "background" or "context" for the events of the life.
But that may not be the best way to describe the relationship between lived experience and
what surrounds it, which is by no means one of figure-and-ground, or form-and-content.
I think that the details of the relationship between the informant'slived experience and what
we label "background" deserve another word. This matters especially when we are trying to
understandrapid social and economic changes, as these are experienced with some immedi-
acy by the informants. People who are in the path of the world system often must cope with its
demands in ways that make it anything but "background." Recently Marcus has told us
(1986:173) that a Marxistorientation to the world system provides an automatic advantage of
a kind to both author and reader. According to Marcus, the author need not explain, nor need
the reader really understand: the background "explanation" simply lies there, Kleenex-like, to
be used as needed.
But in Taso's story, the world system is not exactly background. Many of the events that Taso
describes were the specific consequences of external interventions in local life. These inter-
ventions affected ecology, housing, diet, labor, and the whole tempo of daily experience, pow-
erfully and directly. It might not be too much to say that the condition of Taso's teeth, for ex-
ample, can be fairly viewed as the direct consequence of external influences upon local life.
Much of what Taso did, and what he recounts, was in reaction to the effects of such external
intervention. In this instance, then, external forces are not simply counterposed to individual
experience, or background for them. Their meaning to people in experiential terms is not re-
vealed by calling them "background." Nor does it seem to me to matterin this instance whether
one is writing "explicitly within the Marxisttheoretical tradition" (Marcus 1986:173) or not.
Perhaps it does matterthat, at the time when Taso's life history appeared, there were no life
histories of ruralproletarians in the anthropological literature.Those life histories we had were
of so-called "primitive" people. Puerto Rico and its people have been part of the West for
centuries. (Ifanything, the reason that anthropology took so long to get to societies like Puerto
Rico was because they were not "primitive" enough.) Moreover, the most recent phase of in-
terference in local life dated only from the very end of the last century, for Puerto Rico was
invaded and occupied by the United States less than a decade before Taso was born. Accord-
ingly, the events that composed the latest phase of Westernization there took firm, visible, and
ongoing form in the ways that Taso was able to grow and to cope with life. Once again they
were not what is described as "background."
When we can accurately specify the effects of policies readily imposed by external authority,
the relationships between outside and inside, and between the living of life events and the
weight of the world system, are clear. There are numerous examples in Taso's life; I will note
only one. After a foreman on the plantation where Taso was working had listened to Taso
openly defending the Socialist Party-"I, never being one to hide his ideals from anyone"
(Mintz 1960:147)-he lost his job and was blacklisted by the corporation for about a year. The
loss of work came at the worst of times for this family: the world depression, the lack of a house
of their own, and no income at all. Taso's wife, Elf,was pregnant at the time, and she recounts
their situation (Mintz 1960:147-149), as does Taso himself (Mintz 1960:99-176).
Not only do such accounts tend to complicate any simple distinction between life event-as-
foreground and world system-as-background; they also invite the question of what we mean
by "history" in life history. The telling of history within life history in a case such as Taso's,
where rapid and fundamental social change was occurring, is different from cases where the
intervention of outside forces is neither so striking nor so recent. In this connection, it may be
worth asking whether Taso, whom I have described as extraordinary, is "typical" of his time
and place.

comments and reflections 791

being typical

In the book, I stressed Taso's lack of representativeness, if what is meant by that term is typ-
icality, ordinariness or average-ness. Taso is not in my view (nor, I believe, in his own) repre-
sentative of Puerto Rico, of working people, or even of rural, working-class Puerto Rico. Be-
cause he is unusually intelligent and articulate, Taso would probably stand out among his fel-
low human beings in most cultures. Yet I would insist that Taso is nonetheless representative
of his time, his place, and his people, because his personal narrative, enriched by special in-
sight, expresses the experience of a community, a region, and a country-albeit embodying
each on somewhat different levels of abstraction. Through his personal story, Taso conveys to
the reader in an individual way the collective experience of a conquered people. What hap-
pened to him happened in the broadest terms to his society as well. His gift is to reveal his
experiences as they are embodied in, and embody, the history of his society. In this way Taso
emerges as a historical figure; what he explains to us is history, and by his own words, recount-
ing his deeds, he becomes powerfully representative of his culture and his time, without being
either ordinaryor typical.
It is when one sets aside individual uniqueness to address the shared perceptions that Taso
voices-shared with his family, neighbors, work partners,compadres and friends-that the is-
sue of representativeness needs to be addressed. I think that it concerns the extent to which a
person lives out, in her or his thoughts and acts and beliefs, the pressing issues that confront
the society of which she or he is a part. The notion of representativeness I have in mind here
may also have to do with the difference between how events are experienced, and what con-
structionsone makes of them morally.
In terms of Taso's experiences, it seems to me there cannot be much argument over how
North American business intereststook over Puerto Rico's south coast to produce sugar for the
American marketat a profit. Nor can there be much argument about the general effects of that
takeover on local life. To be sure, interpretationsmay vary. One might even imagine a lengthy
exchange of judicious opinions about whether it was, in the short run or the long run, "good
for" the Puerto Rican people-at least for those who did not immediately and enduringly feel
that takeover. But whatever the interpretation,when Taso tells us what was happening to him,
we discover it to be the obverse, integrated distinctively by his intelligence and moral judg-
ment, of what others might call "the world system." In my work I did not try to ask anyone to
confirm on some general or abstract basis Taso's opinions about the political and economic
consequences of North American rule in the south coast sugar industry.As to the basic facts of
that overlordship and its consequences for local people, I think that it would have been ludi-
crous to raise doubts about what it meant. Of course, the facts do not "speak for themselves";
no "facts" do. In a life history that eventuates in being history as well, any corroboration arises
from the perceptions of the individual reader, who is free to accept (or reject) the degree of
depicted conjuncture between the life and its external constraints.

discovering myself
I would never have undertaken the life-history project at all if I had not known Taso and,
indeed, if we had not been friends. It was that I already knew him (and thought I knew him
better than I did) that moved me to try. But the object of our work together became more and
more to make clearer and more visible what happened to people like Taso, by making clearer
and more visible what had happened to Taso. I think I was aware of at least some of the many
risksof distortion involved in our procedures. The goal of the project seemed worthwhile even
Insteadof publishing Workerin the Cane, I could have attempted to publish, in the order in
which they were recorded and without commentary or interruption,the more than 300 pages

792 american ethnologist

of interviews; there would have been good grounds for doing so.6 Such a document would not
easily attracta publisher, however. Even allowing for all the defects of my prose style, it would
probably have been less interestingto read than the book I published. I suspect, moreover, that
it would not have been equally revealing about the changes which marked Barriohistory (and
for that matter, Puerto Rican history) during the course of Taso's life. Though I am much less
certain, I submit that it might have revealed less about Taso, as well-at least of a certain sort
of insight. Assembling chronologically clusters of his words on the same subject reveals con-
sistencies and tensions that might otherwise be less apparent. But I chose to do the book as I
did, and I acknowledge my responsibility for any resulting deformation in Taso's story. If my
friendship with Taso resulted in a loss of objectivity, then that is also my fault, but I am unable
to take this very seriously. I was not Taso's employer or teacher. I was not his psychoanalyst; I
didn't even think I was his psychoanalyst.
I startedout intending mostly to be Taso's scribe, to find out if I could how the man I thought
him to be had chosen the route he had for his life, particularlythe last-for me, wholly unex-
pected-"turn." I have already explained that Taso's narrationbrought into view a much more
coherent rendering of his total life than I had been prepared for, and also that his life line ran
parallel to the history of the region. As Taso got more deeply into his story, I began to sense
unanticipated links among events and people in it, and I tried to interpretthose links. I don't
know whether I ought to have done so; what is more, I don't know how to find out.


There are images behind the two rather different criticisms of Taso's life history to which I
have referred.The first such image has to do with science. Scientific objectivity is possible. It
requires either that the ethnographer ignore the fact that he/she, too, is a human being; or so
completely "prosthetize" the method that he/she becomes invisible. Then the life history is
pushed out in front of the reader with a long stick, from offstage (Mintz 1979:23). One objec-
tifies the data collection by becoming a camera, a lens, near-transparent;one capitalizes on
nondirectiveness, neutrality,strangervalue. The second such image has to do with self. Objec-
tivity, in this image, is impossible. The ethnographer remembers that there is no such thing as
a fact; there are only interpretationsbecause he or she, as well as the informant, is a human
being. One must deobjectify the data collection because one is part of the data and the data
are part of one; one never separates oneself from one's own thoughts, during the data collec-
tion. (These renderings of mine are of course only crude representations of the subtleties in-
The contrast has, I think, political implications but they may not be apparent. Both the sci-
entist and the self-person may be of the Rightor of the Left;for instance, either may believe in
self-determination for dependent peoples, or its opposite. Neither is bound naturally to any
particular political ideology. It is not that anthropology as a field, or in its viewpoints, has
moved in any particulardirection on the political spectrum. It is merely that 40 years ago there
seem to have been more scientists; now there appear to be more selves.
Some political implications do enter, but by a different route. Anthropology began as a West-
ern project. It had to become aware of its limitations as a form of objective inquiry, and thus to
understand better the conditions under which ethnographer and informant work together. To
the extent that its practitioners may fail to recognize this, anthropology can serve as handmai-
den for other forms of Western penetration of the rest of the world. Then its role in projects of
the sortTaso and I undertook together can be to conceal, ratherthan reveal, a history of oppres-
sion. But that is the politics of understanding how nations, societies, and peoples are related to
each other. It is a different matter from the ways in which individuals-say, the informant and
the ethnographer-are related to each other.

comments and reflections 793

Ifone defends the possibility that anthropology, in spite of its limitations, may play a part in
documenting what the West has done to other societies, then giving people like Taso voice
(while admitting that by our errors or bad intentions, we deform and distort what they say) is
better than leaving them mute. Some readers of Workerin the Cane, though they may admire
the remarkablehuman being who tells his story there, have probably wished that he could have
told it without the proddings and cockeyed imaginings of some foreign social scientist, most of
all one coming from the colonial power that rules Puerto Rico. But Taso's story was "there" all
along-he just had not told it to anyone. He may not even have known that he was ready to
tell it; and then I came along. The kind of person he is, the conditions under which he lived,
his place in his society, the point at which we became friends, all figured in the writing of the
book. Its story always was, and still is, Taso's story. I do not know by what means other than
our joined intent it could have become something others might read and think about.
To question one's project along the way is essential. But that questioning ought not, it seems
to me, turn into a self-consciousness so sensitive that the purpose of the inquiry is forgotten
while the methodology is being perfected. If that self-consciousness settles too heavily upon
the ethnographer'sworries about who he or she really is, then one runsthe riskof being reduced
to communicating mostly about oneself. Then it is the informant who may become back-
ground. Of course, that does not mean that such communication cannot become a book. But
if the ethnographer upstages the informanttoo much, the informantmay disappear from sight,
even while he or she is being made equal.
It seems to me entirely likely that the emotional quality of the relationship between ethnog-
rapherand informantwill vary enormously from case to case, and that it will depend in each
instance upon all sorts of unpredictable, even imponderable, factors. That must have been as
true 35 years ago as it is today. Less easy to explain is the quite noticeable shift away from
objectivity to what may be called reflexivity. That has not happened because the objectivists
have all gone away; nor is it because there didn't used to be any reflexivists. What has hap-
pened does seem to have to do with the way the anthropological ego is managed.
There was a time when the "real" Self could hide behind the ethnographic Self, leaving the
ethnographic Self "objective." It was not entirely true, of course; but people did it. Now it
seems as if the ethnographic Self should be disowned by the real Self, because the real Self
must cope with its own subjectivity. I don't think that's entirely true, either; but people are
doing it.
These are not, it seems to me, absolutes. The fight is as old as the hills. I believe that anthro-
pology must be humanistic in its orientation. But anthropology must be scientific, too. It has
tasks to accomplish, some of them practical as well as scientific.7 Indeed, it has succeeded at
some of those tasks, even when they involved humans studying other humans. That not every
fact may be equal in status to every other fact does not prove that there is no objective reality,
or liberate us from the obligation to try our best to specify such realities carefully. There appear
to be no facts, not because facts do not exist, but because facts exist only in relationship to each
other. Hence, the specification of relationships means an interpretationof reality, not a long
list of facts; and interpretationof human behavior by humans means only that a certain kind of
science is not feasible. This does not mean that there are not better interpretationsand less good
interpretations,and perhaps that is partlya matterof the times. But if one believes in causation
in human events, if one believes that history is not simply what people feel it is, then one is
preparedto interpretin a manner that allows others to judge the interpretationsfor themselves,
on a basis that provides at least some opportunity for proof or disproof.
It is importantto me that life history continue to be regarded as a legitimate anthropological
undertaking,even if the ethnographer does not get equal billing. It has to be possible for us to
record what someone of differing culture says, for example, about how he or she experienced
a war, a hurricane, or a depression, even if we are not in the book. Taso's book is the same
book it was in 1960. But each reader reads it differently, and the declared reasons why it wasn't

794 american ethnologist

a betterbook have gone on changing.I have no doubtthat if I knew myselfbetter,it would
havebeen a betterbook. Perhapsif I'dput moreof me in it, it would have been a betterbook,
too. Buthad I been a moreeffectivefieldworkerin otherways thatcount-like knowingthe
language better, knowing the community and its history better, planning the questions better,
workingharder,and feeling less sorryfor myself-I thinkthatmighthave matteredmore.

a final word

What motivated me more and more to continue my work with Taso, as we went furtherwith
his story, was my conviction that his life and how he interpreted it should be made available
forothersto studyand ponder.I did not thinkmuchabouthim and me doing this as we were
doing it, and perhaps I ought to have. I thought instead about how better to explore with him
more parts of his experience, at greater depth, more completely. Often I went over by myself
what I had learnedin the precedingsessions, to look for connections,tryingto understand
better the course of events. Taso would come back from a hot day of backbreaking labor, and
join me to talk. We would often continue after dinner for a few hours. The next day, as I strug-
gled to transcribe our evening's exchanges, he would be back at work.8
As I have already said, the answer to how I "chose" Taso for the life history is simple: he
chose me. He could have refusedto see me the firstday we met;buthe helpedme instead.He
could have done the same on innumerable occasions thereafter, but he never refused to help
me. And when I visited him for the firsttime after our work in 1956 was done-the collecting
finished, the seemingly endless transcribing, translating, and editing underway-I remember
that he said the only thing he has ever said to me that gave me a pang of guilt, though I am
certain he did not intend it to. "I miss you," he said, "I miss our work together. Now that the
little house behind ours stands empty, I remember our work."
There is the unequalness, the asymmetry that most matters in the relationship between an-
thropologist and informant, as opposed to the unequalness, the asymmetry that matters be-
tween metropolis and colony. For I enjoyed the continuing freedom to associate with others
for the fun of it-to teach and think and read and write for a living. AfterTaso's book was done,
I could go on observing, loafing, experiencing vicariously. My friend, every bit my equal-in
most importantways, I believe, my clear superior-went on working with his hands, at terribly
hard work, for too long hours, at too little pay.


Acknowledgments. Researchon the life historyof "Taso"Zayaswas supportedby the Wenner-Gren

Foundation. ThewriterwarmlythanksKevinDwyer,RichardPrice,RebeccaScott,GillianFeeley-Harnik,
AshrafGhani,JackieMintz,JimCliffordand DickFoxfortheirvaluablecriticismsof thispaperin itsseveral
versions.I regretthatnone of themcan be held responsiblein any way for its persistingdifficulties.
'One reviewin the BrooklynTablet,a well-knownconservativeCatholicweekly,was harshlycriticalof
me for havingaskedquestionsthat led to answerswhich, in the opinionof the reviewer,a priest,ought
only to have been told to a priestin confession.A gentlerpriest,who likedthe book, statedin the liberal
CatholicweeklyAmericathat,hadIvanIllichnotbeen banishedfromPuertoRico(wherehe hadpreviously
worked)to Mexico,Tasowould not haveconvertedto Protestantism.
2GillianFeeley-Harnik pointsout thatthe terms"stranger" and "friend"are culturallyspecific,as are
theconceptionstheyrepresent.Whatsuchtermsmeanto theethnographer mayfailto correspondprecisely
to whatthey meanto the "native."
31 thinkthatBrandes has interpretedNadel'sargumenttoo literally.Thereis a substantialdifferencebe-
tween keepingaloof frombeing identifiedwith one or anothersocial class or in-groupin a smallcom-
munity,and not makingfriendsat all.
Nonetheless,readersmaywish to turnto LeoSimmons'introduction to SunChiefforan exampleof the
objective,non-friendlyapproach.Simmonshad begunto workwith Don Talayesva,whom he had met
throughMischaTitiev.He visitedDon at Oraibiseveraltimes.Don was hiredat 35? an hourfortheformal
interviewing, whichcontinuedovera couple of years.Of his 1940 visit,Simmonstells us: "Upto thistime

comments and reflections 795

about 350 hours had been spent in interviewing, and he [Don] had written about 3,000 pages of diary in
longhand. Rapportwas very satisfactoryand much new information was obtained; but near the end of my
stay some difficulties arose over the question of informationon the ceremonies" (Simmons 1942:5). Simply
put, the "difficulties" were that Talayesva refused to discuss secret religious ceremonies. Simmons reports
that he told him that their work could not go on otherwise, paid him off, and prepared to leave the pueblo.
Faced with this ultimatum (including the loss of a job), Don came to Simmons later that day, apologized,
and agreed to talk about the secret ceremonies (1942:6).
4Thisdoes not mean people lacked valuable skills, some of which they sold; nor does it mean that there
was no reciprocal unremunerated service, gift exchange, or other nonmonetary social interaction. Much
to the contrary, in fact; Jauquehos clearly demarked the nonmonetary in their daily lives. But the proletar-
ianization of life was nonetheless entirely clear and recognized.
5it was not published until 1956, due to the logistical and intellectual problems of integrating five dis-
sertations and much else in a single volume.
6Good structuralgrounds, Gillian Feeley-Harnik says. But other grounds, too. My dear friend, the late
Charles Rosario,would have liked to see two books, one being the unaltered texts. In the best of all possible
worlds, I would certainly be in favor of that.
7Drawingthe distinctions somewhat differently, Friedrich(1989) has written recently of the "analytic-
scientific" and the "emotional-ethical" approaches.
8We did not ever discuss the fact that I called what I did "work," and he called what he did "work." But
Taso had a way of talking about some particularjob in the sugarcane in the past, when it was very difficult,
that I always liked: "Ese trabajo, ese trabajoes lo que se llama trabajo," he would say. I always felt slightly
foolish calling what I did by the same term.

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1977 EthnographicBibliographies in American Anthropology. Central Issues in Anthropology 1:6.
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1961 Review of Worker in the Cane. American Anthropologist 63:1358.
Dwyer, K.
1982 Moroccan Dialogues. Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ferguson, B.
1985 Class Transformationsin Puerto Rico. Ph.D. dissertation. New York:Columbia University.
1936 We the Tikopia. London: George Allen & Unwin.
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Mintz, S.
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1979 The Anthropological Interview and the Life History. The Oral History Review 1979:18-26.
1984 EncontrandoTaso, me Descobrindo. Dados 27(1):45-58.
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submitted 22 May 1989

revised version submitted 24 July 1989
accepted 25 July 1989

796 american ethnologist