Not too long ago a famous ethnographer wrote that as an ethnographer one needs to read, to appreciate all forms and styles of reading, not only scientific texts, but fiction and tales and even poems.
Sometimes I wonder, if somehow in writing, universal truth is established as subtext, even in the most fictional forms of writing. One part of this universal truth, if there is such a thing, could be that ambiguity is the foundation of humanity. A point I will come back to later.
I am not a fan of science fiction. Fantasy I do like, because I always find that authors of fantasy establish a reality that is wholly based on their own imagination, a reality they offer the reader to access and do with as the reader pleases. Science fiction however, seems to imply a reality that one day could be mutually agreed upon and established, somehow forcing the reader into the mindset of ‘one day’, while fantasy is in the realm of ‘past, now or later but not in this reality’. *
Thus, I struggled for a long time to finally pick up The Ender Saga by Orson Scott Card. I was surprised to find a book that much more read like an ethnographic piece of work, than what I had imagined science fiction to be. It is in novel shape, but shape is insignificant for the searching mind.
Shape or symbols are only the way we communicate with each other on the higher levels of awareness (Blumer, 1969; Ehrenzweig, 1967) for the internal part of comprehension it is insignificant because what we make out of the shape is utterly personal. Our understanding of actions or objects is socially (and thus culturally) mediated but only up to a certain communicable point, interpretation thus, is a very tricky business indeed.
Anthropology is never an exact science; the observer never experiences the culture and the participant. But these are natural limitations inherent to the science. It is the artificial limitations that hamper us … (Card, 2009, p. 32)
If, there is room for so much misunderstanding; how can in a culturally diverse society ever be a common understanding and acceptance of each other?
Since we are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that people from the next village are as human as ourselves, it is presumptuous in the extreme to suppose we could ever look at sociable, tool-making creatures who arose from other evolutionary paths and see not beasts but brothers, not rivals but fellow pilgrims journeying to the shrine of intelligence. (Card, 2009, p. 1)
Intelligence indeed seems missing in heated discourse between different groups who each in their own right claims to have the right values, norms and structures, refuting the notion that there is no such thing as the right way – If it were, we surely would have come to an agreement by now.
The piggy (alien species) in this story acknowledges that humans and piggies can be of one tribe and still keep their identities of human and piggy, yet belong together. Translated into my research with refugees, this is something politicians, social workers, researchers, pedagogues, sociologists etc tried to explain with multiculturalism, melting pot, salad bowl, assimilation, integration or interculturalism all terms that did not work out in the end, or only worked selectively, case specific.
What the piggy is asking for is inclusion is belonging to one big tribe without giving up cultural identities, which imply ethnicity, religion, race etc.
The tribe is whatever we believe it is. […] We become one tribe because we say we’re one tribe.
So could we not simply create a new reality accepting ambiguity as natural state? What is my research good for, if all I do is reproducing established structures, knowing they won’t break open? Growing up with humanist values does leave me with despair about the impossibility of these ideals.
Habe den Mut dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen
* I here disregarded the fact that even ‘made up’ realities have to be based on commonsensical experiences to permit their communication and should have written: as made up as possible – within the frame of knowledge of the author.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism. Perspective and Method. London: University of California Press.
Card, O. S. (2009). Speaker for the Dead. Volume Two of The Ender Saga. London: Orbit.
Ehrenzweig, A. (1967). The Hidden Order of Art. London: Weidenfeld und Nicolson.