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Arthur Kleinman
Harvard University

W.H.R. Rivers and the Primacy of Experience in Anthropology: Moral, Political and Methodological Questions

A century ago, Rivers invented intensive ethnographic fieldwork in the British anthropological tradition. Experience was primary for him as a data collection strategy in the study of kinship, ritual, medicine and other ethnographic subjects. But as a clinician, experience also held for Rivers moral and political significance. His students, especially Radcliffe-Brown, and the other young fieldworkers who followed him including Malinowski, disguised the contribution Rivers made-out of what Harold Bloom has called in the poetic tradition, the anxiety of influence-and they did so so effectively that Rivers has largely disappeared from the way anthropologists think about the history of the discipline and its current challenges. Yet Rivers set out several issues for anthropology, from the moral basis of experience to the appropriate ethical relationship of the fieldworker to his/her research subjects and on to the political place of ethnographic findings in the wider societal/global context, that hold great importance for our own era. In this lecture I will challenge how the discipline has engaged experience as theoretical category and research milieu; examine why culturalist and political economy approaches often displace experience from its centrality; and offer a theoretical model of local moral worlds of experience as a prolegomenon to the ethnography of suffering and violence and humanitarian policies and programs.
Monday, February 14, 2003
314 Royce Hall

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