Friday, September 11, 2009

202. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 2 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

Colin Turnbull's The Forest People, based on his experiences among the Mbuti Pygmies of the central African Ituri Forest, was written during the 1950's, but in the eyes of many it is typical of the sort of wide-eyed romantic idealism associated with the 60's. A typically 21st Century response can be found in the following reader review, from, by one Dawn Stoker, of Houston:
Colin Turnbull romanticizing of the Mbuti pygmies in "The Forest People" is allowable given the period in which it was written. In some ways, the book really tells us more about the ethnographer than the people he studied. Turnbull found the Mbuti way of life to have a simple, spiritual quality that he admired greatly.... part of this admiration stemmed from his own background in an elitist British social and academic system. Turnbull was simply "in love" with the Mbuti.

Anthropology has (hopefully) advanced to the point where its practitioners allow themselves a greater recognition of their possible biases. Even so, who is to say that an understanding of the ethnographer is not more important than the study group. The book reads pleasantly, if not scientifically.
Reading through so many similarly disdainful comments in the anthropological literature, one has to wonder how so many presume to know so much about a famously elusive people studied by so few, and an even more famously elusive author. In far too many cases, as it's seemed to me at least, the all too predictable "demystifications" are the product of all too predictable agendas, authored by those with axes of their own to grind.

While always skeptical of revisionists with agendas, and usually eager to defend Turnbull and his work, which I still find meaningful, I have to admit I was taken aback by the discovery, on the Internet, of a book on Turnbull unlike any other: The 1950s Mbuti: A Critique of Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People, by Alex Liazos. In contrast to those who have second-guessed Turnbull by attempting, like Kisliuk, to retrace his footsteps or, more typically, "deconstruct" his thinking by speculating on his motives, Liazos has tracked down Turnbull's original field notes, now on deposit at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, of the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. And, according to Liazos, the field notes tell a very different story from that of the book:
In 2007-2008, I read the field notes for The Forest People, and I found a different Mbuti than the people found in the book. The field notes, which Turnbull took in 1957-58 while living with the Mbuti, show a people troubled by conflicts, persecution of an old woman, and other serious problems. The idyllic and egalitarian society presented in The Forest People exists only in part in Turnbull’s own field notes.
In my opinion, this methodical, relentless study of Turnbull's field notes is a document of great importance that should be required reading for every anthropologist, professional and student alike, and indeed anyone with an interest in the study of social structure and human nature generally. Unlike almost everyone who's been critical of Turnbull (or, more typically, simply dismissed his work), Liazos does not appear to have an ax to grind, revisionist or otherwise, but seems honestly and legitimately concerned by some of the disconcerting materials he has uncovered. Although, unfortunately, he's had difficulty finding a publisher for his book, he has, very fortunately for us, made it freely available at his website, Turnbull and the Mbuti. Just scroll down and click on the link labeled MS, THE 1950's MBUTI. (For some reason the book is incomplete when accessed via Mozilla Firefox, at least on my system, so I suggest using MS Explorer.)

Of the many issues raised by Liazos, those of most concern to me are as follows:

1. Fairness to Turnbull. Was he deliberately deceptive? Did he deliberately embellish or distort the truth, or fail to report significant events that should have been reported?

2. Fairness to the picture of Mbuti life presented in The Forest People. Did Turnbull indeed romanticize or idealize the Mbuti? Does the more complete picture presented in the field notes seriously contradict that of the book?

3. To what extent do the revelations Lazios has found in the field notes have a bearing on the "open question" offered in my previous post: "Do all pygmy groups share essentially the same core values; and if so, wouldn't that fact alone tell us there is an African Pygmy culture after all, if not fully persisting into the present moment, then valid at least in the past?"


Anonymous said...

Regarding the standards of Turnbull's work, you should have a look at Bernd Heine's comments on his work on the Ik: "The Mountain People: some notes on the Ik of north-eastern Uganda" (Africa January 1985). They make it rather difficult to take Turnbull seriously as a documenter.

DocG said...

Unfortunately, this paper is protected by a paywall so I can't/won't access it (partly because I can't afford all these paid downloads and partly on principle). I'm not sure if I've read what Heine has to say, but I have certainly seen criticisms of "The Mountain People" -- and to my mind all are beside the point.

As far as this paper is concerned, as I understand it, Turnbull made up the word "Ik," since he wanted to protect the identity of the people he was writing about. So I'm not sure what is meant by the title of this paper. I read the first page (via the jstor site) and I must admit I remain puzzled. And I'm also wondering how Heine was able to identify the exact same group studied by Turnbull.

Also from what I read, Heine's research took place many years after Turnbull's, so it's hard for me to understand how it's possible to compare past with present after such a long time has passed.

The problem with all the criticisms, as I see it, is the assumption that Turnbull was doing conventional ethnography, but as should be clear from his book, he was not. Nor should we assume he was making any attempt to be comprehensive and complete. There is no such claim in his book.

What we do find is a first person account of his experiences with a group of people he identifies only as the "Ik," which could mean almost anything from an ethnographic standpoint. The book describes his experiences among this group and makes no claims to be anything more than a first person description. The book is also unconventional in that he doesn't hesitate to share his personal opinions, but to me this is refreshing and makes the book that much more interesting.

He is also very clear in casting the "Ik" as victims of extremely difficult circumstances, and he goes to a lot of trouble to explain how impossible their situation was.

How someone can come along 20 or so years later and claim that Turnbull misrepresented anything is beyond my comprehension -- but maybe after reading the entirety of Heine's paper I'd feel differently.