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Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco [Paperback]

Paul Rabinow

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Book Description

11 May 2007
In this landmark study, now celebrating thirty years in print, Paul Rabinow takes as his focus the fieldwork that anthropologists do. How valid is the process? To what extent do the cultural data become artifacts of the interaction between anthropologist and informants? Having first published a more standard ethnographic study about Morocco, Rabinow here describes a series of encounters with his informants in that study, from a French innkeeper clinging to the vestiges of a colonial past, to the rural descendants of a seventeenth-century saint. In a new preface, Rabinow considers the thirty-year life of this remarkable book and his own distinguished career.


Product details

  • Paperback: 204 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 30th anniversary ed edition (11 May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520251776
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520251779
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 12.1 x 20.3 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 695,634 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Paul Rabinow is Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles, with Talia Dan-Cohen (2004).

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The Sais plain which stretches over lightly rolling countryside between the cities of Fez and Sefrou (both founded in the ninth century A.D.) is one of the most fertile areas in Morocco. Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How much objectivity could you keep while studying a people? 26 Dec 2000
By R. Byrd - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
First off, this is not a book about the Moroccan people. It is a book about the ethnographer's experience with a community of Moroccan people. I assume that, somewhere out there, is a university press publication of his actual findings gathering dust on a shelf. Instead, this book is about some of the more uncomfortable aspects of anthropology and the destroying of illusions.
Questions of finding the outsider's insider (someone enough on the fringes to be willing to take you under their wing, but not so much that they don't have a good in-road into their own culture), of the purity of research (did you have to pay these people before they'd bother to talk to you? Were they expecting payment based on relations with other enthnographers?), and how much one can really understand a culture just by sitting a watching it (as opposed to participating, which threatens objectivity) are the issues Rabinow faced, and what he wrote about.
"Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco" is just that, memoirs on the process of the research itself, not Rabinow's findings. There are interesting comments on Rabinow's interactions with his insiders, but rarely the sort that could go into a standard academic tome. This answer to the delima of objectivity, splitting one's experiences into an official report and a journal of sorts, is one I'd like to see more of.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars False Starts and New Departures 27 Jun 2008
By Etienne ROLLAND-PIEGUE - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
For anthropologists, doing fieldwork is a kind of rite of passage, a process of initiation into the profession as well as a marker which separates anthropologists from other social scientists who "don't do fieldwork". But at the time when Paul Rabinow wrote his Reflections, there were surprisingly little books attempting to define what fieldwork is and giving aspiring anthropologists some tools and lessons on how to pursue their field research successfully. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco thus soon became required reading in anthropology classes, and many graduate students were encouraged to hold a research diary in which they would record similar introspective thoughts in parallel to their scholarly work.

But Rabinow's book is not a fieldwork manual and it will provide little guidance to young researchers going on the field. It is by no means a "how to" book. If anything, it records false starts, dead ends and failures, where a more standard scholarly manual would give an impression of fulfillment and completion. The anthropologist's research study on Symbolic Domination: Cultural Form and Historical Change in Morocco, which constitutes the shadow volume to this short essay, could have turned out completely differently and its completion owes much to chance encounters, the politics of getting access to the field, and the choice of informants who provided the author with their insider's knowledge.

Doing fieldwork, it turns out, is not very different from simply hanging around. "After all, now that I was in the field, anything was fieldwork", remarks Rabinow. Like those Dutch masters who reproduced in their paintings a reflexion of the painter in action, the anthropologist includes himself in the picture and tries to conform to a projected image. Spending his days in the old city of Sefou "fulfilled all of my images of myself as anthropologist sitting in the heart of a thousand-year-old walled city, with my turbaned friends, notebook on my lap, drinking tea and being the participant observer."

But the anthropologist is not the only one to strike a pose. The observed Moroccans also act consciously so as to convey a certain image of their society to the observer, and their behavior is affected by his presence among them. One is surprised to find out that many contacts of Rabinow had previously worked with other anthropologists. Informants too are engaged in their own fieldwork, an activity for which they are more or less talented, and they expect a kind of retribution for the service they provide. This compensation often takes the form of monetary payment for work sessions, as the author would normally pay for language tuition (the two often go together), but some informants choose other forms of retribution, as the author obliged to give taxi rides to a vast number of solicitors soon finds out. There is a lovely scene in which a seemingly dying old lady is driven to the hospital, only to ask to be dropped to the nearest market, where she has some shopping to do before dying. Rabinow's remark on how he is pushed around and probed by his informants who try to test his strengths and weaknesses reminded me playing soccer on a field with Moroccans, who consider this kind of testing a normal form of social interaction.

At the time of his writing, Paul Rabinow subscribed to a definition of anthropology as consisting of participant observation (his later work would drive him closer to Michel Foucault's archeology of knowledge and away from Clifford Geertz's interpretation of cultures). But as he notes in his book, observation is the main objective the anthropologist can achieve, and participation remains an elusive goal. "There may be situations in which the anthropologist can directly aid the community, he remarks, but my guess is that they are rare." Especially for a scholar who seems to be deeply suspicious of aid agencies' efforts to alleviate poverty and promote development. One should note however that many anthropologists today are engaged in practical issues, advising governments and various institutions on how best to take account of the local context in projects that involve social change and potential disruption in traditional livelihoods.

The book closes with an afterword by Pierre Bourdieu, a well-known French social scientist who also has done similar fieldwork in Algeria before turning to French modern society. It opens with a foreword from Robert Bellah, another social scientist, who interestingly compares Paul Rabinow's narrative to a mythic tale, relating the journey of the hero on a dangerous mission and his successful return. An anthropologist is a dealer in myths, and it is all too natural that his venture in the field reproduces the narrative structure of an Illiad or an Odyssey. Ulysses comes home to a deeply changed Ithaca, and only his faithful dog recognizes the wandering hero. Likewise, Rabinow who had "left America with a sense of giddy release" returns to a country he doesn't recognize as his own. "Revolution" had occurred during his absence, the sixties were over, and the shadow of Vietnam loomed large over the anthropologist's agenda. His Reflexion on Fieldwork in Morocco would stand out as an isolated gem, and he would soon move on to other terrains and pursuits.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WHY WE ARE NOT ANTHROPOLOGISTS! 4 Dec 2011
By Tim Lehmann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Why should we read a 30th anniversary edition of an anthropologist's ethnographic account of remote North African villages? Rabinow might argue this depends on the readers' perspective that one has to reflect on someone's self as a continuous development process of "the comprehension of self by the detour of the comprehension of the other." Provocative during the originating days of Rabinows' claims, which made his work avant-gardist in the upcoming writing culture debate enfolding a crisis of anthropology and ethnography. Rabinow's less obvious proposition about reconciling truth claims in the study of the social and the nature receives only attention when re-reading the book today in the light of his later work observing bioscience and parallel strains of the socio-cultural science studies emerging in the 80ies. The book then shows up in a different light transforming itself from the study of small traditional villages in North Africa to the study of the construction of knowledge more generally. Reflections on fieldwork can not only be read by readers professionally engaged in the production of knowledge but is also worth a try for the layperson to be an everyday anthropologist in their own life considering that "We all know [...] [facts] are not Dinge an sich but are constructs of the process by which we acquire them." To both parties the book offers a beautiful non-academic written account of the encounters of a person (Rabinow the ethnograph) to understand him or herself self as a human being by the detour to get to know the other (Moroccan culture).
The 60ies:

"A `tourist' guidebook from Chicago about rural Morocco"

Reflections on fieldwork, published in 1977, can be summarized in a few sentences. In the 60ies as a young doctoral student at the University of Chicago Rabinow faced the paradigmatic dualism of either being a real anthropologist who as done fieldwork against the backdrop of anthropologists without field experience. Not at all prepared, not even speaking the Arabic language, Rabinow immersed himself in a fieldwork endeavor in two remote villages in Morocco (1968-1969). The book describes the struggle of the researcher to gain access to the culture and the context as a process towards complete entry. The ethnographic challenge is illustrated by several encounters of the fieldworker developing dialogical relations with randomly chosen informants. The selection, relations, and turning down of the various informants enlighten the reflective and political process of fieldwork. The seven informants' main characteristics and the relational insights they offer the researcher provide a different account of field data than observing the field and treating the field notes as objective data.

The book provides narrative insights into the Moroccan culture and therefore could also guide some ambitious tourist or student to learn about Morocco. It is not a comprehensive description though, but elucidates various fragmented images of relationship building between the researcher and his informants. A process in which authority shifts from the informant who exploits the fieldworker's position as an outsider, without knowing anything about the local culture, to the researcher's increased body of knowledge which brings with it the enforcement of authority over the informants and eventually enjoying "the culture, to think of his [the fieldworker] personal desires of self enrichment and to link himself with friends, not just informants." Still being the same culture with the same differences separating Rabinow he became satisfied that he had achieved acceptance of Otherness and began his process of (personal) change. Rabinow turned his knowledge (of the culture and context) toward symbolic violence, which forced the informant to look differently upon himself and his world.
Everything is fieldwork

Rabinow departed his fieldwork in 1968 to tribal areas surrounding the city of Sefrou in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. He had come to Morocco with the intent to study rural religion and politics. In Morocco, only a several days, Rabinow realized that now everything was fieldwork. The first encountered informant was Richard, an elderly marginalized French hotelier, about whom he reflected the various colonial and neo colonial phases of the Frenchmen and thus the influence of colonialism on Moroccan culture. The relationship with his second informant, Ibrahim his Arabic teacher, illustrates the first critical reflections emerging out of the seven ethnographer-informant relationships described in the book: "...we had spent many hours talking French together in addition to the Arabic lessons, and I had proceeded to "typify" him. But my typifications were fundamentally incorrect and ethnocentric. Basically I had been conceiving him as a friend because of the seeming personal relationship we had established. But Ibrahim, a lot less confused, had basically conceptualized me as a resource".

"A Saint operating a prostitution ring"

However, only through the encounter with the subsequent informant Ali, a storekeeper, a saint of religious brotherhood, and at the same time a `pimp' operating a shabby prostitution ring, the power of adopting an anthropologist's reflective perspective is revealed.
"Fieldwork is a dialectic between reflection and immediacy. Both are cultural constructs. Our scientific categories help us to recognize, describe, and develop areas of inquiry. But one cannot engage in questioning and redefining twenty-four hours a day. The scientific perspective on the world is hard to sustain. In the field there is less to fall back on. The world of everyday life changes more rapidly and dramatically than it would at home. There is an accelerated dialectic between the recognition of new experiences and their normalization. [...] I say dialectic because neither the subject nor the object remain static... As the explicit self-consciousness of the unnaturalness of the situation declines, the implicit modes of action and judgment of both sides return. The anthropologist is supposed to be aware of this and to control himself. The informant is simply supposed to `be himself'" (page 38-47). As mentioned by Rabinow, it is impossible to maintain an Anthropologist's perspective at any time, but adopting such a perspective from time to time helps being aware of someone's declining self-consciousness in the process of normalizing the new. After Rabinow was able to settle a severe controversy he had with Ali, he realized that it is the informant who is always right and "One had to completely subordinate one's own code of ethics, and conduct, and worldview, to `suspend belief,' ..." (page 46). All together such a subordination though will never achieve total "value neutrality", the "obligation not to let our value predilections dictate the results of our research [for the layperson - the way we see the world]" (page xxxi). At sum, anthropologists' zooming in on how everyday knowledge, but also scientific knowledge is produced, tries to discover the political non-value neutral aspects of interactions and their observations.

"The reality is not out there"

Even though, Rabinow does not offer explicit theoretical material the book offers a provocative account of how to approach fieldwork as opposed to the ethnographic reality's pursuit of a realistic description of the truth of the other, or in other words, the reality of the world independent from the observer's point of view. While reading through the `evolutionary' process of self-awareness of Rabinow in the field the interested reader as well as the layperson will realize that any type of everyday life experience will almost always contain remaining judgments of oneself if not reflected critically. Accordingly, it is a convincing eye opener for anybody instigating ethnographic work or for the layperson who wants to alter his/her self awareness encountering new situations or people in everyday situations.

"Power and Ideology"

As outlined earlier the provocation has made the book mostly cited in anthropology and ethnography as method in more general in the human and social sciences. Whereas other social science fields may know Rabinow better from his close relation to Foucault a more careful look at his current work in science studies offers another path of reading the book and his anniversary edition. Rabinow's is providing an early attempt to explain the production of knowledge looking at the everyday life experience of humans and tries to dismantle the distinction between subject and object. Rabinow did not perceive culture as a neutral object to be observed and neutrally analyzed but objectification as a process of social interaction and interpretation through dialogical narrations between the researcher and the studies subjects of his studies. A similar discussion emerged through Bruno Latour's work on the study of the (social) production of knowledge by observing en detail the practices and semiotics of laboratory workers. This semiotic approach of the study of the performative aspects of humans and non-human actors adopted similar methodological (ethnographic observations) and theoretical (anthropology and philosophy) strains of reconstructing and reassembling the social from studying science.

Although Rabinow's book and work is hardly cited within the science studies someone may reconstruct structural equivalence through invisible ties. In his new preface Rabinow refers to Bourdieu's claims that fieldwork in philosophy could help to solve traditional problems of philosophy and how these could be addressed in the modern world. From this perspective one could read the book how knowledge is produced in a sociologically mediated understanding and how this process is linked to power relations and structured relations of domination. Leaving out these relational processes produces only "ideology and illusion".

"Are we or are we not anthropologists, then?"

Social scientists then are, of course, all anthropologists in Rabinow's view. Perceiving their own work and themselves as anthropologists in the field, sitting in their offices debating with colleagues, collecting survey data, conducting interviews, and, thereby, constructing facts nowadays, has to reflect on the web of social relations and its emergent politics in which the researcher is embedded him or herself. Any truth claims have to be reflective on the other, the object of the study, and the self of the researcher to dismantle the procedural characteristics separating subject and object. Moreover, the layperson (i.e. the social scientists in his leisure time if she/he has one) will also benefit to adopt from time to time Rabinow's reflective field perspective for everyday life encounters to reveal someone's unconscious value loaded, and therefore political, ways of dealing with the other. Finally, the book is an easy reading (even though I have not cited here the easiest passages) and is a must read for everyone who wants or has travelled once to a more distant culture. As someone who has travelled extensively around the world (both as a field researcher and as a layperson) and assumed to be cultural reflective, because of Rabinow, I learnt about the unconsciousness of my past.
4.0 out of 5 stars required and actually good 1 Mar 2013
By sarah elizabeth smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was a required text for me and I was surprised that a required text actually turned out to be a good read! There was some highlighting in it, but overall the book was in good condition.
10 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reflecting on reflection 15 Aug 2000
By Shems - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Not only is this book elegantly written, but it also is a must for those seriously considering entering the everchanging field of anthropology. It is meant to be a reflection on Dr. Rabinow's experiences, which can prepare others for what they may encounter in their own "fields."
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