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).
"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.