Theory & Religion Series: Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow

by Travis Cooper

Paul Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (1977) was a game changer. As a novice anthropologist of religion, picking my way slowly through the history of American anthropology—and conducting fieldwork at the same time—encountering Rabinow was nothing less than an emancipating experience. The book extended my critical aptitudes and altered the way I think about (and do) fieldwork.

Reflections was, in its day, quite controversial. Rabinow’s advisor, Clifford Geertz, cautioned against publishing. And Pierre Bourdieu, who contributed the afterword to the 2007 edition, expressed some ambivalence (xv-xvi). Rabinow himself calls it “a studied condensation of a swirl of people, places, and feelings” that might have been “half as long, or twice as long, or ten times as long” (6). Suffice it to say, the book is difficult to classify. It has a literary texture to it and reads like mixture of travelogue, diary, theory of ethnography, and critique of anthropology.

Reflections is worth reading if only for the ethnographically rich, novel-like details of the anthropologist’s relations with informants. Rabinow’s accounts, after all, involve adventure, social awkwardness, sexuality, and religious and political conflict. The book’s greatest value, however, are the concise musings on ethnographic method and cultural theory (i.e., the reflections in Reflections).

I’d recommend the book for use in religious studies classes, especially courses geared toward or framed with method and theory. Undergraduates will appreciate Rabinow’s narrative prose and scandalous content; advanced graduate students will value his consistent methodological considerations.

Ultimately, Reflections underscores a number of (now) axiomatic themes in the academy and accomplishes several important tasks.

(1) Rabinow demystifies fieldwork. “Fieldwork is a dialectic between reflection and [ethnographic] immediacy,” Rabinow writes. “Both are cultural constructs” (38). The book is one of the first serious accounts on the doing and entailing of the ethnographic method.

(2) Rabinow deconstructs “the field” and expands the ethnographer’s purview. Fieldwork, he argues, is tantamount to an anthropological rite-of-passage. “At the risk of violating the [anthropologist’s] clan taboos,” he provokes, “I argue that all cultural activity is experiential, [and] that fieldwork is a distinctive type of cultural activity” (5). His hyper-reflexivity finds scholarly elaboration in religious studies currents such as Russell McCutcheon’s recent self-characterization as “carrying out a detailed ethnography of scholarly practice for the past twenty years” (2014, xi).

(3) Rabinow dispels the misguided notion of the pristine, exotic other. He submits that “the view of the ‘primitive’ as a creature living by rigid rules, in total harmony with his environment, and essentially not cursed with a glimmer of self-consciousness, is a set of complex cultural projections. There is no ‘primitive.’ There are other men, living other lives” (151).

(4) Lastly, Rabinow diminishes the purity of ethnographic data. The anthropologist “trains people to objectify their life-world for him. Within all cultures, of course, there is already objectification and self-reflection. But this explicit self-conscious translation into an external medium is rare. The anthropologist creates a doubling of consciousness” (119), thus demonstrating the complex mediations of data at all levels.

Reflections will remain a valuable work for those interested in the method and theory of ethnography for some time to come.

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