When anthropologists go to a foreign culture or community to describe and document groups and their culture, they try to apply reflexivity to what they record. This is because a reflexive-turn can catch and caution the application of foreign cultural ideals to local cultures. A good example of what I mean happened recently in Charlotteville where I’m documenting local reactions to the THA’s development plans for the beachfront, which includes building a mall (without the required EMA approvals) across it.
Driving along the north coast of Tobago from Plymouth to Charlotteville, hugging the Windward Road as it curves regularly to reveal idyllic, tropical views of Castara, Parlatuvier, Bloody Bay, Man of War Bay, and then down into Charlotteville from L’Anse Fourmi, I couldn’t seriously imagine many people wanting to transform such ecological tranquillity with a beachfront mall.
A rude awakening awaited me on the ground in Charlotteville. Yes of course there are many voices against the development, but the many voices in favour of it caught me off guard.
Now as much as possible, people and their worldviews should be understood within the cultural context from which they emerge. My own resistance to putting malls on beaches is maybe quite understandable to many. Yet the views of many in Charlotteville in favour of a mall on the beach also have to be understood too—without a researcher’s own morality affecting their narrative.
Of course when the dust settles there is a wide spectrum of different reasons for and against urban development in the ecologically sensitive area and traditionally quiet fishing village that is Charlotteville.
Two of the narratives some locals mobilise to support their own points of view are that those in favour of the mall have taken government bribes and those against the mall are drug dealers. Both narratives might make sense in individual cases, but it’s hard to believe these rumours make sense when applied to a whole community. Rather, they obscure rational debate, polarise the issue, and divide the community. One wonders who benefits from such division?
When recording accounts of groups and their culture(s), reflexivity can enhance objectivity. And while it’s certainly true within anthropology total objectivity is impossible; how can it ever be when the data instrument is a human being? Reflexivity can function as a fairly useful check and balance to the subtleties of cultural imperialism and/or ethnocentrism.
This brings us back to last’s week’s column on poverty, where in the finest traditions of ethnocentrism, a small part of my patriarchal, European up-bringing, made a blasé assumption about ideal family types in the Caribbean. In listing some of the realities of poverty I included the notion of the “broken home.” My intention was to lament the lack of male figures and support. Yet the point came over to some as an implication the nuclear family—that stalwart of European society—is the only successful family type.
Clearly, research in the Caribbean has shown in detail how assumptions about an ideal family type are misleading. There are many examples of successful non-nuclear models—the extended and the matrifocal family are two obvious ones.
And as one comment reminded me: “What is a broken home... It is taken to mean a family that is not the nuclear model except the non-nuclear model has been the Caribbean cultural norm. We impose the nuclear model on our societies and then measure how far we are from it and talk of broken homes.
See numerous articles on Caribbean family forms by Merle Hodge and research that says more than 40 per cent of Caribbean families are and have been female-headed. This is OUR norm and we should measure ourselves by our reality.”
In sum reflexivity might not sound too exciting. Yet it’s the subtle, almost missed statements about norms, such as one type of family is the best type of family or malls are a sign of development, which when tallied up with all the foreign content we consume everyday, contribute to the denigration of local culture on our terms for the veneration of foreign cultural norms.