Ethnography and the Meta-Narratives of Modernity

Curr Anthropol. 2000 Apr;41(2):225-248.


Current attempts to increase the relevance of sociocultural anthropology encourage anthropologists to engage in the study of modernity. In this discourse dominated by sociologists, the contribution of anthropology is often to reveal cultural diversity in globalization, leading to the notion of multiple modernities. Yet such ethnographic accounts draw upon familiar sociological abstractions such as time-space compression, commodification, individualization, disenchantment, and reenchantment. This article shows how an underlying meta-narrative preempts social scientific argument by making shifts in analytical scales look natural, as in the alleged need to "situate" the particular in "wider" contexts. This analytical procedure undermines what is unique in the ethnographic method-its reflexivity, which gives subjects authority in determining the contexts of their beliefs and practices. Two ethnographic case studies are presented to support this argument, one from Melanesia on current interests in white people, money, and consumption and the other from Africa on born-again Christianity and individuality. The article ends by reflecting not only on the limits of metropolitan meta-narratives in returning relevance to anthropology but also on the contemporary conditions of academic work that undermine the knowledge practices of ethnography and render such meta-narratives plausible.