“Writing Against The Native Point of View” by Donna J. Young

Young, Donna J. (2005). “Writing Against The Native Point of View.” Anne Menely and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (203-215). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto.           

Donna J. Young’s chapter “Writing Against The Native Point of View” parallels two of her experiences with narrative truth in order to highlight the difficulties of ethnographic fieldwork that Young found most troubling. She began her chapter with an anecdotal introduction of Abigail, one of her informants from a small settlement in the northeastern corner of New Brunswick, where Young conducted field research.

Young began by recounting one of the two paralleling scenarios in which she opened her house to Abigail and Abigail’s parents. To her readers, Young admitted her puzzlement over her required presence for Abigail’s arranged announcement of her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Young narrated Abigail’s accusatory explanation of her mother’s neglectful parenting to be the root cause of her diagnosis. Subsequently, the couple exhibited an apprehension to believe their daughter’s illness. Over the following few months, Abigail and her mother, Scarlet, continued to feud over Abigail’s firm decision to keep her mother from speaking with her doctor. Young, positioned as a third party, gained access to both the women’s concerns. Scarlet, cautioned by her knowledge of Abigail’s hypochondriac tendencies, found Abigail’s story suspicious. On the contrary, Abigail admittedly feared that her mother would “convince the doctor the diagnosis was wrong” (2005:205), if she was given the opportunity.

Young admitted that she never knew, and would likely never know if Abigail was correctly diagnosed with MS. However, Young wished to drive her work away from a literal truth and absolute certainties. Instead she chose to concern herself with “the interpretation of culturally mediated narratives of self-understanding” (2005:205). Young came to celebrate Abigail’s ability to recast her story. She noted the hours the two spent on the phone “discussing symptoms and rewriting her history in light of her new medical condition” (2005:210). For Abigail, MS became the sound medical explanation for all of her ‘shortcomings’ and general inability to cope with life. Therefore MS removed the need to explore her troubled past for answers about her present inadequacies. MS became held accountable for everything.

Young expressed her gratitude that the post-structuralism focused anthropology’s attention on contradictory accounts. Therefore Young wasn’t expected nor encouraged to discover an “all encompassing point of view” (2005:206). Rather she was encouraged to be reflexive about her representation of the lives of her informants. Many of the forefathers have been criticized for casting their informants as radical others who have remained stagnant in time. Through Young’s determination to avoid repeating these mistakes, she reasoned “if one took the radical otherness, or the exotic, out of anthropology, it would cease to make objects of its subjects” (2005:207).  Young admits her naivety to think that “studying one’s own would ease the ethical and representational dilemmas of ethnographic fieldwork and writing” (2005:207). In fact she found that conducting fieldwork in her hometown, among familiar faces, had its own set of problems and dilemmas.

Initially, Young felt as though her New Brunswick informants had more readily accepted her due to her familiarity. Many informants were able to “successfully locate her geographically and according to kin” (2005:209). Young explained that her profound connection to the place and people she studied made her less likely to be marked as an outsider. However, her connection also closely bounded her to acceptable codes of behaviours. She noted that her informants were more forgiving and tolerating of her ‘African-born’ husband’s inquiries. Nevertheless, Young noted that her husband’s accepted inquiries only skimmed the surface. Neither her husband, nor her informants, revealed any of the complexities of their personal lives. “They seemed satisfied with their stereotypical understanding of each other” (2005: 209). Young suggests that it was through her connection and familiarity that she was able to gain access to the complexities of her informant’s lives.

By using her ‘native identity’ to approach her informants, Young likely eluded, or at least minimized, the ‘outsider’ label bestowed on other anthropologists, researchers, and academics alike. Thus she was able to connect with her informants on a friendship, or possibly even a kinship level. This was certainly visible when Young revealed that Abigail had lived with her for the duration of an entire summer. As well as by her presence at Abigail’s intimate MS reveal. Young criticized anthropology for being an “impolite discipline” (2005:208), because “anthropology disrespects the personal limits of others in the name of science” (2005:209). Young admits that these ‘personal limits’ are even further breached once an informant and researcher begin to relate more as friends and neighbours. In order to compensate for the discomfort she felt by probing ‘too deeply,’ she allowed “those who were the focus of her curiosity to reciprocate” (2005:209). However, by revealing too much of her personal self, Young has likely highlighted her identity as a friend, and dimmed her identity as a researcher. This confusion of roles was most apparent once Abigail began dating a student from Young’s department. After a lengthy relationship where ‘probing and gossiping’ were welcomed by young, it likely disorientated Abigail that the subject of her students’ personal lives was off limits. In this instance, Young abruptly switched from ‘dependable pal’ to a ‘professional researcher.’ Had her identity of a professional researcher been better maintained, perhaps Young wouldn’t have been faced with Abigail’s resentment.

To conclude her chapter, Young identified herself and Abigail as “storytellers.” Through this chosen identification, Young admits that just as there exists informant narrative truth, there is also ethnographic narrative truth. An anthropologist incorporates certain aspects in their ethnographic accounts, and excludes others. This selective recording indicates that ethnographies are a personal interpretation of a researcher’s experience. Perhaps the feud and eventual ‘falling out’ between Young and Abigail is due to the fact that both resented the characters they were cast as in the other’s story. Perhaps Abigail’s eventual accusation of “unethical practice,” was attributed to her feelings of deceit and exposure due to her perceived misrepresentation in Young’s work. Young admitted to feelings of betrayal after Abigail’s sudden reluctance to see Young’s point of view, which she had readily done earlier on. However, it is important to note that as an anthropologist, Young is a different kind of storyteller than Abigail. Young is a storyteller with a responsibility to the characters in her ethnographic stories. She has relinquished the liberty to simply go on feuding much like the way Scarlet and Abigail did. Similarly, Scarlet resented the neglectful unfit parent Abigail’s story portrayed her as. However, Abigail has no professional or ethical responsibility (apart from a close kinship) to adhere to Scarlet’s discontent. As an anthropologist, Young is a storyteller who is first and foremost indebted to her character’s consent. Even despite any other less formal, or more personal, relations she may of had or created among her informants.

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