Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, Chapter 1: Moving Fieldwork: Traveling with Americans to and from Africa

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 1: Moving fieldwork: Traveling with Americans to and from Africa.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 11-41.

Mathers opens this chapter with two straightforward statements: “this book is not an ethnography” and “my focus is on how an imagined and encountered ‘Africa’ is mobilized to support certain ideas about America and being American” (11). In anthropology, ethnographies have served to accomplish a multitude of tasks: some texts focus on engaging with abstract theoretical concepts or culture-specific practices, while others on Geertzian ‘thick descriptions’ in order to detail the affairs of people in foreign places. It is often the case that these tasks work together to explain one another. These ‘classic’ approaches to writing ethnographies have served to provide ample wiggle-room that allow various styles and approaches to writing and explaining culture. For this reason, I am puzzled as to why Mathers insists that her text is not, on a whole, an ethnography simply because she does not “claim to study an American ethnos” (11). She does not explain if this means, in her view, that in order to write an ethnography, one must be actively engaged in the societies one chooses to write on, or if reflexive positioning of herself and her subjects (as far as this chapter goes) simply doesn’t make the cut. The closest I can come to understanding her statement is similar to a person who paints a picture only to inform subsequent onlookers that the painting is not ‘art’. Is this a case of humbling oneself, or did we (as a classroom of discussants) all fail to understand what was missing?

Leaving this quizzical bit aside, and suffice to say, I consider this an ethnographic text and do read it as one – albeit, Mathers claims to be strictly focused on a particular set of theoretical concerns rather than deep ethnographic accounts to provide us with enriched anthropological holism. She continues along these lines of positioning in defining the parameters of her study as concentrated on “a specific historical and political moment in the United States…[while] focusing on broad categories…[to] show how ideas about Americanness are being expressed in multiple ways by the Americans I observed and through American popular as well as political cultures” (12). What is problematic comes next in her claim that her fieldwork examines experiences “outside of every day life” (12).

For Mathers then, accompanying travelers on their journeys outside of every day life somehow entails a non-stop glamorous and surreal experience that is beyond the scope of the mundane aspects of living. This of course, is somewhat of an overstatement, but Mathers appears to deny the existence of the repetitive and banal processes of sitting, waiting, boarding buses/airplanes/trains, aimless walking, asking for directions, eating packed sandwiches, etcetera, that are included in the experience of travel. Rather, Mathers emphasizes the paradigm of contemporary tourism and tourists in an increasingly mobile world. Weeding through the details of other scholarly works, Mathers’ intentions with tourists as the subject are to show how at first glance, privileged mobile persons may not appear as ethnographically rich as other more ‘exotic’ categories of oppressed mobile subjects, such as refugees, exiles, and forced migrants. However, their process of negotiating identities as they move through space and time should not be overlooked. In this space of inquiry, Mathers challenges the metaphorical and symbolic attributes revolving around the term ‘tourist’ and juxtaposes its meaning to the term ‘anthropologist’. At this intersection, Mathers highlights the reflexivity of tourists compared to anthropologists as a means to identify the intentions and motivations behind travel itself. For Mathers’ case involving her tourist informants, their aim is to generally experience alterity as a form of travel experience, and they are aware of the ‘reverse gaze’ in light of her (as an anthropologist) questioning; whereas anthropologists (in her context) are motivated by the dynamics of liminality, and about stretching the parameters of understanding fixed concepts of social actors in various places. I will attend more fully to these ‘polar’ roles below.

Mathers thus restates her book as “about the strands that connect people to particular places and to particular identities and the way those strands are made visible by stretching them across nations and continents…I make my site of study the ways the strands that link home and away are forged, mobilized, negotiated, accepted, or rejected” (13). Mathers notes that travel does not necessarily situate the traveler away from home but, rather, that boundaries are continuously erected that demarcate positions of self in contrast to forces of alterity. Mathers explains that for her subjects, these boundaries act as active points of reference to define their American values and identity as they negotiate their positions in various situations.

Returning now to the notions of ‘tourist’ and ‘anthropologist’, Mathers attempts to unpack the tourist’s mobile qualities as transitory and temporal states of being, and of enacting ‘reversed gazes’, while using herself as an example. In this way, American tourists in Africa carried ‘home’ with them in the contexts of nation, race, class, and gender. Mathers claims that for the American tourists, these markers of identification work with popular culture and mass images of representation in order to construct meaning and evaluate foreign exchanges between local residents. Mathers also contrasts this method of interpretation with her experiences, as a South African, on American soil. She explains how a black American student engaged with work regarding South Africa only acknowledged her for her knowledge of the site, but not as a South African with local knowledge with authentic cultural value. What would be interesting here is if Mathers had played with the notion of anthropologists gazing upon other anthropologists in the field. Seeing as most anthropological work is a solitary task (but not exclusively), I do recognize this difficulty. Still, the meticulous unpacking of each position, both tourist and anthropologist, gives us a sense of hostility between the two. As certain agendas may appear the same between both tourist and anthropologist, Mathers makes it clear that it is their mutually exclusive intentions of traveling and gazing at others in the field that distinguishes the result of their after-the-fact claims. In the hypothetical construction of observing other anthropologists in the field as they work, the construction of ‘self’ as ‘anthropologist’ could serve as an effective ‘mirror’ or simulacrum to safeguarding practices of mis/representation.

Mathers then shifts to outlining her participants in different categories. These categories include vacationers, political tourists, international student journalists, and study-abroad students. What is particularly telling about these different categories of participants is not so much their differences. Rather, how as travelers-all, they enact particular identities at conjunctures of cultural diversity and moments and spaces of awkward engagement. For Mathers, it is important to meticulously track the “complex and mediated worlds that they [inhabit]” (40), which exemplify their representational practices. Furthermore, for Mathers, “these linked them to a wider conversation and to an important set of ideas about who they are or might become that is specific to this generation and to those Americans who get to travel to Africa but also extends to a wider set of ideas about what it means to be American” (40).

Our class discussion included various views on representation and voice regarding ‘Africa’. First, the perpetual use of the term ‘Africa’ to explain away one ‘group’ of people was called out as absurd. While we agreed that most people know that Africa is a continent and that it contains a make up of many countries, this manner of reference serves more than an ‘acceptable’ short cut in making colloquial sense, but also plays into the notion that alterity or otherness is homogeneous, and thus dominant issues of poverty, corruption, violence and so on are widespread and mutually understood and felt across the continent. That is, this view understands that Africa is constitutive of the litany of social, economic, and political problems that pollutes the continent. As a result, social scientists that travel abroad are naturally drawn to seeking out and studying the ‘natural phenomena’ of exotic, dirty, and unsavoury elements of human life. This inspired another comment that proposed social scientists as compelled to seek out ‘negative’ aspects of foreign human cultures, rather than ‘positive’ or ‘beautiful’ elements. In doing so, and in response to the overwhelming literature and colonial history of the social sciences, we agreed that it would be somewhat difficult to escape the conundrum of playing the ‘apologist’, which would inevitably highlight the ‘negative’ aspects of Africa.


2 thoughts on “Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, Chapter 1: Moving Fieldwork: Traveling with Americans to and from Africa

  1. This part–Mathers thus restates her book as “about the strands that connect people to particular places and to particular identities and the way those strands are made visible by stretching them across nations and continents…I make my site of study the ways the strands that link home and away are forged, mobilized, negotiated, accepted, or rejected” (13)–is really interesting: a deceptively succinct statement that she makes, but when we break it down it looks like Mathers has built up a mountain of objectives and I am not sure she ever scales that mountain.

    Let’s list all of those ethnographic tasks:

    (1) strands that connect people to particular places
    (2) strands that connect people to particular identities
    (3) the strands made visible
    (4) now stretched across nations and continents
    (5) the strands link home and away, thus 1+2+4 above
    (6) forged
    (7) mobilized
    (8) negotiated (which includes accepted and rejected)

    Either Mathers is a really verbose, or I am misreading her work. The mutliple, yet varying restatements of what her book is about is also quite confusing to me. She seems to be defending something…but I am not sure what that is yet.

    • Nice. And like you mentioned in class, the book is written in a way that’s more attentive to her Ph.D supervisor rather than to general readers. It feels like she attends to certain concepts or problems that must be addressed but then she simply leaves them unexplored. This passage felt totally pasted in between chopped up ideas of what entails being a ‘tourist’ and what this means to travel. What comes after is her explanation of anthropologist vs. tourist, not these ‘strands’ of which she mentions. Janet Carsten came to mind to me at that moment — regarding kinship theory, but more broadly, about her notion of ‘cultures of relatedness’ in which case people with loose ties form bonds with one another that can be translated to theories on mobility. In any case, maybe she’ll attend to the loose ‘strands’ later (pun intended).

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