An article in the field of anthropological epistomology exploring phenomenological anthropology through an analysis of an ethnography.

Phenomenological Anthropology Explored Through Analysis of an Ethnography

Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, an 'ethnography of a nation' written by Abu-Lughod and published in 2005, explores the disparity between the pedagogic role of Egyptian television dramas as perceived by state officials and the educated individuals involved in the production of this media, with how these televisual dramas are actually interpreted by individuals as a result of their unique social and cultural contexts (Abu-Lughod 2005: 242). This is achieved both through her theoretical framework consisting of a synthesis of a diverse array of scholarship, and due to a multi-sited ethnographic methodology, a key site being a semi-urban village near Luxor in Upper Egypt, resulting in what Abu-Lughod repeatedly terms a 'thick description of television' (Abu-Lughod 2005: 43). It can be seen that her epistemological foundation consists of a phenomenological mode of analysis, refuting a homogenous model of 'culture', and firmly grounded in exploring televisions role as an aspect of the life-world of 'performative subjects' in socially, politically and econonomically marginalised contexts of the Egyptian nation state such as the village near Luxor (Abu-Lughod 12-13). Comparing the epistemological presuppositions of Abu-Lughod's monograph to those of 'pure' phenomenological anthropology as exemplified by Jackson in Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology, highlights the complexity of her theoretical approach: at its core consisting of a pragmatic conception of truth, which is then contextualised through a form of coherence, as Abu-Lughod draws on etic concepts such as Appadurai's 'culturalism' to elucidate the complexity inherent in the circulation and reception of messages in Egyptian television (Abu-Lughod 2005: 45; Jackson 1996).

Phenomenological anthropology, through a denial of coherence modes of truth, involves a refutation of anthropological, etic constructs, in favour of a focus on idiographic, pragmatic truth constructed through the participant-observation of the anthropologist as subject, engaging with other 'performative subjects' in the context of their life-world (Jackson 1996). Essentially, the coherence theory of truth, in which conceptions of truth take on significance in relation to other conceptions of truth in a particular context, is refuted; from Jackson's perspective etic concepts are not epistemologically justified in an ethnography, unless the concepts are a conscious aspect of the life-world of the people being studied (Young 2001; Jackson 1996). Epistemologically, from this perspective anthropology should not impose its conceptual schemas onto the lived experience of those being studied, as Jackson states: 'concepts easily become mistaken for the real [lived experience of operative subjects]' (Jackson 1996: 5). The foundation of Abu-Lughod's epistemology consists of this phenomenological, idiographic method of determining anthropological reality; during her fieldwork in the village near Luxor she focuses on how unique individuals interpret and use the messages which they perceive on Egyptian television, which is often in opposition to the intentions of the creators of the media (Abu-Lughod 2005). For example Abu-Lughod discusses how Zaynib, a woman in the village near Luxor, interprets a scene of the marriage of a sixty year old woman in Mothers in the House of Love, as an example of how some women may act in particular contexts, rather then as a statement concerning the 'revolutionary and enlightened feminist option', as feminism and its intellectual ideals are not an aspect of the life-world of Zaynib (Abu-Lughod 2005: 43). She argues that people adopt their own interpretations of the messages on television, due to the fact that 'all the people of a nation are performative subjects' (Abu-Lughod 2005: 13). Furthermore, she repeatedly uses the phrase life-world when elucidating the social reality of individuals and their relationship to television (Abu-Lughod 2005). In this way, on this level Lughod denies coherence models of truth, where the truth of a statement is measured through its relation to other statements of truth, in favour of the idiographic and emic approach of phenomenology during her fieldwork in the village near Luxor, through a pragmatic theory of truth being invoked by focussing on performative subjects actions and interpretations of television in the context of their lifeworlds.

Jackson argues that 'when we make cross-cultural comparisons between various “systems of thought”, we would do well to construe these not as worldviews (Weltenschaunngen) but as life-worlds' (Jackson 1996: 6). Indeed, from the outset, Abu-Lughod rejects the idea of homogenous worldviews, or cultures, framing her ethnography as a 'dialogue' between two paradigms of 'operative subjects', or Lebenswelten; between the disparate life-worlds of the producers of television, and the lived experience of Egyptian's in marginalised contexts, with a focus on the role of television in the social context of the marginalised in the Egyptian nation-state (Lughod 2005: 12-13, 45). In this way, and on this level, Abu-Lughod maintains the idiographic epistemological focus of phenomenology, through an emphasis on exploring the dynamic between unique life-worlds, instead of conceptualising this process as a relationship between the etic concepts of cultures or worldviews. An examination of Writing Against Culture, an article first published in 1991 by Abu-Lughod, elaborates on this key aspect of her epistemology, and that of wider phenomenology, which is also discussed throughout her monograph (Abu-Lughod 1991; Abu-Lughod 2005; Jackson 1996). In this article she explicitly argues against the coherence model of truth in relation to the anthropological concept of culture, stating that '“culture” shadowed by coherence, timelessness and discreteness, is the prime anthropological tool for making “other”, and difference… [situating the anthropologist in] a relationship of power' (Abu-Lughod 1991: 147). Here, in accordance with Jackson, she is argues that due to cultures reliance on coherence as a mode of truth, the term is inadequate as a conceptual tool for the anthropologist, for it does not capture the complexity and disparity among the lived experiences of those in the 'culture' being studied, and it harbours implicit assumptions of those being studied as inferior, exotic 'others' (Abu-Lughod 1991; Abu-Lughod 2005; Jackson 1996).

At the fundamental level, it appears that Abu-Lughod's approach does consist of adhering to the epistemological presuppositions of Jackson's phenomenology, in which 'attempting to cover or contain the flux of experience with finite, all-encompassing, and bounded terms is seen to be absurd' (Jackson 1996: 3). However, while Abu-Lughod explicitly argues against coherence modes of truth both in Writing Against Culture and the monograph, the surface of her epistemology in the monograph does consist of utilising both etic anthropological concepts and invoking a form of the coherence model of truth. In the monograph she states that 'thick descripitions of television can be made to speak to broad issues and concepts' (Abu-Lughod 2005: 51). Indeed, she does contextualise her observations of individuals' life worlds by referring to over arching concepts such as Appadurai's '“culturalism”, in which identities are mobilized in the context of nation-states, mass mediation, migration, and globalization' (Abu-Lughod 2005: 45). Through utilising a variety of etic concepts that cohere to form a significant portion of her epistemology, Abu-Lughod does invoke a form of the coherence theory of truth on this level. In this way Abu-Lughod addresses one of the key epistemological shortcomings of phenomenology, that through its unswerving commitment to idiographic, emic constructions of ethnographic reality, it can lose sight of the wider context, such as that of the nation-state, and the epistemological usefulness of broader anthropological concepts such as globalisation in describing social processes implicated in the life-worlds of operative subjects.

The epistemology of Abu-Lughod's 'ethnography of a nation', involving her 'thick description of people who watch television', consists of a synthesis of pragmatic and coherence approaches to constructing anthropological truth (Abu-Lughod 2005: 242, 33). Ultimately, Abi-Lughod subsumes the epistemology of phenomenology into her wider eclectic epistemological framework, utilising the concepts of life-worlds and operative subjects as a method to explore how inhabitants of the village near Luxor interpret the messages of television as a result of the perspectives of their unique life-worlds (Abu-Lughod 2005). Simultaneous to this, and in opposition to Jackson's phenomenology, a layer of etic anthropological concepts are utilised in a form of coherence, placing the life-worlds of the operative subjects into a wider context, and acknowledging the influence of factors that may not be apparent to the subjects under consideration in their life-world.


Abu-Lughod, L 2005, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Abu-Lughod, L 1991, 'Writing Against Culture', in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in The Present, ed. E G Fox, University of Washington Press, Washington pp. 137-162

Jackson, M 1996, 'Introduction: Phenomenology, Radical Empiricism, and Anthropological Critique', in Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology, ed. M Jackson, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, pp. 2-50

Young, J O, 'The Coherence Theory of Truth', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Summer 2001 Edition), ed. E N Zalta, Available from: <>. [22 March 2008]

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