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Sculpture Covered with Plastic



anthropologists manipulate their representations of others to construct their own ethnographic authority 

Should anthropology study voice? 

I will argue that anthropology should study voice because it is inherent to the discipline. However, anthropology must be careful in how it does so because pre-conceptions and subjectivity influence how voice is given to people. Through ethnography, anthropology will always give a certain type of voice to cultures, societies and phenomenon’s of humans. In this regard anthropology should study voice because it is fundamental to anthropological practice, requiring an understanding and recognition of the way it plays out in cultural understanding and presentation.


There are different ways that voice can and has been studied, which will be explored to reveal the consequences of voice in anthropological study. An indirect versus a direct focus on voice changes the nature of ethnography and consequentially, the translation of that ethnography. While studying other social phenomenon, the role of voice comes into ethnographic analysis, involving an indirect study of voice. By looking at this way of studying, I will suggest how voice can be given to people indirectly, and how themes of linguistics and language become crucial to anthropological endeavour. Another way voice has been studied regards directly giving voice to ‘suffering’ subjects who cannot speak for themselves. By discussing how anthropology has both indirectly and directly given voice to people, it be will be argued how the ‘suffering subject’ comes to the forefront and what issues this raises. 


The essay will end with a discussion on how voice should be studied following the ethnographic examples of voice giving. If anthropology wants to study voice effectively, it needs to recognise the colonial history of where giving voice comes from. By recognising this, anthropology can become aware of how power relations often play out in ethnographic practice as well as the importance of being reflexive on subjectivity. Anthropology needs to be aware that ethnographic translation is not transparent. Voice can be such a powerful aspect to study, but only if it is reflexive and aware of pre-conceived narratives that influence what voices are given to people. 


I will first discuss how anthropology has indirectly studied and given voice to people whilst studying other social phenomena. Boylston’s work on Zege people in an Ethiopian market village focuses on evil spirits, memory and responsibility. Zege believe they can become sick from Buda, which is a hereditary phenomenon that ‘eats’ people. Once you are eaten, you become socially ostracised as "there is a broad recognition of a pervasive class dimension to buda ideology, in which the powerful use buda accusations to restrain and stigmatise other groups" (Boylston 2015, 393). Boylston acknowledges that he does not necessarily believe in buda and therefore cannot become sick from it. This leads him to question how ethnographers associate with another societies’ ‘truth’, asking “what it actually means 'take seriously' the realities of others?" (2015, 400). He concludes that major importance lies in finding out how these truths became real for people rather than why. This is in an effort to try and figure out how to properly give voices to marginal people, especially descendants of those who have been enslaved. Figuring out narrative voice exposes moments of doubt in Boylston’s work, as he believes that the logic of buda is inconsistent. He explains that "it is unclear whether buda is caused by actions (for example greedy traders) or essences (for example, slave descent)" (Boylston 2015, 388) demonstrating how ethnographic language can change the shape of voice. If Boylston believes that buda logic is inconsistent and confusing, what voice has he given to Zege people? Though Boylston is studying evil spirits, memory and responsibility, voice fundamentally plays a part because as an ethnographer, he controls what voice is being presented. Boylston also recognises how certain local voices can be more dominant than others, therefore more audible to the ethnographer, and more present in the voice that is given to the people as a whole. Though he is reflexive on how voice can be given to marginal people through investigating themes of evil spirits and the politics of slave history, ethnographic voice still comes through as one involving a complicated political history of spirits. This demonstrates that in analysing social phenomena of specific societies, voice will inevitably be deployed, even if unintentionally because that is the nature of ethnographic work.


Another way anthropologists have studied and given voice to people is through directly voicing ‘suffering’ and marginal subjects. This is to promote cultural understanding, but comes with challenges. Biehl studies the conflict of medical science with the lives of the urban poor in Brazil. He reveals how “psychiatric diagnostics and treatments are integrated into a domestic 'dramaturgy of the real' and how family members use them to assess human value and how to mediate the disposal of persons considered unproductive or unsound" (2004, 475). He focuses these ideas on the ‘Vita’ infirmary, which is where families send familial members who are ‘unsound’ for society. This ‘unsound’ idea stems from social psychosis as a diagnosis, leading to social abandonment when people are forced into Vita. Biehl focuses his ethnography on Catarina, a Vita patient, and uses "the language, desire, and hope for life that remain in Vita" (2004, 478) as inspiration to give a voice back to her. Catarina creates a dictionary, which is a collection of words that have meaning to her. Biehl uses her dictionary to give a voice back to Catarina’s experience and explain the networks of abandonment that follow mental illness in Brazil. The dictionary also helps “understand how economic globalisation, state and medical reform and acceleration of claims over human rights and citizenship coincide with and impinge on a local production of social death” (Biehl 2004, 475). ‘Social death’ and the becoming of an ‘ex-human’ in society, is what rids someone like Catarina from having their own voice. Biehl steps in and creates a voice for her as she is ‘suffering’ and cannot do this on her own. 


Biehl discusses how “the only way to the Other is through language, but language is not just a medium of communication or misunderstanding but also an experience that, in Veena Das and Arthur Kleinman's words, allows 'not only a message but also the subject to be projected outwards'" (Das and Kleinman 2001, 22 cited in Biehl 2004, 480-481). Just as Biehl focuses on the individual voice, Das similarly focuses on “the production of individual truths and the power of voice” (2000 cited in Biehl 2004, 481). Das centers her ethnographic work on Asha, who was widowed when she was only twenty, and who re-marries several years later. The social stigma that surrounds Asha re-marrying, as well as the turbulence of partition, “pried open the relation between social norms and new forms of subjectivity" (Das 2000, 64). This regards how in breaking taboos on widow re-marriage, Asha transgressed a social norm, but still follows inherent norms of patriarchalism where women should have husbands. Partition and re-marriage as a degree of trauma also reveals how Asha is not only “within the frame of events, but that she is marked by these events" (Das 2000, 74). Das uses Asha’s ‘suffering’ to give her a voice by revealing how much hers is shaped by cultural and patriarchal norms of women and widowers in a ‘masculine society’ who are trying to re-frame their lives around taboo and the urge of subjectivity (2000). 


The ethnographies above provide a glimpse of how voice has been used and studied in anthropology. However, if voice is going to be further studied, it is vital that anthropology recognises how subjectivity and pre-conceptions play a role in the giving of voice. Scheper-Hughes argues for a move towards critically over clinically applied medical anthropology as this allows anthropologists to give a “voice to the submerged, fragmented and largely muted subcultures of the sick" (1990, 190). This not only applies to medical anthropology, but to the discipline as a whole because ‘subcultures of the sick’ can extend to ‘suffering subjects’ too. Scheper-Hughes questions the role of dominant biomedical and social models in society, enforcing how anthropologists “should be at the margins, questioning premises, and subjecting epistemologies that represent powerful, political interests to oppositional thinking" (1990, 196). While anthropology can be effective in questioning power relations, it also instills them. Through questioning power relations, Scheper-Hughes still describes a ‘submerged’ and ‘muted’ person, which ironically creates an us/them divide in a process of trying to remove power related distinctions. This paradox reflects how ethnographers have often given voice to the people they study. Though she believes anthropologists should ‘give a voice to the submerged’ or the ‘sufferer’, what kind of voice is she talking about? What voices are anthropologists really giving to the people they study? Mahmood adds to this by asking if having one’s voice heard is the same thing as agency (Mahmood 2001). In light of this question, I argue that it depends on how ethnographers give voices to people and whether power relations and subjectivity were acknowledged in the process.


The effective study of voice will be aware of the colonial history regarding anthropological study of the ‘other’, the ‘primitive’ and the ‘savage’. What becomes apparent in the work of Boylston, Biehl and Das, is that they are revealing accounts of those who are ‘suffering’, abandoned in society. The ‘suffering’ subject can be dangerous for further anthropological endeavour because it is born out of the ‘savage slot’. The ‘savage slot’ established societies outside of the Western sphere as ‘primitive’ people without voices or narratives of their own. "North Atlantic institutional forms became so pervasive that subjugated peoples everywhere found it impossible to formulate the terms of their liberation and to envision their futures outside of these forms” (Trouillot 2003, 12). Trouillot explains how anthropology is built on a foundation of colonialism and has inherited so much colonial history, making it a discipline that has been part of the ‘West’s Geography of Imagination’ (2003). This sphere of ‘Western’ imagination created an image of ‘the other’ or the ‘savage’, establishing narratives for them and replacing histories and accounts with the ‘Western’ voice. Wolf also discusses this theory describing how the ‘Western’ constructed ‘savage’ exists as ‘pre-capitalist’ societies “whose fatal destiny has been written by the dramatic narrative that culminates in the triumph of world capitalism" (Wolf 1982 cited in Asad 1987, 597). Wolf refers to ‘world capitalism’ in the same context as Trouillot talks about ‘North Atlantic institutional forms’, which have existed as the space for colonial voices to create narratives for ‘the savage’. This colonial history of anthropology has repercussions today because it comes from a place where many voices were not heard or allowed to speak for themselves. This influences how voices are given today because “despite a long history of self-conscious opposition to racism… the fundamental issues of domination keep being skirted” (Abu-Loghard 1990, 469), describing the power relations in the lack of ‘polyvocal’ anthropology even today. Polyvocal “ethnography, a decolonisation on the level of the text, would make clear that the voice of the narrator/anthropologist was only one among many, and would allow the voices of the subjects to be heard” (Abu-Lughod 1990, 11). However, Abu-Lughod recognises that polyvocal ethnography has not taken full form yet, which is why issues of voice remain in anthropology.


The savage slot transcended into the ‘suffering slot’, which is where most anthropological work has been situated in the 20th Century. This move to the suffering slot, as argued by Robbins, was pushed by the recognition of how the ‘other’ would often be misrepresented and denied “their own voice in anthropological writing" (Robbins 2013, 449). James Clifford builds on this, believing the transformation was important because of the way “anthropologists manipulate their representations of others to construct their own ethnographic authority" (1983 cited in Robbins 2013, 449). Robbins argues however that the problem with the ‘suffering slot’ is that it universalises human suffering and removes value from anthropology by taking away a sense of human difference. I argue however that suffering does not universalise humans, but reflects power relations and colonisation in anthropology. Robbins suggests a move towards the ‘anthropology of good’, an ethical turn to move away from a focus on suffering to focus on morality and ethics. However, the ‘suffering slot’ “will continue for the foreseeable future to address problems we need to face" (2013, 458). With the ‘suffering slot’ still so present in the discipline, us/them divides will pervade as the pivotal problem that ‘we need to face’. The remnants of the savage slot in suffering continue to raise issues in the study of voice.


This is evident in Zege suffering from an illness of evil spirits inspired by colonial slave histories, Brazilian mentally ill suffering from social abandonment and Palestinian women suffering from isolation. Ethnography is strongly situated in revealing accounts of the ‘sufferer’ to give voice to them or use ethnographic voice to tell their narrative. That is the nature of ethnography. Whether voice is used directly or not, it is always being given to an ethnographic subject. Furthermore, the accounts, especially in regard to individual stories as presented by Biehl and Das, question what kind of voice is being given to individual subjects that experience ‘suffering’. It also questions if such individual accounts can provide for the entirely of that society or cultural group. Though there never can be a full account of culture, how can anthropology use one voice for further study? 


In considering the colonial history of the savage slot and the transition into an anthropology of suffering, voice can only be effectively studied if it is reflexive on this and aware of how anthropology is not a neutral discipline. Ethnography will never provide a neutral translation of cultural reality because even though the empirical may be assumed as ‘given’, it never is (Das cited in Holbraad 2018, 8). Haraway’s, ‘situated knowledges’ extends this by highlighting how anthropology should study voice instead. Haraway argues that knowledge is situated on those creating it, just as voice is situated on those giving it. Situated knowledge regards “those in the service of hierarchical and positivist orderings of what can count as knowledge… [born] in scientific and technological, late-industrial, militarised, racist and male-dominated societies” (Haraway 1988, 580). Haraway uses this to argue that ‘truth’ in knowledge and voice comes from a ‘racist and male-dominated’ opinion. Haraway uses the ‘God Trick’ to build her argument, which references the unmarked opinion. If there ever was an objective, unmarked opinion it would be universal on paper, but in reality there cannot be a completely objective opinion because of the human life that we live. The ‘God’ opinion that people follow so instinctively is also built upon the ‘white male’, which can also never be universally and objectively the only truth, however so many voices have been constructed on these foundations. No ethnographer can ever sit on a remote anti-objective position because ethnography can never give an objective voice and should not try to. Similarly, Abu-Lughod calls for the need to recognise subjectivity. Abu-Lughod focuses on feminist anthropology and uses anthropologist, MacKinnon to emphasise that “Feminism does not see its view as subjective, partial, or undetermined but as a critique of the purported generality, disinterestedness, and universality of prior accounts... Feminism not only challenges masculine partiality but questions the universality imperative itself (cited in Abu-Lughod 1990, 14). Abu-Lughod and MacKinnon recognise that feminist ethnography cannot be completely objective, however it does not try to be. Feminist ethnography recognises its subjectivity, which is what makes it effective because it does not try to claim one universal truth that has to be ‘situated’, as Haraway would argue, in every situation.


Ethnography of voice just like feminist ethnography should not try to be completely objective and has to recognise its own subjectivity if it wants to be studied constructively. This has been highlighted in the work of Haraway, Abu-Lughod and Mahmood who all demonstrate subjectivity in their work to question how the voice at the top end of a power relation is heard most loudly. Voice should be studied with a regard for pre-conceptions it may bring in, subjectivity and the inheritance of colonialism in anthropology. Anthropology cannot assume what voice should be given to people. This argument is furthered in Mahmood’s text discussing how "the desire for freedom and liberation is a historically situated desire whose motivational force cannot be assumed a priori, but needs to be reconsidered in light of other desires, aspirations and capacities that inhere in a culturally and historically located subject" (Mahmood 2001, 223). Mahmood is referring this idea to female agency in Cairo, which can be applied to the assumptions anthropologists have sometimes made in the giving of voice. If anthropology can recognise its own subjectivity, voice can be effective and interesting to study as it can provide a new lens through which to look at culture, expression and communication as prominent forms in society. The danger lies in anthropological and ethnographic assumption about giving and translating voice, which may force a voice onto someone or translate ideas inaccurately. 


This essay argues that anthropology should study voice, but only if it can be careful in how it does so. Voice can be effectively studied if anthropology can recognise how pre-conceptions, subjectivity and the inheritance of colonial history play a part in how voice has and is still being given to the people that it studies. This point was emphasised by first drawing on how anthropology has used and studied voice through three ethnographic examples by Boylston, Biehl and Das. An acknowledgment of anthropology’s history studying the ‘savage’ and the idea of ‘othering’ was then highlighted. This was used to show the transition from this into the ‘suffering slot’, which anthropology still often deploys and how it builds on power relations and us/them divides. Voice was then applied to theorists, Mahmood, Haraway, and Abu-Lughod to show how it should be studied in anthropology - with an awareness of how voice is always given to people through ethnography and the fundamental importance of reflexivity in anthropological endeavour. 




Works Cited


Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1990. “Can There Be A Feminist Ethnography?”. Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory


Asad, Talal. (1987). Are there Histories of Peoples Without Europe? A Review Article. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 


Biehl, Joâo. 2004. “Life of the Mind: The interface of psychopharmaceuticals, domestic economies, and social abandonment.” American Ethnologist 31 (4), pp. 475-496. (21) 


Boylston, Tom 2015 From sickness to history: evil spirits, memory and responsibility in an Ethiopian market village” in Africa. 


Das, Veena 2000 The Act of Witnessing: Violence, Poisonous Knowledge, and Subjectivity. In Violence and Subjectivity. Eds Arthur Kleinman and Veena Das. Berkeley: California University Press. 


Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, Volume 14, Number 3, pp. 575-599.


Holbraad et al. 2018 What Is Analysis? Between Theory, Ethnography, and Method. Pp. 1-30 In Social Analysis Volume 62: Issue 1 


Mahmood, Saba 2001 Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology, 6, no.2 


Robbins, J. 2013 Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3)


Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1990. Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Medical Anthropology. Social Science and Medicine 30(2): 189-197.


Trouillot, Michel 2003 Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness. In Global Transformations. London. Palgrave MacMillan. 

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