Thursday, June 3, 2010

Contradiction and social life

Social science researchers speak of the need to triangulate – compare multiple sources of data about the same topic – in order to parse the meaning of contradictory information. But what should one do when a single individual contradicts herself – espousing diametrically opposed opinions with equal force – in the course of a conversation?

I've struggled with this question during my research in CAR, particularly in relation to Central Africans' views and management of international aid. What to make of a conversation in which a government environment ministry employee, with the patience of a practiced teacher, explains (in French) the workings and importance of wildlife conservation (including a moratorium on all hunting), and then, just a few minutes later, yells (in Sangho) in favor of his right to hunt, a right he is prepared to fight to maintain?

One diplomat to whom I posed this question responded, “It's simple. They're lying.” But that response offers little analytical meat.

Linguists would likely describe it in terms of code-switching, a literature in which I am woefully little-versed (suggestions for readings welcome). As I understand it, code-switching refers to the ways that multilingual people switch between the languages they know in order to better suit the demands of the social situation in which they find themselves. A person might code-switch within a single sentence, or else might speak employ different languages to suit different settings. Relatedly, Foucaultians might describe this as a situation of overlapping “epistemic communities.” The term epistemic community refers to the people who accept a set of truths/assumptions about the way things are, a shared understanding that forms the basis for their cohesiveness (and control).

These perspectives interest me, but, given that epistemic systems do not exist as discrete, bounded units within a person's head, I'm curious about how contradiction is itself a part of the human condition. A witchcraft-believer might accept biomedical explanations for disease causation at the same time as she pursues a witch for “poisoning”; a racist might count a person of color as a close friend. The exception may prove the rule, but that doesn't harmonize the contradictory beliefs. It seems to me that humans have a great capacity for holding contradictory statements as simultaneously true.

For a number of years now, anthropologists have tried to expose contradictions – the Plato talking to the cave-dwellers model. These analyses might take a form like, “Development workers think they're working for liberation, but really they're enacting a more-invasive form of neo-colonial discipline!” (Ditto human rights activists.) There are some useful works in this literature (I found Harri Englund's Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor useful, for instance), but it has limits. For one thing, you can only pull the wool off of people's eyes so many times before they do it themselves and then get on with the work of living, trying to chart the best course amid imperfect information and inevitable unintended consequences. It strikes me as more fruitful to attempt to make sense of the sincerity that may characterize apparent contradictions. (Bill Maurer is at the forefront of the shift away from what I term curtain-lifting anthropology. Though his writing might be too experimental for some, his analysis usually fascinates.)

To return to my aforementioned Ministry of Environment friend, I'm starting to analyze the statements of people like him as similar to the statements of, say, oil company executives engaged in environmental initiatives or Pepsi employees spearheading anti-obesity projects. They seem sincerely to understand and strive to combat the ills of their industries, and yet they still drill ill-advised wells in the Gulf of Mexico and advertise their soft drinks to kids using cartoon characters. In other words, their actions are at cross-purposes. I'm not sure where this line of thought might lead, but at least it gets me beyond simply seeing Central Africans as gifted liars, which strikes me as an intellectual cul-de-sac demanding a bit of bushwhacking.


  1. Nice to meet you~!!!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

  2. Hi, I found this post through a link on Laura Freschi's ( I think it might be interesting to think about this in terms of dialogism - there is a sense of interlocution here, where he is giving voice to different, and sometimes contradictory identites incorporated within his self. The switch in language might be about a dialectical conversation rather than one utterance negating the other. Both utterances exist within his identity and can be drawn on and voiced in different circumstances, or come to some agreement. This view would be closer to sub-saharan African theories of identity. Rather than a system of thought based on Descartes' cogito - a world of discrete, separate, rational individuals interacting with other such individuals - there is a recognition of identity as multi-voiced, shared, contested and negotiated.
    You might find Franz Fanon useful on the choice of French, as the language of the coloniser - to relate to your code-switching idea.. Mikhael Bakhtin wrote about dialogism in Dostoevsky's novels, which has been picked up in psychology and post-colonial studies.. Anyway, I liked your take on it. Fi

  3. Thank you -- your comments are really interesting (and remind me of the reading that awaits me when I return somewhere with regular library access...)I think you're entirely correct that the interaction is more of a dialectical one than anything else; I look forward to reading the Bakhtin on dialogism.

    Because of the continued prominence of Descartian notions of identity, which I don't think were ever as true in the West as we might have wished to believe, I tend to speak less in terms of "identity" (which can so easily be essentialized) and more in terms of how people strategically mobilize qualifications. AbdouMaliq Simone writes beautifully about some of this stuff, maybe especially in his smallest book (Invisible Governance: The Art of African Micropolitics).