Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Eating Christmas in the Kalahari", Richard Borshay Lee.

Charlene Scavetta
February 22, 2009
ANT 1001 TV24A/ Gaunt
1st year (undecided major)

“Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” by Richard Borshay Lee, shows not only how tough it is for an ethnographer to get away from his own beliefs, but it also gives us an example of how personal interpretations can interfere between people.
At the very beginning, Lee said himself that he came “to the Kalahari to study the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the! Kung Bushmen” p12, for that reason, Lee should have known how they interact with each others and what Christmas meant to them. Lee thought that the ox that he bought couldn’t be better. He was just perfect for him: fatty with a lot of meat.
It was the ideal gift to thank them during Christmas time. However, he became very disappointed when the tribe told him “Do you expect us to eat that bag of bones?” p13 although “It looked enormous” p13 to him. At this particular point, Lee forgot to deep thinking about what he learned along his ethnography and kept asking himself what was wrong with the ! Kung Bushmen.
At no time he thought that the problem might be something within him “Are you out of your mind?” p 15. When he realized the joke “Yes, when a young man kills such meat he comes to think himself as a chief or a big man. And he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors […] so we always speak of his meat as worthless” p 17, Lee remained shocked: it was about humility. What Christmas meant to him, “With us Whites […] Christmas is supposed to be the day of friendship and brotherly love” p 16, did not have the same meaning for the villagers. The culture that Lee shared for years with the ! Kung Bushmen suddenly appeared unknown, unfamiliar to him.
He became subjective instead of staying objective because what was happening was directly linked to him. Even though, Lee had been living with the Bushmen for 3 years and knew the situation concerning social conflicts, he was not yet aware of their hunting traditions as well as their manner of enforcing humility among them.
This experience reinforces the idea that even for an ethnographer is hard to get away from his own culture and values and it is easy to misunderstood acts and words from someone else if you don’t ask for the true explanation. ““But why didn’t tell me this before? I asked Tomazo […]” “Because you never asked me, said Tomazo”” p 17.
After reading this text, it reminded me the experience that professor Gaunt shared in class about how she misinterpreted what a man told her about Obama’s eloquence. It also enabled me to see that misunderstanding something or someone is easy. When I don’t put away my personal beliefs I tend to take things very personal. It doesn’t require being an ethnographer to understand another culture but certainly to speak up. I can’t be familiar with another person who has a different culture if I don’t ask her the good questions. I wonder if it could be another aspect of cultural relativism.

Lee, Richard Borshay. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.” In Conformity and Conflict: Readings to Accompany Miller, Cultural Anthropology, 4 ed., ed. Spradley and McCurdy. Pearson, 2008, Chapter 2.


  1. Charlene I wonder if there is no way around taking things personally but noticing you are make a world of difference. It also might be key to noticing another social construct, another way of thinking about the world, another world.

    You wrote: "He became subjective instead of staying objective because what was happening was directly linked to him." Perhaps there is very little objetive about doing work while you're in the field. That's like saying you're outside the universe (or God). Only some superhuman entity can be that objective.

    Great job!

  2. Or, like, trying to be a good scientist or something...

    ...striving for objectivity isn't just a hopeful attempt - its good science and can keep you from permitting your preconceptions and ego from getting in the way.

    Even if its not possible to be completely objective, this does not absolve the researcher from striving for that ideal.

  3. Would the differences make for a study unto itself ?

  4. "I can’t be familiar with another person who has a different culture if I don’t ask her the good questions."

    - Love it. Awesome work!