Ethnography and Communication: Approaches to Aboriginal Media

Marian Bredin (McGill University)

Abstract: This article examines anthropological conceptions of culture and difference and assesses the relevance of ethnography to cross-cultural communication research. "Postmodern ethnography" and its limitations are considered and other possible theoretical models are suggested. The article concludes with a critical reading of three ethnographic studies of aboriginal media use in North America and Australia.

Résumé: Cet article examine la notion anthropologique de la culture et de la différence et il mesure l'effet des critiques de l'ethnographie récente sur les études de la communication autochtone. "L'ethnographie postmoderne" et ses limitations sont consideré et d'autres modèles sont suggéré. L'article conclut par un examen de trois études ethnographique de les médias indigène en Amérique du Nord et en Australie.


This paper assesses ethnographic conceptions of culture and cultural difference, and their implications for the study of contemporary aboriginal media in Canada and elsewhere. It is concerned specifically with the epistemological and political underpinnings of anthropological discourse on cultural difference and how these implicitly and explicitly inform other kinds of cross-cultural study. A number of fields, including ethnographic or cross-cultural media effects studies, collaborative film and video projects organized by anthropologists or sociologists, and general studies of aboriginal communication practice and policy, have been shaped by this discourse. For this reason, communication scholars might find it useful to examine the current debates in anthropology for their implications in media research.

The paper is generally concerned with anthropological constructions of culture and cultural practice. It does not attempt to take up the more specific project of "audience ethnography," which is a quite distinctive approach to audience research in media studies. It is important to note that two of the earliest and most influential researchers in this area--Janice Radway and David Morley--did their "fieldwork" with audiences from their own linguistic and cultural context. Other authors have adopted this model for use in cultures not their own, without critically examining either the ethnographic praxis upon which the model was based or the conceptions of culture with which ethnography was developed. This paper will not attempt to locate an "aboriginal audience," for either mainstream media or for aboriginal media, although this would make an exciting and timely study. Instead, it is limited to examining the theory and practice of ethnography (and by extension of ethnographies of communication) employed in aboriginal communities. The paper will present a critique of past academic practices in this area and will explore the current cultural politics of aboriginal media use and the academic study of it.

I will begin by reviewing the main elements of the critique developed within ethnography over the last 10 years and outlining the revised conceptions of culture that have resulted. I will then address some of the limitations of what has been called "postmodern ethnography" and suggest that the crisis of representation occurring in ethnography has been accompanied, indeed brought on, by a proliferation of marginal and oppositional voices. These voices--indigenous, feminist, post-colonial, gay, and lesbian--have challenged the dominant white, Western, male, modes of representation and explanation. Cross-cultural studies in communication need to take up this challenge and to develop the self-reflexive and relational methods that this discursive and political shift demands. The paper concludes with a reading of selected studies of indigenous peoples' exposure to and use of mass media. The studies examined are by anthropologists using anthropological models, not by communication scholars who see "ethnography" as one among several possible methodological choices. This work is critically evaluated for what it says about cultural difference, about modes of representation, and about the position of theory in ethnography and cross-cultural studies.

Ethnography: Models of Culture

Ethnography has constructed an object of knowledge ("culture") that has remained relatively constant across changes in theoretical positions and interpretive methods. This object, and the means by which it is constructed, is situated within networks of power and what Michel Foucault refers to as "regimes of truth." The ethnographic text is thus made possible only by certain historical, political, and epistemological contexts. The study of indigenous media, with its often uncritical appropriation of ethnographic discourse, must be located in reference to the historical specificity of this discourse and to the "practical politics" (Spivak, 1988a, p. 104) of colonization and domination. The historical experience of culture contact and conflict between colonizing Europeans and the aboriginal population of North America shape the ways in which First Nations communities today have appropriated and developed the forms of mass media. This history has also shaped the way cultural differences are experienced, imagined, and represented within and between these two groups. The current struggle for access to media and the discursive frames within which this struggle is analyzed have common roots in modes of domination--some of which I want to trace here.

Anthropology as Self-Knowledge

Anthropology has recently subjected its own texts and practices to an extensive epistemological critique. It has raised the fundamental question of how knowledge of "the Other" is produced. Among those developing this critique, the consensus seems to be that knowledge of the Other is inevitably filtered through the medium of the self. As a Western mode of representation, anthropology is both the "capturing" of an external cultural diversity and at the same time an internal cultural critique (Marcus & Fischer, 1986, p. 20).

Historically, the European discovery of different cultures and constructions of cultural difference pointed to the ambiguity of the West's own concept of humanity and required reflection upon the very notion of civilization. Ethnography falls into a discursive tradition of narratives of difference in which stories about other cultures are also stories of the writer/reader's own culture. As James Clifford suggests, the allegorical and redemptive subtexts of ethnography are in fact its very "conditions of meaningfulness" (1986, p. 99). Anthropology and related discourses have constructed the Other as a vehicle for their own needs. As Hayden White (1978), Robert Berkhofer (1978), and Marianna Torgovnick (1990) have suggested--in quite separate areas of inquiry--historiography, colonialism, and modernism have each required and created their own category of "the primitive." As romantic symbol for European intellectuals and artists of a simple, natural, and egalitarian existence; or as a practical object to be exploited, aboriginal cultures became a sign, emptied of their own meaning and internal coherence, and filled with the economic or intellectual content of the dominant culture.

Anthropology, Evolutionism, and Natural History

These constructions of the primitive are linked to the "salvage" mode of early cultural anthropology promoted by Franz Boas, with its emphasis on "natural" and uncontaminated (i.e., unexploited, undestroyed) Native cultures ( Jonaitis, 1991, p. 27). Influenced by the methods of the natural sciences, cultural anthropologists set out to observe Native cultures in their natural habitat, or to reconstruct cultures and languages where necessary. The discursive links between natural history and anthropology meant that Native cultures were conceived of as part of the natural environment of the Americas; as passive, static, fixed at a point in pre-contact history. Evolutionary anthropology thus allowed anthropologists and colonial administrators to regard subject peoples as remnants of the past, and so avoid having to deal with them as historical and political equals. The residue of evolutionary models of culture still adheres to social and political thought. While evolutionism was explicitly rejected in anthropology after the turn of the century, it crept into political science, sociology, economics, and administration in such categories as "developed" and "underdeveloped," "traditional" and "modern." Certainly these categories are still in active use in communication studies and need some thorough re-examination.


Methodological relativism in anthropology entailed the rejection of the evolutionist schemes of earlier models of culture. Rather than looking for general relationships between culture, nature, mind or society, relativism confines itself to the empirical cataloguing of differences. The weakness of relativist approaches lies in their emphasis on description, without recognizing that description necessarily involves comparison, and failing to theorize the social and historical grounds upon which observation, description, and comparison can be carried out. Insisting that cultural differences are incommensurable, cultural relativists cannot allow for the ways in which cultures are mutually comprehensible or interpretable. The demand that cultures be explained in their own terms needs to be accompanied by a recognition of how explanations of other cultures are produced and how the observer's gaze is located in a context of privilege and power.


In the early period of its development, cultural anthropology was shaped by the discourse and method of natural science. Transferred to the human sciences, the scientific principle of objectivity implied a theoretical and emotional distance from the subject of study. In anthropology this was most evident in the various schools of functionalism and the largely ahistoric and organic models of culture these produced. The scientific study of culture, society, and personality led to the differentiation between the "experience-near" concept of the engaged actor and the "experience-far" concept of the analyst, observer, or ethnographer (Geertz, 1983, p. 57). This distanced and "objective" position is still the desired norm in much social scientific and anthropological research despite the intersubjective origin of knowledge in these fields and, in many instances, the irreproducibility of research findings.

The belief in a neutral analytic location is itself a powerful residue of Enlightenment thought (Boon, 1982, p. 33). The discourse of scientific objectivity requires the suppression of the subject, the elimination of the "I" and "you" of dialogue in the creation of what Tedlock refers to as "analogical discourse" (1983, pp. 151, 328). Relying on abstract principles and universal laws, the author/subject of discourse disappears from an intersubjective dialogue behind analogical abstractions. The current critical moment in ethnography has challenged the "objective" authority of science as an entrenched institutional position, one amongst other more local and engaged positions which have recently been taken up in resistance to the dominant "regime of truth" (Rosaldo, 1989, p. 21; Jonaitis, 1991, p. 58). At the same time, the need to locate a single or dominant determining force has been replaced with the need to understand how cultures are multiply determined.

Interpretive Anthropology

Developing from the work of Clifford Geertz, interpretive anthropology explicitly rejected the mechanistic models and formal laws of cause and effect of the natural sciences for an emphasis on locally produced cultural "texts" interpreted in terms of local frames of awareness (Geertz, 1983, pp. 5, 10, 22). The interpretation of cultural texts also involves their translation--displaying the logic of other cultural meanings in the interpreter's own locution (Geertz, 1983, p. 10). But Geertz and his colleagues have been criticized for failing to distinguish between the interpreter's understanding of a cultural text and his informant's understanding (Crapanzano, 1986, p. 72). Interpretation's basis in a dialogue between an interpreter and an informant (who is undoubtedly providing his or her own interpretations) is often effaced in the resulting text (Clifford, 1988, p. 40). As well, isolated interpretations do not always reveal the extent to which the meanings of a text are shared (or not shared) by different actors or interest groups within a culture (Shore, 1988, p. 170). In part these criticisms reveal that interpretive anthropologists have not paid enough attention to the historical and social constraints within which their interpretations are made.

Ethnography's Critical and Reflexive Moment

The last 10 years have witnessed a critical trend in anthropology that provides a corrective for some of the omissions of interpretive anthropology and other "textual" approaches to culture. The call for a "reflexive anthropology" was intended to highlight the cultural and historical position of the anthropologist or cultural theorist. This demands critical reflection upon the traditional epistemological construction of the Other within the historical and political contexts of colonialism. Ideally, the self-reflexive anthropologist would address the unequal relation between his own cultural and political position as (typically) white, Western, male professional and that of the culture he studies. This reflection must take place not so much on a personal and confessional level as on a historical and political level that explores the institutional networks of power within which anthropology and cultural studies operate.

In a response to this new-found reflexivity in anthropology, Marjorie Wolf (1992) has exposed the general ignorance of postmodern ethnographers of feminism and its emphasis on the political and personal aspects of the text. Feminist anthropologists, she argues, had been "self-reflexive" and had challenged various forms of patriarchal textual authority well before ethnographers undertook their postmodern critiques. Similarly, Elizabeth Bird (1992, p. 255) notes "the reprivileging of the researcher that stems from self-reflexivity and the often accompanying denial of the ability to speak for the other." Both these arguments culminate in the belief that much of this current self-reflection on the part of a white male elite has not resulted in a very significant alteration of structures of ethnographic and academic power. For women, indigenous people, and other minorities, self- reflection is, on the one hand, always demanded simply by their divergence from patriarchal and colonial norms. On the other hand it is a luxury they cannot always afford in their texts since, by virtue of their often marginal academic positions, they are constrained by those same unreflexive norms.

Nonetheless, critical work within ethnography--initiated by Talal Asad (1973), Dell Hymes (1977), Johannes Fabian (1983), and others--has made a crucial link between the epistemology of evolutionary anthropology with its temporal distancing of the Other and political correlates in colonial policy. Anthropology helped contribute to the intellectual rationalization of colonialism (Fabian, 1983, p. 17). Many early ethnographies were written at a time of massive depopulation and forced assimilation of indigenous cultures and economies. Yet anthropology, despite the Boasian critique of scientific racism, developed little or no analysis of the effects of conquest and exploitation (Caulfield, 1972, pp. 183, 193). A truly critical anthropology would examine the ways in which ethnography reproduced a colonial hierarchy of domination and how it was furthered by, and legitimated, colonial regimes. This would constitute a historicization of ethnography and would situate it in relation to colonialism as part of a series of repeated acts of domination and resistance.

Political Economy: The Global and the Local

Emerging from this critical moment is a body of work that incorporates an analysis of global political economy and the international division of labour. This involves an effort to understand local cultures, local meanings, and symbolic processes, without losing sight of macro-processes of economic exploitation and historical change. "World system" approaches, developed primarily by neo-marxist political economists, counteract the universalizing tendencies of political economy by examining localized experiences of global capitalism. At the same time, where ethnographers are used to thinking of local cultures as "spatio-temporal isolates," political economists look at them as means of mediating the penetration of macro-economic forces (Marcus, 1986, p. 178). In media studies, David Morley argues for the need of a similar approach. He is:

... concerned with the place of ethnographic studies of media consumption in the analysis of the simultaneous dynamics of globalization, localization and domestication in contemporary culture. The key issue is that of the status of small scale studies of micro-process(es) in the analysis of these macro-issues.... it is precisely through such detailed `domestic' or `local' studies that we will most effectively grasp the significance of the processes of globalization or localization (or homogenization and fragmentation) which have been widely identified as central to contemporary (or even postmodern) culture. (1991, p. 1)

The analysis of the penetration of neo-colonial structures and international capitalism to the level of local cultural practice reveals that the "articulation" of the two sociocultural systems is clearly unequal (Comaroff 1985, p. 154). Yet at the level of practice, the dominant culture is never reproduced in its entirety, its ideological codes are transformed by local frameworks of meaning. Hugh Brody's (1988) study of the Beaver Indians in northeastern British Columbia is a good example of an ethnography that is fully sensitive to non-Western cultures as dynamic participants in global politics. This kind of local study, informed by a careful analysis of global political and economic imperatives, provides a potentially powerful model for cross-cultural communication research.

These new directions in anthropology are inspired by a fragmentation of scientific discourses and by a refusal of objectifying representations. They have been complemented by a textual critique of ethnography in which ethnographers have turned to treating the body of their own work as cultural texts to be interpreted and re-interpreted. Recent critiques have tried to expose and evaluate the sources of ethnographic authority as social rather than individual, embedded in social and discursive structures of capitalism and colonialism. Ethnographies also contain significant absences and silences. They are constructed both by what they say and how they say it, and by what they do not say and why not. The traditional ethnography is essentially a monologue in which the multiple voices of the Other are reduced to the anthropologist's will to explain. The ability to carry on such monologues, to erase other voices and distance them from the temporal world of author and reader depends on differential access to power and knowledge.

Cornel West (1988, p. 23) argues that Western discourse on cultural difference has been undeniably racist, guided by a philosophy of identity that suppresses difference, multiplicity, and heterogeneity. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak takes up the same line of thought when she writes that:

the will to explain was a symptom of the desire to have a self and a world. In other words, on the general level, the possibility of explanation carries the presupposition of an explainable (even if not fully) universe and an explaining (even if imperfectly) subject. These presuppositions assure our being. Explaining, we exclude the possibility of the radically heterogeneous. (1988a, p. 105)

To put this in more concrete terms, ethnography has depended upon the assumptions of identity, uniformity, universal explanations, fixed centres, accepted authority, and order. This imposes a closure on the interpretive process in which the voice of the non-expert, the uninitiated, the Other, is marginalized.

Emerging Models of Culture and Identity

According to Fabian, the moment of ethnographic dialogue is "coeval," taking place in shared time and creating an intersubjective space between cultures. A set of meanings is produced which properly belongs to neither of the two cultures. This is what gives fieldwork and ethnography their "relational" character--the creation of an intersubjective world that refers to the relation between cultural actors, their histories, and their different social positions. Where textual approaches to culture are premised on the contemplation of disembodied meanings, Fabian (1983, p. 162) proposes an ethnographic praxis that accepts the co-production of cultural meanings through dialogue and communication (cf. Tedlock, 1983, p. 300). New discursive strategies are necessary which can expose both the position of the interpreter and the co-production of cultural texts. New models of culture are required that account for its relational, conjunctural, and processual aspects. For cross-cultural communication studies this demands a critical rethinking of the concepts on which they are based.

Geographies of Culture: Borders and Conjunctures

The epistemological shift which underlies recent critiques in ethnography--the abandonment of the Enlightenment faith in self-perfecting discourse, in analytic simplicity or direct determinacy--is reflected in a movement from the search for unified subjects in homogeneous communities to a recognition of multiplex identities that inhabit what Renato Rosaldo (1989) calls cultural borderlands. James Clifford likewise (1988, p. 9) refers to an "ethnography of conjunctures" that responds to the twentieth-century predicament of being in, being between, and looking at cultures all at once. This trend toward the "postmodern" ethnography also attempts to synthesize new approaches to the representation of culture and the expression of cultural identity. A relational model of culture sees it as an intersubjective and dynamic world of shared meanings, the interpretation of which depends on interactive communication. From this it also follows that cultural meanings change, they are negotiated, contested, always emergent.

This necessitates what Rosaldo calls a "processual" analysis of culture. The difference between processual models and objectifying models of culture might be summarized as follows: an objectifying model of culture emphasizes point of view, observation, and objectification. Its predominant metaphors are drawn from the still life, the exhibition, the panopticon. Its primary relation is one of domination. A processual model of culture emphasizes practice, participation, and production. Its key metaphors are drawn from drama and dialogue. Its primary relation is one of communication. A processual approach is more explicitly historical and avoids the temporal distancing of the Other of which Fabian is critical.

This approach also opens the way for the possibility of multiplex and negotiated cultural and political identities. The unified subject of an autonomous culture or authentic class has given way to a conception of identity that acknowledges the possibility of multiple and often conflicting sources of individual and collective identification. The traditions that inform these identities need not be historically continuous, but can be formed and reformed according to the pressures of particular political and social agendas.

James Clifford is perhaps the primary proponent of the notion of "emergent" cultures and the rehabilitation of the culture concept for the conditions of postmodern existence. He rejects the Eurocentric assumptions upon which the belief in vanishing cultural diversity and monolithic cultural homogeneity are often put forward. He is critical of the way in which these narratives place the Other in a context of "present-becoming-past." The cultural struggles of indigenous and post-colonial peoples are premised on the demand for a future. The culture-building strategies of colonized and displaced peoples are part of a process of cultural self-definition that draws both from traditional practices and beliefs, and from creative and "neologistic" practices of the present (Caulfield, 1972, p. 202; Clifford, 1988, p. 15). The cultural synthesis of colonial and pre-colonial elements, of archaic heritage and modern lives, defies the dualisms of dominant social- science paradigms that identifies non-Western cultures with the past and Western culture with the future. Emergent cultures build upon the fragmentation and fusion of these kinds of polarities. These re-conceptions of culture and identity need to be combined with what Morley calls "a properly postmodern geography of the relations between communications and power and the contemporary transformations of the public and private spheres" (1991, p. 9).

Self-representation: The Voice of the Other

Ethnography's fiction of control over the representation of the Other and the production of truth through cultural explanations has been fundamentally challenged by the tenets of post-structuralism. Foucault and his followers worked to deconstruct the integrated and autonomous subject, substituting for it the possibility of a "subject-effect"; the product of structures, texts, intertexts, fields of discourse, or epistemes (Rabinow, 1982, p. 175). But for the most part, the post-structuralist and postmodern obliteration of the Western subject still fails to deal in an adequate way with the historical origin of that subject in the silence and suppression of its Other.

Spivak, in her critique of Foucault and other post-structuralists, suggests, for example, that the analysis of Indian history as a "functional change in sign-systems" from the discourses of feudalism to those of imperialism, motivates the search for an effaced or emergent peasant or subaltern consciousness (1988a, p. 202). In the context of post-structural treatment of consciousness and subjectivity, an emerging subaltern consciousness would have to be seen as a "subject-effect." Yet Spivak argues that the identity of the subaltern resides in its deviation from dominant Western subjectivity, it is defined only in terms of its difference. The paradox for the radical Western intellectual is either to grant the contemporary subaltern the expressive subjectivity denied to the subject of Western discourse, or to admit its unrepresentability--because the subaltern subject has been obliterated by the ideological, scientific, and legal discourses of imperialism (Spivak, 1988b, p. 280).

Spivak is showing how the fragmentation of the Western subject and its universalizing discourses may finally allow the voice of the Other to be heard. As a theoretical construct, the "subject-effect" reflects a political reality in which the domination of Western discourses and modes of representation is being challenged. It is this possibility of self-representation by post-colonial peoples, linked to a strategy of recovering lost traces of the Other, that informs the cultural politics of indigenous media use.

Cross-cultural Communication Studies

The issues raised here can clearly be related to some of the ethnographic work that has been carried out on aboriginal consumption and production of media. I will refer in particular to three examples of studies conducted by anthropologists in aboriginal communities in North America or Australia, but the conclusions I have drawn here can be extended to other work by sociologists, communication scholars or policy analysts. The three studies referred to directly are Gary Granzberg & Jack Steinbring's 1980 study of the introduction of television to three Manitoba First Nations communities; Sol Worth & John Adair's study of film production with the Navajo in 1970; and Eric Michaels's 1986 participatory video project with the Warlpiri in Central Australia.

To set these studies, very briefly, in their historical and social contexts, they took place during a period of transition in aboriginal communities in North America and Australia from a long history of colonial repression to one of more active political resistance and articulation of cultural differences. This coincided with a greater awareness on the part of the non- aboriginal populations in these countries of the poverty and lack of economic or educational opportunity in aboriginal communities and the creation of a range of well-meaning policies and programs directed at these "problems." The three groups represented in these studies have in common both a relative geographic and social isolation from the dominant society, as well as a coherent community life in which indigenous language and tradition still played an important part.

The 15-year period which the studies span was also marked by the extension of global frontiers of mass media. In each of the communities concerned, exposure to the products of large, centrally-controlled media industries was either very recent or fairly minimal. In many respects, these groups responded to the introduction of radio, film, and television as they responded to the introduction of other elements from the dominant culture; making use of media in ways that built upon existing cultural codes and practices. Yet, as with many other imposed structures, media must be considered in light of the historical power relations between indigenous groups and newcomers. The subjects of these studies had very little control over the type or content of the media being introduced nor over the rate of its introduction. They did not share the commercial or political imperatives motivating its extension to their communities. Since the most recent study cited here, several key developments in communications policy concerning indigenous media projects have occurred. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine these developments, Canada, the United States, and Australia have witnessed very active movements in aboriginal communities to gain a measure of control over and access to broadcast media.

Media Effects in First Nations Communities

Granzberg & Steinbring's study is a very thorough longitudinal effects study that details the response of three relatively remote Manitoba Saulteaux and Cree communities to the introduction of television. The authors use a "pre-television" community as a "control" and compare it with the other two villages with different periods of exposure to television programming. In each case, the researchers use a battery of behavioral tests, questionnaires, interviews, and participant observation to determine the kinds of cultural changes effected by TV.

Granzberg concludes that: "Analysis of economic, sociological and psychological data reveals that outgroup identity and stress have increased since the arrival of television. Outgroup identity refers to an individual's tendency to adjust behaviour according to models presented by a group to which he or she does not belong" (1982, p. 43). The behaviour used as evidence in this case included purchase of outgroup products, imitation of TV characters, increased expressions of violence among children, increased use of English, etc. (Granzberg, 1980, p. 48). But the authors themselves recognize the limitations of behavioural analysis when they argue that interviews and questionnaires generally showed that these external changes did not correspond to any significant changes in less quantifiable values and attitudes (Steinbring, 1980, p. 579).

This study is very much in the epistemological tradition of the neutral, external observer explaining the culture in terms of an objective language of social science. The instruments of the study are assumed to be transparent, the responses of informants to be uncritical and unself-conscious and the ethnographers' will to explain these responses according to his own model of culture and acculturation is paramount. A dynamic and interactive moment of culture contact is often reduced here to a series of static, observable behavioral units, decontextualized and "interpreted" by outsiders.

The Granzberg & Steinbring study also points to the problematic nature of assuming that television images and texts carry the same meanings across cultures. Images cannot simply be linked to a fixed or universal referent. The extent to which a common referent for a particular image exists depends on the extent to which its viewers share an intersubjective world of meanings. The interpretation of the image has to account for the contradictions and contestations within that intersubjective world as well, in the cross-cultural case, as for meanings that are produced beyond its borders. In the case of television and other introduced media, it must be clear that cultures may share texts but not interpretations, so that until some means of communicating and comparing different meanings is formulated, the real social and cultural "impact" of electronic media cannot be assessed (Michaels, 1990, p. 29).

Locating a "Filmic Language" among the Navajo

Worth & Adair's introduction of filmmaking skills to Navajo with little or no experience in the medium was founded on this notion that different cultures have specific ways of interpreting and organizing visual events. They theorized that a film conceived and shot by a Navajo would reveal something about these codes. The study (1970, p. 23) remarked on several distinctive differences in the completed films: a narrative style similar to traditional storytelling modes, a unique syntactic and sequential organization, a reliance on cultural and perceptual taboos (such as those against direct eye contact), and an apparent relation between verbal and visual language structures. Here again the isolated film text, like the "cultural text" in interpretive anthropology, is subject to the anthropologist's external and "expert" interpretation. Little attention is paid to the political or social position of the anthropologist as instructor/interpreter in relation to a history of domination of Native American cultures nor to the significance of and response to the camera as an instrument of the dominant culture. Worth & Adair's study does not adequately document the Navajo's own interpretation or explanation of their films and makes only oblique references to the responses of other Navajo viewers. The research provides no real access to the processes by which images are given meaning. The link made by the anthropologists between the film texts and the narrative structures of traditional storytelling, while important to an understanding of the persistence of Navajo culture, does not fully account for its processual and emergent aspects.

The Warlpiri Video Project

Eric Michaels's video work with the Warlpiri was initially based on Worth & Adair's model but drew also on a tradition of collaborative film and video organized around local cultural and political concerns (indirectly inspired by the NFB Challenge for Change program). Michaels's work comes closest to recognizing both the relational character of fieldwork and the processual aspects of culture. He is always explicit about his own interests and motivations in introducing video to the Warlpiri and carefully documents what they say about both about their own videos and those of the dominant culture. Michaels also situates his work very specifically in relation to the political struggles of the Warlpiri and other Australian aboriginal groups for land rights. The scope of his study is comparable to the "world-system" type of ethnography discussed earlier. He shows a clear understanding of how a long history of colonial attitudes and practices has culminated in the current situation of Australian aborigines regarding both rights to land and access to media. Michaels argues that ideologies of cultural development and media use are embedded in dominant ideologies of difference and of aboriginal development as a whole, though he does not extend his critique to the discourses and practices of anthropology or its implications for himself as a researcher. He points out that existing bureaucratic structures and interests tend to regulate the debate and to disguise ideological positions behind apparent economic and technological constraints. For Michaels the issues are clearly those of cultural politics--Warlpiri videos are as important for what they say about the cultural and political future of a people as for the ways in which they draw on traditional codes of visual meaning and pre-existing symbolic frames.

Michaels's study can be read in light of some of the key issues of self-representation that Spivak raises and that are so central to an understanding of media use by both Third World and Fourth World peoples. The fragmentation of anthropological discourse and of Western representations of difference allow the articulation of marginal and oppositional voices. Ethnographies of communication need to concern themselves with the practical politics within which images, texts, and meanings are produced. Access to and control of media is one of the grounds upon which these cultural and interpretive politics are being contested.


Cross-cultural communication studies can not be conducted without grappling with the kinds of epistemological issues I have viewed here. Taking up the ideas developed by post-colonial critics like Spivak, the complicity of theory in modes of domination needs to be elaborated in every discipline. Cross-cultural communication studies must also address the extent to which a largely non-Native body of thought on social change, political economy, communication, and cultural resistance can legitimately address issues in aboriginal culture. As Métis film-maker Loretta Todd clearly puts it:

For indigenous people, those systems that function to silence us have been the church, the state and the education system, with their legacy of cultural genocide and assimilation. In the service of the state has also been anthropology, to which can now be added the dialogue around art, cultural production and meaning. As a result, the discussion about Native theories of representation, about our "art," of "diverse aesthetic values" continues to be reinterpreted according to dominant values, whether mainstream or on the peripheries. (1992, p. 77)

In order to avoid the assumption of an objectifying, observer's stance on contemporary aboriginal communication and culture, significant methodological changes are needed. Developing out of existing work like Michaels's and drawing from some of the new directions in ethnography already mentioned, several possibilities emerge. One is the need to record the subjective voices of aboriginal communicators. Their own interpretations of the research problem and its associated questions need to be juxtaposed and engaged with the researcher's. A dialogue must be established between academic notions of communication and cultural politics and the multiply-grounded and experienced notions of indigenous peoples engaged in media use. A second possibility emerges in a kind of reflexivity that situates dominant forms of knowledge and disciplinary instruments in their historical and cultural contexts. In this respect, I think a form of "committed" research is necessary, one which both foregrounds the historical and discursive position of the researcher and takes a political position vis-à-vis the issues being studied. Finally, research in this area needs to consider the implications of Todd's critique. How can ethnographers or communication scholars prevent their theoretical discourse from sustaining modes of domination and the systems that function to silence other voices? How can those historically dominant values through which knowledge is produced be theoretically and practically challenged?


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