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Creation and critique: Reclaiming ethnography and Utopia

Scutt, Cecily Helen (2002) Creation and critique: Reclaiming ethnography and Utopia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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To imagine social change, the current social system must be understood as neither natural nor immutable. We must be convinced that "It does not have to be this way." Stories that represent persuasive social alternatives perform this important task.

Literary utopias and anthropology's ethnographic texts, which portray social alternatives, whether real or imagined, work as defetishizing critiques in this way. They are doubled texts, at least implicitly comparative, providing a critique of one community through the representation of another. This makes them both making (in their extended representation of an alternative, in their storytelling) and unmaking (in their critical focus on their own community's practices and ideologies).

Perhaps for this reason, both ethnography and utopia are unpopular in current theory. Important concerns about the politics of representing cultural others, and about the politics of imagining social groups, have intersected with a more global critique of story-making and representation in general, in a way that means ethnography and utopia attract more denunciation than celebration. In navigating through these critical waters, I make a case for reclaiming ethnography and utopia as central forms of Western critical storytelling.

The underlying critical-comparative focus of ethnographies and utopias creates some surprising similarities in these texts. Focusing on these allows us to understand why they are unpopular in current theory; to understand some of the tensions present within the texts, as they struggle with both the "politics of representation" and the "politics of critique"; and to consider some interesting new possibilities through cross-fertilization. I examine their problematic hailing of discourses of science and literature, and consider feminist critiques of quest narratives, seeking strategies for creating better ethnographies and utopias. Using a variety of case studies from both genres, I consider how ethnographers might portray real communities in a more ethical and empowering way, while still providing a defetishizing critique of their own community.

While the argument of this thesis is that holding ethnography and utopia side by side creates important understandings and new possibilities for creators of these texts, the theme of the thesis is about stories and silences. My discussion of the critical debates continually asks if a particular stance is ultimately silencing. My underlying claim is that while all stories have ambiguous and problematic power, social change will be effected through the use of these problematic tools, not through their denunciation.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Harris, Patricia
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