Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Value of Eye-Witness Accounts

By Brian Bamford
CENTRAL to Colin Ward's critique of anarchist analysis and practice in the 1960s, was his belief that it was too obsessed with history and historical accounts.  That is too focused on the historical narrative of what had transpired in earlier times, and lacking an awareness of the here and now, and what people like me who have been brought up in anthropological study or ethnomethodology may call 'the missing what-ness'
In May 2011, I gave paper at the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair entitled:  'Pro. Preston and George Orwell: The varieties of historical investigation and experience'.  It was an attempt to access the qualitative value differing accounts such as that of the academic historian Professor Paul Preston and George Orwell's more ethnographic eye-witness studies and descriptions.  At that event a young lad asked me to define the meaning of 'ethnography' and, as I recall, at the time I fancy I gave a rather poor and unsatisfactory description.
The cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and author Brian A. Hoey has defined the term thus:
'The term ethnography has come to be equated with virtually any qualitative research project where the intent is to provide a detailed, in-depth description of everyday life and practice. This is sometimes referred to as “thick description” — a term attributed to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz writing on the idea of an interpretive theory of culture in the early 1970s (e.g., see The Interpretation of Cultures, first published as a collection in 1973). The use of the term “qualitative” is meant to distinguish this kind of social science research from more “quantitative” or statistically oriented research.' 
That quote represents a rather overly technical explanation for what I wanted to deal with at my talk at the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair in 2011.  What I was asking was more straight forward:
'Is a modern history, written in a library by a professional historian such as that of Professor Preston's, to be preferred to a first-hand account of the conflict written almost in the heat of battle, or shortly afterwards? Will not the professional historian and scholar's account be more objective than that written by the former combatant and novelist? Is not the one clearly superior to the other? If not, how do we judge and value these differing contributions? ' 
These questions are important and not just to anarchists.  Pro. Preston himself has openly attempted to rubbish the work of George Orwell when some years ago at a gathering of the International Brigade Memorial Trust he declared George Orwell's  'Homage to Catalonia' , and said: 'It is not a bad book but the trouble is, it is the only book many people read on the Spanish Civil War' or words to that effect.
Pro. Preston suggested that 'Homage to Catalonia' was a book written about the Spanish War from the narrow perspective of someone who had only spent six or seven months involved in the conflict on a quiet front in the North of Spain - Aragon & Catalonia - and, that it left out much which the professional historian could now encompass supported, as he is, by the enriched 'body of scholarship which has been published in Spanish, Catalan, English ... since 1996' (see Preface to Preston's ‘The Spanish Civil War’ [2006]). 
Can the professional historian have a better insight into the nature of a conflict like the Spanish Civil War than a combatant who was actually there like George Orwell?  In one of his 'As I please' essays Orwell comments on Sir Walter Raleigh: 
'who when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume and was at work on the second when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent enquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about; whereupon, so it is said -- and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be -- he burned what he had written and abandoned his project.'  
Orwell took the view that Sir Walter Raleigh was wrong to abandon the project.  I think that the two approaches to historical analysis are best described by Pro. Hoey below. 
Pro. Hoey distinguishes the two approaches:  'Ethnographers generate understandings of culture through representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what might be described as the “‘insider’s point of view.” The emphasis in this representation is thus on allowing critical categories and meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter rather than imposing these from existing models. An etic perspective, by contrast, refers to a more distant, analytical orientation to experience.'
and he continues: 
'While an ethnographic approach to social research is no longer purely that of the cultural anthropologist, a more precise definition must be rooted in ethnography’s disciplinary home of anthropology. Thus, ethnography may be defined as both a qualitative research process or method (one conducts an ethnography) and product (the outcome of this process is an ethnography) whose aim is cultural interpretation. The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience. Specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these represent what we might call “webs of meaning” (Geertz again), the cultural constructions, in which we live.' 
Following another talk commemoration the anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, that I and the Anarchist Federation comrade Luis Mates gave in Newcastle at an event organised by Dave Douglass together with the International Brigade Memorial Trust up there, also in 2011,  one questioner pointed out that he had been to the spot in Barcelona where George Orwell had been confronted with the street fighting in Barcelona, and this questioner claimed that Orwell, from where he was standing, was not in a position to witness the events as he had claimed to do. 
This represents another problem.  What can the eye-witness actually see?  Is the witness on the spot claiming too much in his account? 
A recent example of this would seem to be Mr. Jason Holdway's comment on the post 'PENSIONER ATTACKED at ANARCHIST HQ!'
'I was there and frankly Brian's behavior was bizarre and completely counter productive. He caused his injuries when he tried to shoulder barge his way back in to the building, rebounding off someone half his age and fell sprawling onto the pebbled floor. I can only conclude that Brian's provocative behaviour was precisely designed to create a situation where he could make some claim to victimhood. on PENSIONER ATTACKED at ANARCHIST HQ!
This above  is an eye-witness account of the events in Angel Alley on the 22nd, June this year.  Jason Holdway was indeed there in Angel Alley at the time, as he had been nominated for a place on the Friends of Freedom Press by the Secretary Steve Sorba, who was himself at the time of the attack on me presiding over the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Freedom Press in an upstairs room at 84B, Whitechapel High Street.  Mr. Holdway makes some preliminary observations about my behaviour before going on to claim ' He caused his injuries when he tried to shoulder barge his way back in to the building, rebounding off someone half his age and fell sprawling onto the pebbled floor'.   How can he know that?  Did he see the blood begin to flow at that moment?  Perhaps he saw a fountain of blood smeared across the 'pebbled floor' in Angel Alley?  I have been witness to number of these kind of events - in sit-in strikes and sit-downs - and afterwards it is not so easy for the actual participant or 'victim' to say precisely when the damage occurred.  But Mr Holdway goes further to make an even more remarkable conclusion: 
'I can only conclude that Brian's provocative behaviour was precisely designed to create a situation where he could make some claim to victimhood.' 
What Mr. Holdway is doing here is claiming to have solved 'the problem of other minds'!   He is claiming effectively not only that the injuries were self-inflicted because of my 'behaviour [which] was bizarre',  but also that he has the insight to know my full intentions or what the solicitor's call the mens rea.  The notion of mens rea or intention is a problem for lawyers and the courts, but it is also a problem for social scientists. 
Clearly the ethnographer has many problems no less than the professional historian, and slipshod treatment of the subject can always occur in our accounts.  But as has been pointed out it is probable that an ethnographic eye-witness account such as that of George Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' will probably survive better that many of the histories of the Spanish Civil War that are currently being written.  In short it possesses the 'missing what-ness'!

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