Recovering the Logic in Semiotics in Reflexive Anthropology

Geoffrey Ross Owens



Historically, the term ethnography has simultaneously represented both method and theoretical output of the discipline of anthropology.  The concept has proven so powerful that it has been extensively incorporated into other disciplines, and defined in diverse ways, ranging from a detailed descriptions of small group dynamics (Pringle 1994; Fleming 2013), to a broad overview of the human impact on a terrain as a general introduction to the study of other kinds of ecological, biological or mineralogical resources in that terrain (Olsen, et. al. 1992).  Yet, while other disciplines have increasingly acknowledged ethnography’s utility for both documenting and comprehending cultural diversity, anthropology itself has taken a more reflexive turn that calls into question fundamental assumptions about the aims and scope of the ethnography, and even its relevance in an ever changing world. Those who call into ethnography into question, as well as those who envision creative ways to reinvigorate the discipline of anthropology, consider their critiques to have been built upon ethnography’s semiotic underpinnings.  What we seem to have lost sight of is the idea that ethnography’s efficacy as an explanatory model draws from its role as a sign—or more specifically, an argument—that links the ethnographer’s humanistic experience in the field to the discipline’s scientific/theoretical output.  This article explores the nature of ethnography in light of Pierce’s premise that semiotics serves as vehicle for comprehending both human interaction and the natural universe, going beyond suggestions that knowledge can and must only be resolved into assertions of authority or power. [MORE-PDF]