S. P. Leonard: The Nihilistic Turn. Dealing with Ethnographic Entanglements


This essay explores what one might call the “nihilistic turn”: the structures of intellectual self-destruction that seem to have become embedded in social anthropology. Using the author’s long-term fieldwork in Greenland as a backdrop and from the point of view of the ethnographer in the field, it finds that much of the nihilistic navel-gazing that has come to characterise the subject is to be found wanting. The ethnographer is seldom in the superordinate position vis-à-vis his or her interlocutors that so many assume, and if we stopped insisting on framing questions of representation through the post-modernist lens of power differentials we would see that the supposed ‘power’ that a western ethnographer has is often grossly exaggerated.

[ethnography; entanglements; nihilism; Greenland]