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The objects of evidence: anthropological approaches to the production of knowledge

Matthew Engelke (ed) in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Blackwell (April 2008, Volume 14)

By and large, anthropology's reflections on the concept of evidence have been couched within other discussions - on truth, knowledge, and other related concerns. This edited collection, which is the third in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute's new annual special issue series, makes the case that evidence deserves more considered attention in its own right.

Drawing on the small but growing body of literature in social and cultural anthropology that does address questions of evidence, Matthew Engelke's introduction situates the articles in relation to several anthropological conversations, suggesting in the process how an exploration of evidence can shed light on three key issues: anthropology's standards of judgment, the potentials within interdisciplinary collaboration, and the benefits of a public anthropology.

The primary aim in this volume is to reflect on how evidence works in and for the discipline of anthropology in its generation of knowledge. In this sense the volume is concerned with evidence as a problem of epistemology as much as, if not more than, a problem of method. A conscious effort was made to gather colleagues working within Anglo-American traditions on a wide range of topics, in a number of specializations, and from different theoretical points of view.

Thus Maurice Bloch, who has recently been calling for a return to grand theory in anthropology, presents on what he understands as the crucial link between evidence and sight as the bedrock of truth. Christopher Pinney also addresses the link between vision and evidence, but with a concern to show how truths are manufactured and contested. Anthony Good, reflecting on his work as an expert witness and research in legal anthropology, assesses the nature and impact of cultural evidence in courts of law. Sharad Chari, a geographer with extensive fieldwork experience in both India and South Africa, focuses on the ways in which activists in Durban document their lives to present evidence of discrimination, reflecting in the process on the forms and formation of political evidence. Stefan Ecks compares the prescription of anti-depressants by general practitioners and psychiatrists in Kolkata, and relates these to the rise of evidence-based medicine and burgeoning field of medical anthropology. Martin Holbraad, a Caribbeanist with training in analytic philosophy, ruminates on the similarities and differences between questions of evidence for practitioners of Santería in Cuba and those of the anthropological community. Webb Keane, extending his innovative work on semiotics, turns attention to questions of the materiality of evidence within the anthropology of religion. Charles Stafford explores the differences between objects of study in experimental psychology and anthropology, and how each field's understanding of evidence can shed light on the other's. And Nicola Knight and Rita Astuti offer a challenging reading of the ways in which anthropologists marshal evidence to make collective ascriptions, arguing that cognitive anthropology and the cognitive sciences more generally provide useful insights into the potential pitfalls of such ascriptions.

Taken together, the articles here are testament to the fact that questions of evidence are animating ones deserving of more considered attention. Indeed, they pick up on what seems to be a growing recognition within the discipline that our conceptions of evidence have not received their due.

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