About the Content

Repurposing Ethnography

In the introduction to The Book of Touch, anthropologist Constance Classen intriguingly remarks that a cultural take on the subject of touch “requires something different from…typical scholarly elucidation.” Instead, she suggests, “touch is better served by a rough and ready approach that acknowledges and grapples with the tangled, bumpy and sticky nature of the topic.” Her book is indeed an impressive exploration of some of the cultural dimensions of touch, and re/touch began as a way to expand Classen’s “rough and ready approach.”

All of the content included here comes from the electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures collection. Based at Yale University, eHRAF World Cultures is an online database comprising thousands of full-text documents on hundreds of different cultures around the world. Generally restricted to those with access to institutional subscriptions, part of my goal was to bring this extraordinary resource to the attention of others. Ultimately, the re/touch database offers a glimpse of this collection by bringing together hundreds of quotes, or excerpts, from its documents.

Besides comprising an unparalleled assemblage of ethnographic texts, the HRAF collections are also unique because all the information is subject-indexed at the paragraph level. However, the history of the subject code taxonomy and related comparative methods is inextricably connected to the United States’ military efforts—and the collections’ organisation has been subject to much scholarly criticism. In part because touch is so culturally pervasive that it isn’t even one of the subject codes, and in part because of these criticisms, I decided to recategorise the quotes I had identified as relevant. In doing so, I effectively disassembled and repurposed the ethnographic information contained in these documents. Besides offering a humble play on words, this database is called re/touch because its content was quite literally retouched.

A Note on Culture, Power & History

Over the past hundred or so years, anthropologists have learned a great deal about other cultures—but we’ve also learned that the interpretation of culture is tricky business. In some of the re/touch quotes readers will notice that the original writer used terms like “savage,” “primitive,” “strange” or “curious” to describe customs and values unfamiliar to them. Today, anthropologists would avoid those kind of descriptions or evaluations, in part because of their negative connotations. Some might describe this as a more objective approach, but it may be more accurate to say that we strive to understand cultures on their own terms instead of ours. This doesn’t mean that we think it’s possible to take ourselves out of the equation—quite the contrary, in fact—but one of the primary goals of anthropology is to avoid what we call “ethnocentrism” or the perspective that our own culture should be the basis for comparison and evaluation of another.

Each of the ethnographic accounts excerpted here is a product of its own place and time, and can often tell us as much about its writer as the people it purports to describe. For example, the very desire to send certain people out in the world to make sense of other people indicates the interests of particular historical periods and locations. This is one of the reasons why each quote carefully identifies the source. Readers will see accounts written at the turn of the 20th century and accounts that were written in the past decade. Some are associated with trading and travelling, others with church activities, military or government endeavours, and others still with scientific expeditions and university research. In all cases, the resulting ethnographic accounts are the result of privileged experience and specialised knowledge.

A Note on Partial Accounts & Model-Making

If ethnographic accounts always already comprise what anthropologists call “partial connections” and “partial truths,” then re/touch is even more partial. While the database attempts to communicate the cultural richness of touch, it would be naive to suggest that it adequately represents the richness of human culture in general, or of any cultural group in particular. In other words, given the highly decontextualised nature of re/touch quotes, it is inadvisable to draw specific conclusions about the cultures to which each excerpt is attributed. This doesn’t mean there are no reliable patterns to be identified, but rather that the quotes—both individually and in aggregate—do not present holistic cultural models. The original decision to recategorise these ethnographic accounts using verbs, or action words, was specifically meant to address these limitations.

What re/touch does offer is the ability to reimagine models of touch-based social and cultural interaction. To this end, each quote was assigned multiple tags based on actions related to touching. It is my hope that designers and researchers will be inspired by these quotes to create new ways of thinking, doing and making.

Anne Galloway, Montréal, February 2009