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Ethnographic Misunderstanding

Figures du malentendu

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Published on Wednesday, December 03, 2014Wednesday, December 03, 2014 by João Fernandes


Misunderstandings crop up when the unconscious of the protagonists is deeply committed to keeping people’s otherness at bay, and to receiving only what one already expected from the other anyways. Surprisingly, misundertanding is intrinsically connected to the history of anthropology and the very fact of carrying out fieldwork. What about the ethnographer’s desire to be thrilled by his plunging into another cultural environment or, on the contrary, his disillusionment when faced with unavoidable misunderstandings? What about the desire of not being understood expressed sometimes by partners of the ethnographic relationship ? We feel that these questions, including many others such as the hiccups of translation and mistranslation and the possibility to extract oneselves from cases of misunderstanding, need to be asked once again.



Two men meet after a long time, believing/thinking/saying they are close friends. They engage in small talk but the discussion quickly turns sour. One accuses the other of having said, a long time ago, a very common sentence – « Oh, lovely » – in a patronizing tone. After a feeble attempt to deny the fact, the man accused strikes back and criticises  his friend without pleading guilty to the charges against him. This is not a story with a happy end as the men seem to irrevocably misunderstand each other. Something is severing their long friendship.

This is the basic plot of Nathalie Sarraute’s play Pour un oui ou pour un non adapted into film by Jacques Doillon with Jean-Louis Trintignant and André Dussolier. The play shows in great detail what one may call a « misunderstanding ». First and foremost, it tells us that a misunderstanding is always a two way relation even if it may impact the protagonists in very different ways. While acting alone, it proves to be nearly impossible to spot a misunderstanding and to work one’s way out of it. Misunderstandings are certainly commonly experienced by couples, close friends, and others enmeshed in webs of relationships with people they care for and who suddenly find themselves taken by surprise in a game they didn’t suspect they were playing. Hence, misunderstanding is also vital to many types and forms of humour.

Let us be clear. In our view, misunderstandings are unintentional even if those being dragged into these situations can perpetuate them inadvertently. Misunderstandings crop up when the unconscious of the protagonists is deeply committed to keeping people’s otherness at bay, and to receiving only what they already expected from the other anyways – nothing more nothing less. We might also apprehend misunderstandings in another way and stress the active role of habits of thought and routinized actions as catalysts for misunderstandings. Both approaches are probably not always consistent and reflect the two different sensibilities of the editors of this volume. Be that as it may, when dealing with cases of misunderstanding alterity should be at the core of the debates.

Although at first glance, this topic seems to deal primarily with social psychology or theories of communication, we believe that cases of misunderstanding riddle the history of anthropology as a discipline, as much as what may be called culture contacts. Ethnographic methodologies are based on the observation of daily life, interviews and conversations between persons brought up in extremely different cultural and social environments. It seems to us that the discipline relies on two major leaps of faith : in the words of informants and in the ability of ethnographers to understand what they experience, to rework a huge amount of data of various types and to turn it into a coherent whole. How can we ever be sure that they got it right ? Obviously the question is ingenuous but deserves to be asked. However, in doing or reading ethnography we must somehow leave the whole question hanging in the air. Misundertanding is therefore intrinsically connected to the history of the discipline and the very fact of doing anthropology.

What about the ethnographer’s desire to be thrilled by his plunging into another cultural environment or, on the contrary, his disillusionment when faced with unavoidable misunderstandings? Do these upsurges of emotions shape a biased view of the encounter between culture and people? What about this sophisticated theoritical varnish that gives the impression that everyone speaks the same language and reads the same books? We feel that these questions need to be asked once again.

- Our first aim in this volume is to provide a space for the depiction of misunderstandings in the context of ethnographic works.  What kind of process is at work and triggers them? How do ethnographers, their audience, their colleagues, realize that misunderstandings have taken place? And how do ethnographers try to dispel or work around these misunderstandings?

- How can we define and open out the semantic field of these terms: misunderstanding, misconception, undertone, cross purposes, implication, disagreement, dispute?

- What about noise? We mean very concrete noise. Do ethnographers and their quite poor mastery of the local language grasp something of their interlocutors’ words in a noisy ritual? In a more metaphorical sense, what is it that really jams up the work that needs to be done when conducting fieldwork ?

- At the heart of fieldwork stands the use of translation, with or without interpreters. Most of the time however, this practice is given scant attention and is not treated as a problematic matter. The issue of mistranslation, not to mention sheer non sense, is totally absent from monographs. What is the role given to interpreters, to the recording devices and to the transmission of oral performance and storytelling out of their usual context? Are interpreters regarded as a necessary evil or rather as ingenious co-experimenters?

- There are domains of practice, such as law, in which misundersanding should be avoided by all means or, at the very least, cannot be invoked. What does legal anthropology tell us about the discursive regime used to speak the truth and to be fully understood?

- The final and very ambitious matter of concern of this volume is the issue of a common world. Is there something like a common world and to what extent do the repeated attempts to extract ourselves from cases of misunderstanding participate in the building of this common world ? 

Submission guidelines

Propositions of articles either in English or French (title + 300 words abstract) should be sent

before the 20th January 2015

to the 5 following adresses (editorial board of the journal and to the guest editors of the journal issue )

 Civilisations is a peer-reviewed journal of anthropology. Published continuously since 1951, it features articles in French and English in the various fields of anthropology, without regional or time limitations. Revived in 2002 with a new editorial board and a new subtitle (Revue internationale d'anthropologie et de sciences humaines), Civilisations particularly encourage the submission of articles where anthropological approaches meet other social sciences, to better tackle processes of society making.


  • Françoise Lauwaert (ULB)
  • Laurent Legrain (ULB/FNRS).

Scientific committee

  • David BERLINER (ULB, Belgique)
  • Stefania CAPONE (CNRS and Paris X, France)
  • Filip DE BOECK (KUL, Belgique)
  • Luc DE HEUSCH (ULB, Belgique)
  • Robert DELIEGE (UCL, Belgique)
  • Pascal DIBIE (Paris VII, France)
  • Alain DIERKENS (ULB, Belgique)
  • Philippe JESPERS (ULB, Belgique)
  • Françoise LAUWAERT (ULB, Belgique)
  • Jacques MALENGREAU (FNRS and ULB, Belgique)
  • Patrick MENGET (EPHE, France)
  • Marianne MESNIL (ULB, Belgique)
  • Firouzeh NAHAVANDI (ULB, Belgique)
  • Tal TAMARI (CNRS and ULB, France and Belgique)

For more informations: http://civilisations.revues.org


  • Tuesday, January 20, 2015Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Attached files


  • traduction, croyance, altérité, malentendu, bruit, misunderstanding, otherness, translation, noise


  • Anne Marie Desmarlieres
    courriel : civilisations [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be
  • Françoise Lauwaert
    courriel : francoise [dot] lauwaert [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be

Information source

  • Anne Marie Desmarlieres
    courriel : civilisations [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be

To cite this announcement

« Ethnographic Misunderstanding », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, December 03, 2014Wednesday, December 03, 2014, https://calenda.org/308365

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