A Review of Paul Rabinow’s “Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco”

Two days after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Paul Rabinow decided to sell everything he owned and move to Morocco to become an anthropologist. The year was 1968 and the world was abuzz with change, revolution, and exploration. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco would be Rabinow’s first experience doing fieldwork, qualifying him as an ‘experienced anthropologist’ among his graduate school friends. Rabinow’s monograph is a deeply personal account about the excitement and frustrations embodied in the process of translating academic knowledge into the real world, the art of interpretation, and the simultaneous observation and experience of ‘otherness’ using a modified phenomenological method.

Rabinow’s phenomenological method is in line with Ricoeur’s definition of phenomenology as “a movement in which each cultural figure finds its meaning not in what precedes is but in what follows (Rabinow 6.)” This holistic approach treats each experience as an organ within a larger body of works, functioning in a dynamic environment where every change (whether past or future) affects the interpretation of the event in question. This dynamic environment also reaches to Rabinow’s definition of fieldwork as a dialectic process “between reflection and immediacy (Rabinow 79)” in which neither the subject nor the object remain static. This dialectic is intrinsic in Rabinow’s approach towards an understanding of the hermeneutical problem.

Rabinow, ever eager with his definitions, describes the problem of hermeneutics as “the comprehension of the self by the detour of the comprehension of the other (Rabinow 5.)” Interpretation arises out of personal experience in the field- i.e. fieldwork. Rabinow clearly emphasizes personal experience in his (dynamic) definition of anthropology:

“Once one accepts a definition of anthropology as consisting of participant observation, as I had, then one’s course of action is really governed by the oxymoronic terms; the tension between them defines the space of anthropology. Observation, however, is the governing term in the pair, since it situates the anthropologists’ activities. However much one moves in the direction of participation, it is always the case that one is still both an outsider and an observer (Rabinow 79.)”

Addressing his role as the participant observer, Rabinow aims to be a cautious and self-aware interpreter. Rabinow specifies that his monograph is not attempting to psychologically address the conception of the self, but rather “the culturally mediated and historically situated self which finds itself in a continuously changing world of meaning (Rabinow 6.)” In this active experiential process, Rabinow advises the anthropologist to downplay personal preferences and reactions as much as possible, aiming to “completely subordinate one’s own code of ethics, conduct, and world view, to “suspend belief” (Rabinow 46.)” He quickly learns that this is easier said than done.

Rabinow experiences first-hand the tension that is ever-present for an fundamentally alienated ‘Other.’ Originally entering anthropology in search of ‘Otherness,’ Rabinow finds strong examples during his experience. One of his initial contacts in Sefrou is a bartender named Maurice Richard who “confronted an active antagonism between the French and Moroccan communities (Rabinow 14,)” having missed the boat for classification within the former social strata. Rabinow explains the sad ‘prescribed ritual’ in which Richard’s alienated status as “un pauvre type” is annually reconfirmed by the couples that stay at his hotel. Yet Richard does not attempt to ally himself with the Moroccans either, informing his transient ‘friends’ (his hotel guests) of the unpredictable and irrational nature of Moroccans. Rabinow reports, “Richard was actually quite lucid about the nature of his situation, but he was absolutely incapable of changing it (Rabinow 17-8.)” Thus, Richard mirrors the anthropologist’s own inability to overcome his own alienation.

In defining a ‘good informant,’ Rabinow finds ‘Otherness’ to be a desirable characteristic. In Sefrou, Rabinow cultivates a resilient relationship with a man named Ali (to whom which he dedicates an entire chapter, titled Ali: An Insider’s Outsider.) Despite linguistic, cultural, and personal differences, Ali and Rabinow form a sort of mutually beneficial ‘friendship.’ Rabinow both observes Ali’s experience within his own culture and attempts to participate as much as possible. The dialectic between observation and participation is embodied in the disturbance of Ali’s usual patterns of experience through highlighting, identifying, and analyzing his own activities. Rabinow explains,

“Ali was a first-rate informant. He was intelligent, quick to learn, patient, cooperative, and vivacious. But I do not think that these qualities alone explain his success as an informant… [Ali] was a marginal character in his own social world. He was not the average villager, he was far from the solid-citizen stereotype of Sefrou, and he had not become involved with the French (Rabinow 73.)”

This alienation from society provided Ali with a “self-reflective nature about his society and his place in it (Rabinow 73)” that other socially integrated Moroccans lacked within the norms of society.

Sefrou is also where Rabinow has his first personal experiences with ‘Otherness’ in the form of cultural and linguistic alienation. On a trip to Marrakech, Rabinow’s Arabic teacher Ibrahim reveals his hidden agenda in tagging along and asks Rabinow to cover his lodging. Rabinow reflects:

“This was my first direct experience with Otherness. Ibrahim was simply  testing the limits of the situation. Within Moroccan culture this is a standardized and normal thing to do, as I was to find out…I had gone into anthropology in search of Otherness. Meeting it on an experiential level was a shock which caused me to begin fundamental reconceptualization about social and cultural categories. Presumably this was the sort of thing I had come to Morocco to find, yet every time these breaks occurred they were upsetting (Rabinow 28-9.)”         

In this realization, Rabinow is forced to confront the incorrect and ethnocentric typification of ‘friend’ that he had attributed to Ibrahim. As an outsider naïve to native expectations (of an American,) his interpretation of the events did not align with reality. Subsequently, Rabinow begins to understand Ibrahim’s interpretation of the anthropologist as a resource.

Rabinow experiences ‘Otherness’ as a result of his modernity, his nationality, and his visible resources.  This became increasingly apparent in his relocation to the traditional religious center of Sidi Lahcen Lyussi. When petitioning to move to Sidi Lahcen, villagers did not understand, asking “Why… should a rich American want to move into a poor rural village and live by himself in a mud house when he could be living in a villa in Sefrou? (Rabinow 77)” Rabinow realizes that the reluctance of the community is based in part on dormant cultural fears of Christian missionaries. Even though Rabinow repeatedly stresses that he is not interested in promoting his religion, “this seemed to be the only possible reason why a rich young American would leave the comforts of home in order to live with them. I must be after something crucially important (Rabinow 91.)” Then again, it is not unreasonable to examine the motive of someone who sacrifices a life of comfort in pursuit of cultural perspective.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Rabinow’s experience both in Sefrou and (especially) in Sidi Lahcen was the barrage of requests received due to his access to a car. The intimate emotional details of Rabinow’s experience are revealed in one argument between the anthropologist and his key informant in Sidi Lahcen, Malik. After mounting tensions over the car, Rabinow becomes extremely aggravated when Malik pressures him to drive to the house of a sick woman and tells Malik that he wants to go for a walk alone. This does not fit with cultural norms and therefore does not make rational sense to Malik, who responds by suggesting Rabinow is drunk, sparking an intense emotional reaction from our author:

“The infuriating irrationality of his comment threw me into a deeper depression, and made me wonder whether there had ever been any effective communication and understanding between us. I must have been deceiving myself; a vast gulf lay between us and could never be bridged. I felt on the edge of an abyss and had a rush of vertigo (Rabinow 114.)”

Constant self-reflection in an environment where everything is alien is understandably exhausting. In another chapter, Rabinow reflects on his own incessantly apparent status as an outsider and an observer;

“My gestures were wrong, my language was off, my questions were strange, and interpersonal malaise was all too frequently the dominant mood, even after many months when some of the grossest differences had been bridged by repetition and habit. No matter how far “participation” may push the anthropologist in the direction of Not-otherness, the context is still ultimately dictated by “observation” and externality (78-9.)”

This frustration is a frequent and plausible reaction to complete immersion in a foreign context (for example, as revealed by Malinowski’s journals.)

This is not to say that Rabinow does not make any progress in understanding or settling into his various Moroccan localities. The passage of time allows for strengthening of relationships and a certain sense of comfort to evolve. Rabinow reports, “As confidence is built up, the informant judges and interacts with the anthropologist in his own habitual style, even if the outsider status is never eliminated (Rabinow 47.)” After about a month in Sidi Lahcen, Rabinow reports a change in his relationship with the villagers, who “seemed to accept [him] more as [his] initial strangeness was wearing off (Rabinow 111.)” Rabinow makes many breakthroughs in his journey towards an incomplete comprehension of Moroccan culture.

In conclusion, Rabinow’s ethnography is a personal interpretation of the “dialectic between the poles of observation and participation.” In order to gain any insight, fieldwork must include open-minded participation and meticulous interaction with informants. Individuals who have an element of ‘Otherness’ within their own society often make ideal informants because the distance from society, however small, is shared with the anthropologist. Rabinow recognizes that the informants, in their spoken self-reflection and objectification, also spend time in the liminal, self-conscious world between cultures. The entire experience is dynamic- both the anthropologist and the informants constantly revise their interpretations. The memory of what happened before is modified by the knowledge that comes after, constituting a whole of information that is ever changing. Thus through the interaction of anthropologist and informant an infinite cycle of phenomenological interpretation is sustained.


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