The book, “Return to Laughter” is an ethnographical work of fiction based on the experiences of Laura Bohannan, an American anthropologist who spent time in the African bush living with and studying the Tiv tribe.
The book is written under the pen name Elenore Smith Bowen. Although the author does not specifically state how they come about doing the research, throughout the book certain elements give clues as to how they came to do the ethnography.In particular, we learn that the author is an anthropologist studying in graduate school and the underlying assumption is that the research is part of her studies for graduate school (Bowen 1954: 4). This can also be inferred, as it is typical for members of the profession to go away and study a culture before they can fully be accepted as an anthropologist by other members in the profession (Van Maanen 1995: 21).
Other hints to support this are given by the mention of Mr.Sackerton, the administrative individual who helped her to secure the position within the tribe (Bowen 1954: 1). In addition, the book mentions seasoned anthropology professors who give her advice about what to expect when going abroad to study another culture (Bowen 1954: 4). Similar to the reasoning behind undertaking the research, the theoretical and practical impetus of the study is not clearly defined in the text.From the information given, it can be deduced that she is not the first individual to live with and study the Kako homestead and nearby regions (Bowen 1954: 4). It is mentioned that Mr. Sackerton has explained her presence in the homestead by stating a desire to learn the language, and this does come into play throughout the book many times as she persistently practices and improves her knowledge of the language (Bowen 1954: 1).
Although this may be one practical impetus to the research, it is likely not the main one.In addition, elements of foreshadowing throughout the book indicate that the Bohannan has some information about the tribe, which suggests that she may be adding to the work of another individual who studied the same tribe or a nearby one. A likely explanation is that the author has the theoretical impetus of conducting an ethnography in order to learn more about a different culture and further build upon any knowledge that already exists about the tribe, along with the practical impetus of learning their language and gaining further accreditation as an anthropologist within the anthropological community.The final product of the research, namely this book, is a fictitious form of an ethnography, which prevents it from neatly being categorized into one of the common forms of ethnographical writing. It can be assumed that the author intended a general audience, rather than a collegial audience, as she presented her research through a fiction novel, which would appeal more to general readers rather than professionals in the field (Van Maanen 1988: 31). The author has combined elements of both a realist ethnography and a confessional ethnography in the final product (Van Maanen 1988: 45, 73).The elements taken from realist ethnographies include her attention to minute details of the lives of the individuals being studied, and the material being organized according to topics, although not clearly delimited. In addition, the author speaks with a generally authoritative tone, not allowing for other interpretations for what she presents (Van Maanen 1988: 48, 51).
Elements of the confessional tale dominate throughout the ethnography as she presents the work in first-person narrative, uses highly personalized styles and self-absorbed mandates.In addition, the ethnography is filled with stories and fables of her fieldwork rapport, melodramas of the hardships encountered and descriptions of how the fieldwork affected her as the fieldworker (Van Maanen 1988: 73, 75, 77). An example that includes all these elements of a confessional ethnography is the effect that the tribe’s belief in witchcraft had on her as an individual during her last few days in the bush (Bowen 1954: 231). Ethical Implications:Ethical implications involved in the study include the lack of participant consents (Ethical Considerations in Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry n. d. ). Although the anthropologist may have received consent from participants prior to conducting the study, especially from the head of the tribe, Chief Kako, she fails to mention receiving consent from the other members of the tribe from whom she gains the majority of her information.
In addition, events during the book suggest that the participants in the study are not necessarily aware of her role in the bush.In particular, one such example is Atakpa’s explanation that she expects Bohannan to still be living in the bush with them thirteen years later in order to purchase her namesake’s first cloth (Bowen 1954:76). The author’s personal biases come out though the text showing another topic of ethical concern (Bresler 1996). Towards the end of the book, the author has thoroughly engrained herself into the culture of the Tiv tribe and has difficulty distancing herself from her professional work (Bowen 1954: 243).As a result, a duality emerges within her, which reveals the superiority that she feels about her culture in comparison to the culture that she is studying. As a clear example, she repeatedly calls them savages and refers to their primitive understanding and way of life as something that she needs to keep a distance from (Bowen 1954: 232).
This brings about a major ethical concern in not only this anthropological work, but also many other ethnographies where the author’s biases or feelings of superiority affect the representation of the culture that they are studying.