What differentiates our perspective from that of others?
Sometimes others appear exotic or irrational to us. Since the start of the ongoing pandemic, such differences have become even more visible across the world.
For instance, the toilet paper scenes in the US and Europe became awful. People in Egypt brunt flags with the coronavirus emblem. People organized corona parties in Germany. In Brazil, people declared extreme nihilism towards the existence of Covid-19 through street demonstrations. Moroccan people organized rallies and announced, “Morocco does not belong to corona.”
And we are left wondering, “Why would someone do such things?”
Hence, we try to explain people’s actions and thoughts that supposedly originate from their situated worldviews or perspectives. But when we talk about other worldviews, how do we think about the differences? Do we refer to a cognitive difference or a real difference?
During the 19th and 20th centuries, anthropologists writing about other worldviews essentially focused on differences among them in terms of a belief system and aimed to represent somewhat cognitive alterity.
In representing cognitive alterity but coherent cultural realms, the concept of belief was pivotal. The idea of a belief system allows one to describe its contents -- ideas, concepts, percepts, propositions, etc. In terms of these contents, one could characterize and analyze human differences.
In describing belief, the writer does not necessarily have to comment on the truth or falsity of what is believed. Instead, one may present a scheme that represents a different culture or worldview without inconsistency.
An example will clarify: Not so long ago, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, one of the people who travelled to the country from Italy on March 14, 2020, did not want to remain in the quarantine centre. He was seen arguing with the authorities in a viral video clip. He claimed that “Coronavirus does not affect Bangali people because of not eating pork and/or drinking alcohol.” And many similar comments have appeared in the media during the last one and a half years.
In explaining such a comment, we can say that some people believed: Bangladeshi people, not eating pork and not drinking alcohol, have developed some immunity against the coronavirus. Nevertheless, such a representation also implies that the belief does not indicate a reality.
Moreover, as a researcher, one may not necessarily believe that the people in question have immunity against coronavirus. But this explanation makes it possible to represent a coherent culture where the belief leads to some people’s actions.
Against a representation of cultures, James Clifford and George Marcus, in their book Writing Culture, claimed that culture as a meaningful cognitive system is not equally shared by all the members. Thereby establishing an anti-representational movement, the writing culture critique casts doubt on the idealist conception of culture’s epistemological, metaphysical, and political credentials.
In a more radical form of critique, Viveiros de Castro claims we distort the differences in perspectives and fail to take them seriously if we aim to represent a culture using concepts imported from our worldview. Instead, a complete reflexive position would contribute to how people estimate nature and substance, differentiating between us and others, as connoted in the statements of the returnee from Italy.
It is not that the Italy returnee negated the presence of the coronavirus. Instead, the statement inferred the possible effects of coronavirus on bodies and possibilities of causing untimely death -- thereby raising a question over what constitutes a human.
Generally, we come up with and use concepts to make sense of an event, act, or thing. Thus, when trying to explain why people do not maintain social distance, for instance, during religious gatherings, we assume what social distancing, life, spiritual practices, etc are for a particular group of people and judge them to be ignorant. In this regard, if we bypass our cosmological presupposition, we might gather an ontological understanding.
There are benefits of such an approach of understanding people’s actions, not just referring to belief. But we must primarily consider that whenever we encounter apparently ignorant actions, the challenge is of translation -- not just of language but also of concepts. Thus, differences become a matter of the distinct conceptualization of things, persons, or ideas. If so, differences arise not because of a belief but an actual reality.
For example, take note of how the Sundarbans-dependent people talk about Bonbibi -- the guardian spirit of the Sundarbans in southern Bangladesh.
The daughter of a Sufi Fakir, Bonbibi, was the great rival of Dokkhin Rai -- the Southern Lord. Rai was a zamindar (landlord) who could transform himself into a tiger to prey on the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. But the supreme God chose Bonbibi to end Dokkhin Rai’s tyranny.
Bonbibi accomplished this task of defeating Dokkhin Rai, but she did not kill Rai and instead made him promise that he would not harm anyone who would worship Her (Bonbibi). Thus, Bonbibi became the source of protection for the forest-going people. In the Sundarbans, where death is imminent, the inhabitants have worshipped Bonbibi for centuries to protect the forest’s many dangers.
This kind of claim by people represents what Viveiros de Castro’s called a sort of metamorphosis that depends on the notion of perspectivism.
The proposition can be framed: To predator animals, humans appear as prey; to humans, animals appear as prey. Similarly, a different perspective of the Sundarbans dependent people can conceptualize the power and practices of Bonbibi. This perspective could only develop within a specific set of contexts and practices.
Perspectivism, as such, aims to treat the realities that certain people experience as being genuine realities. Taking things and people seriously is a valuable way of mapping out and interpreting multiple ontologies. And registering the various ways of being a person in different eco-social settings is a critical task of any anthropological (or social) theory.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.