“The Predicament of Culture”


In “The Predicament of Culture,” Jim Clifford questions ethnographic authority in shaping representations of ‘culture.’ Modernity, characterized by rootlessness, mobility, alienation, scattered traditions, craziness, and disorder (Clifford, 3-4), entails historical uncertainty and undermines concepts of cultural ‘essence.’ This paper first examines the problem underlying “The Predicament of Culture” and then Clifford’s ‘workaround’ approach to representing ‘culture,’ for which, as he suggests, there is no solution, precisely because the ‘culture’ concept entails predicament. The crux of the ethnographic problem of representation for him revolves around the production of texts, which inescapably entails the production of a kind of fiction. Using the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule’s work and the Cape Cod Mashpee Indian tribe’s 1976 trial to reclaim land as examples, this paper suggests that Clifford ‘resolves’ the ethnographic predicament of culture by suggesting alternate, more inclusive forms of ethnographic representation.

Problems of “The Predicament of Culture”

Clifford contextualizes “the predicament of culture” in an historical understanding where cultural artifacts ‘shape’ paths of hybrid meaning. He contrasts this with a view of history which sees the authenticity of culture, peoples, and products (Clifford, 5-6) as endangered and in juxtaposition to modernizing influences. Thus he rewrites an oft-described or oft-assumed cultural dualism between authentic versus modern, by situating ‘pure products’ - artifacts, identities and communities - within blurring / shifting processes. For Clifford, the problem encapsulated in “The Predicament of Culture” examines “far-reaching questions about modes of cultural interpretation, implicit models of wholeness, styles of distancing, stories of historical development” (Clifford, 8). He therefore questions all ethnographic authorial authority by asking, for example, “Who has the authority to speak for a group’s identity or authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture? How do self and other clash and converse in the encounters of ethnography, travel, modern interethnic relations?” (Clifford, 8) He suggests that ethnographic authority heretofore embodies a crisis of representation where the meaning of ‘culture’ itself which shapes ethnographic authority, must be re-examined. Clifford also argues that one significant limitation of ethnographic authority is that it only represents the view of the author, when ‘culture,’ especially in terms of conjunctures shaped by modernity, is comprised of many voices. Thus modes of ethnographic representation which express many voices more accurately reflect ‘culture’ than ethnographies which utilize a single voice.

While unable to throw out the “deeply compromised” (Clifford, 10) specific concept of ‘culture,’ which Clifford identifies as the relativist, pluralist, ironic-to-a-degree, “serious fiction” originating with Conrad and Malinowski, he historicizes it and strains to retain it as a concept “for its differentiating functions while conceiving of collective identity as a hybrid, often discontinuous process” (Clifford, 10). In his treatment of Malinowski and Conrad vis-a-vis culture, the shaping of self-identity emerges, for Clifford, as a key heuristic. Clifford thus examines ethnographic interpretations of self-identity as blurred and strained by culture. The problem of ethnographic intervention in an interconnected world in this context, for Clifford, is that “one is always, to varying degrees, “inauthentic”: caught between cultures, implicated in others” (Clifford, 11). This problem transforms questions of identity from analysis of its “essence” to questions of identity shaped by conjunctural processes. Thus the ethnographer, writer or intervener (e.g. Edward Said in “Orientalism”) himself or herself is conjuncturally shaped by modernity, further complicating modes of representation made explicit in “The Predicament of Culture.”

            The problem of ethnographic representations of ‘culture’ is partly definitional, situated within a historicized ethnographic landscape of conjunctural processes. In the context of today’s world, ethnography involves questioning the ethnographer’s authority to objectively and realistically portray the ‘other,’ as well as ways in which the ethnographer is a ‘product’ of culture. Culture itself has more to do with intersections of traditions rather than identifying what epitomizes cultures. For Clifford, modern ethnography:

“Seen … generally, … is simply diverse ways of thinking and writing about culture from a standpoint of participant observation. … Ultimately my topic is a pervasive condition of off-centeredness in a world of distinct meaning systems, a state of being in culture while looking at culture, a form of personal and collective self-fashioning. This predicament – not limited to scholars, writers, artists, or intellectuals – responds to the twentieth century’s unprecedented overlay of traditions. … A modern “ethnography” of conjunctures, constantly moving between cultures, does not, like its Western alter ego “anthropology,” aspire to survey the full range of human diversity or development. It is perpetually displaced, both regionally focused and broadly comparative, a form both of dwelling and of travel in a world where the two experiences are less and less distinct (Clifford, 9).”

 For Clifford, the concept of ‘culture’ nevertheless does have coherence, cohesiveness and differentiating characteristics.


Some “Workarounds” to “The Predicament of Culture”

Historically, Clifford suggests that polyphonous or heteroglossic ethnographic representations successfully mediate, or at least improve upon, the problem of single-voiced ethnographic authority. He examines and cites the ethnographic practices of Marcel Griaule’s Dogon ethnographic work as an example not only of incipient ‘heteroglossic’ ethnography (Griaule) but also of the effectiveness of Griaule’s multi-partied ethnographic team work, best suited for collecting and interpreting very complex rituals and practices, such as Dogon funerary (Clifford, 70) ceremonies where large numbers of people partake. Clifford thus juxtaposes Griaule’s work with early, founding British and American anthropologists’ work to demonstrate other modes of ethnographic representation, which do not rely solely on a single ethnographer’s voice to represent a polyphony of voices, and then often as one voice (the authors). This somehow peculiarly French genre of ethnography (Clifford, 61-62) thus represents a ‘cultural’ ethnographic approach distinctly different from American and British approaches. Clifford thus identifies an alternative approach to ethnographic representation.


Mashpee ‘Culture’

            Clifford himself engages and develops this practice - the ethnographic and polyphonic representation of ‘culture,’ shaped by conjuncture rather than essence – to shape specific understandings of cultural and historical identity. Clifford’s analysis of the Cape Cod, Massachusetts’ Mashpee Indians’ 1976 land trial ethnographically not only represents a polyphony of Mashpee voices but characterizes the historical continuity of a specific ‘culture.’ Clifford successfully shapes a new ethnographic direction without privileging either the ethnographer or the discipline by examining both the “ways of looking” at the situation shaped by the court proceedings (Clifford, 289), as well as ethnographic “ways of looking.” Using the trial, he thus demonstrates approaches to ethnographic authority which pragmatically reshape the concept of culture: for the Mashpee, modernity has shaped “a long, relational struggle to maintain and recreate identities that began when an English-speaking Indian traveler, Squanto, greeted the Pilgrims at Plymoth;” (Clifford, 339) Clifford doesn’t ethnographically invoke a single tribal or cultural institution to characterize Mashpee identity. Instead Clifford suggests that what’s at stake for the Mashpee Indians is “a reinterpretation of their contested history in order to act – with other Indian groups – powerfully, in an impure present-becoming-future” (Clifford, 344). Suggesting a concept of identity which is neither bound by culture nor ethnographic authority, he rhetorically asks “Yet what if identity is conceived not as a boundary to be maintained but as a nexus of relations and transactions actively engaging a subject?” (Clifford, 344) Clifford’s representation of the Mashpee – a ‘workaround’ approach to the predicament of culture - thus represents a contemporary polyphonous and heteroglossic ethnographic rendering of a convoluted history to portray a cultural identity based on interaction which engages Mashpee history and contemporary Mashpee voices.  

If Mashpee ‘culture,’ after 350 years of interaction with Europeans, can be neither defined by language (they now speak English), nor structural features such as tribal institutions or ritual (structural - functionalism is history), nor geography (land boundaries have shifted), nor by ‘meaning,’ (Geertz is dated in this respect), etc., - all the historical yardsticks of ethnography - what makes this ‘culture’ cohere? What makes the idea of ‘Mashpee’ a question?







Clifford, James.

1988 The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Griaule, Marcel.

1957 Méthode de l’ethnographie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


Said, Edward.

1979 Orientalism. New York: Random House.






copyright 2006