The modern critique of ethnography has shown other complexities in the relationship between analytical interpretation and ‘writing up’. One concerns the extent to which any written account imposes a certain level of systematization on knowledge. It has been suggested that one solution to the problem of apparent incoherence in pre-modern thought is to accept that knowledge may often, in fact, be held in an unsystematic form without posing intolerable cognitive dissonances. Classicists are most familiar with this through the arguments of Paul Veyne for what he terms la balkanization des cerveaux conventionally translated as ‘brain-balkanization’. Yet the mental reservations we employ to insulate, for example, our belief in the possibility of miracles away from our beliefs about what promotes road safety, may not work so well on the written page.

As theorists of literacy have long argued, writing ideas down exposes them to new kinds of critique.This may be used productively, to create new knowledge, new texts or both.


Greg Woolf, Tales of The Barbarians:Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West


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