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Slippery subjectivities: how to escape the paradigm of the individual

An exploration of the limits of individual-based methodologies in anthropology inspired on ethnographical research made with the Hmong ethnic community in China, Vietnam and the U.S.

By Mathieu Poulin-Lamarre

In the last few years, I’ve had the chance to teach a qualitative methodology class for a group of students going to Vietnam to do some field research. In teams of four, they have to conduct a dozen interviews with Vietnamese people in order to gather some information for their research, but also to improve their skills as qualitative researchers. The interview as a method of investigation has long been part of the pedagogical structure of the project, just as it is for a lot of the research customarily done within the social sciences. Looking back over these years, I am pretty satisfied with the progress the students have made so far. Some of them became great interviewers and did a great job on the field, but when I sit down afterwards and think, I still don’t know what kind of reality we were given access to. What were the meanings of all these words our informants put together for us? Are we expecting these words to say something more than what they are really saying? What do they really allow us to understand?

I leave these questions behind for a moment to draw a bit on my own researcher path. In 2010, in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, I spent three months doing research with the Hmong minority, an ethno-linguistic group located in China as well as in the highlands of Southeast Asia. That was the first time I realized how interviews, no matter what, always leave me unsatisfied. I was clearly feeling that for each question I asked, my informants already had a predefined answer, and I remember myself saying things like “Yes, I know that people say that, but what do YOU think about that?”. My work as a researcher, I thought, was to remove one by one all the layers of the onion to uncover the heart of the bulb, what methodological manuals call the informant’s interiority or what political scientist James C. Scott (1990) calls the hidden transcript. I was feeling duped, as if everyone was saying one thing and its opposite. I imagined myself caught in a web, not a web of meaning, as Geertz once stated, but one of masks, games, ambiguity and poker faces. It was so frustrating, especially because I had developed relationships with some people that seemed true to me, and I had the feeling we had developed a great level of trust. What I perceived as a door hermetically shut left me helpless, betrayed. Was it simply a strategy? One way to keep their true thoughts out of reach of the threatening Chinese State and prevent any negative backlash? As much as I tried to put the pieces of the puzzle in all possible setups, the protection hypothesis was the only one left to me, especially because this was what the researchers studying Chinese subaltern groups like the Tibetans invoked when speaking of the difficulty of doing research in the area. Strangely, young Hmong people who were my friends didn’t seem particularly worried by any of the topics I covered with them and weren’t trying to hide things from me. They were just so slippery in their discourses that I was not feeling able to handle them in any way.

It took time to make sense of what I saw first as a failure. It was only back home, when I was writing my thesis, that I began to wonder if there wasn’t something problematic in the epistemological grounds of my methods. I wanted so much to use my research to give a voice to the voiceless, I never wondered if that voice really existed as a concrete and stable speech somewhere. As several authors showed in the past (Jullien 2010, Chieng 2007, Blum 2006), China’s (and probably several Asian societies) concept of truth is much more dynamic and relational than the Western heritage and naturalist sciences that are born from it allow it to be. Moreover, as James C. Scott insightfully showed in his The Art of not being governed: An Anarchist history of Southeast Asia, the people living in the mountain margins of Asian States, in the buffer zone between the Chinese, Viet, Thai and Burmese States, have probably historically developed different ways to remain out-of-reach of the States, avoiding any institutions and technologies that could restrain their capacity to split and flee . Hence, living without a writing system, organised religion or social hierarchy, they were literally uncatchable, always on the move.

Nomads and travelers have always been hard to handle for governments. Historical characters such as Jean-Baptiste Chalifoux, aka Baptist Brown, aka Captain Shalifu, an illegal trapper born in Charlesbourg, Quebec, renegade and chief of a group of highwaymen called the Chaguanoses in California is one among many telling examples of these stateless people living under many identities who beautifully incarnate the motto that Foucault was calling upon in the Archaeology of Knowledge : “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order”. Identity as we usually understand it nowadays, as being “something” stable, can then be seen as a historical outcome that is in no way necessary. Moreover, this way of making sense of reality inevitably shapes our subjectivities, summoning them to fit this rigid and constraining model, as if we were compelled to objectify our selves in already determined categories.

Scott’s Zomia is not only a physical area or refuge, but also a certain ethos, a way of being that refuses the reifying principles of the State rationality. We could say that Zomia is a fundamentally a-individual model of society, if we could only imagine what it really means, for we are so accustomed to the overarching presence of the individual in our societies.

The individual is the result of a historical process that has been broadly described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. How did a disciplinary regime of individualization, as it was developed in institutions such as prisons, hospitals and schools in the 18th and 19th centuries has gradually come to influence the way we rule a family, and eventually, a society? The mapping of each individual hadn’t simply been a way to compile statistics, it has at the same time led to new practices generating individualities. Today, children are compelled to define themselves as individuals: "What's your favorite color?", "What career do you follow when you grow up?", these questions teach children to recognize themselves as individuals, to make sense of their being as a separate, stable entity, to distinguish themselves from others. Throughout his/her development, the individual is gradually driven to acknowledge his/her essence: the truth about his/her sex, about his/her sexual orientation, about the ethnic box he/she has to check in the national census. "Know thyself", "Become who you are," the requirements to fix oneself are everywhere, and we cheerfully respond, tattooing on our bodies the permanent figures that will make us unique.

But what is exactly this individual? Social scientist and historians have long become aware of the relative novelty of this way of thinking about oneself as an independent and autonomous social agent. The individual’s tastes, preferences, values, and opinions are seen as distinct from the ones of other individuals, although similar in some ways from his/her group’s (cultural as well as economic), since the individual is perceived to carry a considerably inertial culture, thus leading scientists to anticipate some reactions, actions and thoughts. The Humanities are gradually becoming more and more influenced by the “individual sciences” and the premise on which stands most studies, both theoretically and methodologically, is the individual. It’s not fortuitous that our highly individualized world responds quite well to the theoretical models which take the individual as a basis, since the individualizing processes have been going on for decades. However, it’s not exactly the case for all societies.

If we take a look at the handbooks of research involving human subjects, we can clearly see that the relation between the researcher and the “data”, almost inevitably transit through the “individual”. It’s mainly by surveying individuals, interviewing individuals, observing individuals that social sciences constitute their knowledge. Hence we assume a certain stability, a coherence of the subject, no matter the conditions of the inquiry. We often assume that the individual is aware and conscious of what she/he is and is also able to tell the researcher about it. Even when we study entities as broad as social classes, ethnic groups or societies, the individual is the way by which we aim to touch the collective phenomenon. It is no surprise that the main criteria to evaluate the rigor of a research is the number of informants/respondents, which totally makes sense in a world where any collectivity is first seen as a set of individuals.

Having said that, we must accept that the "individual" as an ideal-type is hard to meet as such in the real world. Inconstancy, inconsistency, flexibility, varied positionality, even if they’re part of every social behavior, aren’t seen as something especially positive in the individualized societies, not to say pathological. Relational adaptability, as described by Goffman in the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, is easily seen as hypocrisy. Yet, multi-facetedness doesn’t necessarily mean that one of the faces is truer than the others. We should try to question this quest for single truths.
It made me think of a TV interview with a Quebec folk singer. The host quoted something the singer had said in an interview during his promotional tour. The singer, surprised, exclaimed: "I don’t remember what was my mindset when I said that, but I know I wouldn’t want to hang out with a person thinking like this".


If we accept that our eyes, as our methods, bear the mark of the individual, we should perhaps question some of our most well-intentioned habits. I remember my classical anthropology readings like Malinowski’s Argonauts of Western Pacific or Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer and my irritation to read their naturalistic description of THE Nuer or THE Trobriand as if people were interchangeable. Now I came to realize that what I then considered as a dehumanizing way of writing could probably be best understood as a disindividualizing text that could possibly better suit the reality they tried to write about.

We must recognize that today more than ever; the acknowledgement of the individual is seen as something positive, and I cannot argue against that since I, among many others, am a product of this “regime of truth”. Aren’t Human Rights actually individual rights? But as the individual is linked to a certain kind of agency, it is also a specific and circumscribed mode of government, which should be acknowledged in our very methods of investigation.

With all that said then, how could we really think the individual? How to account for societies where subjectivities are fluid, flexible, relational, where there is no fixed essence behind the onion skins and where even the image of an onion is an inadequate metaphor? I haven’t yet found any answers. I know however that our individualized methods, which call upon the interlocutor to objectify itself is both a method that fails to investigate non-individual subjectivities but also a method that participate in the very process of individualization.

In sum, I cannot hide that it is only thanks to the individual that I am now what I am as a person and even more as a scholar, since no article like this is even thinkable without this need of distinction I am driven by and the autonomous paths toward knowledge social sciences are built upon. As the individual grows in importance in the world, we must however refrain from seeing in this process a necessary step towards progress in a linear evolution. Perhaps we’re living a historical parenthesis that will end someday with some decline or transformation of the individual… or not. With some humility, let’s consider that our methodologies, if effective in a certain kind of society, probably need to be adapted if we ever want to give a correct account of other worlds. As Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard taught us, the key is probably to keep calm, burn our handbooks, and take our time.




Mathieu Poulin-Lamarre

Mathieu Poulin-Lamarre is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the Université de Montréal (Canada). He works with the Hmong ethnic minority in China, Vietnam and the U.S. and is interested in transnational identities, social networking and epistemological issues.



BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

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