Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Another recent discussion led to the subject of how legitimate are the results of some of the research done on Morocco.  The general consensus seems to be that most researchers do not spend enough time here to really know the culture on which they become expert authorities in their home country.  Even researchers who might come here intermittently over a period of years do not always give themselves enough time to phase through culture shock and settle into place before launching their ideas.

A friend of mine who was an anthropologist said one must remain an observer on the outside looking in or the cultural observations will not be valid.  Rather they will be tainted by common human sympathies and prejudices if the observer comes too close.  One has to find a balance apparently where you can recognize the truth from fantasy or conjecture or lies.  Do the limited exposures of most field researchers really allow for that?  And what about getting rid of preconceived notions?

It seems it would be easy in the case of observing how things are done differently.  Not so easy in the case of why.  There are basic, shared human behaviors that can be easily observed and discarded.  There are culture-specific behaviors that are not so easy to comprehend or explain.  Sometimes, understanding these behaviors is key to making sense of everything else.  The question is how fast can someone delve into the mind of a foreign culture, understand and interpret it for their own culture?  How accurate would a hasty interpretation be?

The big concern of most Moroccans who are aware of this cultural observation and interpretation by foreign scholars is accuracy and legitimacy.  They know that people will tell researchers whatever they want to hear.  They fear the researchers don't always take the time to truly think about what they learn before passing it on.  Too often they pick up an article or a book and throw it down wondering if the author ever actually set foot in Morocco.  I, myself, have had this experience after living here and still do not consider myself an expert on Morocco. 

One of the things I learned quickly is that culture shock never goes away.  It sneaks back at unexpected times and just when you think nothing can turn your head again, there is another new experience knocking you down.  If this can happen to you when you live here, what can happen when you only visit every few years or spend only a few months at any given time?  A lot of that initial visiting time is necessarily spent reacquainting and reconnecting before settling down to business. 

And finally, how much of what one reads in books and articles can actually represent a real culture and people?  A culture is dynamic and changing, alive if you will, whereas a book might become outdated during the long process from conception to publication and is inanimate.  I know I hate it when somebody comes up to me and says, I know all about Americans.  You do this ...  You do that...and then tell me they know these facts from books. 



  1. Hi,
    I'm an anthropologist doing research in Morocco, and I have to say I disagree with your friend. I don't think it's even possible to remain an objective outside observer, but more importantly I don't think one should even try. Only by engaging, by participating and by immersing yourself in the environment you are studying will you ever be able to come close to understanding the lived reality of that environment. Like you said, an outsider who spends a brief period of time observing might take note of the differences from his own background, but will never understand the 'why' of those differences - and the 'accuracy' of their observations will, most likely, be shaky - because it's only a momentary snap shot.

    I think it takes time - brief stints of observation are never enough. And even when you take the time to get to know this country (or any other), it's important to acknowledge the limits to your understanding. It's important to call attention to your own subjectivities, to explain where in Morocco you did your research, and to acknowledge everything you may not know about this country. Because if I've realized one thing after a year here, it's that I don't think I'll ever be an insider expert on Morocco...

    Great post!

  2. Congratulations! You've been nominated for The Best Morocco Blog of 2010 in the category of best overall blog.

    We encourage you to have your readers and friends vote for your blog at
    http://www.moroccoblogs.com and if you want to display the following graphic, you can do so proudly:

    You can find the graphic at

  3. Charlotte, I don't think after 8 years I will ever be an expert! Culture runs deeper than most people realize.