The Return to Laughter, by Elenore Smith Bowen Essay

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Question: Misunderstandings between the anthropologists and the people whose ways of life he/she is attempting to understand are often the most revealing moments of fieldwork. Discuss one or two of Bowen’s mistakes and explore what they told her about the Tiv and herself.

The Return to Laughter is a fictionalized account by Elenore Smith Bowen about her experiences with the Tiv culture in Africa. It describes her struggles to learn and understand the local culture and beliefs, and juxtaposes her own conflicts, morals and beliefs. Bowen engages in what anthropologists termed participant-observation. The anthropologist made a few mistakes that provided revelations about herself and the Tiv people. Language difficulties provide the
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Poorgbilin’s wife and the women of her homestead were to perform an honor dance for her on a date she deem fit. After informing her ‘boys’ (the name she designates to her servants/ helpers) of the date, she asks what she should give the women besides the usual pennies. They suggest beer and she agrees to one pot. Sunday (one of her servants) disapprove and feels that it is not enough. Rogo on the other hand feels that a ram would suffice. Bowen becomes uneasy and feels as if she is being used. After rejecting all her ‘boys’ protest, she later found out that at the time of her honor dance she too would receive many gifts. With this new information at hand she summons her boys to ask why she wasn’t informed. In this particular moment she realizes “how little [she] understood of the language” (Bowen 1954:111). Through this experience she gained a bit more insight into the importance of prestige and status in this community. She also realized how naïve and ill informed she was based on her limited comprehension of their language and the implications of certain words: “It was Accident who made me realize that learning the language and learning the culture were mutually dependent. I had misunderstood because I did not know the full social implications of the words” (Bowen 1954:111). She struggles against her ignorance and deteriorating sense of cultural superiority. The fear of losing touch with her cultural

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