The dissertation project explores the formation, function and propagation of participant observation as a Denkfigur (figure of thought) in literary and ethnographic texts of the first half of the twentieth century. Participant observation is the predominant method of social anthropology to experience and describes foreign cultural realities. It is intrinsically connected with the name of Bronisław Malinowski, who – in his endeavour to make anthropology a ‘hard science’ – introduced it in his famous ethnography Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). In spite of this scientism, the participant observer as presented in Malinowski’s ethnographies proves to be a deeply literary figure, enacting specific narrative strategies. As such, it can be understood as a response to problems and aporias expressed in numerous contemporary discourses. Based on these assumptions, the dissertation takes its starting point in Malinowski and, at first, shapes the Denkfigur of participant observation as a constellation of modern discourses. It continues by revealing the existence of the Denkfigur in texts of other authors. On the one hand, authors are discussed that belong to an intermediate area of discourses in literature and ethnography, which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, are just starting to differentiate themselves (e.g., Leo Frobenius). On the other, the project focuses on modern novelists dealing with (cultural) foreignness in their texts (e.g., Franz Kafka).
The objective of the dissertation is to reconstruct participant observationas a modern Denkfigur and literary configuration of perception that is to be situated in the interdiscoursive field of ethnography and literature. By tracing the discourse-historical context of the differentiation-process of both literature and ethnography, and highlighting the epistemic potential of literary devices, the dissertation is meant to be a contribution to the history of knowledge and consciousness.