Ross’s impressionist ethnography
The few ethnographic depictions that Ross includes in his 1922 South America book are written as if Ross had the ability to read ethnographic truth from surface impressions.
In Ross’s 1922 South American travelogue, his attention is focused primarily on questions of land use and economic opportunity. In this chapter, however, Ross depicts the Bolivian celebration of the Day of the Dead. But what kind of ethnography is this? Ross describes what his eye can see—the vivid colors of the celebratory clothing, the busy markets in the week prior to the event—, but he also provides information that could only be known by a cultural insider. This becomes most perspicuous when he claims that the week-long event culminates in many spontaneous sexual encounters, young girls losing their virginity, and resultant pregnancies, but that this practice is celebrated, not stigmatized, as the juxtaposition of death and fecundity. How has Ross obtained this understanding of native cultural attitudes? He does not indicate any discussions with native informants, but instead writes as if he were able to read such truths from surface appearances.
Colin Ross. Die Seele des Indio. In: Südamerika. Die aufsteigende Welt. 1. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1922; 219-223.