A Note on the Ethnographic Past Tense
We have elected to refer to Ponam society in the ethnographic past tense, at the risk of appearing to describe a set of social practices that we elicited from a few aged informants, which emphatically is not the case. Because the anthropological convention has been to use the ethnographic present to refer to the society at the time the ethnographer studied it, reserving the past tense for events that had taken place previously, our use of the ethnographic past tense requires comment.
While the ethnographic present is convenient, as well as being easier to read and write for those inducted into it, it has unfortunate consequences. The most important of these is that it lends an air of timelessness to the society the ethnographer describes, and it does so independently of the extent to which the ethnographer is concerned with and aware of historical issues. The ethnographic past, on the other hand, lends an air of historical specificity to an account of a society, inevitably suggesting that what is described is rooted in a particular period and may have been different before that period or may become different afterwards. In other words, it inevitably makes the existence of the social practices being described historically problematic. This is appropriate for what we know of Ponam. The society that we saw had, in important ways, not come into being twenty or even fifteen years before we arrived, and we see no reason to think that much of what we saw would continue unchanged that far into the future. Given the temporal instability of all societies, and particularly the peripheral societies that many anthropologists study, we feel that the air of historical specificity provided by the ethnographic past tense is appropriate.