Stop and think about it for a moment. If the goal is a thick, holistic description, shouldn't an ethnography require a 360° point of view? But in that case, I ask you, where would the focus be? And, if there were no single focus, how could an ethnography ever be coherent?
I am moved to ask these questions because Arts and Letters Daily has just pointed me to an article on British artist David Hockney's latest visual experiments in the MIT Technology Review. Hockney uses HD video cameras to generate images displayed on an array of monitors in a way that invites viewers to see the array as a single, large, incredibly detailed image seen simultaneously from multiple perspectives, vividly demonstrating that clarity of vision does not require a single focus.
Like all good ideas, this one, too, has a history. A precursor can be found in oriental painting, in which multiple perspectives are common. I also find myself recalling Kurosawa's Rashomon and novels in the action is seen through the eyes of multiple characters. Then I recall the opening paragraph of Clifford Geertz's "The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man," Chapter 2 of The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz writes,
Toward the end of his recent study of the ideas used by tribal peoples, La Pensée Sauvage, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss remarks that scientific explanation does not consist, as we have been led to imagine, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists, he says, in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less. So far as the study of man is concerned, one may go even further, I think, and argue that explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones.
This paragraph has been for me, ever since I read it, a touchstone by which I judge the quality of ethnography, rating work that seems too sharply focused and, thus, too simplistic, lower than that which, precisely because it is richer, thicker, more fleshed out, invites me to think of implications beyond those to which the author directs our attention. It may be one reason why, the older I get the more I appreciate big, fat books by historians than thin ethnography that seems only to have one, too often clichéd, story to tell.
Now, I find myself wondering, has Hockney provided us with an image of what truly great ethnography can be, coherent but full of detail glimpsed from multiple perspectives?
To younger OAC members, in particular, I ask, can you imagine yourself doing this kind of work?
Rebekah again...Just wanted to say that I was interested in your discussion on focus in ethnography. I did write a huge reply but managed to accidentally delete it while trying to correct a spelling error.
The general gist of it was that I think having a broad focus in ethnography is anthropology's strength. It is an essential means of understanding complexity and allows us to discover unexpected dimensions and find the unpredictable.
The challenge is to keep this openness once met with outside pressures that come with multi-discplinary research environments, new funding of PhDs and research in general which demand actionable and concrete results and 'deliverables' from the outset.
I will recommend, yet again, Andrew Abbott (2004) Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. One thing I especially like about this book is Abbott's noting at the start that social scientists pursue a number of quite different goals. Ethnographers specialize in turning the unfamiliar into the familiar, making meaning of what surprises us in what others do or say. Historians construct stories in which ethnographic interpretations are framed as part of a larger narrative. Both benefit from lots of detail and a broad focus that sees things others, whose research makes them more narrowly focused, are likely to miss. Model builders simplify. They have to. With more than two or three moving parts the math or computations get impossibly complicated. Practitioners of standard causal analysis and policymakers who turn to them for help are looking for levers. They are always looking for points at which some clearly definable change will produce a predictable effect. Broad and richly detailed understandings and clever models with unanticipated results are only useful to them in situations where none of the usual levers works.
It is, however, precisely at the those moments when the usual levers fail that the market value of ethnography, history, and model-building rise. Why? There is growing demand for something as yet unnoticed but possibly effective.
Here is an example I heard at EPIC 2010 in Tokyo. An ethnographer observes that personal computers are used in short spurts instead of continuously, as big mainframes are. He points this out to his bosses at Intel, who are concerned about the power consumed and heat generated by chips designed to be run all out, 24/7. They conduct some quantitative research to see if he's on to something. Turns out he's right. The chip designers are called in, and a new generation of energy-saving chips that don't have to be on all the time and turn on and off without wasting power are designed. Notebook computers get lighter and more energy efficient.
I notice that what the ethnographer contributed to this process was not a broader, deeper interpretation of how PC users use their machines. Instead, the ethnographer's obsessive interest in details of human behavior led to a useful observation. That suggests a role for ethnographers rather different than the one conjured up by "thick description" or "holistic understanding."