What are the strengths of ethnography that lead us to believe that it is a valuable research strategy? In what ways is it different from other research strategies? What procedures might we wish to follow to insure maximum benefit from ethnographic research?

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Let me begin by suggesting three features that make ethnography a fruitful research strategy:

1. In ethnographic research, we observe and engage the people we study in their natural habitat, as they go about their real lives. We do this by living amongst them for a period in an ongoing basis, and by trying to master their language sufficiently to follow their discussions with one another and to engage them in conversations in their language.

Often we struggle to learn two languages, a national language and a local one. For example, in Iran I began with Persian, but in Baluchistan my informants spoke Baluchi. In Sardinia, Italian was the language of government, education, and newspapers, but many of my informants spoke Sardinian.

In my own case, in Baluchistan I lived in a tent in a herding camp during three discrete periods over an eight year period, for a total of 27 months. In Sardinia, five trips to a rented house in a highland village over seven years also added up to 27 months of residence.

It appears to me that observing people in the course of their real lives is substantially different from an encounter in an artificial research setting, such as a formal interview, a focus group, or a laboratory. It is also different from using a lingua franca or interpreters to communicate.

2. In ethnographic research, we follow the same people for a sufficiently long period to observe the periodic changes in their lives. What is going on in people’s lives, what they are preoccupied with, publically at least, changes from year to year. By this strategy, we avoid assuming that what we see at a moment is the ongoing condition of our informants and their society and culture.

For example, Quebec was very different in 1990, 1995, and 2000. Ontario was very different in 2000 and 2009. I found that in Sardinia, there were major events that affected local life and differentiated years from 1987 through 1995, when I engaged in research there (see The Anthropology of Real Life). The same was true among the people I studied in Baluchistan.

Recently, in some circles, returning to a research site has been declared old fashioned. The new, preferred approach is “multi-sited” research, in which one follows informants here and there around the world. Now there is much to be said for following informants as they move spatially, or to multiple related sites distantly located. But there is no logical contradiction between long term research and multi-sited research, but the combination is even more ambitious.

3. In ethnographic research we draw on many different sources of information which aids both cross-checking and constructing a rounded view of our subjects.

For example: we observe what people do; we listen to what they say to one another; we note what they say to us; we do surveys; we measure and count all kinds of thing; we participate in some local activities; we read local newspapers, reports, books, public and private documents and records, and watch local media; we draw on historical, folklore, political, and other accounts by other researchers.

Our drawing on a wide range of sources of information differs from research strategies relying on one main source, whether survey, interview, or global statistics.
Ha, you were too quick for me, Giuseppe. I was preparing the above formulation when you wrote. As you see, it is a first try. I realize that anything specific that one says these days is likely to bring an accusation from someone (no reference to you, Giuseppe) of "essentialism." But if our terms are to have a meaning, then there must be some specification of what we intend them to refer to. Multivocality taken too far becomes confusion and meaninglessness.

Giuseppe Caruso said:
Hi Philip, this is a very nice trio of questions to think about. It is probably, ethnography i mean, the reason why we are so passionate about our (potentially at least) transformative practices of knowledge production. However i was thinking that perhaps you could tell us more of what you have in mind as potentially very long posts could be written to reflect on your questions.

looking forward chat with you and others about the nature and values of ethnography.
giuseppe
Giuseppe, you raise questions that are both interesting and difficult. For the sake of discussion, allow me to respond with a few of my own:

1. Does not the distinction between researcher and researched mark a fundamental reality: it is the researcher's project pursued to achieve the researcher's goals; the researched accommodate the researcher to a greater or lesser degree for reasons that are not negligible but which are usually tangential to their major concerns and goals?

2. Can we really say that our presence and interaction with local people transformed them? Isn't it a bit arrogant to imagine that our interactions with others, guided primarily by our research goals, transform our local informants, neighbours, friends, and acquaintances in some meaningful and substantial fashion?

3. When we say "interaction inscribes itself in the bodies/minds of those involved," what exactly do we mean? How would you think my body was changed by living among the Yarahmadzai, or in Villagrande Strisaili? Or, if we mainly want to avoid the mind/body dicotomy, what is the difference between the research 'enriching my understanding' and 'incribing itself in my self'?
Again, a topic which can easily connect with our teaching.

I haven't read Giuseppe's posts, yet. But they do seem well-articulated and certainly worth careful consideration.

My "easy" answer is that we gain insight rather directly.
In research for the private-sector, we're actually able to gain insight very efficiently. And, these days, that's an excellent selling point. The output of ethnographic research is meaningful, relevant, significant.
Obviously, part of this is about the "qual and quant" distinction. But there are a few twists worth mentioning. Or, at least, there are specific issues within this distinction.
One is that colleagues in other social sciences tend to accumulate massive amounts of precise data. Ethnographers usually collect complex and rich data, data points of which often overlap. If we compare to survey research specifically, an answer to an open-ended interview, say, is much more meaningful than a percentage of people who answered a specific way to a given closed question. A large part of this is that we contextualize the information. To someone who is obsessed with survey data, we can point to the meaninglessness of a "scale of 1 to 10" with individual subjects. Of course, they can do "intrasubject" validation. But it doesn't make the data more meaningful.
(I've worked for two summers as an interviewer for phone-based surveys, in market research firms. Hearing "respondents," I got a very clear view of their perspective on the client. But the survey answers, even to open-ended questions, couldn't represent that insight accurately.)
As I'm writing this, I had to move away from the computer and I listened to a podcast segment of a media analysis show on Swiss national radio. They mostly talked about the effects a change in a title's punctuation, but also discussed, however briefly, the notion that it's possible to get figures to "say" anything. It's not an unusual notion. In fact, it's one that mathematicians working in statistics warn against. As this notion is shared more broadly, the disconnect between numbers and their interpretation becomes very relevant a topic of discussion. Ethnographers can and do use quantitative data. But, as opposed to die-hard quants, we know how to put data in context.
Going back to Charles Briggs's Learning How to Ask, we can think about validity and reliability (with hat tip to Cicourel). Our research is culturally valid. Reliability seems like a misplaced goal, in the context of human research.
The open-ended nature of our work is important in terms of both basic methodology and broad epistemology. Because we adapt to the context, we can easily use a large array of inference methods from deduction, induction, and abduction to transduction and retroduction. In this sense, we may have an easier time convincing post-modernists than positivists about the importance of our work. But positivists are "a dying breed."

Now, as far as "Natural Habitat," "Time Depth," and "Multiple Sources" go.
Survey-focused sociologists do seem intrigued by the "natural settings" in the ethnographic approach. In some cases, they equate ethnography with some form of "direct observation." The argument seems relatively convincing: ethnographers (including some sociologists), are able to see what's going on locally so, in a globalised World, it may be useful to adopt ethnography as a method. Eventually, it might help them rethink some of their preconceptions about how they acquire knowledge in general, but that's a start. As I'm teaching "Intro. to Soci." with a book giving more than lipservice to epistemological issues such as these, it's one dimension I find useful.
I personally wouldn't emphasise time-depth. Time spent in the field has become almost a "bragging right," and the myth of the One-Year-Plus fieldwork is sometimes obscuring ethnography more than it sheds light on it. After all, there are many people who spend a lot more time "in the field" without gaining that much insight and colleagues whose field is in their "home society" seem to think that they already spent a number of years "in the field." In this sense, the whole "duration of stay" thing puts the emphasis on ethnographic fieldwork as a trip to a faraway land. Besides, for a long time, ethnography has shied away from the kind of time depth in research design which makes sense to other social scientists: longitudinal research. Typically, we had this "snapshot" idea of the ethnography (the output of ethnographic work). Written in the ethnographic present, the work was informed by diachronic analysis, but still lacking the kind of depth we may care about. In fact, like structuralist movements in early sociology, early ethnographers have had a hard time coping with the notion of change. We've now moved toward a more temporally-rich approach, but it's difficult to make the case that time depth is a particular strength of ethnography as an approach.
Because I put so much emphasis on critical thinking, I like the claim that we use multiple sources. It brings us closer to historians, who've devised methods of source criticism that ethnohistorians have imported into ethnography as an approach. And there's something almost Bakhtinian, in this multiplicity. Not to mention that it can go quite well with Lévi-Strauss's "bricolage"-enhanced idea of the "wild mind." ("N'en déplaise à SavageMinds", Lévi-Strauss wasn't using "sauvage" as "savage," in this case.) Through a thoughtful approach to a variety of sources, we build something which fits more readily in terms of critical thinking than the kind reductionist approach favoured by colleagues outside of ethnography. In a way, it could even be said that we reach the philosophical level more rapidly than do those who rely on a single type of source.
Sure, it is fair enough, Giuseppe, to problemize the process of ethnographic research. This is an inquiry worth pursuing.

But allow me to turn, for a moment, to the purpose of ethnographic research. Would I be correct is saying that its main purpose is something other than self-transformation and self-inscription? Presumably the overt and manifest purpose of ethnography is (something along the lines of) increasing our understanding of humanity and its societies and cultures. We do not usually justify our ethnographic projects in terms of personal development or therapy (although there may be some covert and latent motivation along these lines).

If this is correct, then it returns us to the initial question, why is ethnography a good strategy for achieving those manifest goals?
Thanks to Giuseppe for responding to Phil in such a stimulating manner. As I read his propositions I find myself saying both “yes” and “no.”

Ethnography is fundamentally different from other research strategies not only because it refers to a wider and more complex set of sources of information on which to base the analytical work but because the nature of ethnographic interaction is fundamentally different from other forms of information and data gathering.

Yes. The ethnographer’s physical, visceral “being there,” settling in and sharing a life for a substantial period of time, has no parallel in other forms of research in which researchers remain temporally, spatially or socially separated from those they study. And it can produce insights than more distanced methods do not.

No. As ethnographers write up their research, they have returned to a scholarly position temporally, spatially and socially separated from those whose lives they have shared. The usual questions concerning evidence, logic, and felicity of story and trope all apply to ethnographers as they do to other scholars.

In ethnographic research the radically dualistic distinction between researcher and researched needs to be challenged and reframed (but not, i think, in the terms used by Viveiros de Castro according to which it is the consciousness of the interaction and its content that distinguishes one from the other).
Yes. But...

No. I agree with Phil that the researcher’s goals and those of the people whose lives he or she shares are not the same. I would also argue that whether transformation occurs on either side is a question that can only be answered case-by-case. In my own case, I was in my mid-20s when I met my Daoist master in Taiwan; he was almost the same age as my father. I was a callow, young graduate student still fumbling as I searched for whom I might become. He had served in the Japanese military police during WWII, started and lost control of a wholesale vegetable market, established his storefront temple and built a clientele. He was married, with four sons. I saw no change in his character from when I first met him to when we said our last good-byes. There may have been inner transformations invisible on the surface. But my abiding impression is of a man with a fully adult, solidly formed character.

knowledge is a relational adaptive quality that is generated in the interaction between individuals and between individuals and the surrounding environment.

Yes. Of course. But...

No. If we have learned nothing else from the sociology of knowledge and science and technology studies, it is that this is always the case. Knowledge may first appear in individual minds pondering particular problems, but the way in which the problems are framed and addressed and the answers tested in conversations with others are all shaped by social relationships and the environments in which they occur.

I, too, have a lot more to think about. But these, for what they are worth, are my initial responses.
Nice!
This is quite in line with conversations about intersubjectivity in anthropology... and with my own approach to ethnographic disciplines.
In some anthropological circles, "dialogue" has a bad reputation as a term to designate part of what's going on in ethnographic research. But I do see it as a key, especially when we discuss with people from diverse backgrounds. In other words, those outside anthropology (including those who work in other ethnographic disciplines) can discuss what "dialogue" implies in research and, through this discussion, we can reach a common understanding of the ethnographic approach.

Dialogue, to me, is more than a mere "back-and-forth" between interlocutors. But it does imply an interaction. As Giuseppe says, we don't merely extract data. We have conversations with people. In fact, we're able to test hypotheses during the research, instead of doing it ex post facto. The fact that we work with humans doesn't only mean that we need to think about ethics (which should be front and centre in everything we do), but that we potentially can construct knowledge with "other people's brains." There's been a push toward collaborative research in ethnographic disciplines at the end of the Crisis of Representation. But there was always a notion that we weren't merely creating a model to impose on reality. Ethnographers always gained insight from "people in the field." Even those ethnographers who had more of a reductionist approach to research. In other words, "informants" were never giving us mere "information."
A reason I find "dialogue" so important is that it can relate to a contextually-savvy model of communication. To this day, linguists and people who work on communication tend to use a model which Judith Irvine describe through a football analogy: information going back and forth like a football being thrown and received. Though "dialogue" puts too much emphasis on the dyad and it's often perceived to be a mere back-and-forth, it's relatively easy to get people to get the ethnography of speaking idea of dialogue as a much more complex "speech event." Other words like "discussion," "negotiation," "conversation," and even Fabian-style "conflict" may also work. One reason I like "dialogue" is pretty much the reason Fabian dislikes it: it gets people to think about rapport and open minds. It's too warm and fuzzy for Johannes, but it gets us back to the personal dimensions of ethnography. And I find that important.


Giuseppe Caruso said:
Thank you Philip this is very useful and interesting indeed,

it seems to me your main concerns here have to do with length, place and observation in a "natural habitat" of the people we study. You suggest also that multi/sited ethnography does not need to be in contradiction with "long term" research. You finally refer to to unique manner in which we ethnographers gather "information" from "different sources" about "our subjects". And of course you stress the crucial importance of the length of experience on the field as that helps shape the ability of the researcher to perceive change and to collect relevant data (indeed your fieldwork researches are impressively long).

While reading and re-reading your suggestions I came to think about few issues rather recurring in my reflections too and which your statements helped me focus better. Let's see if i can bounce off a couple of statements in the same way you did based on those suggestions:

1. Ethnography is fundamentally different from other research strategies not only because it refers to a wider and more complex set of sources of information on which to base the analytical work but because the nature of ethnographic interaction is fundamentally different from other forms of information and data gathering. While fieldwork can easily be used as a tool of data gathering through observation and interviews etc, ethnography generates a unique interaction between "researcher" and "researched" (please note the quotation marks to signify that the same distinction is to me problematic). Such interaction is not only extractive but is (crucially i think) transformative for both or all the people involved. Such interactioin is not based only and not even mainly (i think) on the exchange of information. The unique kind of knowledge generated by ethnography is indeed the content of this interaction, of this "adaptive" interaction. This statement calls for the following:

2. In ethnographic research the radically dualistic distinction between researcher and researched needs to be challenged and reframed (but not, i think, in the terms used by Viveiros de Castro according to which it is the consciousness of the interaction and its content that distinguishes one from the other). Finally

3. knowledge is a relational adaptive quality that is generated in the interaction between individuals and between individuals and the surrounding environment. This adaptive interaction inscribes itself in the bodies/minds of those involved, rather than being an ordered string of instructions, generated by correct application of analytical algorithms on carefully selected data, that can be stored in brains as if they were electronic devices (as represented by the functionalist approach to mind and consciousness).

I guess i should stop here with my wild and rather little articulated statements on an early (sunny surprisingly) Friday afternoon.

Ciao
g
There is interesting article in today's National Post, entitled "Women in Bountiful Have More Power Than You Think: Researcher" http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=2035569. Bountiful is a Mormon polygamous community in Canada that has drawn quite a bit of hostile press and government investigation. However, recently a McGill law professor, Angela Campbell, has made some visits to Bountiful, speaking to a wide range of inhabitants and participating in a variety of events. She has written a report saying that Bountiful is much more complicated than journalists have indicated, that there is much more going on there than previously reported, that there is great diversity in the social patterns within the community, and that even what we thought we knew about the place, i.e. polygamy, does not work the way we imagined. She concedes that hers is a preliminary and not an exhaustive study, and should stimulate further inquiry. Not all in the audience, of course, were delighted to hear this report, for some do not wish their clear judgments meddled with.

Would it be justified to call Professor Campbell's visits and reports "ethnography"? She is not trained in ethnography, and her field research methods were probably haphazard. Maybe she didn't know about "the crisis of representation," or that in the course of her dialogical interactions she was being "inscribed." She just naively wanted to find out what was going on in that particular part of the world.

My reading of post-1980s anthropology is that anthropologists were a bit worn out by theoretical demands unmatched by research resources, and also a bit tired of being the invisible man. So we spent the last several decades contemplating everyone's favorite subject, ourselves. Anthropology became more and more about anthropologists. We became the stars of our own productions. And very satisfying it was. All of those boring and tedious methodological procedures, out the window! All the responsibility of objective reports, gone with a poof! Now its just us, doing our thing! All right!

Professor Campbell cannot be considered a real ethnographer, because she is trying to discover and explain the way (a part of) the world actually and really is. She is focussed on establishing knowledge of people beyond herself, rather than expressing her own unique experience. She thinks she has discovered some things about the world, while we know that there is no "world" to be discovered, just different stories, each equally valid, each equally personal. Poor, naive Professor Campbell.
Giuseppe,

Personally, I like where this seems to be going. Wasting time isn't an issue, in such cases. We can just skip a message or two, however unfair it seems.
It still reminds me of "intersubjectivity" which, to me, can look a bit like objectivity and certainly takes context into consideration. Hermeneutics and phenomenology, but in an ethnography-friendly "contextual" mode.
And it does have a lot to do with epistemology, in the strict sense. How do we construct and/or "gain" knowledge? Ethnography's strength, in my mind, is to address epistemology with both empiricism and inference.

Giuseppe Caruso said:
Philip, John, Alexandre

we seem to have hit (or at least I seem to read in the following way this very interesting conversation) the crucial issue on the nature of knowledge, either objective fact (independent of the selves of the creators) or subjective perception of, or adaptation to, an interaction (between individuals or between individuals and environment).

Somehow i seem to join John in his "yes but also no" approach. let me explain. My italian professor of cultural anthropology Pietro Clemente in the early 90s set a journal called Ossimori (Oxymoron) as he found that the most profound teaching an anthropologist learn by doing ethnography is bout the interpenetration of (assumed) radical opposites (some Shipibo-Conibo traditional healers used to explain to me how plants' spirits are both good "but also" bad and until i did not feel that i could not understand who they were, what they were doing and how they managed to heal their people).

It seems to me then that ethnographic knowledge is not objective neither it is subjective.. I believe the ethnographic interaction engages the researcher AND the researched (viveiro de castro's so insightful intuition on the nature of anthropology i share here fully) in rethinking some (little or much) of their knowledge. In this process crucial issues are involved that have to do with power/knowledge social dynamics... but about this consolidated contribution to our discipline I do not need to waste your time.

IF we find this useful, this approach asks us to look at both our selves and others' but also their social context and ours' and also what we think about knowledge and what they think etc. So for instance if you think "therapy" is a useful way to conceive about knowledge of one self you could find useful to confront that with the way in which the people you are working with think about the ways to know themselves and the world. For instance is so much shamanic literature you find that initiation is a powerful way to know, to inscribe knowledge in the person of the healer... and on these aspects of the literature i do not need to bore you anymore.

Concluding in the interaction of forms, practices, and attitudes of knowledge and knowing (as a practice etc.) the ethnographer is engaged directly and through his/her practice could say something on what knowledge and knowing are.





John McCreery said:
Thanks to Giuseppe for responding to Phil in such a stimulating manner. As I read his propositions I find myself saying both “yes” and “no.”

Ethnography is fundamentally different from other research strategies not only because it refers to a wider and more complex set of sources of information on which to base the analytical work but because the nature of ethnographic interaction is fundamentally different from other forms of information and data gathering.

Yes. The ethnographer’s physical, visceral “being there,” settling in and sharing a life for a substantial period of time, has no parallel in other forms of research in which researchers remain temporally, spatially or socially separated from those they study. And it can produce insights than more distanced methods do not.

No. As ethnographers write up their research, they have returned to a scholarly position temporally, spatially and socially separated from those whose lives they have shared. The usual questions concerning evidence, logic, and felicity of story and trope all apply to ethnographers as they do to other scholars.

In ethnographic research the radically dualistic distinction between researcher and researched needs to be challenged and reframed (but not, i think, in the terms used by Viveiros de Castro according to which it is the consciousness of the interaction and its content that distinguishes one from the other).
Yes. But...

No. I agree with Phil that the researcher’s goals and those of the people whose lives he or she shares are not the same. I would also argue that whether transformation occurs on either side is a question that can only be answered case-by-case. In my own case, I was in my mid-20s when I met my Daoist master in Taiwan; he was almost the same age as my father. I was a callow, young graduate student still fumbling as I searched for whom I might become. He had served in the Japanese military police during WWII, started and lost control of a wholesale vegetable market, established his storefront temple and built a clientele. He was married, with four sons. I saw no change in his character from when I first met him to when we said our last good-byes. There may have been inner transformations invisible on the surface. But my abiding impression is of a man with a fully adult, solidly formed character.

knowledge is a relational adaptive quality that is generated in the interaction between individuals and between individuals and the surrounding environment.

Yes. Of course. But...

No. If we have learned nothing else from the sociology of knowledge and science and technology studies, it is that this is always the case. Knowledge may first appear in individual minds pondering particular problems, but the way in which the problems are framed and addressed and the answers tested in conversations with others are all shaped by social relationships and the environments in which they occur.

I, too, have a lot more to think about. But these, for what they are worth, are my initial responses.
Not sure Campbell's so far from ethnography. In fact, I'd like her to be engaged in a conversation with us about ethnography. Results could be fascinating. After all, she's much closer to ethnography's mode of operation than most legal scholars. And we, "recognized" ethnographers, don't need to be so exclusive as to get Aviva Rosenstein to ask herself about how "fake" her ethnography is.
Which all gets me to think that I should pay Campbell a visit. Would give me an excuse to observe McG's campus population a bit more than I've been able to do so far, this academic year.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
There is interesting article in today's National Post, entitled "Women in Bountiful Have More Power Than You Think: Researcher" http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=2035569. Bountiful is a Mormon polygamous community in Canada that has drawn quite a bit of hostile press and government investigation. However, recently a McGill law professor, Angela Campbell, has made some visits to Bountiful, speaking to a wide range of inhabitants and participating in a variety of events. She has written a report saying that Bountiful is much more complicated than journalists have indicated, that there is much more going on there than previously reported, that there is great diversity in the social patterns within the community, and that even what we thought we knew about the place, i.e. polygamy, does not work the way we imagined. She concedes that hers is a preliminary and not an exhaustive study, and should stimulate further inquiry. Not all in the audience, of course, were delighted to hear this report, for some do not wish their clear judgments meddled with.

Would it be justified to call Professor Campbell's visits and reports "ethnography"? She is not trained in ethnography, and her field research methods were probably haphazard. Maybe she didn't know about "the crisis of representation," or that in the course of her dialogical interactions she was being "inscribed." She just naively wanted to find out what was going on in that particular part of the world.

My reading of post-1980s anthropology is that anthropologists were a bit worn out by theoretical demands unmatched by research resources, and also a bit tired of being the invisible man. So we spent the last several decades contemplating everyone's favorite subject, ourselves. Anthropology became more and more about anthropologists. We became the stars of our own productions. And very satisfying it was. All of those boring and tedious methodological procedures, out the window! All the responsibility of objective reports, gone with a poof! Now its just us, doing our thing! All right!

Professor Campbell cannot be considered a real ethnographer, because she is trying to discover and explain the way (a part of) the world actually and really is. She is focussed on establishing knowledge of people beyond herself, rather than expressing her own unique experience. She thinks she has discovered some things about the world, while we know that there is no "world" to be discovered, just different stories, each equally valid, each equally personal. Poor, naive Professor Campbell.
@Philip:

Re: “In ethnographic research, we observe and engage the people we study in their natural habitat, as they go about their real lives”.

After having completed 20 months of fieldwork (I guess this is what you mean by ethnography here – for me ethnography (writing) is intertwined but distinct from fieldwork) I would question the fruitfulness of the above categorisation. I don’t see myself as having studied people in their “natural habitat” and I stop short of the qualification of “real lives”. Natural habitat is a term we associate with animals reliant on instincts intimately linked to surroundings. Human beings are able to transcend being tied to habitat in that way – they rely on more than instinct to a greater extent than most animals. I also think the emphasis on long term can also be overstated. I agree that the fieldwork experience can be intense and intimate, but its “look” is more situated, patchwork and partial. It is for this reason that I think ethnography (fieldwork) has to be about a negotiation between the people being studied and those studying them. As I have said before anthropology is a political exercise.
Brett
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