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?

Views: 17446

Replies to This Discussion

Giuseppe, allow me to respond to just a couple of the many provocative points that you have made:

First, you say, "I think that the ogres you are talking about would probably not understand what you are talking about..."
Oh dear, Giuseppe, is this how you see our fellow citizens, our elected politicians, our university officials? "Ogres"? Aren't you falling into a rather extreme elitism here? And an anti-democratic one at that?

Second, you refer to "the neoliberal ways in which capitalism is destroying itself, the planet and the people that populate it." Perhaps we need another thread to address such a major issue. And far be it from me to defend capitalism. Certainly I agree that capitalism is the worst system imaginable. Except for all of the others. I just have a hard time working up enthusiasm for fascism, communism, and predatory jihadi cleptocracies, or for well meaning but non-functioning utopian experiments. Let's not let the ideal be the enemy of the best possible.
Phil,

Aren't you replying to the question, "Is it ever right to sell your knowledge of a people?" instead of Brett's actual question,

"You can't sell all your knowledge of or about a people - or can you? Or how much do you sell/ who do you compromise?" [Emphasis added]
.
As I recall, the classic mode of social anthropology in which we were trained largely avoided this issue by its focus on social or cultural facts, i.e., generalizations concerning local common sense, rules, values, habits, whatever, ascribed to a group instead of particular individuals. This methodological stance implied that a critical task for ethnographers was sorting through their field notes and carefully cross-checking to eliminate the idiosyncratic. Informant anonymity was easy to maintain, since the anthropologist wrote about a collective them instead of particular individuals.

In the last several decades, however, trends on both the scientific and interpretive sides of the discipline have eroded this stance. The scientist's desire to know more about how customs, habits and opinions are distributed in populations, the historian's desire to know who said what, speaking from what social position or life experience, the notion of giving voice to the voiceless, embraced as a moral imperative by many: all make it increasingly difficult to write about a collective them without revealing details that make individuals identifiable. When the idiosyncratic is data, how can it be excluded? But should it be revealed if embarrassing or dangerous to the individuals in question? To which we must now add, in the case of people and peoples aware of libel, slander, copyright and intellectual property law, how to address the claims of those who demand control of what is said about them or compensation for what they assert are their intellectual assets.

In these circumstances, the "If not all, then how much?" question can no longer be evaded.
Giuseppe, these are questions (note the question marks) meant for examination, and not meant as personal. If you find them too personal or too harsh, I withdraw them.

Giuseppe Caruso said:
Philip let me apologise, wholeheartedly. I guess that my provocations, made just for the sake of argument, triggered something that may become rather harsh. Elitist sounds almost like a compliment when compared to anti-democratic (oh boy anti- you say!), but both of them sound a bit too personal for an academic conversation aimed at unpacking our understanding of where our specific strengths lie as ethnographers. So please let me step back a moment and reflect on your words and what may have provoked them.
Giuseppe said, "i believe that the strength of ethnography is that to help us learn from others other ways of living life .... By accepting difference as a treasure, we can imagine alternatives....

Leaving aside different assessments of the Western ways of life, I agree with both parts of your argument: Yes, "the strength of ethnography is that to help us learn from others other ways of living life." Yes, it is wise to consider alternative ways of life, and to view one's lifeways critically by means of reflecting upon alternative courses.

However, in order to do this, would we not wish to have confidence in the reports that we have of other ways of life? Would we not wish the reports to be reliable and valid, so that we know we are considering realities rather than fantasies or errors, personal expressions or obsessions? Would we not wish to know that the accounts we are hearing offer alternatives that actually exist in the world? How else could we make any serious judgements based upon them, or choices of alternative courses of action based upon them?
John, these are good questions, and do have to be considered when writing up. For my own part, I have always felt that being as geographically and historically precise and explicit is the best policy. So I have always used real names of individuals and groups, and locations, and have tried to indicate dates. But where it was clear to me that information might be used against individuals, I did not identify them and spoke in a more general fashion. For example, some people I wrote about were engaged in illegal activities, such as smuggling, fighting with state security officials, running drugs, even murder, but when I discussed these activities I did so without naming individuals and framed the discussion in a somewhat decontextualized fashion. As far as I know, and even today I am in touch with members of the tribe, no one who I wrote about got into trouble because I wrote about them.

Realistically, though, no one back home is interested whether Omar or Ido was the smuggler, or whether Ali or Hassan shot that border guard. The folks back home--whether foreign service officers, NGOs, military, other academics, or businessmen--are more interested in the general patterns of life, the ideas, beliefs, hopes, fears, and expectations of people, and the groups, networks, factions, and conflicts. When we share our knowledge of these things--whether as authors, teachers, or consultants--we cannot control how people understand them, what they do with them, or how they apply them. To be certain that no one will use our ethnographic knowledge in ways that we disapprove, we must stay silent. But can we remain silent and still be ethnographers?

John McCreery said:
Phil,

Aren't you replying to the question, "Is it ever right to sell your knowledge of a people?" instead of Brett's actual question,

"You can't sell all your knowledge of or about a people - or can you? Or how much do you sell/ who do you compromise?" [Emphasis added]
.
As I recall, the classic mode of social anthropology in which we were trained largely avoided this issue by its focus on social or cultural facts, i.e., generalizations concerning local common sense, rules, values, habits, whatever, ascribed to a group instead of particular individuals. This methodological stance implied that a critical task for ethnographers was sorting through their field notes and carefully cross-checking to eliminate the idiosyncratic. Informant anonymity was easy to maintain, since the anthropologist wrote about a collective them instead of particular individuals.

In the last several decades, however, trends on both the scientific and interpretive sides of the discipline have eroded this stance. The scientist's desire to know more about how customs, habits and opinions are distributed in populations, the historian's desire to know who said what, speaking from what social position or life experience, the notion of giving voice to the voiceless, embraced as a moral imperative by many: all make it increasingly difficult to write about a collective them without revealing details that make individuals identifiable. When the idiosyncratic is data, how can it be excluded? But should it be revealed if embarrassing or dangerous to the individuals in question? To which we must now add, in the case of people and peoples aware of libel, slander, copyright and intellectual property law, how to address the claims of those who demand control of what is said about them or compensation for what they assert are their intellectual assets.

In these circumstances, the "If not all, then how much?" question can no longer be evaded.
Giuseppe said, "You raise another fundamental issues then: So why are they funded? Why are we funded? What are we functional to (some would suggest the question uncovers patterns of domination or perhaps of an hegemony and counter-hegemony war of position)?"

Here Giuseppe asks whether our ethnographic knowledge is put to uses of which we might not approve. Are we supported and funded by institutions intent upon using our knowledge for nefarious purposes?

There are perhaps many reasons that these questions are apt. But I would mention one that appears to me basic: human being often strive to benefit, and often do not mind benefiting at the expense of others. In some circumstances, there are double benefits in succeeding at the expense of others: the rewards of domination, high status, and honour rise from superiority to those dominated, of low status, and without honour.

Certainly it is true that during most of the recorded history of mankind, identification and loyalty were limited to a relatively small in-group, and outsiders were deemed fair targets. In tribal societies, wars against neighbours were standard procedure, and young men commonly started their herds and reputations by raiding neighbours. No tribe ever hestiated taking the land of their neighbours if they had the strength to do so. Ibn Khadun described the repeated invasion of states by tribes from the periphery. More complex political formations favoured empires built on conquest, expansion, and slavery. Cultural visions of dominance and wars for dominance continue today. Many ethnographers would not like their work put to the service of these projects.

At the same time, could not ethnographic knowledge serve in ways that many of us would regard as more constructive? For example, establishing peaceful diplomatic, tourist, and business relations between cultures might benefit from an ethnographically based knowledge of the cultures involved. Providing emergency assistance in catastrophes, medical aid, and development assistance would be facilitated by an understanding of the societies and cultures involved. My impression is that vast resources are wasted because of "top-down" programs that do not take into account what local people are concerned with and able to manage, and with the way things actually work in the places that the programs are supposed to help. Here too, though, the ethnographic knowledge, to be useful, must be well grounded, solidly based, and reliable.

Do you not think it is likely that people offering scarce resources--and funds are always scarce, in the sense that there is never sufficient for the demand--to support ethnography, will expect some benefit, some payoff from it? I don't think it is unreasonable for taxpayers and officials to ask whether they are getting fair value for their investments. Certainly we can justify ethnography in humanistic terms of self reflection and self criticism, and should do so. But we can strengthen our requests for resources with evidence that our work is useful in practical ways also, in advancing the collective projects that we as citizens and our elected officials have endorsed.
Do you not think it is likely that people offering scarce resources--and funds are always scarce, in the sense that there is never sufficient for the demand--to support ethnography, will expect some benefit, some payoff from it? I don't think it is unreasonable for taxpayers and officials to ask whether they are getting fair value for their investments. Certainly we can justify ethnography in humanistic terms of self reflection and self criticism, and should do so. But we can strengthen our requests for resources with evidence that our work is useful in practical ways also, in advancing the collective projects that we as citizens and our elected officials have endorsed.

These are extremely important issues, whose poignancy is only increased by the realization that they affect not only ethnography but increasingly a whole range of academic disciplines now that the grand vision that any contribution to knowledge is a good and important thing has been severely weakened. One important reason for returning to the big questions and comparative research that speaks to issues affecting humanity as a whole is that, without them, ethnography becomes like the 2000th reading of Wallace Stevens, possibly intensely interesting to a handful of people, but not enough to provide institutional support for what has, in effect, become an esoteric hobby.

Geertz said something about culture being silent about itself. Ethnography allows to watch what people do versus what they say. Deeper meanings are sussed out to give a clearer picture of human interaction.

RSS

Translate

OAC Press

@OpenAnthCoop

Events

© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service