Wednesday, June 20, 2012


“...a trenchant critique of anthropology being accepted as a social science/ And not the art of educated observation/ And all the things that we can learn about ourselves in the context of someone else.” (Mike Kinsella)

We've been discussing the generalizability of ethnography over at OrgTheory. Specifically, Fabio Rojas has been arguing that if a study is organized to include a great number of field sites, like a significant number of high schools in New York city for example, and ethnographic writing (especially the taking of field notes) is properly "standardized", then generalizations are possible. For example, we could answer the question, "Do teachers treat boys and girls differently in classes?" The observations of each of the ethnographers (who have been sent out to different schools) could be anonymized and aggregated and interpreted by a team effort. Just as we can answer the question of whether going to an ivy league school will affect your future income based on survey data, we can answer this question about teachers "scientifically", based on ethnographic data.

When I asked him to get more specific about his methodology, i.e., the standards according to which the field work was to be carried out, he referred me to Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Here’s something from the blurb:

[The authors] show how transforming direct observations into vivid descriptions results not simply from good memory but more crucially from learning to envision scenes as written. A good ethnographer, they demonstrate, must learn to remember dialogue and movement like an actor, to see colors and shapes like a painter, and to sense moods and rhythms like a poet. The authors also emphasize the ethnographer’s core interest in presenting the perceptions and meanings which the people studied attach to their own actions. They demonstrate the subtle ways that writers can make the voices of people heard in the texts they produce. Finally, they analyze the ‘processing’ of fieldnotes, the practice of coding notes to identify themes and methods for selecting and weaving together fieldnote excerpts to write a polished ethnography.

That last sentence is the sticking point, I think. What Fabio is suggesting is that the final “processing” of the “data” can be a collective enterprise, entirely separate from the literary arts and crafts of the ethnographer in the field (so like an actor, so like a painter, so like a poet). On my view, only the observer has the authority to “polish” the result into a proper ethnography, because only the observer is able to reverse the art of writing by “envisioning the scenes as written”, comparing it with memory, and then “make the voices of the people heard in the texts they produce”. In this sense, it is very different from statistical analysis of national data sets for example.

At bottom, I reject the idea that an ethnographer's field notes constitute data. They are not "given" to the researcher in advance of interpretation but emerge from the researcher's act of interpretation. That does not make it worthless, but it does make it unscientific. All the researcher can do now is to produce a "polished ethnography", i.e., a statement of his or her perceptions and interpretations, which we can then engage with based on our own perceptions and interpretations of social life. Obviously, there is something especially interesting about how one ethnographer reacts to the work of another, not least if both have done field work in New York City high schools. But the "generalization" that emerges comes from the subtle effects that such accounts and debates will have on our imagination if the study is widely discussed. This makes it much more like humanistic scholarship than scientific inquiry.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Have you discussed the idea of what constitutes data anywhere before?