What Makes Something Ethnographic?

How do you know when you are reading an ethnography? What makes a book or article ethnographic? This past semester I taught a new undergraduate course titled Reading Ethnography in which the students and I asked these questions as a means of appraising the specificity and content of ethnographic knowledge. Our first challenge was to articulate what the term “ethnographic” meant. What are those qualities that make a piece of scholarship ethnographic rather than simply descriptive or anthropological?

Etymologically, the ethnographic comes from ethnography. Following from its Greek origins, ethnography is the writing of people, of society, of culture: ethnos means “folk/the people” and grapho is “to write.” In noun form, ethnography is no longer tethered just to writing. Instead, it is often used to refer to a type of research; it is not only non-anthropologists who use the term this way. We do it too. We talk about “doing ethnography,” using it as a shorthand for fieldwork, saying ethnography when we mean ethnographic research. By ethnographic research we mean the ever-evolving Malinowskian program of (usually) a single ethnographer in the field conducting participant-observation, living within a community, and getting deeply into the rhythms, logics, and complications of life as lived by a people in a place, or perhaps by peoples in places. But, even at its most methodological, ethnography is not only about method. (And it certainly does not mean to watch someone or interview someone or assemble a focus group as it is sometimes understood and practiced.) Ethnography and the ethnographic is a method and a theory and a material object (“the book”) and a position in the world. As Sherry Ortner puts it in her 2006 book Anthropology and Social Theory, ethnography “has always meant the attempt to understand another life world using the self—as much as it of possible—as the instrument of knowing.”

Researching and writing ethnography is an experiential and embodied practice, and in Clifford Geertz’s classic phrasing, we expect it to be composed of “thick description.” What counts as thickness shifts over the decades and across theoretical and methodological approaches, but one thing that remains constant is a commitment to realism. Whether non-fiction or fiction, prose or poetry, ethnography is a realist genre.

In class, we tracked the ethnographic by reading and comparing six different contemporary ethnographies covering different parts of the globe, each written by an American anthropologist. (Again, this was an undergraduate level course; at the graduate level, you could do different things with period and place and national scholarships.) The ethnographies were Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (University of New Mexico Press, 1996), Kristen Ghodsee’s Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism (Duke University Press, 2011), Donna Goldstein’s Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (University of California Press, 2003), Danny Hoffman’s The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Duke University Press, 2011), Mandana Limbert’s In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory, and Social Life in an Omani Town (Stanford University Press, 2010), and my book Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Duke University Press, 2010).

Prior to reading the ethnographies, we read about and discussed trends and shifts in ethnographic writing in anthropology. Key to the class was George Marcus and Dick Cushman’s piece “Ethnographies as Texts” from the 1982 Annual Review of Anthropology in which they review the state of ethnographic writing at the time of and following Geertz’s discipline-changing The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). They identify nine characteristics of ethnographic realist writing:

  1. a narrative structure organized by topic, chronology, or a problem;
  2. the unintrusive presence of the ethnographer in the text;
  3. common denominator people, not as characters but just “the people;”
  4. based on ethnographic data produced through fieldwork;
  5. a focus on everyday life situations, what they see as a case study merger of interpretive and realist goals;
  6. an emphasis on the native point of view;
  7. establishing specificity and sufficient context for any generalizations made;
  8. the use of disciplinary jargon to signal anthropological scholarship; and,
  9. contextual exegesis of native concepts and discourses.

This list is now thirty years old. Some parts of it have stood the test of time, but what might such a list look like if generated now, in 2012?

As my class read the above ethnographies, we discussed each in relation to Marcus and Cushman’s list, over the semester cumulatively assessing both the ethnographies and the list. At the end of the course, we collectively generated our own list of what makes something ethnographic now. Our list also had nine items:

  1. anthropological purpose via research question and argument;
  2. yet, in dialogue with issues of local concern;
  3. attempt to articulate native point of view;
  4. focus on ethnographic realities, on life as lived, on everyday life and ordinary time rather than solely on extra-ordinary time;
  5. people appear as named individuals rather than categories;
  6. clear marking of the production of ethnographic knowledge, i.e., of how the anthropologist knows what he or she knows;
  7. sufficient context and background in terms of the literature, history, theory, etc.;
  8. ethnographer’s relationship with the community s/he writes about, how was trust gained, relationships of care forged?; and,
  9. clear scholarly credibility of the author, reader’s trust of their credentials.

Three things not on Marcus and Cushman’s list were deemed key by my students, and to them were instrumental in the making of a successful ethnography. These were: (1) a transparency of the ethnographer as researcher; by this they meant not gratuitous reflexivity, but a clear and communicated sense of how knowledge was accumulated, of what the scholar’s relationships with the community were; (2) the presence of people in the text as characters who you get to know, people who appear as themselves, as real people; and (3) clear demonstration that the topic being studied matters; by this they meant mattered not only in an anthropological sense, but mattered and was relevant to the people in the community. To my students, these were the hallmarks of the current ethnographic realism. These were the things needed to make the ethnographic seem thick and thus real and trustworthy.

What would be on your list? What makes something ethnographic now, in this particular disciplinary and world historical-political moment?

 

Carole McGranahan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She is grateful to the students in the Spring 2012 Reading Ethnography for their entirely uncensored views and critiques of all the books they read in class, including her own.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

24 thoughts on “What Makes Something Ethnographic?

  1. I enjoyed reading your post – what a great class! I especially like the three last points about what makes an ethnography successful from the point of view of your students. Regarding #2, memorable people in the text, I tried using the case study by Andrew Strathern Conflicts & Collaborations A Leader through Time, which focuses on Ongka, because of the film about the moka trade, (Ongka’s Big Moka); and found that the corresponding text was so dry and boring. Whereas the film presents such a charismatic person, students found the text useless! I keep wanting to find an ethnography that my undergrads can relate to – I’m still looking.

    In the first week of class this quarter, I created a mini-homework assignment which directed students to the library to find an ethnography (a book) and briefly asses it based on a dozen or so questions; and then discuss their findings the next day in class. In my Intro to Cultural Anthro class, I found this was a useful way to have an immediate introduction to the texts that cultural anthropologists have traditionally produced. In response to the questions that I pose at the end of the list “Who do you think the intended audience of the book is? and “What do you think the purpose(s) of this book could be” I find they usually come up with some interesting perspectives.

  2. Great post Carole. I often describe thing that I like as ‘ethnographic’ whether they are memoirs, documentaries, or video games but I’ve never nailed down exactly what I mean by the term. Do you know Wardle and Gay y Blasco’s “How to Read Ethnography”? I’ve taught it before with some success — it really did a lot of work for me as it dug out the rhetorical structure of ethnographies (and is a bit fairer to some of the older texts than the Writing Culture crowd seem to be).

  3. Great post. I find the new list somewhat more convincing than the old, even though I would suggest that some points are actually qualities of any good research, not just ethnographic one. Take for instance the first addition by your students – “clear and communicated sense of how knowledge was accumulated” is nothing short of a shortcut definition of academic vs. non-academic knowledge.

    But I totally agree that ethnography can stand out from general academia in a) clear commitment to individual voices (since psychologists turned quantitative, we seem to be the only one who uphold this committment) and b) appreciation (though not blindly) of emic categories. I have blogged about both issues in the past (if I may spam a bit): bit.ly/JQTjvC (on emic and etic) and http://bit.ly/GO6d9i (on taking individuals seriously). Thanks to your students for emphasising these issues, and to you for posting them…

  4. John, I forgot who you were until I read your post, because you were pretty abrasive the last time you replied to me; in this vein, grant me some excess:

    There are a lot of you lurking around the internetz. Those with PhDs from the hallowed institutions (although Cornell doesn’t cut it anymore) who didn’t amount to much in the academy, chose different routes, and still like to throw shit at those who were able to make it. Listen loud and clear: we’re sorry for what happened! But please, leave your angst at the door, we get it enough from our friends, families, and and significant others to have you project your inadequacy to produce ideas relevant to anthropology at us. We have to teach the students that you dreamed of teaching while trying to move the discipline forward.

  5. Yes, sometimes I am abrasive. An abrasive is sometimes required to clean up muddy thinking. One thing you can be sure of, though. Your inference that I am motivated by jealous envy of those who “made it” but still have to hide behind pseudonyms on line does not speak well of your research skills.

    Have I published a book? Yes. Have I published in top-tier journals? Yes. Do I get invited to conferences in interesting places, like the one I went to last weekend in Guangzhou? Yes. Do I have to worry about grading? Teaching huge classes? Or committee meetings? Or sucking up to administrators? Or being stuck with colleagues with whom I don’t get along? Or being defunded by legislatures filled with right wing yahoos? No. What is it precisely that I am supposed to be envious of?

    Do I read all the moaning and whinging about how ugly life inside the ivory tower is these days with a wee bit of schadenfreude? Well, yes. I’m only human.

    But when push comes to shove, I am free, as only a self-supporting independent scholar with enough in the bank to live comfortably and pursue his hobbies when the inbox is empty of paying work can be, to speak frankly and push ideas as far as I can, in the hope that someone will prove me wrong and teach me something. I wish it would happen more often.

  6. One of the wonderful things about this blog over the years is the way in which it has built a community of readers and contributors that bridges generations, locations, and yes people working inside and outside academia. In recent weeks, a number of stalwarts have been subject to quite nasty attacks for things they have said, or as often as not, things someone has imagined they said. In this case, a throwaway line from John McCreery has been the subject of two, really unpleasantly nasty, attacks from an anonymous poster.

    As someone “in the academy” can I say that I have learnt enormously from engagements with my colleagues, students, friends, who decided to try doing their anthropology in some other setting. My only regret is the way that institutionalized walls can prevent ideas and discoveries from outside feeding back into more mainstream academic arguments some of the time. A site like SM does a splendid job of breaking down that kind of boundary. Long may it thrive.

    And in the meantime, can we have a bit of civility and respect?

  7. Best of luck, Thinkin. But you still need to work on your research skills. You missed “Negotiating with Demons” american ethnologist, 1995. If I knew what you have written, I’d look it up and read it. Might learn something. Guess I won’t have the opportunity.

    Thank you, Jonathan for your kind words. And Raphael, please forgive me for the sharpness of my tone. That was unnecessary.

    Not an excuse for being rude; but, if you will, allow me to explain why the casual use of “emic” and “etic” as synonyms for the native’s and the outsider’s point of view drives me nuts.

    When Kenneth Pike developed the original contrast between phonemic and phonetic analysis, he was talking about something very concrete. Studies of human languages have demonstrated convincingly that that all human languages make use of subsets of the larger, universal set of contrasts made possible by the human vocal apparatus. The point of phonemic analysis is to describe the subset of contrasts that are significant in the language being studied, in contrast to other possible phonetic contrasts that are not significant in that language. How does one discover which contrasts are significant? The method of minimal contrasts, presenting pairs of strings of sounds that differ in only one possible phonetic contrast to test if the informant hears them as different words.

    In this context, the difference between phon”emic” and phone”etic” is theoretically grounded, precisely defined and clearly operationalized. What the extension of “emit” and “etic” to other cultural domains resulted in was a lot of what Gerald Berreman famously characterized as “Anemic and Emetic Analysis.” There was nothing like the precisely defined set of possible phonetic contrasts embodied in the International Phonetic Alphabet to start with. That made it hard to specify concretely what a minimal contrast would look like. Consider a steak, for example. How can you precisely distinguish raw, bleu, rare, medium rare, medium, well done, reduced to shoe leather? Lévi-Strauss suggests the possibility of a Medelevian Table of the Mind in _Tristes Tropiques_, but his execution in the _Mythologiques_ is weakened by reliance on Hegelian dialectic and failure to consider other possible ways of describing relationships.

    Be that as it may be, when later generations of anthropologists simply equate emit and etic with the native’s and the other’s point of view, the contrast has been stripped of its original significance and turned into a pallid mockery of the original science. And, coming back to my mentioning historians and biographers, if all that “emic” means is trying to decipher what the subject of a study has in mind, it doesn’t sustain the claim that anthropologists have something special to offer. Historians, biographers, literary scholars, people in all sorts of disciplines that are lumped together as humanities, have been trying to get into the minds of their subjects and figure out what they were thinking and feeling for….my guess would be centuries…long before, anyway, anthropology was even a glint in Tylor’s eye.

    And psychologists? Quants may rule the roost academically, but how many thousands of therapists are there, trained in active listening skills, trained to listen carefully to what the client is saying without intruding their own ideas, who would find that contrast you draw ludicrous in the extreme.

  8. Thanks for reading, everyone. The administrators asked me to remind folks about the Savage Minds comment policy (see link at top of page). Whether you’re a new commenter or someone who does so frequently, posting anonymously or in your own name, please be civil.

    In terms of thinking about what makes something ethnographic, @Rex this is exactly why I wanted to teach this class. I think we all know what it is, and we know a good ethnography when we read it (see it, hear it, etc.), but we haven’t necessarily done a great job at defining or articulating it. This post is my own beginning to do so; it is part of a talk I recently gave that I’m revising now for publication.

    When I was planning the course I read the Intro to _How to Read Ethnography_, found it very useful, then ordered the book and it never arrived. Thanks for the reminder to follow up on that!

    @mbb Memorable people in the text was crucial for my students. The books we read for class had varying degrees of success with this, but those that did it well brought the students into the text and stories and arguments in more successful ways. To me, this is one of the key aspects of the new “new ethnography.” Not that anthropologists haven’t done it well in the past, but it hasn’t-I think–been part of a substantive new disciplinary strategy or desire.

    We did talk a good deal about audience, and also about publishing (which I hadn’t entirely anticipated). The question of how to get good ethnographies in to the hands of a non-academic reading public was something we discussed in several contexts, including that university presses tend not to have big marketing or pr budgets. This was where we also discussed genre, asking if genres other than the non-fiction monograph might do a better job with this, especially film (which brings us full circle back to your film vs. book point).

  9. Carole, first, let me join the chorus of praise for what you are doing. I am particularly impressed by your not only providing a clear list of questions for your students but also inviting them to add their own questions. To me, what is most striking is that the latter moves your students from their usual role “Doing what the teacher tells us to do” to “Joining the teacher as a colleague.” The lesson that they, too, can contribute to knowledge is an invaluable one. This exercise is, moreover, as your students demonstrate, a highly productive one.

    What I’d like to do now is step back and examine their suggestions in a larger context. I observe that when you students stress the importance of memorable people they are behaving in ways consistent with trends in the larger culture that surrounds them. I am thinking, in particular, of the focus on celebrity, personality and character that pervades the mass media and contemporary political discourse and the movement in marketing research to develop “personas” with “stories” to represent the output of what may be at bottom statistical cluster analysis.

    I observe, having been involved professionally in the marketing exercise, that memorable characters are enormously useful in humanizing the results of research and making them more persuasive. They do, however, have a downside. Care must be taken not to let them so dominate the foreground that the structural and material conditions of the situations in which their lives unfold (or, in the case of personas, are imagined as unfolding) are obscured.

    So I would like to add another question to your list: Does the ethnography take me backstage? Does it adequately clarify the contexts within which the events that make the characters memorable occur?

    In the advertising world, a recurrent topic of discussion and debate is the fear of creating an ad that consumers remember as “Wasn’t that the one with X?,” where X is a celebrity, cute character, or stunning special effect, but they don’t remember the sponsor, the product or product message. “It was that crazy beer ad….I don’t remember which beer, but the dog who opened the refrigerator…that was amazing.” “Do you remember that book with the amazing woman….What was that? Anthro? Or sociology?….Wasn’t it the Women’s Studies class?”

  10. Can you please explain what #1 – “anthropological purpose via research question and argument” means?

    What is an anthropological purpose?

  11. @John McCreery Simply apologising doesn’t make you any less rude. You are, in most of your posts, hot-headed and blunt judging from the overall unpleasant exchanges you seem to habitually participate in on this blog. And as to your explanation of emic and etic, one wonders how much anthropology have you studied and why a philosopher(?) criticises our discipline (and its representatives) so ferociously and so unashamedly, shouldn’t it be at least explained by you. In this instance I don’t see where are you coming from and why citing Pike, other than reminding us a certain historical context, but I can only say, as everything, definitions and formulas change their meaning with time, some shift away from their “original significance”, some become practice and common speech. There’s no wrong or right it’s just the way things are; don’t try to be more than human pretending it’s not. Lastly, I’d like to say that if not for the tone of your comments I’d probably read them more frequently. One can be witty, eloquent and humorous without being sarcastic and sensationalist, albeit some of your insights are just not very useful when it comes to anthropology, because after all, it is not philosophy. Good day.

  12. John’s a PhD holder of anthropology, not philosophy. I’d also like to second basically everything he wrote here. I don’t think that academics understand exactly how far removed they are from the majority of the discipline, which is constituted by practicing anthropologists with advanced degrees working as professional researchers outside of the academy.

    I think the frustration that John is feeling comes from the sense that the academy really isn’t producing any kind of usable knowledge anymore. What I see, and what I think John is talking about, is that it looks like too many students who really wanted to become philosophers and lit. critics, decided instead to major in anthropology and fit social science principles to their wants and needs, rather than the other way around.
    The old, simplistic model of those who couldn’t make it in the academy and simply used the knowledge gained from the academy to personal profit is over; I don’t thing this was ever the case, but it certainly isn’t now.

    All researchers like John and me read from the academy are rather narcissistic musings of anthropologists talking about anthropology, which generally end with a call for some “new direction in anthropology”. The new direction is invariably vague, based on concepts without prior application or record of measurable success, and without any clear connection to existing practices or power / incentive structures. It’s like a meeting without goals or purpose, that never ends (only breaks), and which is never held accountable to produce anything but the meeting minutes.

    If you think this is not accurate or unfair, then that’s fine. However, that is exactly what it looks like to everyone else. Ya’ll need to think about that instead of simply disregard this perception when it is brought to you over and over again. It honestly feels like the discipline has moved backwards over the past 30 years. The innovation, rigor, and theory isn’t being produced in the academy so much as it is in the daily practice of professional researchers outside of it. If a researcher can do straight-forward, consistent, and purposeful research then let them do it, and not just talk about it incessantly.

    Outside the academy you have to be able to tell people exactly what you do, and how it can help them in under 30 secs. Whatever you may think about that, such practices focus you and your thought in a way that doesn’t allow pointless meandering. It’s harder to write a 3 page report than a 25 page article, harder to write a resume than a CV. These are good things, and should be included in any academic training.

    Case in point: “4. focus on ethnographic realities, on life as lived, on everyday life and ordinary time rather than solely on extra-ordinary time;”

    It is much harder to operationalize what “ethnographic realities” are given specific research goals and objectives, and deciding what data will be gathered, how, by whom, using what technologies / techniques, etc… than just saying this. I’m not saying that this list isn’t wonderful, because it is, I’m just not sure than this isn’t something that we don’t already know and have known for decades. I can’t understand why we can’t get past this basic point as a discipline to nail down exactly how one actually does this in the field with a research plan, and analytical methods already picked out for the data gathered, than to create a long list of abstract and general lists. I don’t know if this is exactly what is done, but in my experience probably not so much. Rather Russ Bernard’s research methods book will be assigned, and for some reason it will never be made obvious to everyone that he gave us all a concrete guide to exactly how to do field research; step-by-step. [Again, I understand the purpose of this thread is to talk about teaching undergrads, but I know a few PhD's that can't get very far past these basics].

    I will relate it to a list I put together a couple of years ago during a development project for a large city to help align an environmental sustainability program with actual practices, needs, and social networks of low-income, minority residents. I didn’t have a year to get this done, and I had to nail down the inferences I could make from everything we know about how social networks operate, development economics, political science, etc… to create a template of what could be expected before even getting to the field site.
    From research I knew that a person’s network offered 6 things:

    1. Emotional aid
    2. Small services- lending or giving small household items, organizational help.
    3. Large services- long-term healthcare, childcare, home repairs, moving.
    4. Financial aid- Small or large loans usually at no interest, or cash gifts.
    5. Companionship
    6. Information

    For the purposes of the project I was interested in 2,3, 4, and 6 only. I also knew from research that:

    • The number of a person’s significant daily influencers’ decreases exponentially per unit of measure with the square of that measure (Latane et al. 2008).
    • The more people that are in a person’s social network, the fewer of those people by percentage will be strong ties, the inverse in also true (Roberts et al. 2009).
    • The longer a person is in a network the more accurately they will list the patterns of people and their relationships, whereas people new to a network give more accurate details of who was at any single event (Krackhardt 1987; Freeman et al. 1987).
    • The more alters listed, generally the more accurate the information they give about the network (Freeman et al 1987).
    • A person is usually cognitively biased to believe they are at the centers of a social network, and that alters in their network have similar ties to each other (Krackhardt 1987).
    • Social, economic, and geographic variables all effect networks; often in predictable ways (Bott 1957; Grannis 1998; Stack 1974; Merry 1981; Wasserman & Faust 2009).
    • Household networks do not have organized groups, or common boundaries (Bott 1957).
    • When one person relates to another with multiple roles (brother and friend), they will have stronger and more stable ties (Granovetter 1973; Stack 1974; Brass 1992; Wellman & Wortley 1990).
    • Stronger ties offer more support (emotional, material, and social) (Wellman & Wortley 1990).
    • Homogeneity in networks stifles new information, especially in reference to employment (Granovetter 1973, Stoloff 1999).
    • Kin act as stable resource sources, and usually provide greater support less often, while friends are less-stable, but more adaptive and more frequent source support. A combination of the two offers the most supportive networks (Wellman & Wortley 1990).
    • Networks are usually gendered with women offering more emotional support, and men providing more material support (Wellman & Wortley 1990; Tannen 1994).

    [BTW, the only anthro cited was Bott, from 1957].

    From here I was able to map out the area and predict geographic barriers that would affect how information and innovation in sustainable practices would spread depending on how social networks were constituted. I was then able to focus down on what data was needed from social networks, etc… to solve the problem for my client, which was how to develop buy-in and spread information about behavior changes that would benefit sustainable practices. I’d like to know how many first year academics help to shape sustainable practices for one of the largest cities in the U.S.? I’m not sure why we should envy academics. I consider the job a hardship tour for saints, and those at the end of their careers to give something back.

    I showed you mine, so now show me yours [not directed toward Carole, but generally. No animus towards Carole at all]. Exactly how has anyone reading this blog post developed a best practices that they have used to organize, operationalize, and plan their research with an end goal in mind? It’s a lot harder than talking about it than do it. If you aren’t teaching your students these skills and this reality, then you are setting them up for failure, because very few of them are going to be academics.

  13. Hi all. I didn’t get a chance to check the blog over the weekend and it looks like this thread is threatening to metastasize. I’d just like to ask everyone to step back a bit and calm down in case they hadn’t already. This is a great post with a lot of possibilities for discussion which — like many of our best posts — is interesting because it appeals to the academics, nonacademics, formerly academic nonacademics, activsts, academic activists, formerly nonacademic activists etc. If people haven’t already walked away from this comment thread and still want to contribute, let’s try taking the energy and interest and channeling it into Carole’s question. Thanks.

  14. @Luana

    I have been asked by the blog owners to cool it a bit, and I shall. I would, however, like to share with you one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given. A woman named Alice Buzzarte told me, “To succeed in our business, you will need a thick skin. At least three out of four of your brilliant ideas are going straight into the trash can.” Alice was talking about advertising, but I strongly suspect that what she said applies to academia as well. Having been involved in several protest movements and demonstrations, I know how good it feels to take offense and tell someone off. When enough people do it simultaneously, it sometimes works politically (the Anti Vietnam War movement, for example). On a personal and career level, I have never, ever seen anything good come of it.

  15. “These were the things needed to make the ethnographic seem thick and thus real and trustworthy.”

    I’m not sure why Geertz’s concept of “Thick Description” is in anyway sacrosanct. I see no usefulness in it as a way to convey anything more than a literary illusion of what is real by making us feel that it is trustworthy. Like a historically based movie that seems real, because it hits upon what we already believe happened, or fits with the conceptual models of how we think the world works/worked, and operates.

    The central issue here, which I was trying to convey above, is the issue of measurement. A student of anthropology can attend elite institutions and get a BA and MA, and never have any sense of how operationalize a concept for measurement.

    What would make an ethnography really real to me on a continuum of real and trustworthy, would be to have transparency in method and operation. I outlined exactly what I meant above. I didn’t just paint a convincing picture in that Dallas ethnography, I laid out the data from standardized methods and measurement for anyone to see. I looked through my data to ensure an acceptable normal distribution in my data, and developed a model of social patterns that I tested using linear regression. I listed my sample size, my questionnaire, my beta weights, etc… It’s not in a journal, but in the City archives.

    I came to some rather controversial conclusions, so I’m sure there are a lot of people that wouldn’t agree with them or find them trustworthy. That really doesn’t matter, because anyone take the ethnography and go to the area, and reproduce it to see if they get different results. In fact, I feel that my results would be replicated in any similar community -in the U.S. or abroad.

    What I would’ve liked to have asked your students was why they felt that having a sense of what locals in a field site want out of the ethnography would increase the validity of it, when they literally saying that increasing ethnographic bias has the magical effect of reducing bias in the outcome. That simply has no face validity. It sounds like they think they’re in a creative writing class where they are learning how to develop a novel.

    I know a lot of anthros out there don’t think systematic attempts at measurement are possible in fieldwork, but that’s just because they don’t know how. That’s not an insult, it’s a fact. If I read in an article that the researchers believe that a particular myth is gaining popularity in a community, because of increased food insecurity caused by the effects of a drought and neo-liberal trade policies, then I want to see the final data. Are the people really food insecure per daily caloric intake, are prices rising and by how much in net present value, etc…

    I’ll agree that it’s very possible to err on the side of creating a similar false security in garbage data. This is seen time and time again from macroeconomic predictive models, but what makes anthropology uniquely capable of possibly getting the mix right is that we are able to shift from inductive to deductive then back to inductive. We’re not going to measure something if our fieldwork informs us that it isn’t a valid measurement of what we are trying to understand. Then later when we are analyzing our more solid and standardized data, we can do so with a greater understanding of the context of the data. Analyzing quantitative data is a purely qualitative process. Some might scoff, but I’d propose that these same scoffers have never studied what they criticized.
    Boas felt that anthropology couldn’t be quantified in any degree, but he did so in the late 19th, early 20th century in a totally different context, and totally different set of priorities. I think we need to let the writers and novelists to their literature production. They are better at it. They’re trained to do it. And, they are paid to do it. Anthros on a whole are terrible creative writers. We’re probably terrible accountants too, but we don’t seem to be trying to do their jobs as well.

  16. I like John’s comment: “So I would like to add another question to your list: Does the ethnography take me backstage? Does it adequately clarify the contexts within which the events that make the characters memorable occur?” and touching on my and Carole’s earlier comments about film, this is definitely relevant. Dealing with memorable people, Nisa by Marjorie Shostak, is a frequent assignment, or used to be, and I recall reading it being bored to tears as an undergraduate. That said I have met other people who have said “OH I took cultural anthropology we read this book about an African woman…what was her name” etc. Which highlighted to me this issue of a memorable person, and then, later Ongka.

    Regarding “back-stage” of ethnography, when using film, isn’t this even more important? In my experience, students tend to watch films that I show in class and absorb them without question, “it’s a documentary” it must be scientific/true/authentic, etc. When I showed my students the Marshall film “N!ai the life of a !Kung Woman,” this quarter I also showed them the feature film “The Gods Must be Crazy” to highlight the differences and the similarities between the two ostensibly different types of film. One reason I did this was that in past quarters when I showed the documentary about Nai, some asked me, “wasn’t there also a film about these people with a coke bottle” so I decided it might be another way to capture their imagination and attention, and sharpen some critical thinking skills.

  17. @mbb Thank you for your kind words. I wonder, perhaps Kerim can tell us, is anyone making DVDs of ethnographic films that include the increasingly obligatory in commercial releases, “The making of ” segment with rough cuts omitted from the film, the and other participants’ comments, that sort of thing?

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