Ethnography. Anthropology is not ethnography — its not participant observation followed up by a ‘qualitative’ analysis of the ‘data’. Sure, this is the method that an overwhelming number of sociocultural anthropologists use (but not the only one — think of historical anthropology, for instance) but simply using this method does not produce work that is obviously anthropology.
This point was driven home to me lately when I read Rod Rhodes’s paper “Everyday Life In A Ministry: Public Administration As Anthropology”:http://arp.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/1/3. I’ll be doing some fieldwork soon (hopefully!) on what I’m calling ‘policy elites’ and I’ve been reading around in all the disciplines which study them (critical accounting, public administration, sociology, geography and so forth). Rhodes is a very well-known “PA” in Canberra and one of my colleagues recommended the article to me. Its a very good — fascinating in fact. Rhodes managed to shadow British ministers, and his discussion of this research inside British ministries is written with an easy wit and keen insight.
But it is not anthropology. In fact, it is amazing how unanthropological it is. What about it is unanthropological? Its difficult to put your finger on — in fact it’s this nagging but unspecified sense that prompted me to write this. Its got something to do with the way that Rhodes handles his data. Although he engages a lot of classical anthropological dilemmas (“isn’t this just restating the obvious?”) and he has material to work with but somehow… it’s what he does with it that isn’t… anthropological…
This is not a criticism of Rhodes, whose work (like that of Mark Bevir) is one of my happier discoveries in the PA literature. But it did make me reflect on what is distinctive about our discipline — not the fact that we handle ethnographic data but the way we handle it.