Tag Archives: Method

Topics concerning ethnographic or anthropological methods or general Methodenstreiten

Going Adjunct, Or: A Picture of Precarity

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

This post is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.

It is said that when the Indian cricketer “iron man” Sunil Gavaskar announced his retirement in 1987, he observed that it’s nicer by far to quit when people still ask “why?” instead of “why not?”

I’d like to think that I quit the tenured position that I’d held for a decade at a similar juncture. Not simply because my research and career trajectories were pointing upwards, but because institutionally things were stable—or should I say, stable enough. Anthropology was accepted as a valued service department key to maintaining multiculturalist credentials; our graduate program was growing organically—enough to justify a new faculty line. And yet it was on a crisp sunny fall 2008 day that a container with most of our belongings left our home in Houston for Pondicherry; the implications of the subprime mortgage crisis were just beginning to manifest themselves, though an increasingly anxious buzz was the only sound on the airwaves. Our Dean was soon to retire, and with him was to go the system of benefaction we’d so long worked with just fine. Big changes were ahead, though we could hardly have predicted their impact at the time: close-to-bone cuts in legislative funding, new initiatives to measure faculty productivity both within and without, new drives to measure the value of service programs like Anthropology by majors enrolled rather than by semester credit hours taught, an apparently new proactiveness from State educational policy-makers that determined, more than ever before, the fates of individual programs.

These are not just idiosyncratic details, specific to our school or to Texas, but rough measures of the sort of dubious “stability” that exists within the public university and that creates spaces for scholarship: “secure” only until the next (financial) crisis or push to fiscal efficiency. This is a condition that probably doesn’t need much elaboration for Savage Minds readers, but I want to pin it as a point of contrast to what we see then as life off the precipice, in the abyss of adjunctdom. The fear of falling, as Barbara Ehrenreich might have described the feeling one gets looking down.

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Ethnography on/from the Sidelines: A Quick Introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

Note: Updated on 7/27/2012 with links to all posts contributed as part of this series; please see below. With thanks to Savage Minds admins and readers for a fantastic four weeks.

The idea for this group guest blog on Savage Minds began serendipitously, as I suppose many projects do, with random conversations in hallways or after talks—this time, after a talk I’d just delivered at Rice University’s Department of Anthropology. I’d been asked for material by which to introduce me anew in the place where I grew (professionally) up, to the new students and faculty who had joined after I’d left. I offered the following bits, alongside my CV: after 10 years as tenure-track and then tenured faculty at UH-Clear Lake, I relocated to India in 2008; I continue to work for the University of Houston, however: I teach as an adjunct online and I serve as UH’s liaison in India in an administrative/ counseling/ recruitment-oriented role; I look increasingly to collaborations as the means to make ethnographic research viable, from where I now am situated. A series of conversations with friends and colleagues ensued, face-to-face and virtual, each considering situations such as my own as raising important and increasingly relevant questions about the production of ethnography in the intellectual spaces that line the margins of the academy.

Humph, I remember thinking, but of course. I’d been so immersed in making this relocation to India work as smoothly as it would with a husband still in Houston and a family to care for on my own in India, suddenly a single parent of a sort keeping my professional connections alive and my own research going—so much a participant in this process had I been, I’d neglected any observation/ reflection on what sort of intellectual space it was that I was now occupying, even myself creating, and within which I was attempting to (re-)create “ethnography.” And not just me, but so many colleagues and friends, people I knew and those I’d heard about, who’d left the academy but kept tethers to it, or who’d finished graduate studies and were struggling to get back in on firmer, more independent footing. What might a wider conversation on the precarities of the discipline look like—particularly when we think about just what sorts of intellectual spaces of production are produced as a result? What would ethnography produced from such spaces come to look like?

And so was born, longer story cut short, the conversation to unfold on Savage Minds all July.

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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. Continue reading

Sideways: from who and what to how

[This is a guest post by Garrison Doreck. He is a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.]

I stumbled upon the sideways issue in some of the readings I will discuss below. Initially, I read laterality and sideways discussions to be the equivalent of the keystone anthropological activity of cutting across social spheres. It is only after hearing about the Sideways conference this past Fall at UC-Irvine that I decided to take a second look and try to think it through a bit more. And, this is a wonderful venue to hopefully hear back from many of you who have been thinking about this issue in more depth and at greater length than I have at this point.

Last year Julian discussed projects of studying up or sideways as hinging on how “ethnographers relate to their interlocutors, as well as different degrees of “identity overlap” between ethnographer and subject.” In another post, Dorien Zandbergen took issue with such “identity overlap,” by claiming that the sideways concept “suggests that there is some kind of plane that is shared by particular kinds of people, who can move ‘sideways’ to have a peek into each other’s affairs.” It is thus by paying careful attention to similarities that Dorien was able to identify issues where “such similarities appeared only superficial,” as differences emerged. However, Julian addressed the issue, as well, by looking at how such research is “differentiated on several axes: of political sympathy, of shared knowledge, of power relations, of informants’ reflexivity, and of socio-cultural belonging, to name a few.” Within these posts the matter of studying sideways, or up, involved drawing a connection between self/other (i.e. who) and similarity/difference (i.e. what). Continue reading

Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…

(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?

(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment. Continue reading

Ethnography is like fishing…(h/t Marcel Mauss and James Ferguson)

I have gotten a couple of comments regarding methods, access, etc. (thanks for the comments!); I will get to those issues later this week. Today I thought I would give a description of the early portion of ethnographic research that Bloomberg’s New York is based on–a narrative of what actually happened, rather than the packaged, fabricated narrative that we as academic professionals spend so much time self-consciously producing.

First a brief backstory: from 1998-2000, I attended urban planning graduate school. Halfway through, I realized I was far more interested in analyzing cities than planning them, especially because (at that point anyway) in NYC “planning” often meant little more than manufacturing windfall profits for developers. So I headed off to the CUNY Graduate Center to work with their flock of urbanists.

Flashing forward to 2003: my dissertation research begins. The idea is for me to investigate the process by which the “business agenda” comes to be. Basically, what I am trying to do here is use ethnography to explore what happens in the gap between the functional requirements of capitalist urbanization (as laid out by Harvey, Castells, Molotch and Logan, etc. etc.) and the construction of an actual elite agenda in a specific historical, cultural, and geographical context. My focus is on the public spaces of development policy formation, such as conferences and other professional meetings, city council hearings, etc., but also on more informal mechanisms. For the latter, I draw on the network of contacts I began developing in graduate school, and I soon find out that the development policy world in NYC is pretty small and interlinked (I had an excel spreadsheet with just a couple of hundred names on it). I begin talking to people, attending those conferences, interviewing, and so on.

As I do so, I quickly realize three things. First, the Bloomberg administration is up to something different than I expect, given the standard shape of neoliberal urban governance in NYC or elsewhere. The administration is engaging in citywide urban planning, moving away from the use of indiscriminate tax subsidies, and perhaps most interestingly pulling a lot of new people into City Hall. Not surprisingly, given the new Mayor’s background in business, this includes several people from finance and other private sector industries. Less expected is the hiring of a number of very well-respected planning and policy professionals to staff the top levels of the Bloomberg administration’s development and planning agencies. Such people had largely been excluded from previous administration in favor of folks drawn from the real estate industry or from the murky world of NYC’s public-private development agencies (which basically amounts to the same thing). Bloomberg’s City Hall is becoming a hotbed corporate and professional technocracy.

Second, the Mayor’s business background (along with that of the other private sector people he was bringing into government) actually seems to matter in substantive ways. Economic development officials are telling the city council about the thorough rebranding campaign underway; city officials are referring to companies as “clients”; City Hall was being physically remodeled along the lines the Mayor had used in his private company, Bloomberg LLP; and perhaps most remarkably, the Mayor is referring to NYC as a “luxury product.” Importing private-sector logic into government is nothing new, in NYC or elsewhere, but now it is being done by people who can (and do!) credibly claim to be running the city like a private company.

Third, everybody in the development and policy world is focused on the far west side of Manhattan. Everybody. Nobody wants to talk about the business agenda formation; they want to talk about the Hudson Yards (the plan proposed for the area). The Bloomberg administration is joining NYC2012 (the city’s private Olympic bid organization), the Group of 35 (an elite commission charged with stimulating office development in NYC), the New York Jets, and a number of other planning and development groups in targeting the area to the west of Times Square and Penn Station for redevelopment. And as it turned out, graduate school classmates of mine are involved in the growing conflict over far west side redevelopment in a number of ways–some working for city agencies, others working for community organizations that oppose the plan as currently formulated.

This was a key point in my research; suddenly focusing on the process of business agenda formulation seemed a bit boring, especially since I had a full-scale development battle emerging in front of me! I also had this interesting phenomenon of the ex-CEO mayor actually running the city as a business (rather than just for business), which seemed to have some unpredictable consequences (like a willingness to raise taxes and hire egghead professors and policy professionals and respect their expertise). Finally, I had all these professionals–city planners, professors, public health experts, markets, educational experts, former management consultants, etc.–talking about the new spirit of professionalism and competence in City Hall, and the new excitement about public service that they and their peers were feeling.

Realizing all this, I began to split my research onto two tracks. First, I began investigating the early years of the Bloomberg administration, i.e. late 2001 to mid-2003, using interviews with officials, government documents, transcripts of administration testimony to the city council, and various secondary sources. Second, I threw myself into the conflict over the far west side of Manhattan, attending every community meeting, rally, city council hearing, conference, and official planning meeting I could find, and redirecting my interviewing towards those engaged in the conflict. I’ll write a bit more about the second, more ethnographic of these two tracks next time.

QDA or not QDA?

For years I’ve been asked by students “Which Qualitative Data Analysis software should I use?” I have no effing idea. Despite the fact that I am a Scholar of Teh Internets, I’ve never used QDA software. There are lots of reasons: a) it’s proprietary b) it’s expensive c) none of my advisors or fellow students or any journal editors ever expected me too d) etc. etc.

But recently I reviewed a paper that employed QDA to try to make a point. In my estimation it added exactly nothing to the paper. Conceptual distinctions were fuzzy, terms were assumed to refer to concepts when they may only have been co-occurent in different samples, the distinctions apparently provided by the software were fuzzy at best, at worst totally indistinct, and most annoying of all, the authors could not say what their methodology consisted in, only that they had used software to do something.

Now I could rail against the misplaced scientism and ideological blindness of QDA here, but I do not (want to) think this article was in any way exemplary. Rather, what I want to know is: what are the best articles where QDA has really made a difference? What are the canonical articles? Is there a review article of the best of the best of QDA results? When Atlas.ti costs $1800 a pop, and Nvivo costs $600, doesn’t it seem like there should be a really clear list of all the super advances we have made because of it? Really, shouldn’t the “greatest hits of QDA” be something all anthropologists can easily recount?

Two books on indigenous methods

I am a late adopter of Twitter (r3x0r — feel free to follow me), and one of the nice things about being late to the party is that all of your old friends have already arrived and had a few drinks by the time you find a place to park. I’ve been trading tweets lately with Tad McIlwraith about some books on methods — particularly books on anthropological-y methods by indigenous scholars and activists who have better things to do than be anthropologists.

For many years the gold standard for those of us living and working in the Pacific has been Linda Tuhawai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies. Smith’s book has been trailblazing, but it is also in many ways a first step — like Lassiter’s volume on collaborative anthropology, a lot of the book is taken up not so much with a discussion of methods per se as groundclearing: building a genealogy for your study (Lassiter) or thinking through what it means to decolonize one’s self (Smith) (although more recently she has hooked up with the Denzin/Lincoln crowd to produce a Handbook on Critical and Indigenous Methodologies I’d like to read if ever appears at a non-ridiculous price).

In comparison, Research Is Ceremony seems focused on how, concretely, one could do ethnographic research with a distinctive indigenous twist. At times, this sort of thing can become too New Agey for my taste, but as far as I can tell (having not read the whole thing yet) Wilson does a good job of wearing his heart on his sleeve and providing good insights on how to do research.

The other volume — which Tad is promoting heavily — is Living Proof: The Essential Data Collection Guide for Use-And-Occupancy Map Surveys. This volume, published by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, basically outlines a method for people map their land and make their claims to it ‘legible’ on their own terms. Again, I haven’t had a chance to look at it, but it looks really interesting and useful.

Even though most anthropologists are not indigenous, I think it is really important that we keep up date with work being done on indigenous methods for several reasons: to make sure our discipline is a place indigenous people want to come study, to make sure we understand what is going on with other people who are committed to ethnographic and qualitative methods, and finally (of course) to learn something new. It would be great if in the future anthropologists working in indigenous communities (or pretty much anywhere) could learn to use and spread these methods, not as yet another case of appropriating indigenous culture for our own ends, but as a way of learning from people who are our equals and perhaps even, methodologically, our superiors.

Interview tips from Colin Marshall

Honestly I don’t know why I’m on a journalism kick lately, but here I go again: Colin Marshall, host of a podcast and radio show called The Marketplace of Ideas recently posted an excellent list of interview techniques, including things like “have a conversation” and “reveal your ignorance”. Two things are interesting: 1) journalists, like anthropologists, frequently fall prey to an ideological sense of what makes a “scientific” or objective interview (a rote list of questions asked like the advancing front of a battle), and it often makes for bad journalism, by which I mean, journalism that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know; and 2) everything Marshall lists might be understood as ways to get outside the “framing” of discourse. This latter point is essential to me: anthropologists are doing good work when they figure out how to de-frame discourse, i.e. how to work a conversation out of the frames that restrict people from thinking. The salience of “framing” is obvious to sociologists, linguists, political scientists and others today, and there is much quality research on framing… but very little research on resisting the framing of discourse and enabling the progress of thinking. I read these tips as clear strategies for doing just that.

The Sideways Glance

Tim Ingold’s 2008 Radcliff-Brown lecture “Anthropology is Not Ethnography” has been mentioned on this blog several times since John Postill posted links to both the full text [PDF] and edited versions of the talk. I finally had a chance to sit down and read it and found it thought provoking enough to deserve its own post. In what follows I will first summarize his arguments as I understand them, and then raise some questions which I hope will provoke further discussion in the comments.

First off, the title is somewhat misleading. Ingold’s purpose is not to distinguish anthropology from ethnography, but to criticize the “the idea of a one-way progression from ethnography to anthropology” in which methodological rigor precedes theoretical generalization. The title really should read: “Anthropological reasoning is not inductive, but dialectical.” He wants to challenge the dichotomy which places ethnographic description on the one side and anthropological theorizing on the other.

We can still recognise today the figure of the ‘social theorist’, sunk in his armchair or more likely peering from behind his computer screen, who presumes to be qualified, by virtue of his standing as an intellectual, to pronounce upon the ways of a world with which he involves himself as little as possible, preferring to interrogate the works of others of his kind. At the other extreme is the lowly ‘ethnographic researcher’, tasked with undertaking structured and semi-structured interviews with a selected sample of informants and analysing their contents with an appropriate software package, who is convinced that the data he collects are ethnographic simply because they are qualitative. These figures are the fossils of an outmoded distinction between empirical data collection and abstract theoretical speculation, and I hope we can all agree that there is no room for either in anthropology.

Against this he juxtaposes a view of anthropology as a craft (a view which Rex has elaborated in a series of posts on this blog).

For it is characteristic of craft that both the practitioner’s knowledge of things, and what he does to them, are grounded in intensive, respectful and intimate relations with the tools and materials of his trade. Indeed, anthropologists have long liked to see themselves as craftsmen among social scientists, priding themselves on the quality of their handiwork by contrast to the mass-produced goods of industrial data-processing turned out by sociologists and others.

As I understand it, the emphasis on craftsmanship is an effort to shift the focus from the tools of the trade — qualitative data collection techniques — to the ethnographer herself. The ethnographer is a researcher who has cultivated in herself an “anthropological attitude”:

The endeavour is essentially comparative, but what it compares are not bounded objects or entities but ways of being. It is the constant awareness of alternative ways of being, and of the ever-present possibility of ‘flipping’ from one to another, that defines the anthropological attitude. It lies in what I would call the ‘sideways glance’.

He defines this “sideways glance” as “a practice of observation grounded in participatory dialog.” Through the course of this dialog anthropologists swing back and forth like a pendulum between anthropological theorizing and ethnographic description.

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Books For Methods

As some readers may know I’ve been thinking about how to teach the “Ethnographic Research Methods” course that I’ll be teaching in the fall. Our textbook orders are now in and so I thought I’d share with you what I’ve decided to use — hopefully in the fall I can let you know how it went.

My goal in this course is really to focus on methods — on what, specifically, you do during fieldwork. I want to give students some tools so that they do not feel lost at sea when they arrive in the field. I want the tools to be hands-on, and not too specialized, since they will have to work in a variety of research conditions. Finally, while I don’t want to force students into a scientistic conception of fieldwork and methods if they have a more humanistic sense of what they are about, I at least want to give them the skills to Go There if they want to.

So, here is what I’ve ordered from the bookstore.

Analyzing Social Settings (Lofland, et al): I’ve mentioned this one before. It’s a symbolic-interactiony textbook. Frankly I think it is too expensive for its slender volume, but as a one-volume overview of the research process its the least of all possible evils. First, the bibliography is extensive and full of interesting case studies — so its a good place for students to start to explore their own ideas about fieldwork. It also has an opening chapter on how your own personal life leads you on to your research topic, which is a really important (and often undiscussed) thing to bring up. Finally, a major part of research as the authors describe it is ‘focusing’ research — moving beyond being ‘in’ the field and formulating some concrete ways to ‘do’ fieldwork. So yeah, a small light piece to take into the field.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (Emerson, et al): Another ethnographic sociology book (notice the pattern here?). This is an industry-standard book that is very hands-on in describing how to write fieldnotes. It is also inexpensive, which is nice for students. Again, the focus is not critiquing the theory of fieldnotes, or discussions by people about how they feel on the inside about their fieldnotes. The issue is how to take them.

Learning From Strangers (Weiss): I think this has got to be the most common book on interviewing out there, and is used by a bintillion different disciplines and professions. Inexpensive, very hands on, includes examples of consent forms, interview guides, and even coded interviews. It has a lot of stuff that is not so central for anthropology (or the type I do anyway) or reflection on the complex dynamic of intersubejctivity when you interview but… screw it. It gives you a basic overview. And using this book means that students will be able to discuss interviewing intelligbly with people in other disciplines.

Doing Qualitative Research On Your Computer (Hahn): Ok. Coding fieldnotes is the area where anthropologists have Issues. Coding is often described as a special technique with special software, etc. This turns off anthropologists who are skeptical of the Power of Science, and even those who might be interested in gaining some coding chops get the sense that it requires special (read: expensive) software and extra training. A lot of the Anselm-Strauss inspired approaches feature textbooks that are in there 39th edition, have been over-edited, and can be vague and mystical.

I am betting on this book because 1) it teaches students that coding is a simple technical act, not a comple and intimidating methodological one 2) anything that will get people to read and parse their fieldnotes is a good thing 3) I forget that not all students can just figure out computers the way I can 4) the book come with templates for access and excel that will work for any office software, and tells you how to use them.

This is a new and pretty unusual book (there are a lot of instructions like “left click and choose’add table'”) but I am hoping it will help get students past issues of software choice, etc. etc. and get them to read their fieldnotes.

There are some usual books I’m skipping here — the ginormous Bernard volume on anthropological research methods (which now costs US$100!), Briggs’s excellent Learning How To Ask (which we will read), and some others. So it is an experiment, and I’d be interested in getting some feedback.

Fieldwork and resources for doing it

I recently got an email on one of the lists I was on from a graduate student seeking advice about getting her dissertation project through her university’s IRB board. She wrote

I’m finding the process of trying to squeeze my round pegged ethnographic methods into the unwieldy square holes of the IRB form both frustrating and demoralizing … Partly because it can’t account for uncertainty, for instance by wanting a script of interview questions and to know already how many subjects I’ll have – both things I can’t know ahead of time. But then, its also the problem of the nature of participant observation itself. … where do we (and the IRB) draw the line between “observations” that require consent and those that don’t? It seems clear cut for people I might formally interview with a tape recorder in hand. But what about the people we interact with who may or may not “formally” become part of the research, the gray areas of interaction that might have a huge impact on our thinking – the people we meet in the street, at the local store, the friends of friends who drop by, the secretary or colleague or mother of the official “informant” who we hear about but never meet in person…?

I wrote back to her and tried to offer some advice (and she consented to let me reproduce her email here), mostly to emphasize that one of the problems she might be having with the IRB was that they wanted her to be doing something in the field that was demonstrably different from just living there:

…do you _really_ not have _any_ clue about what sorts of questions you want to ask people while you are there? Do you _really_ not have _any_ sense of how many people you will have to talk to before you get a sense that you know what is going on? I bet you do — even if only have a rough idea right now, you can at least tell the IRB that you will iterate over your research, refining your questions and the people you talk to through different stages of research as you figure out what you’re about… The same stands for everyday interactions — are you planning on pulling a notebook out at the dinner table with a host family? Or with total strangers? If you stratify your lifeworld out in even this very rough way you’ll not only have a better sense of what you’ll do in the field, you’ll be able to turn your confusion and anxiety into righteous indignation when the IRB keeps bugging you about venipuncture forms!

This student had a problem that a lot of cultural anthropologists have: a real lack of training in field methods.
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Good Field Methods Syllabi

In Fall 2009 I’ll be teaching a graduate level course on field methods. I’m very excited because it is, in many ways, the class that I’ve always wished I’d taken. At the same time, putting together a syllabus is daunting because I don’t have many examples. As a result I’ve been trying to figure out what worked for me in the course of my won self-education, and to look for some good syllabi on the topic. So far two have really stood out for me, so I thought I’d share them here:

Michèle Lamont’s Qualitative Research Methods syllabus
This is a more ‘sciencey’ take from ethnographic sociology

Loïc Wacquant and Nancy Shepher-Hughes Ethnography Inside Out syllabus
More ‘touchy-feely’ and reflexive take.

Does anyone have any additional syllabi they like or want to share?

The Field as an Experimental System

In Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems Michael Fischer adopts Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s notion of ‘experimental system’ to describe the history of anthropological theory and the culture concept. As a an update of the ‘long review essay as theory’ it is an interesting example of the genre, but it is problematic in other ways. The point of Fischer’s article seems to be that ‘culture’ is a concept that has morphed over time in different ways as anthropologists (and others) have used it as the lens through which their research problematic is inflected.

As a way of understanding the interconnection of the history of this concept with the epistemological, political, and ethical values analysts bring to the table this is an interesting idea. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to have too much to do with Rheinberger’s concept of ‘experimental system’. Rheinberger uses this term to foreground the practice of science, the actual artifactual nature of a laboratory’s set up and its influence in experimental practice. In doing so Rheinberger tries to move away from histories of science which document, on the one hand, intellectualist unfoldings of scientific ideas or problematics through time and, on the other, approaches which relegate the world to background ‘conditions’ or ‘contexts’ out of which scientific practice emerges. Rheinberger wants to talk about what happens when you get a new, more powerful centrifuge, or when you move the refrigerator slightly to the left. Fischer, on the other hand, seems to be using their term in a much more old fashioned (although stylistically more adventurous) way.

Now you may ask: Since when did the quality of a scholar’s work hinge crucially on how closely they hew to The One True Word Of Hans-Jorg Rheinberger? And of course this is a good point — rip mix and burn baby. But this did get me thinking, what is anthropology’s equivalent of an experimental system?

Its an interesting question, because what really makes scientists ‘scientists’ is the distinct form of knowledge and practice that crystallizes around a lab, which creates a sort of sandbox for experimentation for some variables. At first I thought the anthropological equivalent would be our fieldnotes, since these are purified, recontextualized bits of life that can be manipulated, sorted, and searched through in a way that creates an ‘archive’ whose affordances have a scarily large effect on what sort of research results we produce.

Then it struck me — maybe it seems stupid to you that it took me this long — that the equivalent for anthropologists really is the field site. A lot of doing fieldwork means transforming your situation in your fieldsite from just ‘being in the field’ to ‘doing fieldwork’ which means creating routines, instruments, methods, and relationships which allow you to do things (like census, interviews, transcription, etc.) which are more or less like embryonic experimental systems.

If this is true, then it seems to me that anthropologists differ from bench scientists in two important ways. First, we do a lot more ‘being in the field’ and a lot less ‘fieldwork’ than most of us would care to admit — and that includes the people who see ‘fieldwork’ as alienatingly objectivistic, scientistic, obsessed with a false standards of neutrality and objectivity etc. etc. I have the idea — totally unbased on any actual evidence — that through the past couple of decades the ratio of being to doing has grown greatly. This has implications.

Second, anthropologists rarely spend much time in the field. Even ones at ‘research universities’ like me are really paid to teach, and must show tremendous amounts of hustle to get the funding together for major time in the field. This has to do with lots of things (and of course bench science in unis involves juggling teaching duties too) but key among them is that for most of us the field is just not that easy to get to, and it takes time to get things set up when you arrive.

There are, of course, people for whom The Field is right next door. And indeed, often people so situated and so inclined do have the ability to produce short research notes on findings which are similar to the sort of stream of publications that come out of labs, including collaboration with ‘locals’ and grad student etc. This really is quite a different pattern than the usual ‘three years ago I spent two months in my field site and here is another article culled from the experience’ pattern you often see in some anthropological work.

Now, aspirations (and realizations) of nomothetic, experimentalist inclinations require more than just propinquity. You’ve got to ‘want to be scientific’ as well. But it would be interesting to examine more the way that abstract debates about anthropology’s status ‘as a science’ and what ‘science’ is were examined through the lens of our concrete research arrangements rather than abstract analyses of ‘what we do’ or biographical scrutiny of particular anthropologists in their particular fieldsites.

What’s in your fieldwork bag?

A comment from uiolliioo about bringing a solar powered battery pack made me think about the things that we bring to the field for our research. Since what’s required is largely based on where we do our research, I asked a number of colleagues to list what is in their fieldwork bag.

In 1995, when I moved my family to rural China, I took a desktop computer (Gateway) and a Kodak DC-50 – with its 640 x 480 resolution and its $1,000 price, it was top of the line back then! The desktop was also a mistake, and made our move difficult – I remember watching my monitor (in its original packaging) bounce down a long escalator in the new Guangzhou rail station (but it still worked!). Anyway, this is what is in my contemporary fieldkit:

  • Lowepro Compu Day Pack (for transporting equipment; for everyday use, I use a messenger bag with equipment kept safe using photography wraps)
  • Canon D60 digital SLR, with extra batteries and SD cards
  • Canon SD 550 (digital point and shoot)
  • Canon GL-1 videorecorder (with extra batteries, shotgun and wireless mics, tapes; smaller than a GL-2 or XL-1)
  • Tripod (for use with any of the above)
  • Toshiba Tecra M4 tablet PC
  • USB hard drives (the kind that don’t need power cords; my latest is a Seagate FreeAgentPro, 160 GB; I bought a couple of smaller USB hard drives when I was last in Shanghai)
  • Thumb drive (USB)
  • Plug adapters (for China, two different styles; I also bring a Hong Kong type adapter – looks like a UK one)
  • Hand counter (the click kind, like the ones ticket takers at cinemas use; I’ve had it since my dissertation fieldwork, and it’s kind of a good luck charm now)
  • Chinese Cell phone (cheapest Nokia I could buy, with local SIM card)
  • Passport photos (printed off my deskjet, always useful for extending visas, etc.)
  • Treo 700 (or older versions in the past; I bring a lot of e-books to keep me sane, and use Mobipocket Reader to read them; mostly bad sci-fi from fiction books and Baen; also my MP3 player)
  • Leatherman utility tool
  • Portable office kit (with minature stapler, paper clips, etc.)
  • Name cards (double-sided, English and Chinese characters)
  • Medical kit (first aid supplies, antibiotics and other medicines to treat everything from gout to a heart attack; my parents are physicians, and loaded me up with what they think is necessary)

I usually buy a lot of other supplies locally, since they are too bulky or I can never remember to bring some essentials (like poster tubes,notebooks and pens, surge suppressors, etc.)

From Rachel Newcomb (Rollins College)
From 2000-04, I conducted dissertation and post-dissertation fieldwork in Fes, Morocco, examining women’s changing roles in the Moroccan middle class, particularly in non-profits, the family, and new urban spaces such as exercise clubs and cyber cafes. I’m an assistant professor of anthropology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Currently I’m doing a smaller collaborative fieldwork project here in Florida with one of my students concerning former migrant workers and their exposures to pesticides, but I plan to go back to Morocco and begin new research within the next six months. Technology changes so rapidly that what I took to the field in 2000 would no longer be current now: a Nikon N-65 35 mm camera, a laptop computer, and a small Sony microcassette recorder that I’m still using. I switched over to a Canon PowerShot digital camera, which takes great pictures and is less obtrusive, and I’m coveting Roland’s Edirol R-9 MP3 recorder, which I plan to get my hands on before my next venture into the field in Morocco… So, next time around, I hope to take the Edirol MP3 recorder, my MacBook laptop, and the trusty Canon PowerShot. I’d also like to add that “pen and paper” ARE essential to my toolkit, but I’m excited to learn more about the new note-taking software.

From Thomas Malaby, (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
I study those who produce online virtual worlds; in 2005 I did field and online research at Linden Lab of San Francisco, the makers of Second Life. My fieldwork bag is a medium-sized messenger bag, and here’s what I take with me for that kind of ethnographic research (whether in person or online):

  • High-end laptop that can run beta or public release versions of virtual world client software (MacBook Pro, Dell XPS, or similar)
  • Logitech MX 610 USB wireless mouse (8-button programmable, excellent for online games and virtual worlds)
  • SteerMouse software for Mac OS X (to make PC USB mice like the Logitech MX 610 Mac-compatible)
  • Olympus WS-100 Digital Voice Recorder (USB-integrated)
  • Canon Powershot A550 Digital Camera
  • Cell phone
  • Two 2GB flashdrives for daily backup of all files (kept in different locations)
  • Ethernet cable (for extra performance vs wireless during remote online research)
  • Cables and extra batteries for laptop, cell phone, recorder, camera, and mouse
  • Moleskine Large Ruled Notebook & pen (pen & paper is always a nice break from the digital)

From Melissa Caldwell (UC Santa Cruz): I study religious charity and philanthropy in Russia.

  • Nikon Cool Pix 4100 Digital Camera
  • Olympus WS-100 Digital Voice Recorder
  • 6 AA and 4 AAA rechargeable batteries and charger
  • Dynex All-in-1 Memory Card Reader/Writer
  • Dell D610 Latitude Laptop
  • 3-prong to 2-prong adaptor plug (this now stays in my computer bag after the one time I forgot it and FedEx lost the package my husband sent me; FedEx only “found” it and attempted to deliver two days after I had returned home)
  • Ethernet cable and retractable phone cord
  • App. 6×8 inch spiral bound notebook (buy first day in the field)
  • Schneider Topliner 934 0-4 pens, blue and black (buy first day in the field; these pens are more like markers but with a tiny nib – they write beautifully on any surface and last forever)
  • Box of Papermate Sharpwriter #2 mechanical pencils
  • Ancient Nokia mobile phone with GSM and unlocked for pay-as-you-go foreign SIM card
  • Moscow City Atlas
  • Calendar
  • Mini Solar calculator
  • Package of post-it notes
  • 3-4 File folders
  • Scotch tape
  • Pocket knife
  • Corkscrew/bottle opener
  • Extra passport pictures; copies of passport, visa application and visa, and credit cards

Allison Alexy (PhD candidate, Yale). My dissertation is about experiences of divorce in contemporary Japan. I spent a good amount of my fieldwork time in Tokyo and the surrounding suburbs, but also did research in a city on Shikoku island.
What I carried:
Early in my fieldwork, I bought an enormous thin canvas bag that, I thought, looked descent and presentable, but would stretch to hold a lot and wasn’t particularly heavy. I lugged around a lot of stuff most days, and made frequent use of the lockers in Tokyo train stations. The most important thing in my bag was a small spiral notebook with a particular muji brand pen stuck in the spiral. The notebook was about 3 by 5 inches, and the pens fit perfectly in the spiral, so I bought both by the bushel. The notebooks were entirely chronological, and anything I needed to write down went in there. In addition, I usually carried an Olympus DM-20 digital voice recorder and the small microphone it came with. It took me a few months to figure out, but I started carrying around a little bit of makeup (mascara, etc.). I had finally realized that wearing makeup is something that marks women as “adult” in Japan — it wasn’t until an informant told me a story about how her mother had sat her down and demanded that she wear makeup that I realized I probably should be wearing some, too. I also always carried a stack of my business cards (with Japanese on one side and English on the other), that listed my names, affiliations, email, homepage, cell phone number, and home address (in Japan). One of my close male friends always yelled at me for including my home address, but nothing bad ever came of it, and I thought he was being overprotective. I also always carried my ipod, onto which I frequently dropped digital copies of my fieldnotes. I was very afraid that an earthquake would destroy the two back-up hard drives that I’d left at home, so it made me feel better to have a copy in my bag. (I was also backing up off-site, to my mother’s computer, in the US.) I kept my digital camera (Canon elph, small and flat) in my bag at all times and really couldn’t leave home without my cell phone (which was some sort of AU brand phone). Unfortunately, the phone’s camera wasn’t good, so I had to carry to carry my camera as well.
Throughout the course of my fieldwork, some of which occurred in support groups, I realized that it’s a good idea to carry tissues. If people were upset and crying, or if I was upset, I could share tissues. Many days, I’d also have printed pages giving a summary of my research (in Japanese), so I could hand them off if anyone seemed interested. However, similar materials were on my website, and I usually found it less pushy to point people there. The website, which included a Japanese-language introduction to me and my research, in addition to pictures of me with family and friends, was probably one of the most helpful things I had in the field. I was surprised by how many people really looked at it and would say, months into our relationship, “Oh yeah, I know what your mom looks like because I saw that picture!” It also helped me contextualize myself, and introduce some of my personal life to people who I’d met during moments of their personal explanation. Although I was always willing to talk about my personal life when people asked, I was also happy to have pictures up, giving different perspectives.
When I went to Japan, I brought two hard drives with me — 250 gig, LaCie, externals — and a Fujitsu scansnap scanner. The scansnap was one of the most useful things I had in the field — everything I found, got immediately scanned, and though I kept the hard copies, it made me feel better to have a digital back-up. It’s about the size of a loaf of bread, so I never carried it around. I also had a small digital video camera, but I didn’t use it nearly as much as I thought I would.

What’s in your fieldkit?