Friday, May 30, 2008
Talking Ethnography (even briefly)
(By John L. Jackson, Jr. First posted for The Chronicle Review's Brainstorm Blog on May 16, 2008)
The term “ethnography” describes a literary genre (writings that attempt to capture people’s cultural beliefs and practices) as well as a qualitative research methodology (a way of collecting social scientific data based on long-term, face-to-face interactions). But we are living in a hyperscientific moment now, a time when ethnographic analysis seems to have lost some of its authority, especially since human genomics and the statistical analysis of massive datasets are privileged as holy grails in the search for contemporary solutions to social problems. Ethnography is still alive and well. It just ends up packaged for the public in ways that look vastly different from how other social sciences get framed.
Anthropology and sociology are the two academic disciplines that traditionally cornered the market on ethnographic research, but other social sciences have become more interested in the kinds of nuanced information that gets gathered during intimate and ongoing interactions between qualitative researchers and their research subjects, interactions euphemized as “deep hanging out.” Ethnographers spend time drinking beers with the folks they study, eating meals at their dinner tables, and shadowing them on the job — all in an effort to figure out what people’s everyday lives actually look like and to determine how people make sense of those lives.
When they first start conducting research in a particular community, ethnographers stand out like sore thumbs, drawing attention to themselves and making their research subjects decidedly self-conscious, which means that they run the risk of witnessing things that probably wouldn’t have taken place at all without the conspicuous seductions of an outside audience. But as ethnographers spend more and more time observing and participating in the same community, among the same community members, they eventually begin to lose some of their distracting influence on people’s behaviors. They transform into proverbial “flies on the wall,” at least that’s what we tell our graduate students. The ethnographer is still there, asking questions and watching people’s daily reactions, but they are hardly noticed any more, eventually, not in ways that might compromise the reliability of what they see or hear.
Ethnography’s value is based on the kinds of intimate and unguarded data that researchers gain from extended contact with one particular social group. When the discipline first emerged, this meant relatively small-scale and remote societies. “Father of ethnography” Bronislaw Malinowski’s early 20th century work with Trobrianders is taken as a powerful marker for the birth of full-fledged ethnographic research within anthropology. He crossed the seas, pitched his lonely tent, and found a way to live among people whose cultural world seemed radically different from his own. Part of the point, of course, was about making it clear to the European audience back home that those foreign practices could be understood only with the fullest knowledge of how people’s entire belief systems fit together — even and especially when those cultural systems seemed spectacularly exotic to the Western eye.
Anthropology was traditionally about studying societies unsullied by the advances of modernity. From the romantic attempts at “salvage ethnography” among Native American tribes in the early 19th century (archiving cultural practices before they disappeared forever) to the constructions of primitive societies as examples of the modern Western world’s hypothetical pasts, anthropologists used ethnographic methods to study those populations most removed from the taint of modern living.
Sociologists also embraced ethnographic methods in the early 20th century, and people like Robert Park at the University of Chicago helped to institutionalize “the ethnographic imagination” as a method for studying not just faraway villages but modern urban life in a teeming American city. That dividing line (between the anthropological ethnographer who studies some distant community and the sociological ethnographer who focuses her eyes on the modern Western metropolis) still defines most people’s assumptions about how those two fields carve up the social landscape for qualitative examination (even though there are certainly sociologists who study small-scale societies and anthropologists who have been working in urban America for a very long time).
One thing that both fields seem to emphasize and value amounts to a premium placed on the scientific equivalent of roughing it. They each have the highest regard for the “gonzo” ethnographer, the kind of heroic or mythical figure willing to put his very life at risk for the sake of ethnographic access. The more remote, removed, and potentially dangerous the location of the fieldwork experience, the more explicit and awestruck are the kudos offered up to any ethnographer bold enough to go where few have gone before. This search for dangerous exoticism can lead you halfway around the world, or just to the other side of the tracks, the other end of town. But in either case, an added value is placed on access to the everyday lives of human beings and cultural perspectives that most middle-class Western readers know little about.
During the 1960s, anthropologists and sociologists in the United States wrote classic ethnographic offerings on the urban poor — specifically, the Black poor — who were struggling to make ends meet in America’s ghettos. Ethnographers were trying to explain the hidden realities of urban poverty, a tradition that continues today. Anthropologists and sociologists working in American cities still disproportionately study poor minority communities. That’s because it is harder to sweeten the deal enough for wealthier Americans to accept such scholarly intrusions. A crisp $20 bill might suffice as incentive for an unemployed urbanite to answer some open-ended questions about her life history, but it is hardly enough to compel more decidedly middle-class citizens into exposing their raw lives to an ethnographic gaze. Middle-class and wealthier Americans also sometimes live in actual gated communities or attend the kinds of restricted social clubs that can keep prying anthropological eyes at bay.
Of course, most ethnographers will tell you that any valuable ethnographic work must be based on respect for the people researched, and that the most powerful studies of the poor decidedly humanize them, fending off insensitive attempts at reducing poverty to the cold numerical instances of this or that pathology. These ethnographic researchers carry a double burden, however. Besides making sense of people’s daily lives and future life chances, they are also asked to continue impressing readers with their fearlessness, with their courageous forays into the heart of darkness, offering first-hand “thick descriptions” of poor and dilapidated minority communities, the kinds of places that terrorize mainstream America’s imagination. And that is part of the trap. This formula usually means that even as urban ethnographers try to challenge middle-class cultural chauvinism, arguing that ostensible “cultures of poverty” are sometimes little different from more mainstream cultural groups, they are also asked to justify the value of their work by claiming to provide access to otherwise inaccessible locations.
This is exactly what the authority of some memoirs (about former gangbangers or drug dealers or welfare queens) traffic in: proffering the learned public first-person renditions of the kinds of social existence that they have never experienced — and would not want to. But, unlike the memoirist, a social scientist is supposed to be objective, politically and personally disinterested, and so it is supposed to help the case for scientific legitimacy that you are not conducting research in your own backyard. You have no axe to grind, no biases linked to prior investments in that community.
In some of our most recent and highly popular versions of ethnographic research, we have suburbanites from southern California studying gangs in Chicago (Sudhir Venkatesh conducting research on the south side), middle-class journalists working side-by-side with low-wage service-sector employees (Barbara Ehrenreich modeling her undercover reporting on something akin to what George Orwell attempted in Paris), and white researchers studying the ins and outs of Latino drug culture (Phillipe Bourgeois moving his family into one of the most crack-infested parts of Spanish Harlem). These authors are examples of careful and holistic ethnographic research that is both rigorous and politically committed. The problem has to do with the way we sometimes read them, how we unconsciously tap into the expectation that what makes ethnographies valuable is not the scientific rigor and meticulousness that all three of these ethnographers (and so many more) duly demonstrate, but instead any ethnography’s singular ability to take us into what we still imagine as that “heart of darkness,” whether the jungles of the Congo or the sidewalks of South Central Los Angeles.
It isn’t enough for ethnographers to study the world. For anyone to care nowadays, they have to titillate us, too. Give us a window into “the other” that will blow our minds. To accept this double-standard is to enter into a Faustian pact with a sensationalist contemporary ethos that demeans the true significance of careful, honest listening as a powerful methodological tool for social analysis when chronicling the experiences of nerdy video gamers as much as the most violent of gang members. Ethnography works in either case, even if only the latter fully satisfies our collective predilections for sensationalist storytelling. Number crunchers are asked to stick to the facts. If ethnographers want anyone else to care, it seems that they had better shock us with them.