Saturday, April 5, 2008

Some Thoughts on Ethnography

I recently read Robert Lowie’s The German People. It’s an ethnography of sorts of German culture, at least in the sense that it’s a “writing of culture” (more on this text as ethnography below). So far as I can tell, it’s a largely forgotten book, certainly much less widely read by anthropologists today than several other Lowie books, such as The Crow Indians, Primitive Religion, or Social Organization.

As I read The German People, I couldn’t help but to think of a more popular and more widely read ethnography, Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and The Sword. The two books have some important things in common. Both were written and published during World War II, and both can be seen as attempts to understand “the enemy,” both for the war and the succeeding occupation. (Benedict’s research was specifically commissioned by the U.S. government for this purpose.) In the processing of making sense of the Germans and Japanese respectively, the two texts also no doubt offered an important humanizing of the two nationalities.

The two works have a very different “feel” in other ways. Neither is the conventional ethnography written on the basis of participant observation field work in the culture in question. Benedict’s work was largely based in extensive interviews with Japanese-Americans (so that there was the use of interview methods typical of ethnography, but without the often more prominent participant observation). Benedict’s work “feels” very much like a conventional ethnography, even if based on for the time an unconventional total methodology. Ironically, Lowie’s experience of German culture was much more direct than Benedict’s of Japanese culture (Lowie was not a participant observer there, but had had extensive first hand experience of the culture as a student earlier in the century), while his text has little of the stylistic “feel” of an ethnography at all, really fitting more into the genre of social history.

Fortuitously, while I was reading Lowie’s The German People, I was also reviewing the various essays in the mid-1980s text Writing Culture for an upcoming discussion with grad students in a seminar on culture theory.

In Mary Louise Pratt’s essay in the collection, “Fieldwork in Common Places,” she writes (p. 32; parenthetical note on “it” added):

“James Clifford speaks of it (the persistence of personal narrative alongside objectifying narrative) as ‘the discipline’s impossible attempt to fuse objective and subjective practices.’ Fieldwork produces a kind of authority that is anchored to a large extent in subjective, sensuous experience. One experiences the indigenous environment and lifeways for oneself, sees with one’s own eyes, even plays some roles, albeit contrived ones, in the daily life of the community. But the professional text to result from such an encounter is supposed to conform to the norms of a scientific discourse whose authority resides in the absolute effacement of the speaking and experiencing subject.”

This quality of the ethnography does several things.

1. It gives ethnography a distinctive feel. Those texts we call ethnography generally do present in some way the ambivalence between personal, subjective narrative and third person, objectifying narrative. The lack of this subjective and personal element is largely what makes The German People feel like it’s not an ethnography, even if it is “writing culture.”

2. The tension between these elements in ethnography is, I think, what is largely responsible for the long history of conscious experimentation with the form of ethnography – something that’s been going on far longer than the writers of Writing Culture tend to acknowledge (see Experimental Ethnography Old and New).

3. This tension is one of the things that makes ethnography continually interesting because it is continually problematic at its formal core – more on ethnography as interesting or boring in my following post.

4. As Clifford and Pratt are pointing out, it’s the inclusion of the personal narrative that grounds the authority of the ethnographic narrator who experienced the culture and gives credence to the objectified narrative. Without such rhetorically established authority, why should we trust the strange things we read about in so many well written ethnographies are true? (Of course, being aware of this source of authority, why trust what we read to be true and not simply an interesting account of something which may or may not correspond to anyone’s lived reality?)

5. The continual presence of personal narrative as grounding authority is the chief means through which field work as rite of passage (as discussed so well, or at least so nicely by Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques) is interjected into the text, creating what Susan Sontag called “The Anthropologist as Hero,” the ethnographer venturing out to where others dare not go and returning to bring us comprehension of the other. Contra the construction of anthropology as the “softest” of social sciences on the part of many other social scientists, we have here an image of anthropological ethnography as the most macho of social science endeavors, and one trafficking in an essentializing division of self and other. All of this is problematic (and silly), but I’d argue it’s still very much a part of the image and appeal of anthropology and ethnography. (In my own socialization into the discipline in a Ph.D. program in the 1990s, this was still part of how anthropologists thought of ethnography. My research along the U.S./Mexican border was suspect as ethnography, because my others might not have been other enough, and frankly because I’d be doing ethnography in places with running water and electricity, and that I could drive there, though ultimately, the fact that I’d be doing participant observation in some specific contexts that were sometimes actually potentially dangerous and always perceived as dangerous made it just acceptable. A friend, who did participant observation on human rights issues at the U.N. in Switzerland, never seemed to be able to shake people’s perceptions that he somehow wasn’t doing “real ethnography,” even if everyone agreed his work was “important.”)

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