Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Boring Ethnography

In my previous post (“Some Thoughts on Ethnography”), I mentioned having recently reviewed the various essays in Writing Culture, including that by Mary Louise Pratt, while preparing for a discussion in a graduate seminar.

In Pratt’s essay, shortly after the section I discussed in my previous post, Pratt writes (p. 33; parenthetical added):

“Much must be left behind in the process (the process of converting subjective experience and field notes into formal ethnography, especially the components of ethnography engaged in objectivizing narrative)…There are strong reasons why field ethnographers so often lament that their ethnographic writings leave out or hopelessly impoverish some of the most important knowledge they have achieved, including the self-knowledge. For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves?”

I’ll grant that much ethnographic writing is boring, some more boring even than punk rock (see “On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring”). It is usually writing by academics after all, and most academic writing in general is dull in form and style, even when once read the material discussed might be quite exciting.

Still, each time I encounter this passage (I generally encounter it from time to time when I’m prepping for a class for which I’ve assigned Writing Culture as reading), I react negatively. This time around, I reacted a bit differently and with more positive results (i.e. I didn’t just snarkily wonder why someone from a lit theory background would leave the scintillating neighborhood of lit crit and theory to pay detailed attention to something as tedious as ethnography). I think that Pratt, in this passage, is both misperceiving the boringness of ethnography and asking the wrong sorts of questions of ethnography (or rather her questions are good ones, but they’re good questions about virtually any form of academic writing – why must writing about so many exciting topics [quasars, lemmings, market systems, novels] be so often so dreadfully boring?).

First off, as a genre of academic writing, a surprising number of ethnographies are not boring. Virtually every cultural anthropologist has a list of ethnographies that they’re positively passionate about, not because they’re excellent analyses (though that may be another [and ideally overlapping] list of books some are passionate about), but because they’re wonderful, well written, and engaging books.

I said above I think Pratt was asking the wrong sort of question about ethnography. My question is this: Why do we expect ethnographies (as examples of academic writing) to not be boring, and why are we disappointed when they are boring? (And I ask this non-rhetorically, for we [or at least I] do expect ethnographies to be interesting and experience disappointment when this isn’t the case.) After all, there are few other forms of scholarly writing for which we have such expectations (perhaps history writing). No one is disappointed when a physics report or economics article or essay of literary criticism is dull, because no one (I should probably say almost no one) expects them to be otherwise – it’s more a surprise if they’re not boring.

Virtually every academic discipline has a corresponding genre of popular writing written for a lay audience that’s expected to be interesting and engaging, but ethnography and professional history writing are the two forms of professional, scholarly writing that many if not most readers expect to be interesting as writing, even if they’re often disappointed. The most obvious, and probably most important reason for this is that these are the two forms of contemporary academic writing that often take the form of narrative, i.e. where we’re told a story. (As Pratt is discussing, the tension in ethnography comes in when the writing shifts from narrative to expository, objectivizing text.)

As I suggested in my previous post, another component of the allure of ethnography for many readers, and what draws many into anthropology in the first place, is the imagining of what Sontag called “The Anthropologist as Hero,” such that the reader expects not just a story, but a story of exploration and heroic adventure.

The popular imagining of “The Ethnographer” is not quite Gentleman Explorer á la Richard Burton or T. E. Lawrence nor Explorer lost in the Wilderness á la Cabeza de Vaca (or the ultimately anthropophagized title character of the film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman); not quite castaway á la Robinson Crusoe (or Gilligan); not quite fictional adventurer á la Indiana Jones or Alan Quartermain; not quite contemporary television adventurer á la Steve Irwin (God Bless Him), Jeff Corwin, or Anthony Bourdain; not quite good feminist anthropologist battling (literally) man-eating cannibal feminists á la Shannon Tweed’s character in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (okay – not even close to that, though it is a movie any anthropologist with a sense of humor should see); but somewhere in the neighborhood of all of these.

Over the past few decades, anthropologists (alongside many others) have thoroughly critiqued most aspects of the discipline – the colonialist roots of ethnography, the major concepts of the discipline, the motivations of ethnographers, and this has been important and good. Like most cultural anthropologists today, I’m wary of any sense of ethnography as adventure, of being or trying to be “The Anthropologist as Hero,” but I’ll also be honest enough to say that the allure of heroic adventure is at least part of what attracted me to the discipline in the first place and no doubt is still a part of why I expect ethnography to be interesting if not positively exciting.

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.”)