“We Have Ethnography”

“We have ethnography” could very well stand in as the ruling motto for what is now orthodox anthropology. If there is one long-standing, enduring trait of disciplined anthropology is the constant craving for recognition. Many anthropologists thought they had constructed a solid pillar on which to stand a discipline by claiming ethnography as their very own. They had managed to convince themselves–and the US military and intelligence establishment in the 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, and again now–that ethnography was invented by anthropologists, as a unique, direct, and personal way of gaining data. Needless to say, this kind of self-serving history mandates that we forget the many independent researchers who appeared on the scene long before any Malinowski, and who lived with some or even many “tribes”, married into them in cases, and lived with them for a generation or more.

So one can imagine the alarmist shrieks of indignant anthropologists who hear of “ethnography” in Communications departments, in Media Studies, in Business, and so forth. They had become used to the Sociological tradition of ethnography, especially coming out of Chicago, and often sneak in books from this tradition into their courses, with little in the way of an explanation that the author is a sociologist (e.g. William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society). Indeed, sociologists and others are frequently absorbed into teaching and research in anthropology, with little in the way of the kind of deferential explanation or apology that anthropologists have come to expect when others “misappropriate” their traditions.

The message here is obviously ambivalent:

What’s ours, is ours. What’s yours is also ours. Recognize what is ours, but be careful not to use it, at least not without our supervision.

The very serious downside of this state of affairs is that it is increasingly common, in both everyday discourse in the discipline, and often printed in various policies for graduate programs, that we find anthropology being equated with ethnography, specifically “fieldwork” (one of the most deadeningly colonial terms that we still use). Ethnography has become everything. Book reviewers in the discipline now approach each ethnographic work with the wrong expectation that it will, can, or should be all sorts of other things: it should be theory, it should be “comparative” (they forgot: comparative work in anthropology is not ethnography, that is ethnology), it should be a vast review of other people’s works (also a convenient pretext for reviewers to fault a book for not having cited them). The discipline that claims ethnography does not even know to handle it anymore, how to position it, how to understand it.

Orthodox, disciplined anthropology has reduced and essentialized itself…it identifies itself with a tool. It is as if there were to be a discipline called: “Reading Reports,” or “Interviewing with a Tape Recorder.” This is surely one sign of a discipline sounding its own death knell, when almost all of its subjects of study are imports (nationalism, ethnicity, tourism, migration, globalization, etc.) as well as its theoretical objects (power, governmentality, etc.).

As if to validate Pierre Bourdieu once again, orthodoxy is always a sure sign that a previously dominant system is now in trouble, when what was previously taken for granted is now taken as a lifesaver by some cold, angry, white hands.