Why Ethnography is Needed

On this blog a number of arguments have been and will be made that critique ethnography along both well established lines of critique and some newer, and perhaps more incisive critiques. What I want to avoid, however, is a result where only one form of attempting to gain or produce knowledge is dogmatically disqualified, while all others (survey research, content analysis, media study) are left intact as beyond questioning. This is where I establish my own points of view on the continuing need for ethnographic research.

Notions of ethnographic research certainly need to be revised and retooled. The emphasis on “face-to-face” interaction, on living in a small community or localized “site” — let alone the still common and hopelessly colonial idea that ethnography is about “doing fieldwork in another culture” — all deserve to be severely questioned, as they have been (more on this in other posts). For preliminary purposes only, I treat ethnographic research as primarily a form of qualitative research that requires long-term participation in direct interaction with persons and practices.

Having said that, let me simply list what I personally think the strongest points of ethnography, fieldwork, and time spent away in a social setting other than one’s own (and hopefully including the latter as well at some point) continue to be:

  1. Like journalists or travel writers, to get information “direct from the source,” so as to avoid producing entirely speculative theories, without dismissing the fact that each person (the ethnographer here) has acquired his or her own share of wisdom from living in the world, and from reflecting on their life in the world;

  2. To step outside of the “Ivory Tower”, and to produce knowledge in collaboration with those who are not an encrusted part of the academic world–ethnography remains the only research avenue that permits this directly and consistently;
  3. To gain personal knowledge and valuable life experience through immersion in different settings, to prevent one from becoming epistemologically insular and culturally provincial — that is not to say that ethnography automatically counteracts such attributes, and one can go “to the field” with one’s biases and come back with them intact. The idea here is that ethnographic research at least allows for more of an opportunity to counter a blinkered view of the world;
  4. For an open anthropology, and where issues of collaboration, coproduction, public engagement, dialogue, alliance, and advocacy are concerned, getting “out there” is fundamentally necessary. Ethnography, for me, is essentially about learning “out there”;
  5. To be directly challenged by persons outside of academic institutions, or one’s particular home base within such institutions, and to be forced to communicate with them;
  6. To better facilitate auto-biographical and experimental forms of research, the ability to move “out there” can prove to be a meaningful way of reflecting on oneself from different angles.

What I simply do not accept, and cannot accept in the absence of convincing arguments, is the notion that one must conduct ethnographic research “in a culture other than one’s own” in order to understand one’s own culture. I think that one can just as easily reverse the argument: that you can never understand another culture when you have not tried to understand even the one that you have spent the most time with — if you fail at that, how do you expect to “learn another culture” in a mere year?

I also do not accept that ethnography must be “comparative”, and not just because the concept of comparison is loaded with 19th century evolutionist doctrines, but also because this is a basic mistake of terminology. Comparative work is ethnology, and I think that comparison should in any case transcend the bounds of studying multiple ethnographies to encompass research produced across a full range of what are currently called the humanities and social sciences. The notion of “comparison” and “cross-cultural” are obsolete remnants of evolutionist doctrines, and need to be replaced by ideas of context and global or translocal analysis.

Finally, for now, I do not accept that research must be “face-to-face” for it to be considered ethnographic. I think that Christine Hine, in Virtual Ethnography, has abundantly laid waste to such inherited prejudice, and I look forward to highlighting key sections of her work in the near future.

[See also: Forte, Maximilian C. (2007). Ethnography. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd ed. Editor-in-Chief, William A. Darty. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA: 99-101]

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