Ethnography as optometry

Rain_gear_shanghai I am in Shanghai doing ethnographic interviews with consumers.  (And, yes, it’s raining.  More on that below.)  And I am struck how often ethnography is like watching paint dry, except that paint is often more interesting.

Much of what I am doing is trying to figure out the categories of thought, and that means asking lots of painstaking questions.  Sort of a like an optometrist, except instead of asking "is this better or is this better?" I am asking something like "so is it x or y?"  "Ok, is it x1 or x2."  Ok, is it x1.1 or x1.2" and so it goes. 

Some people like to think of anthropology as a extravagant act of empathy joining minds and imaginations across cultures.  Nah.  Most of it optometry.   

It’s funny how often you discover that the topic in question has only been roughed out or sketched in.  You proceed down the x1 trail, only to discover that things end abruptly at x1.2.  Apparently, culture lost interest while working on this one, went to lunch and left things unfinished, or something. 

And you can sometimes see a small shock in the respondent as she joins you staring out over the scaffolding of knowledge into areas uncharted.  This may be the first time they have had this sensation, and some react badly.

There is another species of consumer unhappiness.  This is where your questions drive them not to the the limit of the knowable, the mappable world, but its very foundation.  In North America, for example, you will ask someone about why they have appointed the houses the way they have, and they will roll out lots of explanations until you "force" them to reach for the most compelling rationale at work.  For many consumers, this turns out to be the notion of "homeyness."

Now you can ask them to break open and parse out what homeyness is, but most respondents will look at you as if you have rocks in your head.  Homeyness, this idea exists in a sense sui generis.  It is it’s own explanation.  It supplies its own account.  It is to so self evident as to be  inscrutable, and woe to the bloodyminded anthropologist who suggests otherwise.

This is an exciting moment for the anthropologist.  Now, you are, as they say, "on to something."   Account for this, and you have captured something substantial. 

So the ethngraphic interview proceeds in one of two directions: out to the edge where culture has merely sketched things in, and down to the very foundation ideas have weight and sufficiency enough to give the world ballast.

Tiny ethnographic notes from Shanghai

1. Further to my occasional series of "taxi cab impressions," above is a photo, taken in transit, of one of the most beautiful aspects of Shanghai.  It rains a lot here.  Not hard, often merely misting.  And when it does, everyone breaks out the raingear and the umbrellas.  And now the streets fill with people carrying one or wearing the other as they cycle their way to work or scooter their way home.  Why does light bloom in the rain?  It must be because  the  air becomes an extra rich medium for light.  I think this is why colors are said to super saturate.  Anyhow, the effect here in Shanghai is sensational.  It’s as if everyone when it rains to carry blocks of color through the streets that the city might stream with beauty.  And boy does it.

2. Yesterday, I did an interview in a part of Shanghai that is fast vanishing.  This is the world of crooked allies, window stairwells, tiny rooms, and roof top pidgeon keeps.  For a Westerner, it is almost impossible not to sentimentalize this world, but it is not hard to see why the state is tearing these places down and moving people to a highrise.  We Westerners are charmed by this wooden world only because we don’t have to live there.  There is a great story to tell here but, it just occurs to me might embarrass the respondents.  Sorry to bait and switch.  Let me see if I can think of a way to do this.

8 thoughts on “Ethnography as optometry”

  1. Grant, these China posts are just outstanding. I smiled when you described the look on the respondent’s face when you took her/him beyond the headlights to that zone s/he never knew existed. What a moment, eh?

  2. I love to think about epistemology and the foundation of our thinking – so you’ve always got a willing interviewee here (also western) but highly “religious”, not in that bad, strict way though 🙂

  3. Tom, thank you, sir. I think it’s the stuff of a Jim Carrey movie. What was that one called again? That’s right, the Matrix. Best, Grant

    JohnO, you’re on. Thanks, Grant

    Ennis, I wish, actually, I devoutly wish. I am using a translator, a pretty good one. Much is lost, but something is still gained. Best, Grant

  4. Dear Grant –

    I am looking for ethnographic researchers who are able run a project in the Philippines and Russia (drinking behavior). Can you recommend someone or direct me to a source. Thanks. Peter from Switzerland.

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