A note on ethnography

Hanswerner_sahm_a_new_morning Barbara, my translator here in Germany, likes the sound of ethnography and she asked me to tell her more about it. 

Here’s an elaboration of the answer I gave her.  It comes in three parts.

Part 1

To do ethnography, she would want to master the mechanics of the interview process.

1) humility.  Interviews work well when the interviewer understands that the respondent is the expert and defers to him or her carefully.  It is precisely when the respondent hears this deference that he or she is willing to open up.

2) empathy, a willingess to suspend what you think for what the respondent thinks. 

3) patience. Does the respondent mean X or Y?  Very good.  Is it X1 or X2?  Fine, is it X1a or X1b?  The ethnographer ends up acting like a programming language for which only the most exacting input will do. 

Many people have these 3 qualities as aspects of their personality.  The rest of us will have to learn them through training and practice.

4) the ability to draw this life into the interview.  Quite substantial adjustments of approach are called for in almost every interview. What is the best way to draw this person out?  What is the best direction to bring them to the topics in question? 

5) the ability to discover the best approaches at any given moment.  How we ask the question is as important as what we ask.  Lots of improvisational work is called for.

6) the ability to shift frame to see the significance of testimony.  This is especially difficult when we have to do it in real time, under pressure, while staying on schedule.  "Shifting frame" here means finding the ideas that make an ethnographic datum reveal its (possible) significance. 

7) the ability to follow things up without losing one’s way.  Occasionally, the ethnographer will hear a possibility.  Now the question is how much to invest in its pursuit and when to "cut and run."  Normally, it is easy enough to identify the moment of diminishing returns.  But when something does not look promising, it may be that we have failed to find the frame that makes it so.

Note, points 4 through 7 are the strength of the method.  The corporation has to contend with unknown unknowns.  It doesn’t know what it needs to know.  (If it did, it could use quantitative methods, which are of course easier and cheaper to manage.)  Ethnography allows "just in time" adjustments.  It allows us to sharpen questions against incoming questions.  In a sense, it is designed to just to look for answers but to look for questions. 

Part 2

Barbara doesn’t have social scientific training.  What she needs, what we all need, are concepts at the ready.  Patterns standing by to serve us in the process of pattern recognition.  I used the example from yesterday’s interview.  We were sitting in a respondent’s home, and I could not help but notice a poster by Hans Sahm (pictured above) on the living room wall. 

Under normal circumstances, this would strike me as a piece of aesthetic misadventure.  But in this case, this looks like grist for the ethnographic mill and this is because I have a concept for what I am looking at.  As it turns out, I’ve read (as you probably have) that essay by Kant on the sublime.  If memory serves, Kant says nature is sublime when it outstrips our sense of proportion and scale and induces in us a sense of wonder, astonishment, and perhaps fear.  The sublime explodes our categories of understanding.

I’m not sure this is a very accurate rendering of the argument, but it was enough to serve me as a frame with which to think about the art in question.  Was this perhaps an exercise in the sublime.  Certainly, Sahm’s art is about an impossible scale and a certain romantic engagement.  (I think if you click on the image, you will get a larger version.  Notice that there is at the bottom a very large river, here represented as a mere trickle.)  I now know what might be operating in the culture of the respondent.  I know what to ask after.  As it turns out, the respondent encourages a Kantian view of her art without being able actually to confirm it.

And that’s ok.  I had a concept and the concept helped me see.  In a more perfect world, we would have, say, 80 of these concepts to aid the ethnographer.  And almost anything will do.  We should have notions of diffusion from Simmel, individualism from Durkheim, structure from Levi-Strauss, convergence from Jenkins, long tail from Anderson, tipping point from Gladwell.  Ideas with which to think.  (Everyone has their own favorites.  Everyone is always on the look out for more.)

This is after all precisely what is missing from the bargain basement ethnographers, the one’s who practice brutish empiricism.  These ethnographers merely report what the respondent says, because they have no concepts with which to see the cultural significance of what the respondent says.  They are mirrors, nothing more. 

Strictly speaking, if Barbara wishes to pursue a career as an ethnographer, she would take a course in one of the social sciences. But you and I know there is lots of dead air in one of these programs. Apparently, contents settle after they leave the factory.    

Part 3

Ok, Part 3 is all about acts of analysis, but you know what I am exhausted.  It’s been a long day.  I am now in Frankfurt and about 11:20.  I would really like to get a good night’s sleep.  So I’ll come back to Part 3.  Yeah, right, sure I will. 

5 thoughts on “A note on ethnography”

  1. How little of our formal education (in the contemporary West, at least) trains us for any of the skills you describe, Grant. Our technocratic culture is so overwhelmingly text-based and reductive that the abilities to speak, to orate, to recite, to ask, to listen, to respond, to empathize, to improvise, to feel-a-vibe, to understand-a-whole, and even to play-with-concepts are educated-out of most of us by the time we leave secondary school. Americans, in my experience, are better at some of these than the rest of us, because of the prevalance of show-and-tell activities in their primary schools.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. It is still the case that mathematics (yes, mathematics!) in Russia is examined by oral exams, right through university to PhD level. No western mathematician would question Russian mathematical competence. So why is our culture so opposed to developing non-textual and holistic skills?

  2. LSE does a one year “media and communications” masters. I found it a pretty freewheeling find-your-own-way through a lot of social science. Lecture courses and essays can range right across interpreting data, the limits of quant, criticisms of scientism, cultural theory, and all sorts of qual techniques. It is great for situating thoughts and it gives you something to hang practice and craft on.

  3. Never fails that I find the ready aphoristic insight here at cultureby. Cant wait for installment #3. There is a LOT of dead air in social science programs and I suspect the ratio of dead to live air is increasing unfortunately as anthropology fails to transition to the 21st century cultural hotspots, but still all those concepts and more ritual, liminality, communitas, binary opposition, rituals of rebellion, totem, mazeway resynthesis, cargo cult, are floating around somewhere like butterlies waiting for a flower on which to take new nourishment. Where are the grand conceptualizers of yore?

  4. Expanding my comment above, the dominant strain in our culture favours:

    – thinking over action
    – writing over speech
    – word & text over image & diagrams
    – our visual sense over other senses
    – formality over informality
    – permanence over ephemerality
    – logic over intuition
    – reason (so-called) over emotion
    – individual work over team work
    – rehearsal over improvisation
    – rigidity over spontaneity
    – seriousness over wit.

    Despite this dominant strain, there are some redoubts in our society fighting for the minority side. Art, film and music schools still train people to do, rather than to write about doing. Likewise, the military show a bias for action — or at least, they did before Donald Rumsfeld. Software companies still mostly prefer working programs over documented code.

    But most formal education, from B-schools down to kindergartens, is firmly on the side of the dominant strain. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect an education system to take a critical stance to the society which pays for it, but we all suffer as a result.

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