the Law & Order of Ethnography

Law_and_order_ii Anyone who has seen a Law & Order episode knows the drill.  McCoy is asking a perfectly innocent question, when his legal adversary leaps up to exclaim,

Objection, your Honor, argumentative!

Apparently, you can’t try to strong-arm your witness into consenting to your point of view.  On this point, the ethnographer could not agree more. There’s no point bullying the respondent.  Indeed, the point of the exercise is to excavate their point of view, with the tiny pick and brush of the finely worded question. 

But consider these other legal objections.  Perfect for the court of law, and entirely wrong for the ethnographic interview. 

Objection, your Honor, asked and answered!

This objection is lodged when someone is asking a question that has already been, well, asked and answered.

But the ethnographer is always vulnerable to this charge.  We ask a question, we come back to the question, we ask for endless, ever more particular, clarifications of the question.  We do go on.  That’s our job.  Opposing counsel can just shut up and pay attention. 

Objection, your Honor, assumes facts not in evidence!

But of course the ethnographer asks questions that assume facts not in evidence.  We are after all looking for culture, a fact that is alway only remotely in evidence, the very thing that must be brought into evidence.  Your honor, I beseech you.  Let me do my job. 

Objection, your Honor, calls for speculation!

Exactly. Why just today, I had a couple of respondents who rose to the intellectual challenge like birds to the air.  I asked them to wonder what their culture was, and why it might be so, and how it is the changes in Poland since 1989 have made a difference.  They speculated like crazy.  A court of law would have been horrified.  The anthropologist was well pleased. 

Objection, your Honor, beyond the scope!

Nothing is beyond the scope.  In order to talk about food, you might want to talk about politics, gender, or architecture, or, as we did today, all three.  Indeed the faster and more fluidly the conversation moves "beyond the scope," the more illuminating is the interview. Apparently, legal discourse must run in channels.  The ethnographer scrambles in all directions. 

Objection, your Honor, calls for hearsay!

Hearsay’s okay.  The ethnographic interview is not particular.  We will use any matter at hand, a badly formed metaphor, a vague inkling, a mere rumor, a thin surmise, a stray observation.  These are all points of departure.  Even the decrepid wharf gives access to the stream. 

Objection, your Honor, leading question!

Well, yes and no, on this one.  Mostly, no.  We want very much to get the respondent talking, and then to follow up from there.  This way the respondent supplies his or her own terms.  The last thing we want to do is to ask the respondent to play back our terms, our logic, our scheme.  On the other hand, we are doing lots of leading.  If we can find a cunning way to bring the horse to water, one that is not leading even as it is, this is exactly what we want.

Objection, your Honor, shamelessly anthropological!

For the grant inquisitor, all these abuses are ok.  I guess this difference, between anthropology and the law, comes down to the fact that the law wishes to ascertain whether or not an event took place while anthropology is not really interested in the veracity of any historical particular but in the architecture of meaning in the context of which all particulars must take place. 

Objection, your Honor, bad tailoring!

I am grateful that the proper setting for anthropological inquiry is not the wainscotted court of law way downtown (always the same town), but the living rooms of respondent thither and yon.  Also, I don’t have to worry about running a press gauntlet on the conclusion of a particularly contentious interview or to being smeared in the press the next day.  Nor do I have to suffer the distraction of assistants who are always as   beautiful as they are brilliant. 

On the other hand, I don’t have to wear Jack McCoy’s suits and for that small blessing I will be forever grateful.

2 thoughts on “the Law & Order of Ethnography”

  1. Grant, I just watched an author who has some interesting ideas about the effect of politics on culture. He appeared on C-SPAN. Lawrence Harrison wrote “The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics can Change a Culture and Save it from Itself.” His research indicates that it is the culture of a nation that has the most potential for insuring that nation’s progress, rather than other factors.
    By the way, do you know any anthropologists who also happen to be attorneys?

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