New Frontiers in Ethnography: Volume 11

Cover of New Frontiers in Ethnography

Table of contents

(16 chapters)
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List of Contributors

Pages vii-viii
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Pages ix-xiii
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The book offers a portfolio of commentaries on the current state of play of ethnography from a variety of disciplinary and international perspectives. Its auspices lay with the ambiguity in the title of Hammersley's seminal What's Wrong With Ethnography? text, which can be read both as a powerful critique and as an equally powerful defence. In approaching this collection, Hammersley's text was used as a reference point from which to see the directions ethnography had pursued in subsequent years. Drawing upon the another key text emerging at that time within the United Kingdom (Atkinson's The Ethnographic Imagination in 1990), a positive reading of the situation was adopted. That is, following Atkinson's lead, it acknowledged the implications of a reflexive understanding of the constructed nature of ethnography in order to comment on the business of ethnography. Here the emphasis is upon what work ethnographers are really involved in less the science of the white lab coat and more the messy, complex and inherently partial.

Ethnography has come of age as a research approach on both sides of the Atlantic, as evidenced by the number of specialist texts and journals now dedicated to the field. Yet relatively recently, a leading UK commentator perceived something to be fundamentally wrong with ethnography (Hammersley, 1990, 1992) and reiterated such concerns (Hammersley, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2007, 2008a, 2008b). This opening chapter examines the thesis that there is a dilemma within ethnography by, first, examining Hammersley's conceptualisation of the problematic state of ethnography in his seminal text of 1992 and, second, to challenge the relevance of his argument today. In the light of Denzin's commentary on the stages of qualitative research development now moving into an era of more abstract and non-traditional forms of research and representation, can the current trends in ethnography be seen so readily as vice or virtue? Or, alternatively, does Hammersley's advocacy of ‘subtle realism’ (Hammersley, 1992, p. 5) resonate with contemporary obligations to produce innovative research that ‘makes a difference’?

Methodological traditions are like any other social phenomena. They are made by people working together, criticizing one another, and borrowing from other traditions. They are living social things, not abstract categories in a single system.– Andrew Abbott (2004, p. 15)

One thing that is very important with respect to Marxism in social research such as ethnography is the understanding adopted there of what kind of theory Marxist theory is and isn't and what consequences this has for its key concepts, their status, and what they represent philosophically as well as practically (i.e., in praxis). One important concept is the concept of social class. The Marxist concept of social class is very different to the class conceptions held in other research traditions. This isn't always fully appreciated by all critics of Marxist analysis in the social sciences.

As already indicated, I first became aware of the power of the myth of participant observation during my doctoral research, conducted in a government high school in Perth, Western Australia in 1998–1999. I remember well the day when, while writing one of the chapters of my thesis, it suddenly occurred to me that much of what I was recording as data, in what I was blithely calling a participant observer study, were the “droppings of talk” from informal conversations and formal interviews that had taken place with the teachers, students, and parents associated with the school (Moerman, 1988, p. 8). There was little in the final product and in the published version by way of direct observational data (see Forsey, 2007).

Thus far, we (consensual not colonial) have addressed a transcendent, metonymic sense of touch, curative of bodies and meanings, accepting Turner's hypothesis that ‘the contemporary problem of the body in society is a legacy of the Judaeo-Christian discourse of the body as flesh’ (Turner, 1997, p. 103). Then we outlined the detour of meaning, its extravagance. But there is a more immediate kind of touch. In terms of touch, we agree with Nancy and Hutchens – there is a peculiar reflexivity to touch:The sense of touch feels itself feeling itself. (Hutchens, 2005, p. 55, citing Nancy)It is by touching the other that the body is a body, absolutely separated and shared. (Nancy, 1993a, p. 205)

Dirty work involves contacting “polluting” substances; engaging in unpleasant tasks; and dealing with disvalued people, beings, or other objects. As Hughes (1984) observes:(E)very occupation is not one but several activities; some of them are the “dirty work” of the trade. It may be dirty in one of several ways. It may be simply physically disgusting. It may be a symbol of degradation, something that wounds one's dignity….(I)t may be dirty work in that it in some way goes counter to the more heroic of our moral conceptions. Dirty work of some kind is found in all occupations. (p. 343)

Ethnographic interviews are often favoured when examining sensitive issues, such as patients' accounts of their illness experiences. This type of interview enables the researcher to get a deeper (some would argue possibly better) understanding of the experiences that interviewees are recounting, relying on the interviewee to drive the focus of the conversation rather than the researcher determining what is discussed and shared.

In a politically charged research environment in which the US National Research Council's (NRC) Committee on Scientific Research in Education promotes legislation that defines legitimate research as “scientific” in increasingly limited and normative ways, the academy is seemingly witnessing calls for a diminution of research approaches (Kezar & Talburt, 2004). In our explication of critical performance ethnography we call not for retraction but methodological renewal (Law & Urry, 2004) and research approaches able to engage with and (re)present the sensory, emotional, and kinesthetic realities of social and cultural phenomena in the twenty-first century. As Law and Urry (2004) observe:Social science has yet to develop its own suite of methods for understanding – and helping to enact – twenty-first century realities…methods have difficulty dealing with the sensory – that which is subject to vision, sound, taste, smell; with the emotional – time-space compressed outbursts of anger, pain, rage, pleasure, desire, or the spiritual; and the kinaesthetic – the pleasures and pains which follow the movement and displacement of people, objects, information and ideas.(Law & Urry, 2004, pp. 403–404)

This chapter draws on my experience of conducting a life history study of teachers of black and Asian origin. Its title is drawn from remarks made to me by a senior colleague on hearing that I had received ESRC funding for the study. They are interesting not only in respect of their apparent dismissal of one colleague's work by another, but also as they encompass assumptions about the fit between researcher and research topic. In this particular case the concern related to a life history study, though the sentiment might also be applied to any form of research, and perhaps especially ethnography that seeks to achieve a detailed interior perspective on an aspect of social life.

To begin, therefore by establishing certain parameters to both delimit and evoke the discussion, one might first note before side-stepping the well-recognised ethical issues that announce themselves within these early ethnological texts (see for instance Hsu, 1979). The ‘pith-helmet’ terminology and exoticised intentionality, borne with such unselfconscious assurance, can in fact serve to effect complacency on the part of the contemporary ethnographer – were they to believe that one could completely escape such tendencies. In fact, Western thought has always displayed just these acquisitive geometries in its surveying, arraying and apprehending of the world.1 Obviously, therefore, this is not to criticise in a naive or petulant manner a fundamental comportment of the Western intellectual tradition, which clearly structures this and every enquiry couched within its terrain. Nor is it to suggest that certain keywords (‘colonialism’ for example) might somehow name this tendency without repeating its form, or that earnest mantras concerning ‘emancipation’ or ‘respect for alterity’ immediately authorise its continuation. For one to deal responsibly with the ensuing philosophical and ethical motifs would require a measured and careful analysis beyond the remit of the present discussion. Nonetheless, the basic geometry of this disposition is assumed for ethnography in the analysis that follows. Ethnography, that is to say, is actively oriented towards an object, here referred to variously as ‘lived experience’ or ethnos, and is always to some measure engaged in the apprehension and transmission of that object.

Subject Index

Pages 197-198
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Cover of New Frontiers in Ethnography
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Book series
Studies in Qualitative Methodology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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