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Casting My Net wide*: Ethnography and today’s ‘Knowing Capitalism’

Traditional anthropology and ethnography are all about daring researchers originating from civilised Western European countries venturing into unknown territories to spend half their lives living with fascinating, backward tribes. They defy the comfy practice of armchair theorising and instead theorise on scruffy notepads, sat on prickly palm-leaf mattresses, while risking being eaten alive by tsetse flies and Felidaes.  If not consumed by carnivores, native diseases, or evil spirits, they tend to judge the native tribes by their own post-Enlightenment standards (despite their best intentions), and occasionally go native (because of their best intentions).  They then come back to their native universities to hold professor chairs in departments of Social science and Humanities, and proceed to publish acclaimed œuvres on the mores of one tribe for the rest of their lives.

The image of the ethnographer/anthropologist which I so mercilessly caricatured above has now been outdated and superseded by more reflective and less self-glorifying views on the researcher’s role.  But the reputation gained during anthropology’s infant years still haunts any social research which does not rely on skilful number-crunching, instead insisting on asking uncomfortable and vague questions, such as ‘why’ and ‘how’.

As the Idle Ethnographer, my quest is to subvert this lingering notion.  I cast my nets wide.  Among many other authors, I take inspiration from the socially awkward, but perceptive character in Kate Fox’s book Watching the English. Wherever I find myself (even, in fact, especially at home), I watch, mingle, taste, take photos, ask questions, say uncouth things to test people’s reactions, never take anything for a final answer, and generally try to tease out a richer, if disconcerting, verstehen of what Goffman calls ‘the tissue and fabric of […] life’ (Asylums, 1961).   I sincerely welcome questions and criticisms, because they are essential for that same understanding (or possibly also because I have been embarrassed so much that I have grown insensitive to embarrassment).

There is one important ‘HOWEVER’.   In the contemporary British sociological tradition, qualitative sociology seems to enjoy a relatively higher status compared to other countries – as Savage and Burrows (in The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology, 2007) point out, this happened as a ‘reaction to Parsonian functionalism from the 1950s‘.  However, they also note that there is a bias towards the comparatively ‘lightweight’ (or even flawed) method of in-depth interviews, rather than fully-fledged ethnography: ‘A comparatively unusual feature of British sociology is its embrace of the ‘in depth interview’ as its preferred research method. Halsey (2004) shows that 80
per cent of qualitative articles published in the British sociology journals in 2000 used interviews, a proportion which has steadily increased from about 50 per cent in the early 1960s. No other national tradition of sociology gives the in-depth interview such pre-eminence.’ (ibid.)

At least one reason for the current proliferation of qualitative methods in UK sociology is somewhat dubious: namely, the dislike of mathematics-based methods harboured by some researchers and students in the social sciences.  At least in part, the negative attitude towards ethnography is caused exactly by the widely-held assumption that those of us who rely on qualitative methods do so, due to being handicapped in our numerical skills (see, e.g., ‘A Crisis of Number: Some Evidence from British Sociology’; or Payne,Williams & Chamberlain (2003) Methodological pluralism).  Even though I am only a PhD student, each time I present  my research, I receive at least one question regarding my choice of methodology, and have to refute all over again explicit or implicit allegations of incapacity: that, presumably, I must favour ethnography because I dislike statistics, and not because it presents a richer conglomerate of methods which are immensely more appropriate, both in view of my specific research question, and in view of the resources available to me as a sole researcher.  I have grown so accustomed to this accusation, that I automatically find myself pointing out the opposite: that I enjoy, and can do, mathematics and basic statistics, but that for the purpose of my PhD project, I happen to be interested in other types of questions about the behaviour and social arrangements of human beings.  Even a five-year old knows that you need to choose the right method according to what it is that you want to achieve.  For my research questions, statistical analysis is far less helpful than other methods – even though my results are not verifiable.  This is not always a convincing cop out, but comparing my research to the sociological equivalent to chaos theory dealing with a multivariable system sometimes yields understanding laughter and occasionally helps*.

Joke aside, a rigorous qualitative+quantitative sociology is necessary more than ever.  With the ever-growing scientific specialisation that has been going on in the social sciences, and especially in view of the increasingly marginal social role of professional sociology (discussed at length in the excellent article by Savage and Burrows cited above, drawing on what Thrift (2005), calls a ‘knowing capitalism’, in a book called ‘Knowing Capitalism’).  A better mutual understanding – and trust – of each other’s work by researchers on both sides of the lingering methodological divide is indispensible.  Perhaps we need a constant reminder to awake us from the slumber of blind methodological allegiances that lead us to forget that the best research in any field – be it history, economics, sociology, journalism, natural sciences, or mathematics – makes use of all available methods and bits of information, and strives to create the most comprehensive, rich, and reflective story possible, in order to help us know more.   And that good researchers are never idly resting on their methodological laurels, or assuming that yesterday’s superiority guarantees them tomorrow’s power.

*(Chaos theory deals the behaviour of dynamical systems which are so sensitive to initial conditions that even the smallest variation in them gives widely divergent results (see e.g. Gleick, J.(1987) Chaos: Making a New Science (see excerpts) or this blog for a brief introduction).  Only that in ethnography there are a huge number of unknown variables, whereas mathematics has so far only found ways of dealing with small numbers of dimensions – which makes social research a hugely more complicated exercise.

* this is also a citation from Savage and Burrows, (2007)

Milena Kremakova
PhD Candidate and Sessional Teacher

Car Boot Sale

Rather than participant observation, this is an exercise in observant participation. Observant participation is a variant of the ethnographic method of participant observation, first described by Polish researcher M. Kaminski who wrote a book based on his experience in as political prisoner (Kaminski, Marek M. (2004) Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison). Now, you might think that a car boot sale is no prison, even though you are confined to a narrow patch of a few square feet. But the ethnographic method works, regardless.

Read the rest of this entry

Researching Drug Cultures

Hilary Pilkington is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. In this podcast Mark Carrigan talks to her about two research projects she led on drug use in Russia, as well about researching drug cultures more generally. The interview encompasses the findings of the research in Russia, as well as wider theoretical and methodological issues which drugs cultures pose for social researchers.

Researching Drug Cultures

Hilary Pilkington is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. In this podcast Mark Carrigan talks to her about two research projects she led on drug use in Russia, as well about researching drug cultures more generally. The interview encompasses the findings of the research in Russia, as well as wider theoretical and methodological issues which drugs cultures pose for social researchers.

An Ethnography of Academia?

A fascinating article from Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor Nigel Thrift (in his regular column for the Chronicle of Higher Education) about the striking lack of ethnographic inquiry into contemporary academic life:

Ethnography is one of the standard research tools used by academics in the social sciences and humanities nowadays. Surprising then that academia often seems remarkably under-studied in ethnographic terms. One would have thought that universities would be fertile ground for ethnographers but there are surprisingly few studies available that I know of.

When I was at Oxford, I could never fully understand why there was no concentrated ethnographic study of an Oxford college. The nearest seemed to be various college memoirs and a few student exposes. But it isn’t just Oxford or Cambridge: you would be hard pressed to find ethnographies of academic life, even though there is a thriving field of educational ethnography.


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