This is long overdue, mainly because I really haven’t had much to say about the topic. Anyway, not long ago Tamás Szabó and Robert Troyer teamed up again for another article, this time titled ‘Inclusive ethnographies: Beyond the binaries of observer and observed in linguistic landscape studies’. Their previous article had to do with this topic, sort of, but focused more on videography rather than ethnography. It contains some good insight to both videography and photography, so it’s good reading.
Before I jump into the article, I’ll select a random book that explores just what is ethnography. But before I do that, I’ll just quickly cover the semantics first. A dictionary, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, tells us that ethnography (OED, s.v. “ethnography”, n.) is:
“The systematic study and description of peoples, societies, and cultures.”
As well as:
“A description of peoples, societies and cultures, or an individual example of these; a work of ethnography.”
“The ethnic character or constitution of a place, people, sphere of human action, etc.”
What is common with all theses senses of the word is that they have to do with description of people. That only makes sense considering the etymology and the etymons of the word, combining ‘ethno-’ (OED, s.v. “ethno-”, comb. form) and ‘-graphy’ (OED, s.v. “-graphy”, comb. form), the former standing for:
“Used in words relating to the study of peoples or cultures…”
And the latter standing for:
“Some of the words with this ending denote processes or styles of writing, drawing, or graphic representation…”
Again, a dictionary tells us that ethnography pertains to describing or depicting people. So, now, how about a book then? The first hit is ‘Handbook of Ethnography’. By the looks of it, it is a whopping tome, containing texts by people mainly from the fields of anthropology and sociology. As it’ll get too specific to check out the chapters, I’ll just have a closer look at the introduction written by the editors.
They (1) begin by noting that, as a caveat, the topic is too broad, too contested and “escapes ready summary definitions.” That’s funny, given that I believe that I managed to give fairly good, broad, yet apt summary definition of the word, just by looking up the word in a dictionary. Anyway, this was expected, it’s this empty talk that you find in academic texts, a cliché not unlike ‘further research is needed’. Of course, that said, the editors consider this tome to be authoritative, because, you know, it’s written by leading scholars, people of international excellence (read: important people, celebrities, people who consider themselves important, as if that was itself a guarantee of anything) and reviewed by equally distinguished scholars known internationally (read: other people who are, at least, equally important as the people they review). To their credit, they (1) do indicate that they didn’t enforce any unified criteria as to what the people involved should say about the topic. So, yeah, it’s obvious that there’s this elitism as to who gets to contribute and who gets to judge the contributors (I mean that is a pretty much what elitism is about, getting to choose), but at least on paper they (1-2) are all for heterogeneity and distance themselves from specific models or typologies. Anyway, that said, while avoiding to give definition of the core concept, just on the first page, they (1) mention ethnographic methods, ethnographic research, ethnographic fieldwork, as if these were obvious to the reader. On top of that, on the second page they (2) indicate that they operate a broad definition of ethnography, yet, again, they don’t give a definition to the reader.
Okay, I get it that they want to avoid committing to this or that definition, considering that they seek to balance between two disciplines in which not everyone is happy about the inclusion of the other discipline. Fair enough. The editors (3) move on to discuss what is known as the crisis of representation, which basically puts the whole enterprise in doubt, followed by more discussion of homogeneity and heterogeneity that doesn’t really go anywhere, as far as I’m concerned as I still haven’t been treated to even a broad definition of what they mean by ethnography. It seems a bit paradoxical to keep talking about ethnography, as this thing, yet to be defined, mind you, while insisting that it’s not a single thing. Is it or is it not a thing? I keep being treated to ethnographic this, ethnographic that, such as ethnographic tradition (4) and ethnographic representation (4), yet, apparently, I am not to think of ethnography as a thing. Later on (5) there’s also ethnographic spirit. If it isn’t important, then keep on repeating the word, as if it was? I just don’t get it. There is so much evasion in this text that it amuses me. The level of contradiction in this just keeps on giving. Perhaps I just don’t get it. Fair enough.
It takes nearly four pages worth of this and that for the editors (4) to provide a definition as to what is ethnography:
“[T]he chapters contained in this volume … are grounded in a commitment to the first-hand experience and exploration of a particular social or cultural setting on the basis of (though not exclusively by) participant observation.”
Okay, so ethnography is, broadly speaking, as they initially (2) insist, participant observation, with wiggly room left for other options. They (4-5) add that:
“Observation and participation (according to circumstance and the analytic purpose at hand) remain the characteristic features of ethnographic research).”
Right, what they mean is that ethnography is observation, of others (not researchers), and participation, with the said others. They (5) clarify that this is because:
“Participant observation alone would normally result in strange and unnatural behaviour were the observer not to talk with her or his hosts, so turning them into informants or ‘co-researchers’.”
I get that it is odd, atypical behavior to simply spectate, or so to speak, when others are doing stuff, which results in other people acting in atypical ways, i.e. unnaturally as they put it. Then again, the mere presence of a guest changes the behavior of the hosts. It’d be quite bold to claim otherwise. This also assumes that the hosts are welcoming. In other words, there’s no way that the researcher can be sure that people don’t change their behavior due the presence of the researcher, not to mention simply lying, making … up as they go. I mean you have to be a bit naive not to consider that. What gets reiterated by the editors (5) is that “ethnographic research remains firmly rooted in the first-hand exploration of research settings” and that it is “social exploration and protracted investigation”. So, what you really are saying is that what defines ethnography is that it’s not armchair research but so called fieldwork. Well I’ll be damned. That’s basically anything that isn’t merely hypothetical, as thought of by some researcher in an office. I’m not impressed.
Hmm… what about a monograph. Let’s see. How about the ‘Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice’ by Dell Hymes? It might just do, considering my own familiarity with linguistics, as well as education. Sure, you can object to my choice, that it’s random, not representative, etc. etc. Aye, it is, or seems to be so, considering how I landed on it, kinda like following the Tibetan Method, instead of trying to rationalize what might be gold standard for this. Anyway, the relevant chapter was actually first published in 1978, as noted in the acknowledgments (xiii). Right, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hymes (3) kicks off by stating what the editors of that handbook kept repeating, that there’s a lack of unified conception as to what ethnography is. What strikes me on the first two pages already is how he (3-4) comments that:
“It is easy for anthropologist of a variety of persuasions to criticize such [quantitative and experimental] methods. It is often harder for them to state concisely the alternatives.”
Well, this aptly summarizes the issue I take with ethnography (if you already didn’t notice it). It’s easy to criticize others, that they are doing x, y or z wrong, but it’s often the case that no alternative way of doing things is proposed. I’ve been told that I should get with the times, or so to speak, to take into consideration the ethnographic turn (which I take to be in reference to the linguistic turn, and subsequent other turns, such as the spatial turn). However, as much as I get that there are these and/or those shortcomings in the way I do things, as I’m hardly perfect, I’m left hanging, as to what it is that I am supposed to do otherwise? So, like Hymes (3-4) points out, I’m not given concise alternatives. I’m not given anything, really, except why don’t you do ethnography type of responses.
Hymes (4) waffles around the issue, noting that, on one hand, you can’t expect everything to be neatly packaged, you know, because the world is a messy place. Fair play, fair play. I get that. On the other hand, he (4) acknowledges that if explicit attention is not paid to the issue and the concepts honed accordingly, it’ll lead to a brief fad, a modish moment where it’s all talk the talk but hardly any walking the walk. In other words, it’s only likely to result in empty rhetoric, plenty of hot air, providing some superficial accounts on this and/or that, patting each other in the back at conferences, without ever having a clue as to what the central concepts are about, not to mention if the underlying plane that holds it all together is at all sound in relation to the concepts.
Hymes (4) moves on to discuss how he conceptualizes ethnography. He (4) repeats some of the stuff that has already covered, which, in summary, consist of him expressing that ethnography is more of an art than it is a science. Okay, those are not his exact words, yet, that’s the feeling I get from this. Also, that does not mean that it’s bad thing. I think there is much to learn from art, often way more than from science, no matter how much art gets trivialized in the school system. However, oddly enough, the people who engage in the art of ethnography, if you will, are keen to assert that you need to play by the rules, do as they do, which is … erm … rather … unlike art and more like (old) school (science). Rather contradictory, if you ask me. His (3-4) characterization actually ends up doing exactly this, pointing out how hard it is to pinpoint as to what it is, only to point out that it’s not some whimsical thing, about psychological experience, you know, something touchy feely, but rather about systematic discovery of knowledge, involving systematic participation and observation.
There’s also something distinctively patronizing about this account, as marked by how he (4) acknowledges that ethnography “is associated with the study of people not ourselves”. I mean this is borderline colonial (well, it probably was back in the day…). It makes you think of researchers who parachute in, tell the locals that they, the researchers, are there to observe and report, supposedly for the benefit of the locals, of course, while the locals, possibly, wonder, did they ever ask for any of this, who the hell does he (I mean it’s probably a he) think he is, only to think that, perhaps, be it as it may, they need to show hospitality (out of common courtesy) to this fellow who just landed here, out of nowhere and will exit in an equally spectacular and abrupt fashion. I remember being in a conference, where someone had some presentation about linguistic typology, conducted in some remote part of the world, where people make do with what comes to be reified as a contact language. There I was, thinking to myself, wondering, whether the researchers actually asked the people involved, those whose creative engagement in language done for practical purposes they seek to classify as a distinct language, if they gave a shit. I realize that I may well be wrong, yet something tells me, call it intuition, that these people may have better things to do than babysit some random foreigner who came out of nowhere, didn’t actually contribute to anything (no, observing them and making some notes about their life doesn’t count as anything actual) and will leave once the work on them is done. I understand that I may be missing something, but I just can’t wrap my head around how they don’t seem to take that into consideration. Maybe they do. I don’t know.
Hymes (5) lists three features that become united in ethnography: being contrastive, systematic and interpretative. He (5) also calls this the topic-oriented tradition. There are, of course, other traditions. The other two traditions listed by him are what he (4-5) calls the comprehensive tradition (know it all, not just bits and pieces, but all the pieces that concern this or that people in this or that place, their way of life) and the hypothesis-oriented tradition (testing hypothesis, based on this or that theoretical base).
He (6) goes on to point out that these three tradition are linked to together, first having the goal to be comprehensive, then topic-oriented, followed by theoretization. This makes me think of the theory and practice issue that seems to puzzle people. I reckon you can’t have theory without practice, which is the point here. Then again, there is no practice without theory, so no matter how you try, no matter how data-driven the approach is, like in the comprehensive tradition, there is always some theory, some intuition at play. He (7) actually points this out later on, how, for some, there is this, what I’d like to call a feedback loop. It might be better to call it a spiral or coil though, in the sense that theory and practice don’t simply or necessarily just loop back, things staying the same. Anyway, theory affects practice and vice versa, hence the feedback. I for sure have to come to terms with this in my own work. The real world of practice have made Swiss cheese out of my initial hypotheses and theorizations. Every time something has failed, I’ve gone through the whole sets of data again, over and over again, and adjusted accordingly. The alternatives to this would be, and I don’t recommend either of them, is, A), to sit in some office, come up with a model and then brute force all the data to fit the model or, B), ignore one’s own presuppositions, intuitions, gather some data and claim it’s all there, in the data. You can’t have one without the other. I wouldn’t call taking both into consideration a dialectical method though, as if one and the other, this or that, one as opposed to another, would be opposites and would subsequently lead to a synthesis. Feel free to disagree, but, yeah, I’m not having that.
Hymes (8) explains the feedback in terms used by Kenneth Pike in his book ‘The Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior”. Pike (37) calls these the ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ standpoints for the description of human behavior. Firstly:
“The etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system, and as an essential initial approach to an alien system.”
“The emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system.”
For those who are not familiar with linguistics, these labels are in reference to ‘phonetic’ and ‘phonemic’, used in analogously but for other, more general purposes, not only with regards language, as he points out (37). If you don’t know how these two differ, simply put, the phonetic level is the level of the actual sound, the physiology and the acoustics of it, whereas the phonemic level is the where they become language specific, how they become meaningful in combination with one another. So, as Pike (37) defines them, the ‘etic’ is the outsider perspective and the ‘emic’ is the insider perspective.
The gist of this is that an outsider fails to understand something others do, no matter how good the description is because the outsider lacks the necessary insider knowledge, as he (39) goes on to point out in reference to Edward’s Sapir’s observations of group member behavior in ‘The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society’. In the relevant paragraph, Sapir (158-159) states that “[a]ll cultural behavior is patterned”, that one’s actions, thoughts and feelings are not individual in the sense that they are brought about by the society which seeks to foster certain conduct. Simply put, what we think is individual, is actually social, as he (159) points out. The following part is what Pike (39) approvingly recites from Sapir (159):
“It is impossible to say what an individual is doing unless we have tacitly accepted the essentially arbitrary modes of interpretation that social tradition is constantly suggesting to us from the very moment of our birth. Let anyone who doubts this try the experiment of making a painstaking report of the actions of a group of native engaged in some form of activity, say religious, to which he has not the cultural key. If he is a skilful writer, he may succeed in giving a picturesque account of what he sees and hears, or thinks he sees and hears, but the chances of his being able to give a relation of what happens in terms that would be intelligible and acceptable to the natives themselves are practically nil. He will be guilty of all manner of distortion. His emphasis will be constantly askew. He will find interesting what the natives take for granted as a casual kind of behavior worthy of no particular comment, and he will utterly fail to observe the crucial turning points in the course of action that give formal significance to the whole in the minds of those who do possess the key to its understanding.”
I think what follows is also worth adding here (159):
“This patterning or formal analysis of behavior is to a surprising degree dependent on the mode of apprehension which has been established by the tradition of the group.”
So, in Sapir’s terms, the issue is that an outsider exhibits a pattern of behavior that is different from the pattern of behavior of the insiders. That said, I think it’s actually unnecessary to differentiate between outsiders and insiders, or what’s outside and inside a system. I think it’s better to think this as a matter of patterning, because this is not a binary, for or against. I think that Pike’s formulation oversimplifies and mystifies the issue, as if the patterns of others were mystical and incongruous. Then again, this likely depends on what’s at stake. Language itself? That’s going to be harder, way harder to figure out than let’s say that religious activity that Sapir mentions. Of course, if we bundle the two, then figuring out the religious activity, what it’s all about, is bound to even harder. Sapir seems to be rather adamant about the difficulties caused by the unconscious patterning, while offering a wide variety of examples, which may make the reader think that the patterning is so strong that it sets us a part so far from one another that it becomes borderline impossible to understand others affected by different patterning, to the point that it becomes a pointless task. Then again, Sapir himself seems to be able to grasp this, so which one is it? Can or can’t? I think there is also a risk of categorizing people into well defined groups, clearly distinct from other groups, for example, by their nationality or occupation, as if they were they defined the people to the point that it all becomes static, like, as if, all Japanese people are the same or all truck drivers are all the same because they are impacted by the same patterns. Sapir (287) actually makes note of this in his 1932 text ‘Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry’, as contained in the same compilation:
“Clearly, not all cultural traits are of equal importance for the development of personality, for not all of them are equally diffused as integral elements in the idea-systems of different individuals.”
In other words, it depends. As he (287) goes on to point out, some of the patterns are very compulsive and thus have a great effect on people. In a sense they apply more universally. That said, as acknowledged by him (287), other aspects only affect certain people or certain groups of people. For example, people’s occupation may require certain set of skills, training or education, which, in turn, on the job, affects them, making their understanding of the world different from people of other occupational groups. His (287) examples are: a dairyman (his wording), a movie actress (his wording), a laboratory physicist and a party whip. Their way of seeing the world is going to be a bit different. I actually intentionally retained the actress instead of changing it to just actor because I reckon being a woman is also a matter of patterning, distinct from a man. That said, there are other patterns which are shared by these groups of people and even these specific patterns may apply only part time. For example, someone working a laboratory is not a completely incomprehensible person with bizarre habits outside work. That person may well be engaging with someone else, let’s say that dairyman, and manage just fine, and possibly even learn to understand the little things that permeate the life of someone who deals with all things dairy. It could, of course, be that the lab worker isn’t that interested in dairy so that will remain a mystery. However, while different patterns affect different people, it all being clearly circumstantial, it’s not that the various groups of people are only affected by patterns that are specifically relevant to them as otherwise there’d be no way to comprehend them. This is something that Sapir goes on to address when he (285, 287-288) notes that economic, political or social definitions of groups, within a society, i.e. preset groups like ‘the working class’, fail to take into account the complexity of the situation. They are made up distinctions that fail to capture what’s real, so he (288), I think hilariously, calls them unicorns. Anyway, in his (287-288) words:
“If we consider that these specialized cultural participations are partly the result of contact with limited traditions and techniques, partly the result of identification with such biologically and socially imposed groups as the family or the class in school or the club, we can begin to see how inevitable it is that the true psychological locus of a culture is the individual or a specifically enumerate list of individuals, not an economically or politically or socially defined group of individuals.”
Biology may seem to be off here, but remember that your own body has an effect on you and your group membership. For example, women are very different from men. It’s pointless to deny that. Also, people with disabilities are different from able bodied people. None of it is whimsical, made up. Then again, that is not all there is to people. It doesn’t simply determine them. They are factors, among others. It’s also worth noting here that, for Sapir (288), the individual also needs to be (re)defined:
“‘Individual.’ however, here means not simply a biologically defined organism maintaining itself through physical impacts and symbolic substitutes of such impacts[.]”
So, he wants to move away from defining the individual as a starting point, identified in relation to a mass, as one among many. Instead he (288) wants to define the individual as what that person has become, as affected by the various patterns:
“‘Individual … here means … that total world of form, meaning and implication of symbolic behavior which a given individual parts knows and directs, partly intuits and yields to, partly is ignorant of and is swayed by.”
He (288) moves on to add that not only are some patterns more general, or universal, affecting more people, than others (extensity) but they also vary by their potency (intensity). In other words, some patterns are not as important as other patterns in terms of their potency, how much of effect they have on people. On top of that, in actuality, the patterns may have a greater effect on some people or groups of people than others, as he (288) points out.
I could keep going with this but I’ve already written on this text by Sapir so it’s better move on from this detour. As a side note, you can find Valentin Vološinov discussing the same thing in ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’. He (88) explains by what he calls we-experience which permits “different degrees and different types of … structuring.” As a result, according to him (89), what we get is:
“All these types of expression, each with its basic intonations, come rife with corresponding terms and corresponding forms of possible utterances. The social situation in all cases determines which term, which metaphor, and which form may develop in an utterance expressing [the phenomenon] out of the particular intonational bearings of the experience.”
He (87-89) explains this with how people come to experience something that all humans can and do experience: hunger. In summary, we can and do experience hunger but our experience of hunger depends on who we’ve become. As he wrote this sometime in the late 1920s, he finds it apt to exemplify this by contrasting the experience of hunger between peasants and factory workers. Anyway, the gist of this is that the phenomenon is apparent to both groups of people, but, according to him, the peasants experience it as material lack, just something that can happen, nothing shameful about it, whereas the factory workers will find it shameful and degrading, something to protest about. This is explained by how peasants are typically a non-unified group of people who do and also have to take care of themselves, living and working at greater distance from one another, whereas the factory workers are a (more) unified group of people, living and working in close proximity to one another. Surely there is more to it, but that’s the gist of it.
It’s also worth noting that, not unlike Sapir, Vološinov does not believe in unicorns. He (88) emphasizes that what he calls “‘we-experience’ is not by any means a nebulous herd experience”. So, no, peasants or factory workers are not all the same, nor are they peasants or factory workers to begin with. Sure, they may well be or may well have been remarkably similar to one another but that’s due to the circumstances that result in similarity. This is why he (88) states that we-experience is always differentiated. To make more sense of this, if you are not familiar with differentiation, he (88) clarifies this by stating that:
“[D]ifferentiation, the growth of consciousness, is in direct proportion to the firmness and reliability of the social orientation. The stronger, the more organized, the more differentiated the collective in which an individual orients [one]self, the more vivid and complex [one’s] inner world will be.”
So, for example, peasants have been peasants for how long, basically since whenever it was that people started cultivating land. By that time, late 1920s, peasants were still just poor manual agricultural laborers who lived off the land. Their links to one another are weak and they are hardly organized, namely because they do not live and work in close proximity to one another, at least not as close as the factory workers. There isn’t much differentiation involved when it comes to peasants because they hardly count as a collective, an organized group of people.
Vološinov (86) also points out that people have limits that are tied to their position, as members of a group or a collective, and time. This is what Pierre Bourdieu (164) calls the sense of limits or the sense of reality in the ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’. He (164) states that the sense of limits come about as “[e]very established order tends to produce (to very different degrees and with very different means) the naturalization of its own arbitrariness. In terms of experience, he (164) calls this doxa, a belief turned into truth, “the world of tradition experienced as a ‘natural world’. To be clear about this, as he (164) points out, doxa is what we come to take for granted. It’s unlike orthodox (posited as true) and heterodox (variable) beliefs because presenting something as true or correct or stating that there are multiple truths makes them apparent and contestable, as clarified by him (164).
In simpler terms, if someone claims to knows what’s what, the correct or true interpretation of something, it’s easy to contest that, to ask: says who? This is the great weakness of those who Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call priests, i.e. the arbiters of truth (any, not only actual priests), in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. They hold privileged positions which, supposedly, gives them exclusive authority to truth. Now, you only need to challenge them and the whole thing comes crumbling down. You only need to ask that one question (says who?) to make it apparent that it’s they, themselves, who say so. Orthodoxy isn’t great in that regard. It’s easy to challenge. That is, of course, not to say that it’s necessarily smart to challenge orthodoxy because those who are in privileged positions can exercise power over those who seek to challenge their authority. Back in the day this was probably more of a process of, firstly, keeping the riffraff out of the temple (make them know their place), secondly, excommunicating/anathematizing them (making them outcasts, pariahs), and, thirdly, executing them for heresy (literally getting rid of the problem by getting rid of the troublemakers). Nowadays, of course, people aren’t executed for heresy (at least not in the western societies), but the priesthood hasn’t gone anywhere. For example, in the context of academics, this is all applicable. There is gatekeeping (keeping the riffraff out of the temple), dogmatism (branding others as heretics, for wrongthink) and starving the opposition (those without funding, or a stable salaried position for that matter, will find it hard to conduct research when they have make ends meet in some other line of work).
With heterodoxy, this is all a non-issue. Heterodoxy entails a plurality of beliefs, so you don’t have the issue of true vs false, correct vs incorrect and the like. This is not the case doxa. Of course, to complicate things, the clever priests would never concede that they uphold an orthodoxy and use the system to further their own interests. That’d risk losing their sweet gigs. Instead, the whole order of things is presented as natural, despite being wholly arbitrary, a product of the conditions that permit it to come into being, and adhering only to its own internal logic, as explained by Bourdieu (164).
Now, obviously, it’d be too simplistic to argue that the people involved are malevolent, that there is some great conspiracy against the ordinary folks or the like. Simply put, it’s not that people just decide, one day, that they’ll abuse the system, for their own benefit. It’s rather that they have become the kind of people who do that. That happens largely unwittingly. They don’t necessarily consciously desire that. It’s rather that what they come to desire, at any moment, make it possible that they do that. Sapir explains this by what he calls patterning and Vološinov by what he calls differentiation.
Michel Foucault comments this in ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ when he (25) argues that we must “disconnect the unquestioned continuities” by making apparent the “temporal dispersion that enables [discourse] to be repeated, known, forgotten, transformed, utterly erased, and hidden, far from all view, in the dust of books.” To be more specific, he (25) notes that discourse can be understood as based on the ‘already-said’ which is also ‘never-said’, existing only in semi-silence, as “voice as silent as a breath”. In his (25) words:
“It is supposed therefore that everything that is formulated in discourse was already articulated in that semi-silence that precedes it, which continues to run obstinately beneath it, but which it covers and silences.”
So, while this is not exactly the same as how it is explained by Bourdieu, Sapir or Vološinov, the gist of it is the same. He (25) continues:
“The manifest discourse, therefore, is really no more than the repressive presence of what it does not say; and this ‘not-said’ is a hollow that undermines from within all that is said.”
Now, as I pointed out, Foucault is not for this, at all. What he (25) wants to do is to “renounce all those themes whose function is to ensure the infinite continuity of discourse and its secret presence to itself in the interplay of a constantly recurring absence.” He wants us to pay attention to how it is that we come to take things for granted and challenge them, to indicate how it is that this or that discourse came to be. He (25) wants us to do that because discourses are more than just language, calling things by this or that name. As he (25) points out, it is this more than just language, calling something this or that, we must focus on. What is this more then? I reckon it becomes clear in his (25) definition of discourses as the “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.” As you can see, language is creative, capable of creation, and it’s this aspect that “we must reveal and describe” (25), how it is that this or that discourse came into being. This is especially important because we are in the habit of forgetting how the discourses came to being and take things for granted. Everything just is. This is also linked to the way many people, if not most people, think that there is this neat correspondence between language and reality, that this keyboard that I write on is inherently a keyboard, that there is some transcendent idea of keyboard that the word keyboard expresses.
I guess it’s time to jump back to Hymes. He (8) acknowledges, similarly to Sapir, that labeling people as this or that, judging it, for example, by distance alone is misleading. People may still misunderstand one another, even those who live in close proximity and grew up in speaking the same language and, broadly speaking, in the same culture. He (8-9) exemplifies this with a questionnaire that ended up having wonky results, which, apparently entitles ethnographers to distrust quantitative methods such as questionnaires, “if the meanings of the questions to those asked are taken for granted in advance.” How is this relevant? I don’t know about others, but at least to me it seems obvious that the quality of the results has to do with the quality of the research design. This applies qualitative research as well.
Another point that I’m not buying is holding on to a binary, between the ‘etic’ and the ‘emic’. He (9) notes how the ‘etic’ has to with institutions, modes of communication and the like, whereas the ‘emic’ has to do with the local way of life. Who is it again that make up the institutions? Who is it that come to define the modes of communication? Would it not be people? The ‘etic’ perspective is supposed to be this outsider perspective, a generic or universal viewpoint, if you will. Is the researcher perpetually outside of reality or something? How is it that that’s even possible to see the world that way? Are we not always in the world, regardless how we define it? What in the actual …? This is what I struggle with when, for example, someone argues that literary examples are not examples of real language use? What do you mean by that? That they are not of this reality? I think it makes way more sense to consider it all real, that we are differentiated or patterned. If I were to retain the notion of viewpoint, I reckon we are all simultaneously both insiders and outsiders. However, that’s a contextual notion. I am indeed an outsider, in the sense that who I’ve become is different from people who’ve become unlike me, inasmuch as that is the case. I’m also an insider, in the sense that who I’ve become is similar to people who’ve become like to me, inasmuch as that is the case. In addition, this is not a static notion. I keep becoming and so do other people. Anyway, I don’t find this notion of outsider and insider perspectives to be at useful because it holds that a view from nothing is actually possible and relegates difference subsidiary to identity, resulting in unicorns, as Sapir might characterize the issue.
Moving on from the issue he takes with statistics, Hymes (10) also points out that ethnography is necessary because “self-report cannot be relied upon”, because “people are notoriously unable or unwilling to give accurate accounts”. No! People might lie! Mon Dieu! How does this not undermine the quest for the ‘emic’ perspective? How is it that we can be sure that we get to see the world like an insider if it is possible, if not likely, that the people whose understanding of the world you are trying to reach and subsequently depict might lying to you?
I could go on and on with Hymes or jump to another monograph, either randomly picked or something well known, but I’m ten pages in and yet to comment on the article I set out to comment on. So, how do Szabó and Troyer fare in this regard, how do they present ethnography?
They (306-307) start by linking the topics, ethnography and linguistic landscape research tradition. They (306-307) note that prior research has embraced the ‘emic’ perspectives, i.e. local views of the landscape, ever since the research tradition emerged in the early 2000s. What differentiates the article from what I’ve covered so far is their interest in raising awareness, inclusiveness, giving back to the people they engage with, or to speak. I think this is commendable. I’ll return to this later.
What is similar to what’s been covered in this essay so far is the jargon, attributing this and that as ethnographic, such as “ethnographic researchers” (306), “ethnographic data generation and analysis” (307), “ethnographic research methods” (307), “ethnographic fieldwork” (307, 314), “ethnographically orientated LL researchers” (308), “[e]thnographic walking based methods” (309), “ethnographic research” (310), “ethnographic methods” (311), “ethnographic approach” (312, 317) and “ethnographic projects” (314). As you can see, there is this and/or that ethnographic, yet no clear definition of ethnography and what makes something ethnographic (as opposed to not ethnographic) is provided. This is a odd, considering that even the title includes the word ethnographies. Okay, fair enough, it’s there, sort of, implicitly, but it bothers me that this isn’t addressed. They (307) present a partial definition:
“[THE] goal … is to provide a description of one form of participant-led research that combines audio, video, photographs and text and results in co-created encounters in the social setting.”
What is presented here involves participation, combined with audio, video, photos and text, resulting in co-created encounters, enacted by the researchers and the other people involved, in a certain context. Okay. They (308) move on to explain the importance of inclusivity in research:
“The emancipatory and the democratizing ambitions of inclusive research re-position participants from being ‘informants’ that solely serve the information needs of researchers to being co-creators of new insights.”
In other words, the point is that rather than treating people as informants, i.e. sources of data for the researchers to tap into, they are treated as people. For them (308) this results in blurring of the boundaries between the collection and the analysis of the data and “[i]t is only through detailed exploration of research practices that we can ensure that what we study – the experience of people as they navigate, interact with, and create their LL – is accurately documented during data generation.” Here you can see what the purpose of the study is, to document the people’s experiences, as they engage with their surroundings together with the researchers. This is well in line with the dictionary definitions of ethnography as pertaining to depiction of people.
Now, what I think is good about this is the emphasis on making people aware of their surroundings and their capacity to “re-create and transform social spaces” (308) rather than just taking things for granted. I think this is great. I would say this is a matter of awareness. It’s important because people do take things for granted. This is the central issue with landscape and that’s why I keep reminding people that they should really take it into consideration. Again, I think it’s great that people are pushed to be more aware of these matters.
What I don’t like about this is ethnography part, the documentary aspect of it. I think it is misses the point. There is no need to document the encounters because the encounter itself, the experience, is what’s important. This is a very everyday thing actually. We, in general, not only as researchers, can provide opportunities to learn from us and we can learn from others. I’ve used this example before but I’ll do it again here. I once drove on the motorway around midsummer. It was night time but because the sun barely goes down here at that time of the year, the experience is, how should I attempt to describe it, worth experiencing. I can state the obvious, that it’s sunny, like a day, but the shadows are too elongated etc. and that the bodily sensation of driving on the road adds to that experience, but this is a mere depiction of that experience, not the experience itself. I could write an article about it but, for me, it would be pointless. Why write about it? Why not just suggests others to do it themselves? Live a little.
Now, who am I to challenge the latest trends in research? Good point. I am well aware that I’m a nobody. Perhaps someone with authority can explain this better or at least be more convincing about this. Tim Ingold, who has also written about landscapes (not that I wholeheartedly agree with him on that, mind you) addresses the issue in ‘That’s enough about ethnography’.
Ingold (383) points out already in the abstract that the problem with ethnography is that the term is so overused, not only in anthropology, which is his discipline, but also in other disciplines that when it’s used, it means just about nothing. I reckon landscape research and linguistic landscape research are no different in this regard. To be fair, to make it apparent, Ingold is being hyperbolic, as well as partisan, on this issue, as he (383) himself points out.
He (384-385) makes note of how the word ‘ethnographic’ is used as a common qualifier, so that people refer to, for example, “ethnographic encounter[s], ethnographic fieldwork, ethnographic method, ethnographic knowledge”, “ethnographic monographs”, “ethnographic films”, “ethnographic theory”, the point being that just about anything that has to do with an ethnographer then becomes ethnographic, just because it involves ethnographer. He (385) continues listing the absurdity that follows from this. For example, reflecting on one’s own experience becomes autoethnography. Also, investigating artifacts becomes ethnography of artifacts, despite the fact that artifacts are not people (remember how ethnography is about describing people). He (385) states that the only thing that isn’t rendered into ethnography is the academic life, be it with one’s colleagues or with students, in the classroom, in seminars, workshops or conferences. For some reason, as he (385) goes on to point out, there’s a lot of talk about ethnography but little doing it in the academic context. I reckon the gist of the issue here is that he isn’t happy that ethnographers are happy to describe the life of others, but not the life of the people they deal with on a daily basis (that is to say their own life). Perhaps that hits a bit too close to home. Anyway, be it as it may, it’s an anomaly alright, as he (385) points out.
He (385) explains his stance on ethnography, after pointing out that, by dictionary definition, ethnography is about “writing about people”. In summary, he acknowledges that any depiction of people, regardless of the mode, albeit typically done in writing, counts as ethnographic, inasmuch as “it aims to the life and times of a people”. I agree, that does make sense. I just want to emphasize that it doesn’t have to be only in writing. Other modes of expression should be included in this. Of course, that doesn’t change things, really, as it’s about (graphic) depictions. Anyway, he (385) explains what he doesn’t consider ethnographic:
“I do not believe the term can be applied to our encounters with people, to the fieldwork in which these encounters take place, to the methods by which we prosecute it, or to the knowledge that grows therefrom.”
He (385) proceeds to address what so far has been wildly labeled as ethnographic:
“Indeed to characterize encounters, fieldwork, methods and knowledge as ethnographic is positively misleading.”
This is because, by definition, ethnography is about depicting people. That’s all there is to it. He (385) adds that:
“Auto-ethnography, when there are no people to describe but only the self, and museum ethnography, where there are only curated objects, are simply oxymoronic.”
So, as I already pointed out, describing items for sure doesn’t count as ethnography. Items are not people. I don’t know about the first bit. Maybe you could qualify it as describing people, but then again, I guess that would lead to the problem that anything that I come up with, on my own, like what I’m doing right now, becomes ethnography, just because I’m depicting what it is that I’m engaging in, sitting at home, in front of a desk, looking a screen, thinking to myself, reading about ethnography, while writing about ethnography. So, yeah, I can see how that becomes an issue conceptually. Lastly, he (385) adds that:
“As for ethnographic theory, my argument will be that this is to get anthropology precisely back to front.”
He (385) doesn’t explain this further here, but he (392) addresses this later on. In summary, he (392-393) isn’t happy with the way it has led to particularism, marked by the countless number of case studies, “the retrospective chronicling of lives that are always on the brink of disappearing.” For him (393), what’s back to front with ethnographic theory is that instead of being “rooted in practical experience, of what life is like for people of particular times and places”, “this experience is schizochronically put behind us, even as it is lived.” In other words, in his view, ethnographers are keen to talk about the importance of experience, living one’s life, but experience isn’t held important in itself and what’s living gets killed in the process, or so to speak. He (393) characterizes this as resulting in ethnographers coming back from the field, wherever they may have been, to write reports about their encounters, explaining what they have found and then, later on, meet up with other ethnographers to “trade in the ‘insights’ they have brought back” with them from the field, convening together not unlike “connoisseurs of exotic art” “who put their treasures on display” for others to gaze in awe.
So, what is it that Ingold wishes to do then, to rectify all this? Firstly, going back a bit, to the point about encounters, he (386) argues that there is nothing ethnographic about encounters, in themselves that is. For him (386), encounters are just part of everyday life. People encounter one another. They do stuff together, inasmuch as they do and inasmuch as they are competent enough to do what it is that they are supposed to do. Life is full of encounters. That’s it. Taking cues from Deleuze in ‘L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze’ or ‘Gilles Deleuze from A to Z’ as it is translated to English, the series of interviews with Claire Parnet, I’d add here that encounters are not even specifically about people. It’s rather that, as Deleuze points out, encounters are not defined by people. We may encounter people, but we also encounter things. Of course this doesn’t mean that we can’t encounter people. I don’t know about others but there’s always something unplanned about encounters. That’s why Deleuze states that he tries to be alert, to be on the lookout for what is then called encounters. I reckon this is what Ingold (384) calls attentiveness.
For example, a month ago or so, on my way home from work, I stopped by at one of the university buildings. I stepped in and sat down. I needed to check something on my laptop so I did. Nothing interesting about this really. There was a woman sitting near me, to my left. I made note of her. I think she was (and likely still is) dark and tall. I think paid attention to her because of her height. I guess the world attracted me to her presence, or so to speak. Right, after I took out my laptop, she glanced at me, to see how I react, I guess, and then she approached me, asking me if it was okay to interview me. It was for some student term paper concerning travel habits, how often one travels and whether it’s travel by car, bus, train etc. I was cool with it. I kind of liked it that she just did that, almost without hesitation. Anyway, this is what I call an encounter. Of course, there are all kinds of encounters. Even reading a book can be an encounter, so don’t go thinking too narrowly about this.
Right, back to Ingold (386) who states that there is nothing inherently ethnographic about encounters. Instead, he (386) argues that ‘ethnographicness’ “is rather a judgment that is cast upon them through a retrospective conversion of the learning, remembering and note-taking which they call forth into pretexts for something else altogether.” To be more specific, the problem for him (386) is that this subsequent judgment is actually a pretext, an ulterior motive for documentary, to turning experience into data, that is there to begin with, before the ethnographer encounters other people and takes part in something in order to experience it. To put it bluntly, as he (386) goes on to explain the issue, the ethnographer is a covert operator, who isn’t sincerely engaging with other people in order to learn from them and, perhaps, to make it possible for them to learn something in return from the ethnographer and/or what possibly emerges from the encounter. To be clear, the problem for him (386) is not simply that the ethnographer double crosses the others as, I reckon, the people involved could be well aware that they are taking part in what is to become a study. It’s rather that this involves what he (386) characterizes as “a temporal distortion that contrives to render the aftermath of our meetings with people as their anterior condition.” In other words, those encounters only happen because the ethnographer needs data. So, again, the problem is not that people are used, even though they sort of are, being turned into data, but rather that the experience itself, what it is that the ethnographer seeks to document, is not genuine because it is not based on a genuine encounter with others whose experience one seeks to gain access to through observation and participation, because the very existence of the said encounter is based on the notion of ethnography, the desire to document the encounter. So, yeah, it involves quite the time warp alright, as Ingold (386) characterizes it.
Ingold (386) turns his attention to what is known as fieldwork. Firstly, he (386) notes that it’s redundant to call it that because the whole world is a field, at least potentially, so, instead of speaking of fieldwork, we could just speak of work. Secondly, he (386) adds that as there is nothing intrinsically ethnographic about encounters with people, there is also nothing intrinsically ethnographic about fieldwork either. So, for him (386) it would only make sense to just speak of work, not ethnographic fieldwork. All you need is work, work, work is all you need, just as the didn’t Beatles sing. What is work for him then? Well, he (386-387) sure doesn’t hide it. It’s just participant observation, as simple as that. That’s what he endorses. What counts as participant observation then? Well, for him (387), it’s not only, strictly speaking, observing people, but also taking part in their everyday activities. Why? Well, as he (387) goes on to point out, that’s what people do anyway, all the time, during the course of their lives. He (387) acknowledges that, typically, these are seen as two distinct things, incompatible with one another, observation being the, supposedly, objective approach and participation being the subjective approach, but he rejects this split that presumes that either we know about the world (outside) or exist in it (inside). This is actually the beef I have with the distinction between ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ perspectives, which suppose that such a thing exists as being outside the world, merely observing it from without. He (388) explains this quite aptly:
“[P]articipant observation is absolutely not an undercover technique for gathering intelligence on people, on the pretext of learning from them. It is rather a fulfilment, in both letter and deed, of what we owe to the world for our development and formation.”
In other words, what’s out there, what we observe, or, rather, come to observe, inasmuch as we do, is not a matter of us discovering something or uncovering something that we simply didn’t know and subsequently storing it into some great warehouse of memory. Instead, observing is participation in the world which affects who we become. If observation didn’t take place in the world, then what William Labov calls the observer’s paradox (awareness of being observed affects people’s behavior) in ‘Sociolinguistic Patterns’ couldn’t even exist. Just think of it for a moment. If observation is not in the world, how can it have an effect on what is being observed? Anyway, this is why Ingold (388) emphasizes, that for him, participant observation is a matter of education and he’d go as far as replace the buzzword of our times, ethnography, with education because of how it is transformative. That said, he (388) warns not to confuse what he calls education with the system of education, as best exhibited by educational institutions, such as schools. I’ve tried my best not to call it a matter of pedagogy for this reason, because it could easily be understood as something like teachers passing knowledge to students, as a matter of transferring information (objective knowledge). This is not the case. For me, it’s not about learning from but learning with, a matter of exposing people to the world and its variable concurrent paths we can take, as he (389) goes on to characterize it.
Ingold (390) contrasts his views, that of education and of correspondence (the with that I referred to), with ethnography:
“[I]t is the very opposite of ethnography, the descriptive or documentary aims of which impose their own finalities on these trajectories of learning, converting them into data-gathering exercises destined to yield ‘results,’ usually in the form of research papers or monographs.”
With regards to methods, he (390) states that:
“[T]he a posteriori ethnographizing of participant observation undermines both the ontological commitment that it enshrines and its educational purpose.”
This leads him (390) to wonder, are either of these, correspondence, on his side, and the practice of description, on the side of ethnography, methods at all? He (390) answers his own question by wondering what is a method anyway? He (390) likens it to a way of working, so it’s tricky to differentiate between theory and method as both have to do with practice. I agree. I keep being puzzled when I get called the theory guy or the like, as if theory was something that exists in isolation from practice, as if it were a mere matter of picking some template and then applying it, which, is exactly how, according to him (390), it is generally understood in the academic circles, “in the protocols of normal science.” It involves “a sequence of prespecified and regulated steps towards the realization of a determinate goal” which completely ignore the contingency of circumstances and how, as I’ve written in the past, nothing ever ends.
Right, I got carried away there, as did Ingold. So, what about ethnography? Is it a method or does it have a method or methods? He (390) argues that it is not a method but something that has methods, which he doesn’t go on to elaborate. The only thing that I can pull from the relevant paragraph (390-391) is that ethnography should not be a means to an end, serving the purpose of gaining insight into something, gathering data and creating knowledge about the world to be compiled into large volumes and contrasted with one another (remember the earlier point he makes about connoisseurs of exotic art who collect treasures and exhibit them to amaze others). What is the purpose of ethnography then? Well, the way I see it is that it’s about depicting people. That’s it. There is nothing wrong about that, in itself. It’s rather ‘what for’ people do it that matters.
The last thing that Ingold (391-392) addresses is the earlier remark he makes about how, for ethnographers, just about everything is ethnographic, except what happens within the academic world. He (391) specifically addresses the notion of co-creation or co-production of knowledge in this context. The problem for him (392) is not that this is a blind spot that the ethnographers have simply missed and that they should do ethnography about it as well. Instead, it has to do with co-production. He (391) finds it suspicious that “knowledge co-produced with informants is ethnographic” while, for some reason, “knowledge co-produced with students is not.” We can think this in both ways. So, if you conduct a study with someone, typically a colleague but it could also be a student (aka a junior colleague), everyone involved gets credit for it as its authors. Fair play. This is not the case with others. So, when the knowledge is co-produced with non-academics, typically only the researcher, in this case the ethnographer, gets the credit for the study as its author. Not fair play. In Ingold’s (391) words:
“I would challenge those who insist on using the word ethnographic to describe the knowledge that grows from their collaborative engagements (or correspondence) with the people among whom they work, to explain why they would not consider it equally appropriate to describe knowledge that grows from their correspondence with colleagues and students.”
Wait for it, wait for it! Here comes to the best part (391):
“Is it not because, despite all protestations to the contrary, they remain complicit in reproducing a pernicious distinction between those from whom and with whom we learn, respectively inside and outside the academy?”
Oh, snap! This is exactly what puzzles me. Why is it that non-academics are deemed unimportant, despite claiming otherwise? If they are involved in the work, indicated as having co-produced something, why are they treated like second class knowledge producers? Just because they don’t have the right credentials? Right, he (391) keeps on going:
“Surely when we seek an education from great scholars, it is not in order that we can spend the rest of our lives describing or representing their ideas, worldviews, or philosophies.”
Oh Tim! Oh Tim! How naive of you! To be serious, I agree with him on this, 100%. That said, academics is rife with the exact opposite, cult of personality and schools of thought. That’s my experience of it anyway. Perhaps anthropology is better in this way. This actually reminds me of a chat I had with a fellow doctoral candidate, some years ago. We had a good laugh, at our own expense, both agreeing that we are totally in the wrong fields, totally out of place, just two busybodies caught up in the niceties of theory and what not. Anyway, Ingold (391-392) explains what we should have instead:
“It is rather to hone our perceptual, moral, and intellectual faculties for the critical tasks that lie ahead.”
Agreed. What you get out of something is what counts, not who it is that came up with this or that. I remember having this great idea, once, on my own, and, oooh, getting to report about it, only to have to attribute it to Jacques Derrida, from who I did not get the idea. It’s not that Derrida didn’t come up with the same thing, way before me, good on him, but rather that because I’m a nobody, I surely could not have had such great ideas on my own, so I had to attribute it to him. Again, fair play to him, he probably explains it better than I could and I agree with him on that, so I don’t mind attributing it to him. That said, if he was around, he probably couldn’t stop laughing at the whole thing. I don’t know him, never did, but something tells me he wouldn’t have given a hoot. And I’d be laughing with him. Anyway, so, as summarized by Ingold (392):
“Knowledge is knowledge, wherever it is grown, and just as our purpose in acquiring it within the academy is (or should be) educational rather than ethnographic, so it should be beyond the academy as well.”
To get back to ethnography then, he (392) adds that:
“[E]thnographizing of these ways [doing and knowing], the priority shifts from engagement to reportage, from correspondence to description, from the co-imagining of possible futures to the characterization of what is already past. It is, as it were, to look through the wrong end of the telescope.”
Just as the character of Michael Kelso would put it in ‘That ‘70s Show’: “Oh, burn!” Anyway, do continue. And he does (392):
“Instead of calling on the vision afforded by our education to illuminate and enlarge upon the world, the ethnographer takes his or her sightings from the world in holding up the other’s ways to scrutiny. Who would dare do such a thing to our mentors and peers within the academy? Beyond its walls, however, such treasonable activity is not just routine; we even flag it up as our disciplinary strong point!”
To put it more bluntly, to match it better with the previous sentences, he is calling the ethnographers two-faced, people who supposedly care for the non-academics, the other people, offering them room to have a say, you know, to be inclusive, but all they are after is to profiteer, to further their own careers, to be more known as authors. Okay, you could disagree with that. Then again, as Ingold points out, why is that the co-producers of knowledge are not listed as authors then? You could even interject and ask me why I don’t name others as my co-authors? Well, to be clear, I don’t involve other people, I don’t do ethnography, as I deal with objects (discursive objects, to be specific) and, so far, no one has shown any interest in collaborating with me. That’s why. Also, I don’t really care about what Foucault calls the author function (as I have discussed in my previous essays), which, I believe, is exactly what’s at stake. I really don’t get to not participate in the function, because, you know, I’m a nobody (oh the irony of this, having to be somebody to oppose to having to be somebody). On top of that, I continuously have to dodge anonymous criticism, to explain myself, to my supposed peers, why it is that I spend my time engaging in the niceties of theory, do what I do, the way I do, on my own, without any funding, mind you, as opposed to just getting with the program, you know, doing ethnography, like I supposedly should, because, as Stuart McLean (66) puts it in ‘All the Difference in the World: Liminality, Montage, and the Reinvention of Comparative Anthropology’, as published in ‘Transcultural Montage’, it has “become the default setting for much current … research and writing” and “the basis for many arguments concerning the discipline’s continued relevance to the understanding of contemporary social processes.” Oh, and yes, I am fully aware that, like Ingold, he (66) is discussing anthropology. It’s just that I can substitute anthropology with it my discipline(s) and the argument still holds. The moniker he (66) gives this trend is “ethnographically oriented particularism”. It’s worth reiterating that I’m not against ethnography, nor am I against particularism, in the sense that I’m, for sure, against universalism. I’ll put McLean (67) to task to explain the issue:
“My quarrel is not with ethnography as such, but rather with what I take to be … increasing tendency to define [the discipline’s / field’s] identity and distinctiveness principally on the basis of its deployment of ethnographic methods.”
The problem is that the discipline, in his case anthropology, risks becoming synonymous with ethnography. McLean doesn’t express it, so I’ll do it for him; ethnography becomes the new dogma. He (67) isn’t fond of the development because he is doubtful as to whether ethnography is capable of grappling with anything beyond the particular contexts, issues that are far greater and far more pressing than issues that pertain to a handful of local co-producers of knowledge. In other words, he (67) is concerned with the possible limitations that come with embracing ‘description of people’, which, to him, “risk enshrining a normative empiricism that absolutizes existing actualities as the unchallengeable horizon of what might ‘count’ as reality”, i.e. the “reification of ‘society’ and ‘history’”.
If you think that’s all that Ingold has to say about the issue, well, you are wrong. He addresses these issues again three years later, because, apparently … all was achieved last time. I’ll now refer to ‘Anthropology contra ethnography’. Right, so, what strikes me, already in the abstract is this (21):
“Ethnography aims to describe life as it is lived and experienced, by a people, somewhere, sometime. Anthropology, by contrast, is an inquiry into the conditions and possibilities of human life in the world.”
Now, I don’t claim to be an anthropologist. I’ve never studied it, at least not formally, and, as we know, that’s what counts in academics (am I right?). Anyway, for me, this reminds of the difference between appearance and apparition. The former has to do with the description, what something looks like (and yes, that’s very ocularcentrist of me, I know), whereas the latter has to do with how something came to being, what are its conditions and possibilities to exist, as experienced by us. He (21) also explains what’s at stake, oddly enough in the same way as I did a bit earlier:
“To study anthropology is to study with people, not to make studies of them; such study is not so much ethnographic as educational.”
Why? Well, turning people into data isn’t cool. That’s why. It’s what they call dehumanizing, turning people into mere depictions. To be more specific, he (22) is against ethnographic fieldwork because it “perpetuates the notion” of “wrap[ping] other people’s lives into cases”, “gathering material on people and their lives”, turning them into qualitative data to be analyzed and reported on. To make himself absolute clear, he (22) rephrases this:
“There is something deeply troubling, as we all know, about joining with people, apparently in good faith, only later to turn your back on them so that yours becomes a study of them, and they become a case.”
What we should be doing instead, according to him (23), is “to study with people, not to make studies of them – just as we might study with our teachers at the university.” The difference between this article and his previous article is that in this one he (23-24) explains more clearly that he is not against discussing human life, even speculating on it, assuming he can back up his arguments. However, those are all his arguments, involving his reasoning and his evidence, not something that can be simply validated by involving other people and distilling their views for his benefit, as he (24) points out. Another thing that I reckon he (24) is more specific here is his objection to a certain kind of inclusiveness that coddles people by sympathizing with them because it results in artificial and sanitized accounts. Of course, that does not mean that you should do the opposite either, to be apathetic about their lives. It’s rather that you should treat other people with indifference, give them a fair shake, while being critical at all times. You don’t go throwing people under the bus. No, no. That said, if people say or do what he (24) refers to as awful or abhorrent things, act evasively or simply lie about things, it’s on them and your task is to address it, not to sugar coat it.
The aspects deemed negative that possibly become apparent in people’s behavior should be addressed but going that route certainly leads to a dilemma. It’s standard these days that any involvement of people, those who you consult, anyone beside the researcher(s), must be handled with care and in most cases vetted beforehand. Firstly, people must explicitly consent to participating in research. It must also be made absolutely clear to people what they are participating in and for what purpose they are participaing in it. All the details must be made clear to them. This is what is known as the right to self-determination. Secondly, just the processing of personal data is an issue in itself. This is what is known as the right to privacy, inasmuch as it applies, of course, and has to do with data protection. In other words, summarizing these two aspects, you mustn’t deceive people, tell them one thing, that you are looking at this thing, documenting them for this or that purpose, while doing another thing, looking at another thing and documenting them for another purpose. Now, this is, by no means, not a bad thing, in itself. Thirdly, research shouldn’t cause harm to people. Again, fair play, not a bad thing, in itself. However, this third aspect can become an issue if we reckon that anything that people say or do could be deemed harmful to them, exposing them to harm of any kind, including indirect harm, such as subsequent harm to their reputation in the eyes of others. By all logic, it is against the interests of others to look bad because … well it will simply reflect badly on them, i.e. harming them.
I’ve talked with others about this issue, how they deal with this and they wonder the same thing. Now, I don’t deal with people, so it doesn’t concern me. I am rather post-human in this regard, if you will, and, perhaps, to some, perversely fascinated with things rather than people. I am, nonetheless, interested in how this works because of my journalistic side hustles (that have nothing to do with my academic work). So, what if you want to be critical? What if you want to address this or that thing about the people involved, something that will, undoubtedly, cast them in negative light. Those who study social media are quite familiar with this issue. Right, the point is not to harm people but what if people put themselves in precarious positions by holding this or that view or position, by expressing something uncomfortable, disagreeable, awful or disagreeable? Ingold (24) argues that:
“Our task, then, is not to mask this abhorrence with a veil of sympathy, or present an artificially sanitized account of their words and deeds, but directly to take issue with them.”
Because, according to him (24):
“For in addressing the reasons why we feel as we do, we can grow in wisdom ourselves, and add strength and rigor to our own arguments.”
I agree. We should not coddle people. Sure, we should not lead them on, make them look bad on purpose. That said, by taking issue with them, addressing what they say or do, may well be against their best interest and thus even be harmful to them. This may have actual consequences.
To get somewhere with this, while I acknowledge that I don’t know enough about ‘ethnographic studies’, if I may use that moniker here, I get the feeling that the studies that emphasize inclusiveness, the insider perspectives, aren’t what one might dub as critical studies, probably because it’s a tough combo, first claiming to be inclusive, approaching people, telling them that they get to have a say, followed by, possibly, hacking them to pieces for what they’ve said or done.
You may feel the urge to point out here that they only have it coming if people say or do something ‘dumb’, or so to speak. Then again, remember that to be one of the good guys, you should make it clear that anything that people say or do, on the record, can be used against them, if that happens to be the case. If you tell people that you are not afraid to disagree with them, to present them negatively if that is warranted, then that will obviously affect their behavior. They’ll put in extra effort to make sure that they don’t look bad. In summary, this may risk providing “artificially sanitized account[s] of their words and deeds”, as expressed by Ingold (24).
For example, the research conducted on American suburban communities by James and Nancy Duncan could be characterized as long-term ethnographic research, as they (238) themselves point out in a book chapter titled ‘Doing Landscape Interpretation’. That said, I haven’t noticed them use that label in their own work. It certainly isn’t used in the book they refer to. At least I can’t find them using it in their book ‘Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb’. Anyway, my point is that they have studied a certain community, the town of Bedford in the state of New York, ever since the 1970s and they sure didn’t go easy on the locals. Already in the acknowledgments section of their book, they (xv) note that while they are indebted to the willing participation of the locals, the locals may not find the book to contain “the flattering portrait they have come to expect from those who write about the town”. Also, they (1) indicate in the introduction that they remember how back in the day, in the early 1990s, they we going through the town archives, looking up something pertaining to zoning, when they ran into a local who made snarky remarks about the presence in the town: “‘So you are back, are you? What are you finding we’ve done wrong this time?’” The gist of the issue is that they were outsiders, nosing around, meddling in their business, bringing up matters the affluent local townspeople didn’t want to be discussed, for example, how landscape is appealed to in zoning in order to keep less affluent people from moving to the area, as discussed in James Duncan’s article ‘Landscape Taste as a Symbol of Group Identity: A Westchester County Village’. They (3) make another remark about the reception of the inquiries, noting that their “book will be scrutinized by some residents anxious to see whose ox is being gored.”
There’s no doubt that the Duncans caused harm to the local townspeople with their studies. People ended up looking pretty bad, hence the somewhat unwelcoming attitude shown towards them when they returned to the town after their initial study published in the early 1970s. Now, if people can’t be involved, asked to participate, without guaranteeing that no harm be done to them, we simply could not read about how the Duncans (3-4) noticed “the role that aesthetics plays in the production of place and of identities”, leading to social exclusion of people deemed as threats to the local identity and way of life.
They (3-4) argue that they “have no stake in the various status battles in town” as their “commitment is to describing in [their] own words, and in those of informants” the way landscape is utilized in the production and reproduction of ideal settings and identities, “while commenting on the wider social consequences of such aesthecitized view of the world.” In other words, they are not out to get the locals, but if it happens to be the case that the views expressed by the locals end up working against them, then that’s simply too bad for them. They (239) are reiterate this in ‘Doing Landscape Interpretation’:
“The difference between us and many of our informants is that we do not have a personal stake in maintaining the landscape; on the contrary, we have an interest in exposing the inequities brought about by its maintenance. It is this difference of standpoint that led us to investigate the history of the landscape, in particular the political struggles that have produced it with an eye to tracing the effects the maintenance of the landscape has on potential residents who are excluded.”
Now, the thing is people may well end up working against their own best interest, as they (239) point:
“[W]e encountered many interviewees who, in our opinion, fail to see the structural biases.”
Of course, how aware people are of these issues depends. Some are more aware of their own position in all of this than others, as the Duncans (239) go on to add. It just tends to be the case that those whose interests are being served happen to be more aware of how this works in their favor than those whose interests aren’t being served, which is exactly why they’d rather not have other people, like some pesky researchers, look into things, as the Duncans (239) point out. In their (239) words, the people who benefit from all this “have no reason to trace the far reaching, unintended consequences and unacknowledged conditions of that privilege.” That’s why they (239) argue that, strictly speaking, their research is not about landscape, but about investigating the underlying socio-political relations that are inextricably linked to the landscape but not visible in the landscape. They (239) indicate that they utilize ethnography, that is to say observation and participation, and archival research, i.e. going through all kinds of records, and then, most importantly, utilizing discourse analysis to go through all this material. To put this in the terms proposed by Pike (37), they are fine with including insider views but they don’t take their word for granted and thus, as outsiders, there is always a healthy dose of distrust of people involved.
To be honest, I’m not sure that what the Duncans call ethnography would count as what Ingold considers ethnography. They do interview people but that’s probably not enough to call it ethnography. As I already pointed out, they don’t actually even call their work ethnography in their prior publications. I don’t know why they do that here. Anyway, the Duncans (240) do discuss what one might then call proper ethnography (if we argue that their modus operandi doesn’t count as such), in the sense that it doesn’t merely consist of semi-structured interviews, involvement of focus groups and short term fieldwork but of co-performances, co-creations or co-productions. However, while they are not entirely dismissive about such, as such, they (240) are puzzled by the lack of potential impact, except the handful of people directly involved. In other words, they are troubled by the lack of critical stance in such research.
Right, moving on, back to Ingold’s latter article, in which he (21) quickly reprises the central issue of his previous article and what is also expressed by McLean, arguing that the issue is not with ethnography, as such, but rather with the way it has become “be-all and end-all”, as if, pardon my French, everything else was shit. I reckon this has a lot to do with what he (25) goes on to refer to as “universities succumbing to corporate neoliberalism”. How so? Well, while I reckon it’s not a new phenomenon, as such, as there has always been schools of though, dogmatism, gerrymandering and what not, the way publishing is not only incentivized but also used as a measure of performance for both the academics and the universities certainly isn’t helping. It totally makes sense to go with the latest trend, whatever that may be, and spew out case studies on this and/or that that involve the least amount of effort possible. Of course, this is, by no means, unique to ethnography. It just happens to be that ethnography is one of the current hip things to do at the moment, or at least claim to be doing anyway. It’s all about efficiency, min/maxing, getting the most output with the least input. Going with the flow, not thinking for yourself and not asking ‘unnecessary’ questions about the way things work helps a lot with that. Friction is bad for efficiency.
Ingold (24) is also critical of moving the goals posts, going from what ethnography is, by dictionary definition, to attempt to eclipse it by presenting it as taking place during co-performance, co-creation or co-production. In his words (24):
“For example, while ethnography combines very well with art history, attempts to combine ethnography with art practice generally lead to bad art and bad ethnography, compromising not only the ethnographer’s commitment to descriptive fidelity but also art’s experimental and interventionist interrogation.”
This is actually something I’ve wondered. Ingold just puts it to words, better than I think I could have done. If you want to do art, be an artist. You don’t need anything else. The art speaks for itself, be it a painting, a composition, a poem or a dance performance. The Duncans (240-241) comment on this in ‘Doing Landscape Interpretation’, noting that because of the non-representativeness of such practices, in the sense that art is about creation/presentation, not about re-creation/re-presentation (mimesis), they can’t be put into words, which leads to difficult methodological challenges. They (240-241) try to grasp how one might pull that off, only indicate that they have no idea how one might be able to do that. For me, the best thing you can do is to turn this into a matter of education, as proposed by Ingold. Of course, that will then render the ethnography, the subsequent report, pointless. For me that’s just fine. I’d be more than glad if I could lend my expertise to others so that they could benefit from it, to the point that my expertise becomes redundant. That’d be most grand.
I realize that Ingold is just one person and, by no means, the arbiter of truth (nor is anyone else, for that matter). It’s worth reiterating that, as he points out in his articles, he isn’t fond of ethnography. There’s that. Those interested in another take on the issue, those wanting to go through the various definitions of what is ethnography, can, for example, look up ‘Ethnography Beyond Method: The Importance of an Ethnographic Sensibility’ by Carole McGranahan or ‘What is ethnography? Can it survive? Should it?’ by Martyn Hammersley. I’ll take a closer look at the latter.
Hammersley (3-4) lists all kinds of definitions, some more on the humorous side, poking fun at their expense, others more serious. Many of the definitions covered are in line what has already been discussed in this essay. It’s not worth it, going through all of them, one by one here, so I’ll explore his summary instead. He (4) summarizes that ethnography is “holistic in focus” and consists of “relatively long-term data collection”, a process which takes place “in naturally occurring settings”, involving “participant observation”, or, generally speaking, personal engagement, yielding different types of data, with particular emphasis on culture, “the significance of the meanings people give to objects … [and subjects] …, including themselves, in the course of their activities”. To use the terms employed by Pike (37), ethnography emphasizes the ‘emic’ perspective, seeking to collect insider knowledge. Now, this makes it seem like this is all there is to this, which is, of course, not the case. Hammersley (5-6) goes on to problematize his own summary, noting that there’s plenty of disagreement between people who call themselves ethnographers, even more so contemporarily than in the past because, as Ingold points out in his earlier article, ethnography has extended to everything, even to the corporate world. Well, yeah, that’s capitalism for you alright. Only makes sense for that to have happened, probably to the horror of many ethnographers who are devoted to ethnography for its commitments to certain values and “challenging inequality”, as pointed out by Hammersley (6-7).
It’s worth noting that, as stated by Hammersley (4), ethnography emphasizes inclusiveness, what Pike (37) calls the importance of the ‘emic’ perspective. However, Hammersley (8) points out that much of ethnography actually involves what might be considered ‘etic’, in the form of detached participant observation. He (8) lists the pros of participant observation. Firstly, it’s likely more accurate than relying on people’s own accounts, not only because people may lie (not necessary just because or out of habit but because it might be in their best interest to do so) but because people are to certain extent unaware of their surroundings and their own behavior. Secondly, the involvement of the researcher affects the setting (more like a lab setting), making it unnatural (making people do things they don’t do in their everyday life). This not the case when the observer is not involved. So, contrary to what McGranahan (5) claims, the presence of an outsider makes the situation unlike “the actual conditions of life.” Thirdly, the observer may gain insight to what may not become apparent in formal interviews. At this point I have to point, however, that this assumes that the presence of the observer doesn’t affect people behavior, which, it does, at least if we are to believe Labov. The only way to get around the issue is to be covert, to study people without them being aware of being observed. However, yeah, good luck with that research proposal. My take is that, unless you can do that, literally spy on people, detached participant observation is pointless (as it’s not actually detached).
Hammersley (8-9) lists how these three assumptions about the pros of detached participant observation have been challenged by ethnographers. The first one I’m not so convinced by, how the value of outsider knowledge is challenged on the basis of that there are multiple perspectives. I reckon that the problem with this is that by asserting that it’s not correct that the outsider perspective is superior to the insider perspectives because it’s only one perspective among many, it treats all perspectives as unique and thus equally valuable, and, also, comes across as treating the outsider perspective as inferior to the insider perspectives. I reckon this is why McLean (66) calls the issue ethnographically oriented particularism. Anyway, for me, what’s problematic here is the underlying presupposition, the prephilosophical intuition, that upholds the primacy of the subject, granting it full autonomy and individuality. As I’ve elaborated in this essay and in many of my previous essays, I hold the opposite position, so, for me, no, all perspectives are not unique and therefore also not equal or, rather, equally interesting. As explained by Deleuze during his lectures on Leibniz, dated April 29, 1980:
“[A]bove all, we’ve always asked what in thought was true, what was false. And you know … in thought, it’s not the true and the false that matter[.]”
Instead, according to Deleuze, what we should be thinking, what should count, is whether something is ordinary or whether it’s interesting. In ‘What Is Philosophy?, he writes with Guattari (82-83) that what we aren’t to be inspired by truth but by what is interesting, remarkable or important:
“We will not say of many books of philosophy that they are false, for that is to say nothing, but rather that they lack importance or interest[.]”
Now, I reckon that this applies outside philosophy as well, as they (83) go on to point out. It’s also worth noting that what’s interesting should not be thought as what is good, as opposed to bad or evil, as clarified by the two (83). Instead, they (83) state what is interesting can well be what one might consider to be bad or evil, i.e., negative, including something that is considered repulsive or disgusting. There’s also an interesting passage in Deleuze’s ‘Mediators’, as included in ‘Negotiations’, where he addresses the issue in relation to literature and music. He (128) laments the bestseller and the chart hits trends which conflate the popular with the interesting and turn what’s considered daring, scandalous or strange into something predictable in order for them to become popular. The central problem for him is that when everything is just more of the same, it’s very hard to even notice that you missing anything. I’m amused by the way he (128) characterizes the issue:
“Literature becomes a game show.”
Contained in the same passage, I’m also amused by the way he (128-129) characterizes what has happened to TV, way, way before reality TV, mind you:
“It’s rather worrying that there’s an enthusiastic audience that thinks it’s watching some cultural activity when it sees two men competing to make up a word with nine letters.”
Followed by his (129) equally humorous remark about radio and television (I bet he’d love the internet!):
“Radio and television have spread this spirit everywhere, and we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute.”
But to get somewhere with this, to tie this with the topic at hand, wondering whether asking others for their view is what we should doing, Deleuze (129-130) has something interesting to say about it:
“You can’t just tell someone what they’re saying is pointless. So you tell them it’s wrong. But what someone says is never wrong, the problem isn’t that some things are wrong, but that they’re stupid or irrelevant. That they’ve already been said a thousand times. The notions of relevance, necessity, the point of something, are a thousand times more significant than the notion of truth.”
Indeed, it’s not that all perspectives aren’t important, in their own right, that they aren’t right, in some sense, but rather that they are not equally relevant or interesting. This is actually what I find problematic with academics. There’s plenty of work done, but there’s seems to be very little interesting work done. It’s mainly just more of the same, unimaginative, work, one-off studies done with a template. This also reminds me of comments like: why don’t you base your work on the latest literature? Well, because, the date, when something was written or published tells me nothing about the quality of the work, whether it’s relevant, nor whether it’s interesting. It just often happens to be that something written decades ago, by people with a typewriter and access to a library, is way better, way more interesting than what people manage to do with a computer and having immediate access to almost anything they could think of. Then there are the people who just had a pen, a quill, or the like … Funny how that is.
Back to the three assumptions listed by Hammersley (8-9), the second one is covered by the observer’s paradox so I won’t explain that further. The third one I can relate to, how what we are after is not what something is, as such, but what the conditions for it to become a thing are. Hammersley (9) points to Paul Atkinson (92) who addresses this in his book ‘For Ethnography’:
“[D]espite the apparent emphasis on participant observation, even research that calls itself ethnographic depends rather little on either participation or observation. Instead, what is attended to is conversational material collected in the field.”
In other words, as he (92) points out, when we deal with language, it is never simply descriptive. It’s always interpretative because language is not merely a matter passing information about the reality, as such, from one person to another. As I keep pointing out in my essays, words only refer to other words, not to actual things in the world. Vološinov (11) is keen to point this out:
“The understanding of a sign is, after all, act of reference between the sign apprehended and other, already known signs; in other words, understanding is a response to a sign with signs.”
Or, as expressed by Derrida (354) in ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, as published in ‘Writing and Difference’:
“The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.”
Or, as expressed by Deleuze and Guattari (112) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’:
“[E]very sign refers to another sign, and only to another sign, ad infinitum.”
Which is why they (112) don’t find the concept of sign at all useful:
“[W]hat is retained is not principally the sign’s relation to a state of things it designates, or to an entity it signifies, but only the formal relation of sign to sign insofar as it defines a so-called signifying chain.”
So, what we have instead is an endless chain of signification. However, it’s worth pointing out that this doesn’t mean that there is no outside, no reality outside language. It’s rather that, as expressed by Derrida (158) in ‘Of Grammatology’, language itself is stuck in language, going in circles. Anyway, this all relates to Atkinson’s (92) statement about how ethnography operates through language. That’s why Derrida’s (351) quote of Michel de Montaigne in ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’ is particularly apt:
“We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.”
This summarizes the problem well. When we quietly observe something, we interpret what happens. That’s our interpretation of things or states of affairs. When we engage with others, talk with them, in hopes to understand how they interpret the world, we must interpret their interpretation of the world. On top of that, when we subsequently present our interpretation of their interpretation to others, others must interpret our interpretation, which is, of course, of yet another interpretation of an interpretation.
Vološinov (36, 87-88) explains this issue particularly well. It’s impossible to explain one’s experience because no experience can be expressed to others without being mediated by language. As aptly expressed by him (36), “[a] sign can be illuminated only with the help of another sign.” This is why, for me, trying to understand the experience of others, i.e. the ‘emic’ perspective, is a pointless endeavor. To my understanding, there is no way for me, or for anyone else, to access someone else’s experiences. I can access my own experiences (it just happens, intuitively), but like any experiences, I cannot put them into words without altering them. I can’t even explain my own experiences to myself. What I mean is that my thoughts of my experiences are not the experiences themselves. It’s actually even stranger than that as all human experience is collective, what Vološinov calls we-experience, so what we experience, before we even attempt to put our experiences into words, is colored by language, our prior interactions with others. Anyway, this is why I recommend that people try things themselves rather than observe others doing something, ask someone else what something is like or read about other people’s experiences. Just do it, as famously proposed by a multinational corporation best known for its footwear. But don’t do it in order to report on it. Just do it. Simple as that.
I realize that this stands against ethnography, as discussed by Ingold, but that’s the point exactly. I’m not bothered by this because I am under no illusion that such approach, what is dubbed as ethnography, could ever work, at least not the way it is typically presented as inclusive, seeking to go beyond one’s own point of view, to understand the points of views of others. To be fair, it’s not that ethnography itself, that is to say writing about people, depicting their lives, is, itself, useless. It’s rather that, as expressed by Hammersley (10), it should not be considered the gold standard of social research, the only legitimate approach. It certainly has its strengths but it also has its weaknesses. I don’t know about others but I keep being told how great it is, what its strengths are, while the weaknesses hardly ever get mentioned.
I guess it’s time to return to the article by Szabó and Troyer. Do they manage to escape the issues pertaining to ethnography discussed in this essay? Well, in my opinion, no, they don’t. Why? Well, for starters, ethnography is presented as avenue for investigating the ‘emic’ understandings. The problem with this is that it ignores the central issue of temporal distortion brought up by Ingold. To be more specific, as expressed by Ingold (386) in his earlier article, the problem is that what is, the encounter under investigation, only comes to being under the condition of what will follow, the report. It’s worth emphasizing that, the way I’d put it, this is not about an actual report but about the desire to report that creates the time warp. In other words, the encounters only come about because of that desire. To put it bluntly, in summary, this is a matter of a false premise (proton pseudos), which, despite the sound intermediate reasoning, ends up yielding false conclusions. Now, of course, you can object to that, that it isn’t a false premise, feel free to do that, but do address the premise, explain how it is that there’s there isn’t this time warp involved. Also, as discussed by Deleuze, with Parnet, encounters are something that happen, by chance. You can’t create an encounter. You can only be on the lookout for them but even then you can’t make them happen. Being on the lookout is aimless, very open ended, haphazard, and thus hardly conductive for research. That’s life for you.
There’s also the topic relevant issue of what are the sense of limits (the sense of reality) of those whose perspective we are invited to take into account, as opposed to the expert view of the researcher. James Duncan addresses this issue in his book chapter ‘The Social Construction of Unreality: An Interactionist Approach to the Tourist’s Cognition of Environment’. He (280) calls it naive humanism to even propose that we can somehow access the experiences of others and states that it makes no difference how hard we try. Now, I reckon that may seem a bit dismissive. So, to be more productive, he (280) rephrases the central issue:
“[J]ust as the stranger, because he is a stranger, can never truly see the world as the native does, so the academic will never recreate the consciousness of those he studies. As Bourdieu stated, the very fact that the academic questions the taken-for-granted world of a group [e]nsures that he will never truly experience the world as its members do.”
In other words, by having gone beyond the sense of limits (sense of reality) of those whose perspectives we seek to take into account, we have become unable to see, to understand the world as they do and there is no way to go back. To make more sense of this, if you wish to do so, or just fail to grasp how this works, Duncan (271) explains this in Marxist terms, through the concepts of reification, alienation and false consciousness. To be brief, they all have to do with how we come to take the world for granted, as a matter of how everything just is. In his (271) words:
“Reification refers to the process by which man produces a world both of abstractions – that is, ideas, values, norms of conduct – and of real concrete objects, which, although they are his own product, he nevertheless permits to dominate him as objective unchanging faculties.”
Now, I could have provided you some definition of this by Marx. However, as I’ve done that in the past and I happen to quite like how Duncan manages to explain the concept, so I won’t do that (I’m sure you can do that yourself though, if it bothers you). He (271) continues:
“Alienation refers to the fact that man forgets that this world is his own product, thus allowing it to act back on him. By reifying the world as he has produced it, by forgetting that it was he who gave it a ‘life of its own,’ and by allowing it to have a power over him, man becomes alienated.”
Again, I just love his explanation of this concept. Sure, we might not want to think of humans in terms of them being men, but otherwise this is very well put. Anyway, this results in false consciousness, taking things for granted, assuming that how things are is your best interests, which isn’t the case. That’s why it’s called ‘false’ consciousness, not just consciousness. The point is by taking things for granted, not questioning the existing state of affairs you risk serving not your on interests but someone else’s interests while thinking you are serving your own interests. Of course, if you were to be serious about this, to explain this properly, you’d engage with, for example, Karl Marx, György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, rather than explaining this in passing. However, I quite like how Bourdieu and Foucault explain this, as already discussed in this essay.
Stephen Daniels (196) explains the issue pertaining to the sense of limits (sense of reality) with regards to landscape in ‘Marxism, culture, and the duplicity of landscape’,as included in ‘New Models of Human Geography: Volume II’:
“Landscape … does not easily accommodate political notions of power and conflict, indeed it tends to dissolve or conceal them; as a consequence the very idea of landscape has been brought into question[.]”
To put this more briefly, this is what is known as the duplicity of landscape. To explain this in the Marxist terms just elaborated, landscape involves reification, alienation and false consciousness. Landscape is an invention, a very specific one, as I’ve discussed in many of my previous essays. W. J. T. Mitchell explains this in the added ‘Preface to the Second Edition of Landscape and Power: Space, Place and Landscape’, when he (viii) argues that landscape involves an invitation, “to look at nothing – or more precisely, to look at looking itself – to engage in a kind of conscious apperception of space as it unfolds itself in a particular place.” That said, just about no one thinks of it as such, as an invention. As stated by Peirce Lewis (11) in ‘Axioms for Reading the Landscape Some Guides to the American Scene’, as included in ‘The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays’, the central problem is that, for the many, landscape just is. Mitchell (5) makes the same observation in his book, noting that “[l]ike life, landscape is boring”, only to add that “we must not say so.” Why? Well, because, again, explaining this in Marxist terms, landscape involves not only reification, but also alienation. So, it’s not only that we conflate landscape with reality itself, take it as objective, but also that we’ve forgot that it’s our own invention, which then gives it a life of its own, if you will, and makes us susceptible to its influence. The problem with all this is that, as he (5) points out, landscape is a medium, “good for nothing in itself, but expressive of potentially limitless reserve value.” So, not only do we take how the world appears to us for granted, having forgotten about how that came to be, and, as a result, are susceptible to its influence, but it may not also serve our best interests but someone else’s. That’s why one could argue that it has to do with false consciousness.
Right, landscape is actually important and highly interesting, not because it is interesting, in itself, but because, for the many, it isn’t. Be as it may, Daniels (197) does not, however, recommend abandoning the concept:
“This will involve … emphasizing observation, … emphasizing the importance of education, reinstating the biophysical world, and … reinstating the idea of landscape, not despite its difficulty as a comprehensive or reliable concept, but because of it.”
Indeed, ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. Saying ‘la-la-la, I can’t hear you’ loudly, with your fingers in your ears, as if the issue didn’t exist won’t do any good. Because it’s there, you need to tackle it, head on, which I do, to much chagrin of some of my peers who either just don’t get it or just can’t be bothered to look into the issue themselves, probably because, well, that’s a lot of work. I mean, I reckon landscape is one of the toughest concepts to fathom, so I totally understand why you would just opt to ignore it. Ignoring it saves you from a lot of headache. It’s also a massive time vampire. Of course, if you ask me, that’s just a cop out.
So, the problem with including local participants, asking them to address various features in the landscape, is that by making them engage with the landscape and its features, they become more aware of what’s at stake. In other words, the researcher ends up altering their sense of limits (sense of reality), to match the researcher’s own sense of limits (sense of reality). Therefore, the researcher ends up seeing oneself in the others, thus only reinforcing one’s own views, and risks providing expert accounts in the guise of lay accounts. This is a problem undermines the various walking methods that seek to push people to engage with the landscape, including those discussed by Szabó and Troyer in their article. Of course, this doesn’t mean that locals aren’t worth dealing with. I reckon you just have to be careful about it, not to make them directly engage with the landscape or its features but rather prod them about their attitudes, as done by, for example, the Duncans.
Now, it is possible to argue that the intention of the ethnographer, as presented by Szabó and Troyer (308), is not to investigate the current state of affairs, how things are, but rather to co-create, to co-produce, to transform the state of affairs during the encounters. Fair play. As they (308) point out, it’s not about how things are, but how they could be. In other words, the purpose is to make people more aware about their surroundings, their possibility to impact them and, perhaps, even encourage people to more engagement with their surroundings. I think this is all great and in line with what Ingold promotes. It’s also hard to blame them for not looking at how things are because the focus is clearly completely different. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I’m fine with some people looking at apples while others look at oranges. This is not their fault, by no means, but the problem for me is, however, when those who wish to study the present state of affairs get criticized for not doing something else, like ethnography. It annoys me that I get criticized for not focusing on apples when I’m looking at oranges. As the purpose is completely different, the only thing that I can fault those who engage in ethnography, as presented by Szabó and Troyer, is not crediting their co-creators / co-producers as authors. If you don’t do that, then I reckon you go against the inclusiveness that you promote by retaining the distinction between the academics and the non-academics, the experts and the lay people.
As the lead author, Szabó (312) exemplifies ethnography as presented in the co-authored article with Troyer with his own work, indicating that, in his project, ethnography is not to be understood as a “method but rather ‘ontological commitment to the people with whom we work, providing a framework which enables voice to be made audible’”. This is in reference to Jessica Bradley’s 2016 working paper in ‘Translanguaging and Translation’ titled ‘Liquid Methodologies: using a linguistic ethnographic approach to study multilingual phenomena’. Earlier on in the same paper, Bradley (3) expresses the same thing in the form of a question: “How can we consider and demonstrate our ontological commitment to the people with whom we are working?” She (3) presents this right after having indicated that she has read Ingold’s earlier article that is highly critical of not only “so-called ethnographic methods” but also, as I’d put it, of ethnography as an endeavor. Perhaps it is just me, my reading of that article, but Ingold is very clearly against turning the people we engage with into studies, which is exactly what ethnographers do, thus retaining the distinction between experts and the lay people, no matter how it is presented as a co-creation / co-production, as the others are not deemed worthy of being indicated as co-authors. If we want people to be treated fairly, I reckon we should start by treating those involved as equals, worth equal recognition for their involvement.
To their credit, this is actually something that Szabó and Troyer (314) explicitly address when they point out that they regard the locals involved as local experts and acknowledge they could have been named rather than anonymized. That said, the way this is expressed (314) doesn’t make it clear whether they would have treated the locals as co-authors or just named them in acknowledgments. There’s a major difference between the two in terms of the author function, the former meaning actual credit, the latter meaning no credit, so this leaves a lot to be desired. I reckon the latter is the case, judging by their reference to another study by Keri Facer and Bryony Enright, ‘Creating Living Knowledge: The Connected Communities Programme, community-university partnerships and the participatory turn in the production of knowledge’. Facer and Enright indicate in the acknowledgments section of the study that the “report is not simply a product of two people”, followed by going through all the people wo contributed to their report. Okay. Now, the problem with this solution is that despite the emphasis on co-production, i.e., everyone being considered as equals, two people are, to paraphrase George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, considered more equal than others.
Moving on to the discussion part of the article, while I can understand why Szabó and Troyer (320) might point this out, as there’s something to it, I don’t agree with their statement that addressing what’s in the landscape, what they call representational corpora consisting of various written and/or audiovisual data (in any shape or form), result in (to use representational terms) static representations any more than what they propose. I mean, all documentaries, all reports, all studies are mere representations of what was, as interpreted in what is, the present. This is certainly the case with their article, just as it is with my essay (you’ll read this in what will be, future, after I’ve written this, albeit always in the present). Only what is present, right here, right now, as you read this, is what they (320) call “dynamic, fluid and ever-changing.” I’ll leave it to Augustine (243) to explain this:
“[T]ime is only in that it tends towards not-being.”
So, as explained by Augustine in ‘Confessions’, the only thing that matters is the present because only the present is. The past never is because only the present is. The past only exist in the present, so, it doesn’t exist in itself. It’s the same in with future. The future is yet to exist, so it can only exist in the present. In other words, as explained by Deleuze (76) in ‘Difference and Repetition’:
“It is not that the present is a dimension of time: the present alone exists.”
So, what we have is a synthesis of time, as Deleuze (76) goes on to explain:
“The synthesis of time constitutes the present in time. … [S]ynthesis constitutes time as a living present, and the past and the future as dimensions of this present.”
What I’m after is that only what exists in the present matters. For me, this is exactly why Ingold wants us to embrace learning with people, as opposed to learning from people. Anyway, it’s obvious to me that the world is in a flux. It wouldn’t otherwise change. I don’t think we need ethnography to realize this. I’m pretty sure this is not a new thing either. I mean, Heraclitus, as wrong as he may have been about this and/or that, figured this out and it’s well known that he raved about this some 2500 years ago. Of course, this doesn’t mean that just because what was no longer is we should simply abandon what we typically think of as representational practices, no matter the mode, be it writing, drawing, photography, videography or the like. The great thing about the past is that it persist in the present, inasmuch as it does, of course. It’s what allows you to read this, assuming you can decipher this, whenever it is that you read this. What does it tell you, what you make of it, whatever it happens to be, is what matters. Sure, people are in the habit of conceiving the world as static, thanks to the general subscription to transcendence, but that’s exactly why I approach the world critically, not unlike the Duncans. I do that so that it would become apparent to people how that’s not necessarily in their interest, so that we could move on, to live our lives, as advocated by Ingold. What I’m interested in is asking myself the question posed by Deleuze and Guattari (194) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ in reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Whatever could have happened for things to have come to this?” For me, this is all about being a nomad, a minoritarian, attacking the system from the inside, with the very weapons of those who you oppose, or so to speak, as Deleuze and Guattari might put it.
In summary, I’m not against ethnography, in itself. Similarly to Ingold (21) in his latter article, what I don’t agree with is how ethnography is presented as “be-all and end-all”. I don’t like how it is presented as a superior form of research. For example, I think the intermediate reasoning, the actual study part included in the article by Szabó and Troyer is just fine. Clearly a lot of effort went into it. That’s not to say that the more hours you pour into something the better it becomes, obviously not, but rather that their article is not one those studies that you come across, read, and think to yourself, is this all there is to this? That said, what I don’t agree with is the premise. I don’t think ethnography works well with the study of landscapes, at least not in sense it is typically presented. That’s because, for me, it lacks critical bite. It doesn’t allow me to do what I’m after. It completely ignores how people come to make sense of the world, their sense of limits (sense of reality), which then leads to all kinds of issues that I’ve gone through in this essay and also in many of my previous essays. Then again, I acknowledge that while the premise is not suitable for my purposes, what I’m after, it may well be suitable for other purposes, such as educational purposes, making people more aware of their surroundings, which I think is great! That said, I agree with Ingold on that I’m not exactly sure why that requires any publications. Education, learning with people, is valuable in itself and, arguably, all that is needed.
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