Ethnography is great (and why it won’t catch on)

Eth blogTime is short in research and business.  Important questions still get asked, but we seek snapshot answers – questionnaire surveys, focus groups, polls which have little to do with the texture or complexity of everyday life.  I’m not going to define ethnography other than to briefly say that it is the study of a group or culture by spending time with them, being part of the social melee, facing their dilemmas; an endeavour taking months or years.  For something a little more considered have a look at Bryman and Bell (2003).

I’m going to discuss three examples focusing on black working class culture in the US.  On the one hand this is a world away from my personal experience, but on the other speaks to my interest in social justice.  And it is ethnography that gives me a real sense of the problems and opportunities rather than the simplistic accounts I’ve been used to.

The example are:

  • Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leaders for a Day – a rogue socialist crosses the line (Venkatesh, 2008)
  • Loic Wacquant’s Body and Soul – notebooks of an apprentice boxer (Wacquant, 2004)
  • Alice Goffman’s On the Run – fugitive life in an American city (Goffman, 2014)

In all three cases the researcher spends years in the communities.  They get to know people well, they are friends with some, cautious of others, they have misunderstandings and periods of connection.  In other words the whole spectrum of being a person in a community with others, drawing attention to how events unfold over time, their consequences and further consequences.

What is noticed?  Take Sudhir Venkatesh.  Here we get to develop an understanding of how drug gangs work.  But not in a polarized sense that encourages us to stand back and say ‘these people are evil, how could they ..’.  Instead we understand how people fall into that life, how gang members become gang members, how they interact with the community of which they are part, the subtle nature by which they both support and punish.  And so on.  With Alice Goffman we understand how people become enmeshed in the criminal system from which they hardly ever escape.  In both cases we develop a nuanced appreciation of context, predicament and fate, whilst appreciating people still have choice and responsibility.  In many respects we can understand people as victims of circumstance.  And in doing so we can be more challenging of those circumstances.  With Loic Wacquant it is different.  Here he is becoming a boxer and in doing so develops an understanding of the constraining and enabling factors that keep boxers and others on the right side of the law.  But as with Venkatesh and Goffman, these are subtle and easy to disturb, the loss of a key member of a community can have far reaching consequences.  In all three cases we hear of people making reasonable choices in the context of which they find themselves.  Well, reasonable choices mainly, but in contexts that are hard to image without that being explained in graphic, dramatic and often visceral ways. It demonstrates the deeply interconnected worlds that we are part of, how our pasts are connected to our futures in ways that are hard to imagine.

And what of the researchers? They all have one thing in common.  They are all undergoing a process of creative unsettlement.  Loic is becoming a boxer, Venkatesh a gang member and Alice similarly a part of a new community.  But all three are both developing as researchers too.  The creative unsettlement is a highly reflexive process.  The foundations for identity, the assumptions and the un-noticed routines of everyday life, are there to notice and we sense how risky this is.

But what of this rich knowledge?  Just as the policymaker, politician or strategist has little time for asking questions, they similarly have no time for rich, challenging and difficult answers.  Ethnography means one has to shed the hope for neat answers to neat questions.  It requires an assertive humility to feel comfortable that answers are only partial at best and not universal; the assertiveness in both being okay with this and for standing up to those who offer promises of certainty.

Bryman, B., & Bell, E. (2003). Business Reearch Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goffman, A. (2014). On the Run – Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Venkatesh, S. (2008). Gang Leaders for a Day: A Rouge Sociologist Crosses the Line. London: Allen Lane.

Wacquant, L. (2004). Body and Soul – notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


4 thoughts on “Ethnography is great (and why it won’t catch on)

  1. Thanks, I agree, it is about finding out the rich and nuanced details real lives, not to get lost in the detail but rather to inform grounded decisions – particularly in policy. I don’t think polls are bad in themselves, but they do offer a simplicity that just isn’t there. I do wonder what it might be like if the Secretary of State for Health spends a week or two as, say, a hospital porter every year. I think he would get a different view of life than the ‘show’n’tell’ events that usually go on.

  2. Rob I very much enjoyed your examples and thoughts. And I mentally compared the examples you gave with the Ipsos Mori briefing that sat alongisde it in my inbox.
    While ethnographic studies of this depth are unlikely to inform policy making, its vital that the high level superficiality of polls offering ill described options and a brief list of acceptable one word answers don’t either.
    Somehow we have to find ways of finding out about real lives (which i believe have to be informed by anthropological methods) if we are to be able to design services and structures for health and social care that meet real needs in acceptable ways.

    Best wishes

  3. Great examples Rob, thank you. I agree that it probably won’t catch on. But it can be a lot of fun. I say that having spent most of my working life working in businesses and trying to understand them (and myself) as I do so.

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