What is ethnography for?

I was just looking back at my fieldnotes and was sort of surprised to come across this metacommentary on fieldwork that I wrote on the plane the first time I left for the field:

One is reminded in flying to Europe of the class indistinction of anthropologists as professionals, of their dreadful similarity to tourists, study abroad students, bourgeois American adventurers and the like; one wonders whether anything is either valuable or particular to anthropological knowledge-making; one is irritated by the ideologically ritualistic nature of fieldwork (the sense that it is expected, even forced, to be a rite de passage). One has an uneasy sense of oneself as a phenomenological instrument, the trembling urge to record everything, everything, the peach of sky or scrape, the rustle of signs, the footfalls of quarrel and procedure, the texture of an ordinary life — one wonders whether ethnography is in fact the verification of a hypothesis or the interpretation of a social world (for the benefit of its inhabitants? for the benefit of foreigners? for one’s own amusement?), or the aestheticization of a set of flittering scenes that only cut skin deep, an artful display of surfaces; the freeing or subjugating or an ethnographic object, or the effort to induce a greater state of consciousness in an object; a form of collaboration intellectual exchange between actors taken or mistaken for intellectual subjects, or simply an exercise in concocting a misplaced authenticity of a culture that one falsely imagines one can experience immediately, done for the benefit of a disciplinary system of reproduction?…

What’s interesting about this to me in hindsight, I suppose, is that none of these questions really get resolved by doing fieldwork or by writing up your results. It’s just that you just learn to not worry about them after a while. I note that I posted a version of these comments — a cleaned up version! — early on in my fieldwork. I think I thought then that these sorts of questions would receive positive answers.

One thought on “What is ethnography for?

  1. Yes. I often think that the most important questions can’t be answered rigorously. But even if we focus much of our time on questions we can answer rigorously, we should feel obliged to spend some personal time on the bigger more important ones.

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