The shape of ethnographic materials

My department asked me for a summary of my “results,” and I thought it would be worth posting some of that here because I think it’s worth trying to be public, and therefore honest, about what exactly one ends up with after a spell of ethnographic fieldwork.

If I look at the physical form of what I’ve brought home, I find a reassuring but also daunting quantity of material: three suitcases of books and print matter, several thousand photographs, approximately 300 hours of recorded audio, 1750-odd digital documents in an archive I’ve been maintaining, and some nine field notebooks. Although I plan to make a more thorough inventory of my materials in the near future, my sense is that the data falls into five major categories:

  1. The discourses and organizational practices of French university politics: how people have debates, analyze their situations, produce slogans, march or blockade, express political feelings like anger or hope;
  2. the public practices of philosophy departments: what happens in classrooms and conferences;
  3. the intellectual world of French philosophy: the lexicon of its ‘cosmos,’ the characteristic forms and contents of its texts, the ways people enroll themselves in philosophical genealogies, and a more limited amount of data on local reading and writing practices;
  4. the organization and bureaucracy of French universities (which differ considerably from their American counterparts);
  5. local social relations: friendships, collegiality, social networks, status and difference marking;
  6. local historicities and futurities: how people conceptualize their history, future, and present conjuncture (which varies enormously with social position);
  7. finally, and hardest to articulate, a mass of unsystematic data on everyday life, the shapes and smells that serve as half-ignored backdrop to local action.

Looking over this material makes me realize that I have too much material to ever fully analyze, but also, paradoxically, too little material (or the wrong kind) to give an entirely satisfactory description of the days and lives of my informants. Ultimately, my material is based on many fleeting acquaintances and relatively few close field friendships. But when I said as much to one philosopher, he observed that in fact many French academics don’t know each other well, and that superficial, partial relationships are preponderant, which suggests that perhaps having many “superficial” relationships was, in a paradoxical sense, a form of full and typical participation in the world in question, and hence itself more a form of data than an ethnographic weakness.

Leaving aside, at any rate, this unrealizable quasi-novelistic ambition to represent people’s lives, the impossible dream of showing the totality of a cultural space, and descending to the more humble level of what I was surprised by and what I wasn’t surprised by, I suppose we might also divide my material into three main epistemological categories, which we could call confirming or illustrative data, unexpected findings, and theoretically problematic data.

To begin with the most comforting case: it seems to me that I do have a mass of illustrative data that tends to substantiate my own initial methodological expectations, which essentially suggested that we should analyze French philosophical knowledge in terms of its institutional-political context, in terms of its political engagements, in terms of its ideologies of the future. While I think that this initial methodology turned out to be on the right track, I now have materials that are suitable for describing a number of concrete cases, for giving ethnographic “flesh” to the analytical schema, for better narrating institutional history, and for improving on the initial formulations in a number of respects (see below).

Second, I have data on phenomena which were new empirical discoveries for me, unexpected findings. There are, of course, too many to list here. For instance, I hadn’t been aware of the fixation with direct democracy embodied in a local political form called the assemblée générale (general assembly); nor of another local protest form called the “Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn,” which turned out to be central to the organization of a massive university strike in 2009; nor of the political fixation with the person and personality of Valérie Pécresse, the Minister of Higher Education, which deserves its own analysis. Neither had I foreseen the local significance of the physical degradation of campus spaces; nor had I been aware of the movement toward a precarious labor regime in French academia; and so on and so forth… Like any piece of qualitative research, there’s a lot that wasn’t predicted.

Finally, I would say that I faced a certain number of field situations that forced me to revisit some initial assumptions, moments that involved “theoretical” or analytical (and not merely empirical or ethnographic) discoveries. For instance, I had initially thought about futures through an essentially Sartrean model that viewed futurity as the horizon of agentive action, as a target that animates individual or collective projects; this model turned out to fit my informants very poorly, since they spent as much time resisting unwanted futures or just surviving the present as they did pursuing clearly defined projects of their own. Or for another major example, I hadn’t realized that university politics would involve debates over the very nature of the university; I discovered that actors had local theories of the university and that these theories were themselves contested via what I would term local “epistemologies of university models”; this has prompted me to attribute much more analytical significance to local forms of political reflexivity. And finally, I originally imagined that the French case would serve as a case study in academics’ political agency, of their relatively successful resistance to university reforms that might be termed neoliberal. But the collapse and defeat of the university protest movement of 2009, and the relative weakness of academics’ political organization since then, has forced my analysis towards the forms of political defeat and political failure that have pervaded faculty activist discourse the last year or two.

I guess most of this stuff is pretty obvious. It goes without saying that ethnographers are going to be surprised by some of their findings, unsurprised by others, forced occasionally to revise their guiding conceptual frameworks.* But it seemed to me that if I’m going to be writing about my findings over the next few months, it’s not a bad idea to give a rough sense of the materials I’m working with.

* I would note that one is not usually forced to revise one’s conceptual scheme; in spite of the romantic story about “changing one’s mind about everything in the field” that one so often hears, I don’t think most ethnographers are usually entirely surprised by their findings. People are somewhat predictable.

5 thoughts on “The shape of ethnographic materials

  1. The quantity of material you gathered seems to predict a long line of writing, of picking up and expanding upon pieces that won’t make it into your final work (dissertation). Congratulations on a successful fieldwork endeavor! If you maintain the few deep and many casual acquaintances made, this could lead to lots of future invitations back to France. That’s an exciting thought, at least from this observer of your work. – TL

    1. Thanks, Tim! It is a completely accurate observation that a lot of my research materials won’t make it into the dissertation. There’s just too much. But I think this must be the case for most research projects, no? Maybe we need some word for this epistemological condition… evidentiary surplus? Knowledge overflow? Waste knowlege? I mean, in a sense one is “wasting” evidence if one never analyzes it…

  2. Of all of your posts, I think I have found this one the most stimulating (although I really like your photos, which are so evocative of what it felt like when I attended the Université Jean Monnet in St-Etienne about 15 years ago). I hope as you work through your findings that you’ll say more about the relationship (if any) between the “epistemologies of university models,” academics’ notions of temporality and their relationship to time, and the failure of the the university protest movement in 2009. Failure — at least for my money — is always more interesting than success, and far more instructive.

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