on experimenting with anthropological representation

In 1972, Geertz asked “what is it that we, anthropologists, do?”.  He answered, provocatively but not quite rhetorically: “we write.”  Actually, he said more in this vein which I summarize,
1) The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse … In so doing he turns it from a passing event into an account … which can be reconsulted (1973: 19)
2) We inscribe … only that small part of which our informants can lead us into understanding (1973: 20)

I interpret this, anachronistically to everything we know about the tradition of symbolic and interpretive anthropology with which he is now associated, as an introduction to the ethno-methodology of all (educational) search to discover what is going on and what can be done with.  Technically, as (ethno-)anthropologists, we transcribe carefully documented interaction, through audio or video tape if we can, through detailed field notes if we cannot.  And then we pay close attention to everything we can see on this record to figure out, through the activity of the people and only through this activity, how a particular sequence might make sense in the world that the people had made (if not in ours).  Geertz, famously, analogized this task to that of a literary critic. But, in one text at least he specified that he thought of the critics task to explicate what an author might have indexed that a modern reader might not get: “you [cannot] know what a catcher’s mitt is if you don’t know what baseball is” (1976: 221).

Following such leads to find out how people constitute the world they must then deal with, has been magnificently productive for our understanding of face to face interaction among small groups.  From telephone conversations, to the telling of jokes (Sacks 1974), to the discovery of pulsars (Garfinkel and Livingston 1981), we have been able to move significantly further in the anthropological task.

But it has been much more difficult to follow this program with larger emerging units in which it seems evident that interactions in Setting A are somehow linked to conversations in Setting C through the interactions in Setting B.

For example, school based research can easily argue that some troubles a principal may have with teachers and students is directly related to directives from the superintendent’s office which was only passing on directives from the State or the Federal Government.  In other words, the principal and the immediate significant others in a school, indicate through their speech and acts what is it that they cannot escape, what they are making locally with this, and where we, as anthropologists might go to trace where what-they-cannot-escape comes from.

In recent years, Latour has become famous for insisting that social scientists work at tracing these connections.  He writes about “networks” and how his Actor-Network (non-) Theory might be useful (Latour 2005).  But he does not give much guidance as to how this might get done, that is as to how we might systematically inscribe and then identify the links and then inscribe the identified links as suggested by the participants, and in such a way that our critics can identify errors or omissions.

This is why I found Jill Koyama’s dissertation.  Not only did she dare make New York City her unit of analysis, she began tracing systematically the linkages on matters of providing “supplemental educational services” across many settings.  The next question, for me, then became, how might we represent these linkages.

As a starting point, I am reverting to the “web” metaphor, Geertz borrows from Weber (1973 ).  It is cozy metaphor about being “suspended” which I am turning more ominous by writing that we are “caught in webs of (practically consequential and enacted) meaning.”

spider web

And then I am pushing the metaphor by actually “suspending” people-in-their-moments in the hope that it can allow us to see the proposed connections and then plan further research on this basis.  Here is what this might look like.

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