On following indexes as ethnographic methodology

Ethnography, like most (all?) scientific methods, must initially proceed on the postulate that there is, over there, some “it” to write about.  All critiques of ethnography have succeeded in demonstrating that, for human phenomena at least, this postulate cannot stand.  Anthropologists, as Geertz put it, do not study villages, they study “in” villages (1973: 22).  The new question that has not been answered: what do they do when they arrive in a village, if they are not going to study “it”?  Geertz suggests they might study “colonial domination” but does not quite explain what that might be. I suspect Geertz would say this is an ideal-type (Weber 1949: 89-95). Parsons might say it is a “formal category.” In either case, the anthropologist is just as much as a loss as when Malinowski or Boas told her to record “everything.”

I venture to say that most anthropologists of the past half-century have, uncomfortably, proceeded “as if” there were some there there, and I have often proceeded in such a matter—or let students proceed as if they would find objects to write about.

We have to find a clear way of stating what one is to do in the absence of a postulated ‘it’.  Many have argued for what they call “multi-sited” ethnographies which, I think, it intended to account for ethnographic activities when the ethnographer moves from one setting to the next in an attempt to … do what?  I have not been convinced.  First, there is the danger that one is led back to the initial problem: what is a “site” that there can be several?  Second, there is the matter of the selection of the sites.  Does one make this selection on the sense that there is a population of sites from which one select a sample?  How else might one proceed?

Working with students this past academic year, planning various research projects, and continuing to think about webs/networks, polities, etc., has re-opened this question with some urgency.  At this moment, I am exploring the following in an expansion of Garfinkel as compounded by Latour.  The fundamental methodological principle is: trust the people to tell you what makes them make differences in their lives and that of others.  The people, too, are trying to figure ‘it’ out, and, in the process ‘constitute’ it.  All we have to do is follow them.  This, of course, is not easy since the constraints on their methods (getting their work acknowledged as relevant to the task in such a way that the task is accomplished) are not those under which we operate (getting work acknowledged as ‘social science research’).  So:

  1. start with a salient phenomenon in some population (cohort). That is, start with a local (national) topic of conversation among the population. The more contentious this conversation, the better for our purposes.
    1. NCLB, indigeneity, autism would be such phenomena (to mention ongoing work by Jill Koyama, Jeff Schiffer, Juliette de Wolfe). These are salient in the United States or Canada. They generate a lot of talk. And that talk is easy to find in many setting.
      1. Do not attempt to define, say, “autism” or “indigeneity.” The participants, in their talk might make it look as if it is an ‘it’. You can remain agnostic while accepting that the practices in which the participants engage are very real and produce concrete consequences.
      2. Do not attempt to define the setting either. Again, the people will tell you its boundaries and reach through their own practices.
    2. Postulating a web means that one can start anywhere convenient.
  2. The danger is to take this starting point as THE core point. To prevent this, it may be best to start with a setting “obviously” peripheral
  3. listen carefully for indexical sequences (e.g. “We are doing this against our better judgement because they make us do it.”)
    1. these sequences are going to be included within larger conversations and will include many indexes to the current conversation and cohort, as well as to other conversations and cohorts.
    2. again, the more contentious the conversation, the more likely it is that linked matters will be indexed.
    3. the indexical sequences need not be verbal though one can start with the verbal as it may be easiest to access
  4. follow the indexes to the next convenient setting/moment
  5. repeat until exhausted (or a year has passed—though the temporality of such a search needs also to be addressed).

More to come.

5 thoughts on “On following indexes as ethnographic methodology”

  1. For me, one of the biggest challenges (in addition to deciding what to follow/index) of multi-sited ethnographies is the logistical nightmare of being at all these places where decisions are made. Many times, these places are in closed-door meetings, invitation-only conventions, members-only areas, and so on. On top of that, there’s the issue of having the resources of getting there.

    There are two books that I’m interested in reading that might address some of these points:

    – Latour, B. (2010) The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d’Etat. Polity Press.
    – Fenwick, Tara and Edwards, Richard (2010) Actor-Network Theory in Education. Routledge

  2. I know that in my own work with college admission bureaucracies achieving access was likewise incredibly difficult. I am also sure that the meetings that I was invited to/permitted to access were those that were deemed safe for me to observe – even after a year there.

    Another equally important challenge for me is thinking about my position and role in shaping the setting and the data I collected. In many settings (such as the “traditional” village or island ethnography) the ethnographer plays the role of the novice – the wide-eyed newcomer who must be carefully “educated” on the web of meaning. Although my credentials (Ph.D. from Columbia University) and experience (ten years of professional work in post-secondary administration) helped me to achieve access, it also positioned me as an “expert” of sorts. This meant that some of my informants would turn to me for advice or feedback or opinion, which I would occasionally (cautiously) give. It seemed as a participant-observer, I needed to. For example, if there were ten mock-ups of new print advertisements for the college and everyone was discussing their opinions, and my opinion was asked, I would described which I liked and why. This was interesting to me methodologically, as I could reflect more closely on my own interpretation of the setting (why DID I like that image better?), as well as on how others described their own interpretations (how interesting that he thought THAT image was better). It also made negotiating my position more complex, the consequences of which I am still thinking through.

  3. I am reminded once again by Alex that I had the easiest task out of so many of my colleagues; publicly available texts were a dream to work with. I am thus perhaps overly optimistic about the possibilities for following a phenomenon as far as I can. I did not manage to get server logs, but had I been hounding people more vigorously I might have had that information in order to make better sense of my data. This job of hounding is work which feels more like a journalist’s than an anthropologist’s, which pleases my eclectic background. Indexicals seem to point us towards a journalist’s toolbox; theirs is a process of following hints from one conversation to documents and distant actors not in the immediate situation.

    As to the original post, it all seems sound to me. Having recently defended, the one thing which catches my attention is the claim “Postulating a web means that one can start anywhere convenient.” This is true, but we’re all going to be called into account for it. We can start anywhere convenient, but we will need to be able to explain why that convenient location made sense for the study, and, of course, also defend a network approach.

  4. Professor Varenne suggests that the temporality of our research as anthropologists in the United States and Canada may also need to be addressed, and about this point I strongly agree. As some of our work focuses on asking questions about a particular salient topic (autism, indigeneity, health care, blogs), we find ourselves no longer located in a particular village where we plan to document each and every everyday activity of the people with whom we work (eating habits, governmental structure, transportation, labor, schooling, the list goes on and on). Instead, we hone in on the interactions that people have with the particular topic – how they discuss it, manipulate it, define it, and this happens in many different spaces at many different times. Especially given peoples’ connections with one another regarding these particular topics via the Internet, we can no longer plant ourselves in a village for one year and expect to get all of the necessary information to adequately understand the topic we are researching and its relationship with the people we talk to. This means we may have to be creative regarding the temporality of our research and use less traditional methods of collecting data in space and time.

  5. The postulate of a concrete “it” independent of the observer cannot stand. This postulate does not stand for quantum physicists, who have noticed that an “it” can exist in multiple places at the same time- all of these “its” impacted by the practice of observation- and it surely does not stand for anthropologists. We do not study networks (or webs of significance that we ourselves have spun, to quote Geertz), but we study in them. Similarly, I do not study indigeneity, per se, but rather practices that index (and therefore constitute and shaped) indigeneity- which participants in my fieldsites term “indigenization.”

    The “it” is revealed/constituted by a given practice- in the full dimensionality of its historicity, participants, and semiotic embeddedness. A given “it,” as Garfinkel would argue, is elucidated when its potential to cease being an “it” is revealed (what Garfinkel terms the empirically observable practice of losing a phenomenon- see Garfinkel 2002; Rawls ed.).

    In my own work I study institutional practices of indigenization. Participants within these practices, along with myself as a participant observer, index indigeneity throughout ongoing practices of language-interaction. A current difficulty, as this project remains nascent, is to avoid reifying either indigeneity or networks of indigenization practices as “its,” while at the same time generating critical insights about the process by which participants within particular social organizations (networks) and institutions achieve and reproduce language-interaction, policy and artifacts that index indigeneity.

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