Anthropology: NOT this kind of experimental science

[a follow up on yesterday’s blog entry]

Thanks to Beau Bettinger who sent me the following link (to something in the New York Times, no less) to a review of research entitled: Escaping the Cycle of Scarcity

The research quoted is “experimental” in just the way Geertz imagined all experimental research proceeded (1973: 22): given a constant (making decisions about alternatives) various conditions (prosperity/poverty) appear to make a difference thereby leading to an inference about the processes at work (cognitive overload).  Nothing about this research makes sense, whether the concepts, the operationalization, the tests, or the inference. (And we will have to continue criticizing every one of these steps in this kind of research.)

Q: So what does an anthropology grounded in Boas/Garfinkel propose instead?

A: Any versions of what the powerful team Michael Cole once assembled proposed and conducted.

Jean Lave, a constitutive member of this team, has recently (2011) given a wonderful account of the steps she took, in the 1970s, to respond to Cole’s challenges.  For several years, she re-designed alternate means of observing the activities of tailors.  Again and again she revised what she had to do in her next field trip.  And so she revealed matters, conditions, practices, that cognitive psychologists could not have imagined, that would resist conceptualization, and that, precisely, could not be transformed into a (correlational) theory–in the “grounded theory” sense.  The point was to “make work visible” in the felicitous title of recent book edited by Whalen and Szymanski (2011).  And, in the process, she also revealed constraints and possibilities in the very practical activity of conducting ethnographic research.

To do all this, one does need to imagine situations, to be shared together by the observer and the observed (i.e. ethnographic participant observation), that will reveal the kind of work, its conditions and constraints, that we cannot imagine but that we suspect, for good theoretical work, is taking place.

I have been gratified, over the years, by the number of research projects by students in our programs in anthropology at Teachers College, who have imagined such situations and revealed some possibilities of life in disability, immigration, poverty, that could not quite be imagined.  For example, to mention only one among many, when Juliette de Wolfe (2013) spent a year following “autism warriors” she did not just “make available to us answers [to our deepest questions about humanity] that other shepherds, guarding other sheep in other valleys have given” (Geertz 1973: 30).  She helped us answer deep questions about producing local and historically specific social orders when faced with dis-abling condition (that includes not only their children’s autism but a whole slew of other matters ostensibly involved in helping child and parent).


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