Historically, students have most often come to me because "they want to do an ethnography" but don't know how, and may have been working with someone in their department who does not feel comfortable with the method. This is a necessary first step, but is not sufficient, by itself, to continue a conversation.
Minimally, students who want to use ethnographic methods for research must arrange to take the sequence of introductory courses taught by Professor Harrington (TF5000, taught Spring and Summer B) and myself (TF5001, taught Fall and Summer A). These are basic "what to take into account when thinking about using ethnographic methods" courses. Help beyond this is a more complex matter.
This text is intended as an introduction to my understanding of my task.
I take the position that ethnographic methods do not constitute a set of recipes that allow for easy answers to such questions as "am I using the method right?" [ftn1] My answer, systematically, is "it depends" on what you want to do, or on the degree to which you accept to change what you want to do given what you have done. This is also true of my own work, and thus of the stance I take when I am asked "what would you do?" if confronted with particular analytic questions. Thus, no advice I give is theoretically neutral. It is thus imperative that those who might think about working with me be aware of my ways of understanding how the human world may work.
In brief, I am interested in producing more precise and more complex accounts of the conditions with which human beings work. Without an understanding of such conditions (constraints, institutions, systems, structures, discourses) there is no way to make sense of the practical actions that human beings are continually at work taking. These are conditions which other human beings have constructed over long and generally acrimonious historical processes. Thus, I am convinced that, for example, the actions of a bunch of mostly Englishmen who had come to adulthood on the Western Coast of the Atlantic Ocean, are still central contexts for me, as an individual who was born, raised and educated in France and came to the United States after college 25 years ago. What Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and others, did more than two hundred years ago is still powerfully alive in the lives of people who live in late 20th century United States. I do not find it problematic to talk about this force in my life as "America." At another extreme, I am similarly convinced that certain things my wife and children did a few weeks ago, is still somewhat alive for them and me, as an aspect of the local history that we will be making later today. I am secondarily interested in the moment to moment construction of new historical events--such as this text for example.
I am very interested in the historical (cultural) forces which organize for us the particular world of symbolic forms that we are made to use as we struggle to affirm our "I" (which is not the same as our "self"). For examples, I am not interested in answering the question "why can't Johnny read?" (or "why can't Varenne write a simple declarative sentence?"). I am very interested in figuring out who asks such a question, under what conditions, and for what practical consequences. I am interested in the history of this question, in the questions that it replaced, in the linkages between these questions and others (for example, "on what grounds can a person be considered a medical doctor?"). I am interested in discovering what such a question reveals, and what it hides.
Such general statements cannot however be quite helpful by themselves. Somebody who wants to work with me would be well advised to take one or two of my courses besides the purely methodological ones, read some of my work (for example, Americans Together (Teachers College Press, 1977), Symbolizing America (University of Nebraska Press, 1986), Ambiguous Harmony (Ablex, 1992), and some of the papers on reserve under my name. They should also read some of the authors I find interesting. A brief list is attached.
A student who persists in wanting to work with me should also be aware of my requirement that he attend faithfully the research seminar that brings together all such students for a form of group advisement (and register for it). I expect students to start attending from the time when they are planning their proposal through to the final stages of dissertation writing. This group has met from time immemorial on Thursday nights from 7 to 9. All involved have found it extremely helpful as a setting where to ask questions, listen to answers to other people's questions, make contacts and relationships, both intellectual and personal, etc.