April 6, 2020

Dear Students,

I understand that all of you have legitimate concerns about conducting ethnography in these times. No government entity will allow you to travel or to meet people. And you probably agree with these restrictions. Whether you are confronting the prospect of “summer fieldwork,” or are getting ready to go “into” the field, or are currently “in” the field, the same concerns will arise: how do I get to know human beings if I cannot meet them, face to face, in the settings of their everyday lives?

As usual, my response to your individual questions will be “it depends” on what you want to learn and on the peculiar conditions you might encounter. So, today, I only sketch some of the answers anthropologists have given when either they could not meet the people they wanted to learn about, or when they had good reasons not to need actual physical contact with the people.

The question is not a new one. It was asked during World War II when anthropologists convinced some people in the US government that they might be useful, particularly as it concerned then future contacts with Japan. This involved conversations eventually summarized in M. Mead and R. Metraux volume on The study of culture at a distance ([1953] 2000). The most famous work of this era is R. Benedict’s The chrysanthemum and the sword (1946). The subtitle is Patterns of Japanese culture and the underlying work is often credited for the shaping of American policy towards Japan: Benedict, it is said, convinced General MacArthur not to hang the emperor. Benedict, or course, never set foot in Japan. Anthropologists of my generation were taught that writing about people in XXX while never setting foot in XXX was something NOT to do. And yet, many in my generation were involved in constituting what came to be known as “discourse analysis.” Benedict’s work might be said to be an early form of this given that about all her “data” are texts written by the Japanese for themselves, and particularly texts produced by the government that shaped the lives of the Japanese. In many ways this is not so different from Foucault writing about prisons, hospitals, schools he never visited. Much of the research work that it going to be published about Corona is going to involve similar analyses of the discourses made public at various moments in the crisis (and this may tell us more about the constraints on the people than spending time in isolation with a few of them).

To make this more concrete, I will go through various techniques, some quite well worn, and some less so.
1. General interviews (one of the most common technique, and my least favorite): it makes no difference whether these are conducted face to face or face to Zoom to face.
2. More focused interviews: life histories can also be collected via Zoom. If anybody was still interested in many forms of kinship analyses that involved vocabularies, modes of address, marriage regulations, etc., the necessary research could also be done as effectively via Zoom.
3. One of the most classical technique in the study of family interaction was asking some family member to go through a photo album, give information about the people in the photographs, reminisce, etc. Much of that, and probably more can be done by asking people to discuss their various Facebook, Instagram, etc. accounts with explorations of who posts what to whom, how privacy settings are set, etc.
4. Facebook, etc. also gives entry into more symbolic matters in the choice of the images to display, the language of the posts, etc. This could lead to analyses of more formally constructed and edited texts from e-mail exchanges to announcement of events, etc.
5. I imagine some teachers might give access to the lesson plans they used during Corona, the kinds of messages they exchanged with students and administrators, etc. This might tell us much more about pedagogical ideologies than would interviews with these teachers.
6. More esoteric, but very influential: When anthropologists were fascinated with early enculturation as the explanation for the apparent blindness of people to “their” culture, Gregory Bateson convinced Margaret Mead that the questions could only be answered by filming parent/child interaction. They did so in Bali. Bateson then developed film analysis to conduct research into interaction with the schizophrenic which led to further similar research on psychiatric interviews which eventually moved Ray McDermott, Fred Erickson and others to place video cameras in classrooms and offices so that they could work off the recordings. Given the ubiquity of video, one can imagine research that would use already generated recordings in any of the settings anthropologists are concerned with. In the current context, it is noteworthy that most of the ethnographic work conducted via video analysis was done in an office (to the dismay of many other anthropologists, but with much impact on the discipline).

What may be most important is the consideration that the best anthropology is built on techniques no anthropologists have used yet. In all events, even when all else is smooth, the real challenge is finding the techniques most likely to answer some question of concern, given a theoretical orientation.

Coming with that is why all of us keep rewriting our proposals.


Some ethnographic works that might help:

Andrews, Gus

2010 "THIS IS ELSEWHERE.ORG" : users and machines making literacy work on blogs. Ed.D. dissertation. Teachers College, Columbia University

2011 "Education into the online world: On the appropriation of online text and the production of everyday knowledge." Global Media Journal 11, 1.

Gerson, Ilana

2010 The breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over new media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Tirthali, Devayani

2013 Educating about diabetes: Ethnographic study of conversations on a social networking site. Ed.D. dissertation. Teachers College, Columbia University