Ethnography as theory

I’m at the University of Warwick for a seminar on ethnography as theory. The two papers we were asked to read in advance have duly been read, and I’ll be interested to see what we make of them and of other sources during the short event. I’m quite prepared to be very out of my depth, but fully Iooking forward to this, I do love a bit of a natter about theory.

The Nader paper I read first, and was not hugely impressed by. Nader is clearly an experienced researcher, and presented a history of the ways in which an ecological or holistic perspective (contra a scientific perspective) has been used by anthropologists from Malinowski to Leach, but has always been tempered by the inevitability of the implication of the ethnographer with colonialist attitudes etc. This is seen in the desire of the ethnographer, in aiming to avoid treating their research subjects as Other, to go to the other extreme and to try to portray Them as Like Us, imposing an alien standard of rationality onto Their practices. Nader explains how Gregory Bateson’s Naven allowed the practices of other cultures to stand as exotic and nonsensical to Western eyes, challenging ideas of interpretation/translation and rationalisation by showing how non-holistic forms of description can allow a more naked and less ideological form of ethnography to be undertaken.

Candea’s paper, on the other hand, the post-PhD ruminations of a much younger researcher, I found really interesting and full of sentences that drew me in and made me think differently. My copy of the paper is covered in asterisks, underlines and marginal comments. In a much longer paper than Nader’s, Candea starts with a compelling analogy, using Peter Jackson’s approach to filmmaking and the Dogme approach to set up a framework within which to discuss freedom and constraint in approaches to “realism”. Candea is frank about his own experiences and doubts as a novice ethnographer, and discusses the idea of constraint and the drawing of arbitrary boundaries as an essential methodological step in ethnographic research that ought to be paid more attention.

His paper can be summed up in one five word phrase
         Boundedness is a methodological issue
(Candea, 2007:172)

There are many subtleties within each paper that I haven’t time to write about now… time to go find the room :-).

I hope to post again later with my thoughts after the event.


Notes on Kendall & Wickham (1999) “Using Foucault’s Methods”

Some notes made on reading Kendall, G. & Wickham, G. (1999) Using Foucault’s Methods, London: SAGE (read back in October, finally blogged!)

Kendall & Wickham aim to show how the work of Foucault can be used as a framework or set of guidelines for approaching research or thought. They situate Foucault’s approach as a single set of precepts that can restrict the researcher from falling into various traps of thinking and interpretation of data.

Although Foucault’s work itself was famously quite varied as to its methodologies and styles, here Kendall & Wickham aim to present a unified picture of his methods which irons out the internal differences.


The style of the book is interesting in itself, pedagogically, with quite believable pen portraits of a range of (presumably semi-fictitious) students grappling with historical, sociological and political topics and trying to “apply Foucault” to them, and in process falling into a variety of errors (thereby highlighting and exemplifying these for the reader, which allows Kendall & Wickham to use these as leverage to explain how Foucault’s methods provide a somewhat different angle).

To begin with, Kendall & Wickham standardise a few precepts of Foucault’s approach:

  • look for contingencies not causes (avoid teleology);
  • avoid political interpretations
  • don’t limit historicity; there is nothing ahistorical   … or as Kendall & Wickham have it, “don’t let history stop”

We’re living in history and we can apply historical/archaeological techniques to the present.


One of the key aspects of this book was the distinction drawn between two types of Scepticism, and this distinction is crucial to the main pedagogical point of the book in understanding and using Foucault’s methods. It is crucial for the authors that students apply the right kind of scepticism to their thinking and don’t end up by “using Foucault” to show that we can’t know ‘anything’!

The two types of scepticism described are: Academic and Pyrrhonian. Academic scepticism is of the kind that Descartes attempted to practice in his Meditations: suspend all judgement; “how can we know anything?” Kendall & Wickham point out that we’re used to suspending “first-order judgements” in Western academic work – but only to replace them with the “surer knowledge” derived from second-order knowledge: the world of theory, science and political categorisation.

That’s fine, but Kendall & Wickham suggest that it’s not the whole story (we can’t help but work with knowing things in a direct, perceptual sense, for example, or as a result of personal experience, and not to acknowledge this leads to a kind of rejection or at least mistrust of the empirical nature of science (based on the ‘myth of the given’ and so on) rather than a strengthening of it).

But it’s when it comes to drawing further conclusions from that experience that the second, Pyrrhonian variety of scepticism comes in. This, Kendall & Wickham describe as (indefinitely) “suspending second-order judgements” (p13) such as ‘critique’ or ‘politics’; resisting the assumption that there is ‘hidden meaning’ in a work of history or sociology (p16) that we must identify or divine.

The Pyrrhonian sceptical approach therefore functions almost as a reverse of the scholarly moves so central to many academic disciplines, and opposes the assumption that the aim of scholarship or research is to uncover a previously-hidden order of things.In contrast, a “Pyrrhonian” approach to research accepts things as they appear, not expecting to reveal deeper meanings or layers of reality. This rings bells for me in relation to my previous obsession with Richard Rorty and his pragmatist refusal of the meaningfulness of Meaning as a deeper or more Real structure that language and experience refers to. In contrast to Rorty, who can talk about interpretation (in pragmatist terms, of course), Kendall & Wickham refer to the Foucaultian approach as ‘non-interpretive’ (p26). [Of course this view opens up this approach – and Latour’s – to the criticism of being ‘apolitical’ or ‘lacking critique’ – see the recent paper by Whittle & Spicer (2008) entitled “Is Actor-Network Theory critique?” to which my answer is a simple “No.”]


A few quotes that I noted down as of interest:

… one of the by-products of the way we handle the Pyrrhonian heritage is an almost unfettered eclecticism.” (p17)

[my thesis proposal so far is nothing if not eclectic, composed of a mash of theoretical perspectives that may or may not cohere. I keep being told that it has to be tighter, more focused, scoped, less messy – and I want to listen to these voices of wisdom and experience and not be a young arrogant hothead. I do listen and I don’t dismiss my elders. But then I think about this quote and this book generally and I think… maybe I will try and have a bit of that!]

Archaeology is a methodological device that owes much to Heidegger, Bachelard and Canguilhem, in that it is anti-humanist and non-Marxist… (p28)

[a link here again to my views on posthumanism… ok, not the same thing as anti-humanism at all; perhaps my view is better described as anti-humanist though? In previous writings I have used a little phrase from Nigel Thrift: “minimal humanism,” which I take to mean acknowledging the “obvious” reality that there are many things about humanity and human culture which are unique and amazing and well worthy of study and investigation… but to make a little metaphysical or ontological fuss about this as possible.]

Later in the book, Kendall & Wickham introduce the work of Bruno Latour (and other “Actor-Network” theorists); Latour is someone I have been reading a lot by, and about, over the last couple of years. The connection between Foucault and Latour had escaped me, though. Kendall & Wickham shamelessly present Latour’s work as an extension of Foucault’s, in epistemological and ontological terms, if not quite in methodological terms. For a book with Foucault in the title, a large proportion of it is spent discussing Latour as Foucault’s heir in some sense. It’s personally quite satisfying to find such a connection between two thinkers whose work I had found separately interesting, but I had not made the connection that Kendall & Wickham make.


All I have from here in my notes is quotes now, so I will include these and leave it at that!

Kendall & Wickham (p61) write about John Law and his 1994 work “Organising Modernity”:

Law… draws extensively on Foucault’s notion of discourse, which he extends by asking questions that foreground the relational materialism (1994:23) that would mark any successful account of social order. Briefly, Law’s concern is to extend a sociology of knowledge beyond human actors. As he bluntly puts it, “left to their own devices, human actions and words do not spread very far at all… Other materials, such as texts and technologies, surely form a crucial part of any ordering” (1994:24)

Then in p73-, Kendall & Wickham write about Latour’s concept of ‘black boxes’: “accepted, unquestioned processes”, components of the experimental system that ‘just work’ and which participants don’t have to understand or think about. For Latour, effort (research? investigation?) is required to break apart the black boxes, to show how they are heterogeneous rather than unitary. It’s really hard, says Latour, to argue against a black box, because its presence and its function has become commonsense and commonplace (all this is similar in a way to Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm – hmm, Foucault and Latour, now we are mixing in Rorty and Kuhn… interesting times! I love it when two main interests come together!)

On black boxes (p76):

Latour suggests that the best laboratories are the ones with the most black boxes, where the least dissent is possible. And the macro-actors are simply the actors who have a lot of black boxes underneath them.

on the concept of ‘enrolment’ (p76):

Enrolment is necessary, because, if you do not enrol other actors, your work will be limited to yourself, to a single point in space… Latour suggests that enrolment works by the translation of interests; put crudely, you have to convince people to want what you want.

and from p132: theories that inform practice become ‘black-boxed’ -> embedded and unquestioned.


As for what on earth all of this has to do with my thesis or with play and playwork, well, you can be sure I am stroking my beard about this as you read!