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.