standardizing ethnography

On the Soc Job Rumor Board, there was a discussion of the non-replicability of ethnography. I think this is mistaken. Ethnography is easily replicable, it’s just that ethnographers don’t want to do it. For example, ethnographers could:

  • Stop making everything anonymous so others can verify and check. Mitch Duinier is right about this.
  • Group ethnography. Have multiple observers and do inter-coder reliability.
  • Standardize data collection – how field codes are done and recorded.
  • Encourage others to revisit the same population (which is actually done in anthropological ethnography)

Of course, no single study can strive for replication in the same way and some folks do a good job addressing these issues. But still, the anti-positivist framing of much ethnography probably prevents ethnographers from developing intuitive and sensible things to create standards that would move the field away from the solo practitioner model of unique and non-replicable studies.

50+ chapters of grad…

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15 thoughts on “standardizing ethnography

  1. yep, the stuff of all too familiar institutional/Kafkaesque living nightmares,
    what if we could teach subjects like infrastructure appreciation like we teach say wine appreciation, what would be the experiential equivalent of visiting a winery and doing a tasting or even home-brewing (yes i know distilling but i like the term).


  2. Totally right on both accounts. I am still not sure why we play the “hide and go seek” game into perpetuity: we claim generalizability, and then are surprised when nothing really appears to generalize on a case to case basis, thus rendering generalization NOT useful for the average Joe making life decisions because every claim to generalization has the important — IMPORTANT — disclaimer (on account of being a generalization) that we do not how this will change in new settings or into the future beyond the case, which merely hints at it. Likewise, every time I take scientific evidence (that is generalized) for use in a new organizational setting/environment, I’m always — ALWAYS — told “we are unique, that stuff won’t work here, we’ve got our own structures.” Hide-and-go-seek …


  3. even if we had video (or brain-scans or such) how would we know that 2 separate things/happenings are the ‘same’ (or even just similar enough?) , hell how would 2 or more observers come to agree on the happenings in just one image/time-frame (how would we even know when/how to frame/capture the right parts of a happening in the blooming-buzzing-flow-of-things?), sounds more like editing/cutting a movie than lab-work…


  4. Indeed, you are both correct, but a couple of points are worth noting in the process: it might be good self-discipline to withhold open, overt critical judgments, but a post like that (from Fabio) was likely designed to “fire people up” and get precisely that sort of response (it seems crafted specifically for it, although we cannot know for sure). At any rate, it might also have been something of a thought-experiment … now I sound like an apologist, but the format of the blog does make these discussions especially public and when the success of a blog is based on # of comments or # of daily viewers, well, the equation tends toward what we saw in “standardizing ethnography”


  5. Point #2: Indeed, inter-ethnographer reliability! What would that even look like? That two students took down the same observations when they sort of happened at two different times? I am sorry, but unless you video record a setting, then there is no way to have a number of people all recording things at once for precisely the reasons that Garfinkel would expect: because that won’t get us closer to reality!


  6. yes, this was a real test of my new attempt at self-discipline where when faced with people who are so deeply wrong/off I’m trying to take this as a good (strong) sign that they will be immune to points/reason-ing to the contrary and so I will resist offering them…


  7. Replying point by point:

    1. Indeed, sending out droves of undergraduate researchers, for example, so that you can do “systematic” or “representative” ethnography is not ethnography as I know it. Instead, what that appears to be is just a observational form of field work. I read ethnography for one reason: to feel the fabric of a social situation at great depth; I don’t need representative to get at the depth, and often the depth is a result of previous work showing that the individual case might represent (loosely) a broader class of persons, events, situations, etc. So, interesting idea to “blend” these approaches but what’s systematic about ethnography is not the breadth, but the depth.


  8. Wow, I just spent the last 15 minutes reading through the comments over at org-theory. There are so many levels of wrong in this short piece, I cannot even think of a sensible way to really engage with it. I like Fabio a lot personally, but this…hmm. Ok, lets just single out three of worst issues (at least in my opinion):

    1. Ethnography is not observation and registering events in nicely formatted fieldnotes: it is a set of practices of engagement with a field, a field that is both responsive and self-reporting. The production of memos and notes is not a technical activity but an interpretation in itself. Sending out lots of “modest” ethnographers into similar places (or even random fields) so that they can collect fieldnotes that can be coded afterwards is just that: some kind of large scale observation enterprise. But not at all ethnography

    2. Group ethnographies and shared notes: because ethnography is a deep engagement, fieldnotes are not reports, but quite personal documents. All kinds of reflexivity, the constant struggle of – to cite Geertz – to find out “what the hell is going on” as well as the fear of getting it wrong force ethnographers to not only write about what they see, but about what they think and feel. Sharing that with someone – even your project partner – requires purposeful rewriting and presentation. Not that I am against group or team ethnography, it is a great idea. But it is not the same as producing inter-coder reliability

    3. Stop making things anonymous: puh, well, wonder what your ethics review would say to that. No seriously. I have friends going to zones of war and crisis and living with families of fighters and rebels. Revealing their identity puts them in danger and I would not want to do that just for the slight chance that someone else would like to visit them again and “see for herself”. Even if you stay “at home” and visit labs, parliaments or churches: the NDA´s you have to sign to enter these places require you to write anonymously. Otherwise you – or your university, your budget and your credibility – are in danger. Once sued for revealing things covered in an NDA, your career as an ethnographer is over: you will never be able to enter a field again.


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