“So what are the rules of ethnography, and who enforces them?”

A journalist looking into the Goffman affair discusses the ethics of ethnography:

To find out, I called several sociologists and anthropologists who had either done ethnographic research of their own or had thought about the methodology from an outside perspective. Ethnography, they explained, is a way of doing research on groups of people that typically involves an extended immersion in their world. If you’re an ethnographer, they said, standard operating procedure requires you to take whatever steps you need to in order to conceal the identities of everyone in your sample population. Unless you formally agree to fulfill this obligation, I was told, your research proposal will likely be blocked by the institutional review board at your university…

The frustration is not merely a matter of academics resenting oversight out of principle. Many researchers think the uncompromising demand for total privacy has a detrimental effect on the quality of scholarship that comes out of the social sciences—in part because anonymization makes it impossible to fact-check the work…

According to Goffman, her book is no less true than Leovy’s or LeBlanc’s. That’s because, as she sees it, what sociologists set out to capture in their research isn’t truths about specific individuals but general truths that tell us how the world works. In her view, On the Run is a true account because the general picture it paints of what it’s like to live in a poor, overpoliced community in America is accurate.

“Sociology is trying to document and make sense of the major changes afoot in society—that’s long been the goal,” Goffman told me. Her job, she said, as a sociologist who is interested in the conditions of life in poor black urban America, is to identify “things that recur”—to observe systemic realities that are replicated in similar neighborhoods all over the country. “If something only happens once, [sociologists are] less interested in it than if it repeats,” she wrote to me in an email. “Or we’re interested in that one time thing because of what it reveals about what usually happens.” This philosophy goes back to the so-called Chicago school of sociology, Goffman added, which represented an attempt by observers of human behavior to make their work into a science “by finding general patterns in social life, principles that hold across many cases or across time.”…

Goffman herself is the first to admit that she wasn’t treating her “study subjects” as a mere sample population—she was getting to know them as human beings and rendering the conditions of their lives from up close. Her book makes for great reading precisely because it is concerned with specifics—it is vivid, tense, and evocative. At times, it reads less like an academic study of an urban environment and more like a memoir, a personal account of six years living under extraordinary circumstances. Memoirists often take certain liberties in reconstructing their lives, relying on memory more than field notes and privileging compelling narrative over strict adherence to the facts. Indeed, in a memoir I’m publishing next month, there are several moments I chose to present out of order in order to achieve a less convoluted timeline, a fact I flag for the reader in a disclaimer at the front of the book.

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement within the discipline of sociology as well as across disciplines about how ethnography could and should work. It is a research method that requires so much time and personal effort that it can be easy to tie to a particular researcher and their laudable steps or mistakes. This might miss the forest for the trees; I’ve thought for a while that we need more discussion across ethnographies rather than seeing them as either the singular work on the subject. In other words, does Goffman’s data line up with what others have found in studying race, poor neighborhoods, and the criminal justice system? And if there are not comparisons to make with Goffman’s work, why aren’t more researchers wrestling with the same topic?

Additionally, this particular discussion highlights longstanding tensions in sociology: qualitative vs. quantitative data (with one often assumed to be more “fact”); “facts” versus “interpretation”; writing academic texts versus books for more general audiences; emphasizing individual stories (which often appeals to the public) versus the big picture; dealing with outside regulations such as IRBs that may or may not be accustomed to dealing with ethnographic methods in sociology; and how to best do research to help disadvantaged communities. Some might see these tensions as more evidence that sociology (and other social sciences) simply can’t tell us much of anything. I would suggest the opposite: the realities of the social world are so complex that these tensions are necessary in gathering and interpreting comprehensive data.

3 thoughts on ““So what are the rules of ethnography, and who enforces them?”

  1. Pingback: “Sociology is alien to literature” | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Good data is foundational to doing good sociological work | Legally Sociable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s