Ethnography: Some fresh methodological insights from the ASA

Any ethnographer would want to go to the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting just for its fieldwork potential. Sam’s blogpost already highlighted some quirky practices, such as the different afternoon and evening dress-codes and the substitution of eye- for badge-contact as a way to initiate conversation. To this I would add the game of seeing and being seen in the Hilton Lounge, when people wear or do not wear their badge – time of the day, distance from the Hilton, institutional pride? – and the remarkable practice of stargazing at many panels. 


While I am sure that some fascinating studies on ASA’s interactional dynamics can be done, there was more for ethnographers to get excited about. In this blogpost I summarize two methodological discussions that I picked up at the ASA.

(1) Theory-data connection
What is the role of theory in ethnography?

During the closing panel at the Junior Theorist Symposium on Friday, Stefan Bargheer provocatively argued that perhaps we should stop reading theory and instead try to get as broadly inspired as possible, reading anything from neuroscience to People’s Magazine. 

He dismissed synthesizing theoretical accounts (theory based on theory) and argued that these often simply reproduced received biases of previous research. Instead he preferred what he called theory by use: monographs that may at first be critiqued as a-theoretical, but that become classics as people apply its insights in often surprising new sites or using different methods. 

Stefan gave Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) as an example. He held that this book was initially received as ethnologically interesting, but mostly a-theoretical. While I do not fully agree with this characterization of Goffman’s early reception (see book reviews by Stone 1957 and Naegele 1956), it is true that Goffman dared to radically depart from the received theoretical wisdoms of the time. In another review the anthropologist Lloyd Fallers, who studied stratification patterns in African societies, for instance argued that:

“[T]he usefulness of the dramaturgical image would, in our view, be greatly enhanced by a more systematic effort to relate it to the concepts which we commonly use in the more macroscopic analysis of society and culture.” (Fallers 1962: 191)

I am very glad that Goffman did not decide to become a structural-functionalist, and based himself on his own data, gut and creativity instead.

(2) The ‘dual’ positionality of the ethnographer
How does the position of the ethnographer, in both her field site and in the academic field, influence knowledge production?

I also enjoyed the discussion on the dual positionality of the ethnographer. Many readers are perhaps familiar with the idea of positionality, which means that any fieldworker should reflect on how her personal characteristics, such as gender, race, class and life experience, influence her relations to subjects and what she glances from her fieldwork.

However, in his discussion in a Monday afternoon panel, Andrew Deener emphasized how ethnographers are always stranding two fields: the world under study and the world of academia. Hence, considering the position-taking of the ethnographer in these two social worlds, we could speak about ethnographers’ dual positionality

How are the claims that ethnographers make in their work shaped by their current or anticipated position in the scientific field? How do the gender, race, nationality etc. of the ethnographer impact the production and (anticipated) reception of ethnographic fieldwork?

This discussion was prompted by a paper – see abstract here –  on the phenomenon of rogue ethnographers: mostly male ethnographers who study violent subcultures from up close and who may professionally benefit from the masculine ‘heroic’ status that is associated with these practices. Loic Wacquant’s boxing career and Sudhir Venkatesh “Gang Leader for a Day” especially spring to mind. The status associated with these practices in their field sites, may actually translate to a somewhat heroic ‘rogue sociologist’ status in the academic field. 


The authors Hoang, Long and Ankoor contrasted these rogue sociologists of masculine subcultures against the example of mostly female ethnographers of sex workers. They argued that these female ethnographers often personally felt the need to distance themselves from sex work – and put a limit on participant-observation – to prevent to be seen as sexualized objects in the academic field, and be taken less seriously. 

I thought this idea of the translatability of status (or perhaps in other cases: the need to balance competing status claims)  and the consequential call to take into account our dual positionality was very interesting – and one that goes back full circle to the interactional dynamics of the ASA’s annual meeting. The academic field is not insular to the status competitions and cultural valuations we like to study in other places: as we always strand ‘two worlds’ as ethnographers, we should reflect on how our position in the academic field influences our choices in the field, the writing up of fieldwork and the reception of our work. 



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