Ethnography: theory and reflexive ethnography Researching Society and Culture
Today’s lecture • Outline key ethical issues in (qualitative) research involving human beings • Question the viability of ethnographic ‘naturalism’ • Examine the reflexive turn in ethnography • Consider ethnographic reflexivity in terms of realist and anti-realist positions • Provide an assessment
Key Texts • Bryman, A. (2004), Social Research Methods, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 288-289, • Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (2007), Ethnography: Principles and Practice, London: Routledge. Chapter 1. • May, T. (1999), ‘Reflexivity and Sociological Practice’, Sociological Research Online, 4 (3). • Pink, S. (2007), Doing Visual Ethnographyl London: Sage. Chapter 1. • Skeggs, B. (1997), Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable, London: Sage. Chapter 2. • Sayer, A. (2000), Realism and Social Science, London: Sage. Chapter 2. ‘Realism for Sceptics’ • Willis, P. (1997), ‘Theoretical confessions and Reflexive Method’, Gelder, J. and Thornton, S. (eds.), The Subcultures Reader, London: Routledge
Ethics and the Research Process ‘Ethics is a matter of principled sensitivity to the rights of others. Being ethical limits the choices we can make in the pursuit of the truth’ (Bulmer 2008) • Social research involves research with human beings • The values and principles that guide research conduct: • How should be treat people on/with whom we conduct research? • What is (in)appropriate to engage in when research involves human subjects? • No easy or simple answers, perhaps no universals or rule-based approaches • A need to reflect on the specifics of each situation and make considered judgements
Ethics in Social Research • Ethical conduct in research is increasingly subject to regulation and scrutiny • Ethics review boards/ethics committees: e.g. UofW Ethical Scrutiny process: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/rss/researchgovernance_ethics/research_code_of_practice/researchethicscommittees • BSA statement of ethical practice: http://www.britsoc.co.uk/media/27107/StatementofEthicalPractice.pdf • Ethics is not an irritating hurdle. It is integral to the conduct of high quality research
Promoting Ethical Research: Key Issues • Harm to respondents: rule = do no harm! • Research can have consequences: e.g. anxiety, stress, trauma • Expose respondents to harm: ensure confidentiality and anonymity: e.g. pseudonyms (what about pix?) • Data collection and storage • Informed consent • Informing participants so as to allow choice to participate • Is informed consent ever possible (e.g. do we know what research will lead to?) • Written/verbal consent • Covert and overt research • Is covert research ever justifiable?
Promoting Ethical Research: Key Issues • Respecting privacy • Justifying the intruding on someone’s privacy • Negotiating consent: necessarily contingent or partial • Consent to the public/private sphere • To what extent can visual methods involve unacceptable invasions of privacy? • We hold and store personal data • Deception • Generally, it is never acceptable to deceive (e.g. access, what data will be used for) • How do researchers present themselves? • Can researchers ever be truly faithful? • Is some measure of deception commonplace in social research? • Can covert research ever be justified?
Ethnographic ‘Naturalism’ • Our assumption so far has been that ethnographic ‘naturalism’ is possible. Is this the case? • Ethnographic ‘naturalism’ rejects positivism for interpretivist traditions i.e. the ‘objective’ world as socially constructed • As outsiders (i.e. researchers or participant observers ) we can learn the cultures of ‘others’ so as to understand their lives from ‘within’ • We can thus comprehend the lives of others in its ‘natural’ state. • Serious questions have been raised leading to anti-realist and political critiques of naturalism (Hammersley and Atkinson 2006) • The claim is that naturalism and positivism have a shared ontology (Willis’ ‘secret compact’) • Both assume that the social world constitutes an external reality and social life exists independently of the researcher [while] ‘“qualitative” methodologies seek to make a decisive break from “quantitative” ones, the way they are usually applied makes in fact a secret compact with positivism to preserve the subject finally as an object’ (Paul Willis, ‘Theoretical confessions and reflexive method’, (1976), reproduced in Gelder and Thornton (eds), 1997 p.247)
Why is this a problem? • Interpretivist ethnography argues that humans construct their social worlds • These human constructions are responsible for producing distinct/different social ‘worlds’ – e.g. social organisations, cultures, sub-cultures etc. • But ethnographers/researchers also construct and interpret the world – they write ethnographies • There is thus a tension/conflict within naturalistic realism between a concern with the meanings/understandings (held by human beings) and the creation of meanings/understandings (by other human beings) about these (Giddens’ ‘double hermeneutic’) • So, the claim that naturalistic ethnography represents ‘real’ external worlds is not so straightforward i.e. research cannot simply ‘mirror’ the real world but must produce accounts/representations of that world • Ethnographies are, in fact, social constructions! They are part of the world as it is socially constructed, since they are constructed accounts of that world • A telling critique – naturalistic ethnography as foundational knowledge (i.e. ethnography ‘mirrors’ reality) is untenable
Where does this leave ethnography/ ethnographers? • Ethnography has to contend with the double hermeneutic (Giddens) – researchers give meaning to their subject’s meanings and these, in turn, can feedback into their subject’s meanings (e.g. ‘moral panic’) • To ‘solve’ this problem ethnography has become ‘reflexive’ in conceptualisationand practice • There are, however, disagreements about what this reflexivity should involve and the implications of adopting a reflexive position ‘Mods and Rockers’ Moral Panic – Stan Cohen
Reflexive Ethnography • What is reflexivity? • Human understanding of how one stands in relation to the world and how this world relates to one • For ethnography this means giving central importance to the subjectivity of both the objects of research (i.e. human participants) and the researcher his/herself • Ethnography must recognise this subjective dimension and develop a ‘reflexive methodology’ which acknowledges research as a social relationship between researcher and his/her subjects • Researchers must also understand that their own orientation to the social world is contextually produced (i.e. their assumptions, ideologies, values, subject position) • Influence of feminist thinking on ‘reflexivity’ – not to eradicate value judgements but to understand their place/role within research process
The Reflexive Turn • Reflexive research practice entails: “an understanding of the social conditions of social scientific knowledge production and its relation to knowledge reception and context and thus its capacity for action.” (May 2001: 183) • What are the consequences of this for ethnography? • Reflexivity as the means to produce a better/more adequate understanding of social reality? (To defend a non naturalistic realism) • Reflexivity as requiring the abandonment of the commitment to ethnographic realism? (To abandon realism)
Reflexive Ethnography - Realism • To defend the claim that ethnography can comprehend a ‘real’ world that exists independently of our capacity to represent it, researchers must: • Recognise that one cannot observe or describe the world in theoretically/conceptually neutral ways • Acknowledge that ones orientations are shaped by ones social origins and social positioning • Make concepts (assumptions) held and subject positions clear (positionality – Skeggs 1997) • Make overt political assumptions/implications clear • Recognise that research involves power relations (in the field and the ability to represent the lives of others) • So, researchers mustmakeexplicit their position within the research process; and critique their own ways of thinking/researching the world, or at least open these up to the scrutiny of others • We can thus accommodate or transcend researcher subjectivity • The goal is to produce reflexive ethnographies able to produce better (i.e. more useful) accounts of social life: ‘to examine our pre-theoretical knowledge in the spirit of producing more adequate accounts of the social world’ (May 1999;; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007)
Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism • Reflexivity as anti-realist ethnography • Post-structuralist and post-modernist theoretical influences deny the‘authenticity’ of ethnographic description • Instead, ethnography is itself socially constructed. Ethnography is: • A representation that inevitably reflect the viewpoint/perspective of the author/creator • Always partial and contextually specific narratives (i.e. we cannot generalise from them) • Jointly constructed accounts and agreed ways of representing the world (Pink 2007) • Ethnography is one among many ways of creating narratives about the world; or representing the experiences of those whose lives we are interested in; • Ethnography is not a search for the truth, since this is not possible and thus not desirable • Ethnography creates ‘fictions’ (Geertz), stories about how people live from a particular point of view and with a particular purpose.
Some Practical Consequences • These are points of theory and debate – for knowledge (epistemology) and for how things exist (onotology) • But they also have crucial practical consequences for ethnographic fieldwork, including: • The extent to which we can ever know the reality of other people’s lives • Whether or not ethnography can provide authentic accounts of the lives of others • Our ability to research/know the lives of categorical ‘others’ • For instance, can men do feminist research, can adults research children, can blacks r3esearch whites? (Power inequalities, exploitation, whether or not we need a shared identity) • The ethnographer/academic as vanguard (e.g. ‘we’ know how people feel or what is in their best interests) or providing a god’s eye view (i.e. ‘we’ can raise ourselves to a position of all-seeing and all-knowing • Ethnographic data is constructed and not ‘out there’ to be collected • Against grounded theory, data collection can never be theoretically neutral – fieldwork inevitably proceeds from certain assumptions • Against grounded theory, data analysis involves constructing categories from the data, rather than discovering categories already existing within the data
Assessment • Naturalistic (naïve/simple) ethnographic realism is unsustainable – it cannot acknowledge its own constructedness • Reflexivity as abandonment of realism • Explicit about values and politics • Reveals power relations and encourages cooperation • does ethnography as ‘fiction’/representation (Pink 2007) lead to relativism? • Inward-looking and self-referential (rather than publicly facing and issue orientated) • Must abandon naïve realism but can retain a ‘subtle realism’ (Hammersley and Atkinson 2007) • To say that we can only know world as it is represented/constructed does not necessitate abandoning realism • A pragmatic realism – work with what we have while recognizing it to be fallible • A critical realism (Sayer 2000): social research can represent the world in more or less ‘practically adequate’ ways • Practical adequacy provides a guide for action