An Interpretive Ethnography of Interpretive Ethnography

While reading Lisa Wedeen‘s “Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science” I was struck by this description of ethnography due to my grad school friend Tim Pachirat*:

Ethnography as a method is particularly unruly, particularly undisciplined, particularly celebratory of improvisation, bricolage, and serendipity, and particularly attuned to the possibilities of surprise, inversion, and subversion in ways that other methods simply are not. If we think of the range of research methods in political science as a big family, ethnography is clearly the youngest, somewhat spoiled, attention-seeking child, always poking fun at and annoying her more disciplined, goal-oriented, and outwardly-successful older siblings. Ethnography is the method who [sic] comes home to family reunions with the new mermaid tattoo, with the purple hair, with yet another belly button ring, and with a moody, melancholic artist for a girlfriend. At the dinner table, she is the method who interrupts her older brother’s endless description of his stock portfolio with tales of the last full moon party on Phi Phi Island in Thailand. Given that kind of unruliness, it’s no wonder that the older siblings and father figures of our discipline often revert to the language of “disciplining” and “harnessing” ethnography, of bringing her wild and unruly impulses under control by making her abide by the rules of the dinner table. In short, ethnography may be fun and exciting, but she might also get you excommunicated from the family.

It is an exciting characterization! Perhaps coming from my background in Asian studies, however, is strikes me as strange. In the community of anthropologists, qualitative sociologists, “Indologists,” critical political economists, and others who together constitute the undisciplined world of “Southeast Asian political studies,” nothing could be more established or conventional than ethnography or interpretivism.

This raises interesting questions when read next to the rest of Wedeen’s essay about ethnography, specifically her invocation of “work” in the Foucauldian sense:

Ethnographers beholden to Foucault do this by analyzing the “work” discourses do—their underlying assumptions, omissions, implications, and effects, as well as their historical conditions of possibility.

What I find interesting is the “work” that the self-understanding of ethnography as an unruly outsider method does, both in the context of the broader discipline of political science and to those scholars who produce texts and train students. I am quite certain that an interpretive, ethnographic approach would be the right one here. What is being conveyed—to whom, for whom—with the bit about “purple hair”? What models of the social world are implicit when we suppose that an academic discipline is like a family? What are the “conditions of possibility”** for ethnographic methods to be understood as “young”? In the true Foucauldian sense, how does this discourse of unruly outsiderness challenge, reconfigure, or even construct relations of power; and between whom?

I mean this completely seriously. The importance of actually understanding how different scholars create meaning is a theme that Andrew Little and I took up in our discussion of critiques of formal models of comparative politics. As an illustrative exercise about the work that discourse can do, I tried to recreate Pachirat’s unruly outsider paragraph from the lens of a different group who consider themselves something of an unruly, insurgent outsider group*** who read voraciously from across multiple disciplines and borrow promiscuously from them:

Causal inference is particularly unruly, particularly undisciplined, particularly celebratory of critique of established scholars and their findings, and particularly attuned to the possibilities of surprise and subversion in ways that other methods simply are not. If we think of the range of research methods in political science as a big family, causal inference is clearly the youngest, somewhat spoiled, attention-seeking child, always poking fun at and annoying her more disciplined, established, and outwardly-successful older siblings. Causal inference comes home to family reunions with a copy of Cryptonomicon under one arm and a TV on the Radio LP under the other, and snickers at her father’s admonition to “use probit or else!” At the dinner table, she interrupts her older brother’s endless description of his last full moon party on Phi Phi Island in Thailand by interjecting “how utterly conventional” and leaving it at that. Given that kind of unruliness, it’s no wonder that the older siblings and father figures of our discipline often revert to the language of “disciplining” and “harnessing” causal inference, of bringing her wild and unruly impulses under control by making her abide by the rules of the dinner table. In short, causal inference may be fun and exciting, but she might also get you excommunicated from the family.

I will note that this wasn’t particularly hard to do. I wonder if it rings true.

I’ll conclude by clarifying what I fear might not be clear from above: If you are reading this as anti-interpretivist snark, you have missed my point. I take it as incontrovertible that interpretivist methods and ethnography have value and place in political science. I am suggesting that we use these methods to understand ourselves better.

NOTE

* Tim’s Every Twelve Seconds is the closest thing to a new classic of anything written by anyone near to my grad school cohort. At least, that’s what I think.
** I have never been able to pin down this term satisfactorily. It is not good that I can still use it in a sentence.
*** For example, “the credibility revolution” and “randomista.”

Posted in Research, Teaching
One comment on “An Interpretive Ethnography of Interpretive Ethnography
  1. Jamila says:

    I hadn’t read Weeden’s piece but I will now. Excellent, thought-provoking post Tom. Thanks.

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