Ethnography: Between Theory & Social Reality

Between Theory and Social Reality (OnlineFirst 2015), edited by Andrea Voyer and Mats Trondman is a special issue of Ethnography that includes a symposium on Isaac Reed’s book, Interpretation and Social Knowledge. The symposium consists of several shorter articles in which ethnographers employed their ethnographic material to comment on a topic that arose in their reading of Reed’s book.

1. Andrea Voyer and Mats Trondman, “Between theory and social reality: Ethnography and Interpretation and Social Knowledge: Introduction to the special issue.”

Difficulties distinguishing the ethnographic object and the ethnographer’s analysis can pose a challenge to the conduct and dissemination of ethnographic work. The close distance between ethnographic observation and the ethnographer’s interpretation elides the boundary between considerations of theory and method. In his book, Interpretation and Social Knowledge, Reed describes interpretivism as an epistemological approach aimed at harnessing the potential of social explanations developed in ethnography’s interstitial position – the space between theory and social reality. This issue of Ethnography provides a forum for ethnographers coming from different theoretical positions and working in different empirical areas to reflect upon on the value and limitations of interpretivism in ethnography.

Mats Trondman, “Taking normative sense seriously: Ethnography in the light of a utopian referent.”

The paper starts by stating a possible meaning of ethnography within cultural sociology. Then follows an investigation of the ‘normative sense’ in human life that ethnographers not only tend to investigate but also inhabit themselves. The main purpose is to argue that this normative sense needs not necessarily to be shunned, but can be justified as an urgent, conscious, and explicit constituent that enacts theoretically inspired and meaningfully illuminating ethnographic endeavors. This is done by a positive construction and an immanent critique of cultural sociologist Isaac Reed’s work on interpretation and social knowledge, i.e. different forms of epistemic modes, which in this paper is labeled the theoretical, the empirical and the utopian referent, or the pragmatics of grounded re-signification. The paper ends by trying to state the interlaced relationship, or subscription, between these theoretical, empirical and utopian re-significations and the possibility of a thrice-blessed social criticism. Thus, this is what it could mean to take the normative sense seriously.

Claudio E. Benzecry, “What did we say they’ve said? Four encounters between theory, method and the production of data.”

Following Reed (2010, 2011), we can think of ethnography as the encounter between two sets of meanings: those of the ethnographer on those of the subjects whose lives are being studied. If we are able to recognize the contested, unfinished, reflexive and complex character of how people think about themselves, we should be able to imagine ourselves in the same terms and go into the field armed with a theoretical helmet with interchangeable lenses, imagining which theoretical concepts would best fit the case. In this paper, I develop how this approach finds a fruitful analogue in psychoanalysis as a practical endeavor that produces a particular kind of truth; what we can learn from that equivalency; how this epistemological approach works in parallel to Reed’s plea for theoretical pluralism; and what are then the consequences of this book for practitioners of cultural ethnography.

Paul Lichterman, “Interpretive reflexivity in ethnography”

Many would argue that ethnographic knowledge claims are partial. Many say this predicament demands the researcher’s self-reflexivity about ethnographic claims. Commonly, ethnographers perform reflexivity by discussing how their research may reflect interests or biases that accompany their positions in hierarchies of domination. Positional reflexivity uneasily straddles a realism that claims to know which position(s) affected the research, and a normativism that aims to demystify what we claim to know. Both stances suppress the interpretive work that researchers and researched constantly are doing. In a more interpretive practice of reflexivity, ethnographers explore how they figured out other people’s meanings in the field, instead of focusing on correlations between their claims and their social position. Interpretive reflexivity considers social positions within ongoing circuits of communication between researcher and researched. Since interpretations are part of explanation in much ethnography, interpretive reflexivity widens our ability to assess causal as well as interpretive claims.

Frederick F. Wherry, “Fragments from an ethnographer’s field guide: Skepticism, minimalism, and big theory.”

This article challenges Isaac Reed’s discussion of interpretation in the social sciences by honing in on the unique properties of ethnographic research and the relationship between ethnography and theory. What are the practicalities of using theory to structure ethnographic engagement and of developing maximal theoretical explanations from participant observation? This article first advocates establishing skepticism by searching out evidence to counteract our claims and identifying how our conclusions could have turned out otherwise. Second, ethnographers should specify thick minimal matches between what our concepts are and how they manifest themselves in thick description (often in a reformulated forms) in our field sites; and third, thick minimal matches can be made to facilitate big theory by re-signifying the evidence within a body of existing significations and within a community of scholars.

Evren Savci, “Language and Social Knowledge.”

In this piece, I argue that a heightened attention to language in Reed’s (2011) interpretive epistemic mode will help further theorizing of the relationship between meaning and the social, and hence strengthen the case for interpretation. Reed’s (2011) framework of ‘landscapes of meaning’ would benefit from weaving in the significance of language to meaning-making: both because it would make room for variations in landscapes across (linguistic) space, but also because it would incorporate an understanding of language, and therefore interpretation, as a practical and historically changing activity. Finally, I suggest that paying attention to the uneven travel of language issues a productive challenge to the analytical distinction Reed maintains between the normative and the interpretive epistemic modes, given that not every epistemic mode is seen as equally legitimate in relation to dominant forms of making sense of the world, and given that subjects do not have equal access to interpretive landscapes.

Claire Laurier Decoteau, “Learning to see otherwise.”

This article reports on data from two research projects with people whose own illness narratives and etiologies challenge the western biomedical ontology of the body. This paper argues that Reed’s ‘landscapes of meaning’ allow researchers to make sense of the invisible, causal mechanisms operating in these particular epistemic communities. If ontology is an issue of perspective, then part of the ethnographer’s task is to ‘learn to see otherwise’ by situating themselves in people’s systems of signification and thereby grasping and analyzing the causal forces at work. And yet exploring data from these cases also allows for intervention into Reed’s account of causality which lends causal primacy to symbolic systems over structural and agential ones.

Anna Lund, “From pregnancy out of place to pregnancy in place: Across, within and between landscapes of meaning.”

Through his metaphor of landscapes of meaning, Reed provides a way of looking at meaning in terms of how it explains action, with the assumption that action occurs within landscapes of meaning. However, my ethnographic evidence suggests that Reed’s metaphor needs to enlarge its scope. In doing this I use my research on immigrant girls in Sweden. The aim is to demonstrate that people can and do live across, within and between landscapes of meaning. This interstitiality can both produce extreme hardship and possibilities of freedom and agency. I share the story of one person, Nazira, who is negotiating with different social and cultural worlds. This allows her to criticize different cultural contexts and to work towards emergent cultural forms. I conclude by arguing that my ethnographical accounts could be used in support and as a critique of the theoretical understanding of landscapes of meaning within Reed’s interpretivist sociology.

Shamus Khan, “Beyond Action.”

Isaac Reed, like the great early work of Talcott Parsons, is focused on social action and continental theorization and largely blind to the broader American interactionist tradition. Absent are Blumer, Dewey, Mead, James (though Peirce appears fleetingly), or the more phenomenological tradition of Schutz or Garfinkel. Absent too is the relational theorizing of gender and race scholars. Given all that is in Reed, it is absurd to suggest that there isn’t enough. The point of this paper is different. It is simply that there are alternate important traditions that ethnographic work draws upon that might aid in pushing Reed’s arguments in different directions. I hope to show how an interactionalist perspective proves fruitful in moving us beyond some of the basic challenges of the classical tradition.

Andrea Voyer, “Meanings, motives and action.”

Reed’s Interpretation and Social Knowledge is a valuable resource for ethnographers whose work is characterized by explicit engagement with the sense-making environments that produce social reality. In this essay, I highlight interpretivism’s strengths as a ‘theory of method’, and then discuss its limitations. Namely, I take issue with the central roles that the social actor and motivated action play in Interpretation and Social Knowledge. I draw on my ethnographic work to demonstrate an approach to explanation that, although interpretivist, does not adhere to Reed’s assertion that uncovering subjective motivations is always necessary in interpretive work. When the ongoing everyday-ness of social life is the focus of research, action may be better understood not as doing but instead as being in context. Therefore, Ethnography’s working epistemics must allow for the decentering of the subjective and, by extension, the individual, motivated subject.

Isaac Ariail Reed. “Ethnography, theory, and sociology as a human science: An interlocution.”

Ethnography has compelled sociology to recognize and articulate the implications of the fact that it is a human science. This response to readers of Interpretation and Social Knowledge is presented as an exercise in ‘working epistemics’: a reflection on knowledge production that connects the philosophy of social science to extant problems in specific subfields and methodological approaches in sociology, themselves connected to the work of making empirically driven truth claims in sociology. In so doing, it addresses the investigator’s reflexivity about his or her knowledge production, causality and contrastive explanation, social power and the theory of fields, and finally the relationship between hermeneutic sociology and the sociological lexicon bequeathed by a ‘theory of action’.

One Response to Ethnography: Between Theory & Social Reality

  1. Pingback: Between Theory and Social Reality | Vermont 2 China

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