Search the Lounge


« LSAC and Predicting Applicants for 2016-17, Part 13 | Main | Henderson on Incarceration of Slaves »

March 09, 2016


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Kurtz: Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?
Willard: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
Kurtz: It's no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.


"This level of attention to the record will be familiar to lawyers, but I have not seen it before in any ethnography."

How familiar are you exactly with ethnography, Steve? I've pointed this out before but you are critiquing the entirety of a 100+ year methodology based on what seems to be a very small sample size. Even if you assume Goffman was a bad actor, and her advisors/editors/defenders are too, that is still an almost imperceptible percentage of ethnographers and sociologists.


If one looks at the long history of ethnographies going back to Durkheim's "Suicide" or Malinowski's work on the South Sea Islanders we have a variety of data collection methods ranging from statistical to oral interviews etc. Some classic ethnographic studies have been found empirically lacking by later research. The standard ethnographic of Africa done under the aegis of the British government would ask interview subjects whether their societies were matrilineal or patrilineal and checked off the box only to be found wrong through more rigorous examination (such as actually documenting inheritance patterns). Ethnographic studies that are viewed as brilliant at the time and later found to be 'wrong' are often held up as significant in the history of a discipline despite their accuracy. People who study non-western societies are quite used to watching important ethnographies lose their standing as sources for analyzing a particular society. In today's world with the research techniques available to us, the widespread accessibility to documents, archives, etc etc it behooves the ethnographer to make an effort either to check for accuracy of stories told by informants or document them as perceptions rather than facts. Had Goffman done that and made that gap a part of her story then this would be a different story. The issue is not the percentage of ethnographies that stand up to Mitch Duneir's standard (being cross examined by a lawyer) as "twbb" asks but what is the verification process for this research practice moving forward. Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa" turns out to be more of a period piece than a valuable analysis of Samoa; no need to repeat that mistake.


Jeff, that's exactly what I'm saying; to assume that standard practice in ethnography is to take informants at their word just seems to betray a really deep-seated lack of knowledge about the methodology and its history. The suggestion that modern ethnographic practice is to just credulously go into communities and take what informants tell you as fact, or that this ethnographer was doing something just completely unheard of, just bears little resemblance to the field as I know it.

Steve L.

As a rule, I do not respond to anonymous comments, but twbb has raised a fair point (although I think it is based on a misunderstanding):

I have not said that "modern ethnographic practice is to just credulously go into communities and take what informants tell you as fact." That critique is specific to Prof. Goffman's work, as she herself has described it an interview with Jesse Singal. I do think that the ethnography establishment has been far too accepting of Goffman's loose approach, but I have read many other ethnographies that are more exacting.

Desmond's work, as I noted in the OP, takes it to another level. His sourcing is indeed more rigorous than I have seen in any other ethnography. His notes could easily comprise another book.

In other words, Desmond has set a new standard for fact checking, and I hope it becomes a model for the works that follow.


Fair enough, Steven, I don't mean to pile on you, but I do think that the statements you made pretty explicitly place your evaluation well beyond Goffman, most notably:
1. "Desmond sets a new standard for verification in ethnography" and
2. "This level of attention to the record will be familiar to lawyers, but I have not seen it before in any ethnography."

The steps Desmond takes, while laudable, just don't seem novel to me. Anthropologists have been using primary and secondary sources to validate and supplement ethnographic work for decades. See, for example, the work of E.E. Evans-Pritchard, who was doing so back in the 1940's, and who was one of the field's most influential practitioners. I would suspect that Desmond himself would not claim that he is introducing some hitherto unseen level of rigor to the field, though maybe you can reach out to him and ask him.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • StatCounter
Blog powered by Typepad