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July 11, 2018


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

I am unable to access the full review.

What I have read above reminded me of the following quote from Hilary Putnam: “We _have_ practices of interpretation. Those practices may be context-sensitive and interest-relative, but there is, given enough context—given, as Wittgenstein says, the language in place—such a thing as _getting it right_ or _getting it wrong_. There may be some indeterminacy of translation, but it isn’t a case of ‘anything goes.’” Interpretation in ethnography, much like interpretation elsewhere, involves our “imagination, our feelings—in short, our full sensibility,” but this does not preclude the idea that the standards of a disciplinary field like ethnography should mean “anything goes” when it comes to assessing, evaluating, or “making sense” of interpretations, in other words, of assessing their relation to truth. Such interpretive and evaluative standards still involve making reference to the world, to reality and thus to some notion of truth that finds sufficient warrant; one that, in the end, is based on “experience and intelligence” generally and the intellectual skills and methods specific to a disciplinary field and communicable to others with a “rational and sensible nature.”
Such standards entail cognitive and social scientific values and virtues that are both cross- or trans-disciplinary and field specific (often involving presuppositions and assumptions about human welfare and well-being if not human flourishing or fulfillment) and are in some sense both subjective and objective (again, this is a polarity, as John Dewey would have said, not a dichotomy): if only because that, while we may need to distinguish between facts and values, we should not succumb to a fact/value dichotomy, for what counts as a “fact,” what we christen in any case as the relevant facts are, as Putnam well-argued, “value-loaded,” and, conversely, all our values come inextricably tied to facts of one kind or another*). The descriptive and interpretive “facts” of ethnography, like facts in general, involve, in Putnam’s words, “an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe,” and being rational entails “having criteria of _relevance_ as well as criteria of rational acceptability” (our values being implicated in our criteria or standards of relevance). If the picture(s) of the world, so to speak, provided in an ethnographer’s account is (are) supposed to be true (minimally, ‘as true as anything is’), then it (they) at once should (i.e., is obligated to) “_answer[] the relevant questions_” (as far as we are able: keeping in mind John Austin’s words, ‘Enough is enough, enough isn’t everything’). At the same time, it will unavoidably be revelatory with regard to our value commitments (which themselves are open to evaluation and thus change).

Clarity on these matters is important if only because they remind us that our value judgments are not merely subjective, indeed, they are factual claims or rational warrants. Ethnographers may be inclined to emphasize these value judgments by way of interpretive findings, but these should not be seen as subjective, nor should they rule out evaluative assessments from both within and outside ethnography base upon our shared epistemic and ethical values as well as our wider concern with “the truth” (After Michael P. Lynch’s functionalist account, truth is a single property that can be ‘multiply manifested,’ which means, in brief, that truth is necessarily plural or ‘many’ without being wholly relative or relativist. This involves some traditional ‘correspondence’ features or properties but is not reducible to a correspondence theory). A principle of fallibilism is applicable to all of our epistemic inquiries and natural and social scientific enterprises such that the products of our investigations or enquiries or studies are never immune from criticism: social scientific judgments—be they reports of social “facts” or interpretations”—are warranted … or not. Professor Lubet may be mistaken in the specific suggestions he proffers by way of improving the “truth-aptness” or rational warrants of ethnographic case studies (they strike this reader as based on a fairly narrow conception of what counts as ‘science,’ social or not), but I think his motivations for improving the field’s evaluative standards or criteria are impeccable.

* Putnam cleverly and exquisitely illustrates these points in an examination of the sentence, “The cat is on the mat.” See chapter 9, “Values, Facts and Cognition,” in Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981): 201-216.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

There are a number of typos and a couple of grammatical errors in the above comment: I trust the kind and generous (or charitable) reader can see beyond them as I don't have the time right now to correct them.

Steve L.

Sorry about the paywalled link, Patrick. I have updated the post with one that is freely accessible. You can also access here:

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Steve, perhaps I am missing something, but the new links, from my end, are same as the old ones (summer heat caused me to freely associate a Who song along these lines). This is what I get:

Scott Pruitt Edndowed Chair in Enviconmental Justice

What is the point? If you're inclined to bullshit and embellish when writing a NON-FICTION account, then go sell used Saturns and Oldsmobiles or work for the current White House. Don't go selling me a NON-FICTION book at Barnes for Nobel for $32.00 and tell me its your "interpretation of a theoretical narrative." Fancy words for Bull Shit.

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