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March 04, 2019


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

I suspect the fact that you are a law professor and have worked as an attorney will, if it has not already, prompt some in the field to be more defensive (hence unreasonable or irrational) and thus less receptive to your critique and suggestions than they otherwise might be. In any case, perhaps some of the problems here arise because of the fact that ethnography has come to define itself as a distinct research field, at the boundaries of both anthropology and sociology (rather than as methods of inquiry and research within those fields), with some of its epistemic and ethical problems or controversies of the sort reminiscent of those earlier found in the former discipline (I confess to wanting to call ethnography ‘urban’ anthropology, although that may not be apt in some instances). I do think it’s possible that narratives (or stories) that are not (factually) true in one way or another, may still reflect or contain truths of a kind, but discovery or interpretation of such truths would require the skills (if not the couch) of a seasoned psychoanalyst! Relatedly, I am curious as to whether or not ethnographers are well-versed in the abundant literature from several fields, including philosophy, on the nature or function and purposes of narratives.

It might help a critique of this sort if it was a collaborative endeavor involving, say, in addition to yourself, a person trained in social epistemology, one or two individuals from the fields of anthropology and sociology, and a psychologist or social psychologist well-versed on the natural human propensity for indulging in states of denial, wishful thinking, and self-deception, or, to put it more bluntly and in the words of the title to William Ian Miller’s brilliant book, our creative but no less troubling capacity for Faking It (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

The discussion of facts I think would benefit from some acknowledgment of what Amartya Sen and the late Hilary Putnam (and before them, John Dewey) understood as “fact/value” entanglement which, to be clear, retains the distinction between facts and values, but recognizes that this should not be construed as a dichotomy or a dualism (exemplified in the history of positivism and positivist social science) and thus serves as a reminder that normative judgments (and ethical principles) are, as the classical pragmatists taught us, intrinsic to (both natural and social) science(s). To the extent that ethnographers are attempting to identify “what matters to people” they need to be sensitive to both the distinction and the entanglement.

The field in which I was originally trained, misleadingly termed Religious Studies, was obsessed with the problem of how researchers might describe the religious worldviews (beliefs, values, practices, rituals, ethics, etc.) of others in ways that did them justice without their own worldviews distorting the resulting representation. This is why or when a methodological approach known as “phenomenological” description became popular, although I think it raised (and still raises) questions of value and ethics that are intrinsic to social science praxis, and thus might be worth examining by way of comparison to some of the issues broached in this “interrogation” (perhaps not the best word, rhetorically speaking) of ethnography.

Steve L.

Thanks, Patrick, for your extremely helpful observations. I fully agree that "it’s possible that narratives (or stories) that are not (factually) true in one way or another, may still reflect or contain truths of a kind." The problem I identify in many ethnographies, however, is that they too seldom distinguish between verifiable claims and the rather different "truths of a kind."

You are right, of course, that my status as a law professor has prompted defensiveness. This always strikes me as odd. We law profs and lawyers are always eager to learn from other fields -- in both humanities and social sciences -- and I do not understand ethnographers' resistance to lessons from law, history, journalism and other fact-seeking disciplines.

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