quality work, quality research

hjmartin (hatch@RICHMOND.INFI.NET)
Mon, 12 Feb 1996 15:35:18 -0500

John McCreery and Mike Cahill responded to my message with very interesting
replies. Thanks.

I'll stick by my opinion about the value of long-term field research and the
unique ability of academic anthropologists to perform it. I offer a few
more thoughts here.

First. I think that there is a more-or-less direct relationship between the
quality of results (new essays, new ideas and so on) and the amount of time
and effort one can put into a project. I also think that skills in
thinking, arguing, analyzing and presenting are both cumulative and require
maintenance (but not cumulative in a crude, numerical way). Weber, Morgan
and Whorf are outstanding examples of people who contributed greatly during
the founding phase of our discipline. But, the field has advanced. The
standards of proof have risen. I will not condemn people who never leave
the armchair, but my belief is that as a research-based discipline fieldwork
is the foundation of inquiry and the crucible of insight. This is not to
say that WMW above or any other founder did not/could not/would not leave
the armchair, but once it became apparent that, like natural history,
anthropology is an observational discipline, the die was cast. I like it
this way, but that is my preference and I do not intend to be strident about it.

Quality 1. The point I had hoped to make about research quality in the
original post was that quality results require quality effort. How do we
measure quality? One criterion is by intimate knowledge of the environment
('you had to be there'). For example, I ask myself when reading a paper or
book about China or Taiwan if an author has done research in the society
that is the object of description. I also ask if comparative data from
other societies seems to be well- or ill-employed. I ask other questions,
but the point is simple enough: We all have ideas about what is 'quality'
work and what is not. Some of the ideas are idiosyncratic and some are
probably widespread. Idiosyncratically, actual research experience counts a
lot with me.

Quality 2. A further thought on quality. Few people I knew/know as teachers
and students can think and write well enough to be engaging theorists and
good ethnographers. (Those who read dust jackets at AAA meetings will
recognize this as a veiled criticism of post modern expository writing. It
is equally true of the excesses functionalists went to in describing African
societies in the 50s and the truly awful conventions that arose in 70s
marxist anthropology.) The place of theory as it guides description and of
description as it in turn molds theory can be argued until the cows come
home. (As an aside, I, for one, do not relish another round of
disciplinary self-flagellation like the one we witnessed in the 80s and
90s.) Since I think that anthropology is a research-driven discipline and
that research done well is done intensively, full time, it follows that I
would think that the quality of part-time research would suffer? Is this
not so? Some do agree with me. Others don't. I'd like to hear from those
who don't.

Last. Caveats and snippets.

John wrote:
"I think, too, of a Tokyo acquaintance, who managed to write a Ph.D. in
Analytic Philosophy.....while managing the research division of a major
British stock broker."

I say:
This is extraordinary and a clear testament to the virtue of desire.

John wrote:
"Finding the time for serious ethnography, outside the home,
worksite or neighborhood, is a bear. But reading, sifting, thinking and
helping to weave the webs of significance that tie a field together are
not beyond the bounds of possibility."

I say:
This is true. To paraphrase John, "Here is where the Net is truly something
wonderful. // The days when being outside the ivory tower meant not being
able to hear the debates are over. Ain't it grand?"

To which I add: Yes, if we are adults with something reasoned and reasonable
to say, even in our humor, and make the effort to say it. Y'all get mah
drift? Hope I don't get the last word.


901 Pump Rd, 193
Richmond, VA 23233
(804) 740-0170 home
(804) 786-5188 work