Re: Bestseller

Wade Tarzia (tarzia@UCONNVM.UCONN.EDU)
Thu, 3 Oct 1996 13:25:10 -0400

>Having endorsed tips of the hat in the novelist's direction, I do think we
>need to consider well how extensively and to what end we use the fiction
>writer's tools. The danger is that in using those tools, we may end up,
>somehow, writing more fiction than anthropology. Given the project that I
>have in mind for myself, this is something I'd need to be very careful of.
> The lives of my informants are dramatic enough as it is. -- Mark Cahill

Hello -- You probably know about Aunger's work, but others might not; an
interesting article somewhat on this issue. The notes below are from my
personal abstract file and will reflect my own errors and interests, as
well as my idiosyncasies in note-taking!

Marginalia: I think Conrad Arensberg (_The Irish Countryman_) said
something about fieldwork being a limited ethnographic description; the
more complete description of life is the territory of the novel. -- wade

Aunger, Robert. (1995). "On Ethnography: Storytelling or Science." Current
Anthropology 36/1: 97-130. Includes commentary from several scholars, and
a reply.

On the short comings of two analytical approaches to ethnography: formal
(stats, influence of abstract effects on events), which cannot provide
adequate causal explanations in particular cases, and interpretive
(narrative approach), which aggregates over events to trace the causal
development of a single case", an approach that cannot be made reflexive
(cannot not account for intersubjectivity of data collection). He attempts
to combine the two in a reflexive analytical approach. (97-98)

Interpretive approach allows reader to understand intuitively a culture in
its totality, whereas scientific approach rather explains, or finds general
processes operating in human society (106).

Textualists say that traditional ethnographic credibility has rested on
mastery of rhetorical devices in reporting, lending an unsubstantiated
credibility to the conclusions. Also, anthropologists can screen
information subconsciously. Their solution has been to present data in the
form that it was elicited so that the reader can interpret, but this offers
problems. Extreme textualists say scientific approach to ethnography is
impossible because of these interpersonal effects of human studies, but
Aunger disagrees (as do some of the commentators).

Similarly, quantitative approaches have problems because of use of abstract
variables: "In essence, general linear reality assumes that individual
cases can be disaggregated into sets of attributes, each of which can be
treated independently. These attribute sets are placed in an abstract,
artificial alignment with one another, move in lockstep through a 'space'
without time or distance, are subjected to similar processes of alteration,
and react to these processes in exactly the same way" (103). Also, GLR
attributes causality to variables rather than agents (admits no interaction
between individuals) and also in not able to deal with multivalent meanings
within a single analytical framework. (103). Scholars using qualitative
approaches say that quantitative research make concepts into variables, and
relationships between tend to be overly simple and thus context and meaning
can be lost.

Also, in social science over-reliance in stats limit theoretical views:
only those issues amenable to quantification become studied.

Aunger says reporting must be reflexive: must include details about how the
data was collected and where it originated, and other details of data
collection context. He states that reflexivity for textualists is
presentation of raw ethnographic material; for him it is an aspect of
analysis (some commentators thought his definition was slightly odd:
traditional definition of reflexivity is often meant by textualists to data
presentation rather than Aunger's variation of an aspect of data analysis).
His method is based on formal collection procedures and statistical
analysis, and includes descriptions of methods and results and reflections
on the results, and includes attention to data elicitation effects.

Thus reflexive analytic methods account for the means by which data were
collected and allow for the fact that data collection can influence what
informants say and do. So, it is necessary to specify the context of data
collection event in the analysis; here, the researcher must report a method
of making inferences from data and a means of assessing the quality of the
data before the inference step. (99). Data collection can be repetitive
(required for quantitative assessment); "As long as the collection protocol
features a variety of relationships between observers and subjects, similar
i.e., replicated) events can be compared." (99). Thus, 3 criteria must be
met for ethnographic work: analytical methods must be reflextive and
formal, and analysis framework must be situationalist (account for
context). (100). In his own fieldwork, he found that situation had an
influence on informant responses.

But the reflexive analytical approach "does not represent a complete
approach to ethnographic research" (111) because general linear reality
attributes action to variables moving through an abstract space rather than
intentional agents moving in the world. Therefore, the comparative event
history approach must also be used.

He discusses the 'comparative event history' approach as being a formal
method that can be interpretive. It determines typology of events,
determines how a sequence of events are structured, and develops a
framework within which different structures can be compared for structural
similarities/causal linkages. (104). It basic objective is "compare
systematically sequences of human social interactions as constrained by
social structures." (104). The "causal relationships between
preconditions and outcomes are more clearly delineated than with general
linear models. Also, its goal is to "infer classes of equivalent causal
structures" (105). But this approach is not reflexive, so it must be
combined with the reflexive analytical approach.

Since the reflexive analytical approach is not causal and the comparative
event history approach is not reflexive, the two methods must be combined
(106). Reflexive analytical approach can precede a case-based narrative
approach; analytical methods can help 'clean' the data and determine
relationships between variables that can be examined by case-history study
(109). The output of the first procedure (formal) is input into the second
procedure (interpretive of causal links). The main drawback is that the
comparative event history approach examines data suggested by the reflexive
analytical results, which is a less-than-perfect-melding, he feels.

His basic conclusion is that ethnography can be scientific and replicable
to a certain degree (113).

Commentators agreed and disagreed with his ideas in various ways; some
samples: definition of reflexivity; eclectic approaches as being
intellectually lazy; context of data collection cannot be fully specified;
science is not restricted to quantitative methods but also includes
explanatory form and power of an account. &etc.