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Ethnographies in context and as fictional representations

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  1. Introduction
  2. The sociology of the environment of social anthropologists
    1. Instances of institutional contexts
    2. Politics of the academy
    3. The traditional emphasis on how data is to be collected and presented
  3. The discussion that, 'They must become autobiographical...'
    1. A partial discussion
    2. The sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh
    3. Venkatesh's work
    4. Partial Truths by Clifford
  4. Contaminating the evidence
    1. Feminist ethnographers
    2. Venkatesh's Gang Leader For a Day
    3. His close relationship with J.T
    4. The effect that limited access can have on ethnography
  5. Conclusion
  6. Sources

Empirical observation and objective analysis are some of the core tenets of sound scientific inquiry. These processes lead to the recording of data and presentation of findings which confirm or disprove hypotheses, thus renewing the drive for further studies. Particularly in the social sciences, this is more of an ideal than a reality. The nature of social processes and interactions does not lend itself to concrete physical observations that can be homogeneously interpreted, and hence social theories are never definitively proven. In the past, anthropologists have maintained that a fully ?scientific? study of a foreign culture was an attainable goal; as such, they have traditionally rejected any work that was not considered objective enough. The postmodern movement within anthropology has rejected the traditional stance that ethnographies somehow present a complete analysis of a given culture. These scholars argue that ethnographers should embrace the ?ethnography as fiction? concept as a vehicle for imbuing their work with a personalized, biographical richness and depth that could not be achieved with objectivity as the ideal.

[...] Leach, Edmund R ?Tribal Ethnography: past, present, future? Pp. 34- 47 in History and Ethnicity, Chapman. Routledge: New York. Venkatesh, Sudhir. 2008.Gang Leader for a Day. [...]


[...] In recognition of this discourse and in an attempt to integrate it into an ethnographic strength (rather than weakness), postmodern, feminist and other scholars have argued for the conscious insertion of an ?autobiographical? and reflexive standpoint that acknowledges the nature of the ethnographer's interactions with those he/she studies and includes a narrative form that lends insight into the ethnographer's personal perspective. Hence, the nature of the ethnographic narrative appears to be shifting to embrace an incomplete and inherently fictional account which more faithfully reflects the disjunctive relations within the cultures under study and within the discipline itself. Sources: Bell, Diane ?Introduction Pp. 1-17 in Gendered Fields: Women, Men and Ethnography. Ed. [...]


[...] This quote also leads to a third reason that ethnographies are fiction?that is, the interactions and dynamics between the observer and the observed work to change the behaviors and events that are presented in the field. Contaminating the Evidence In criticizing the tendency of ethnographers to distort the reflexive relationships between ethnographers and the members of primitive societies that they study, Leach commented that ?there are many situations, both in the distant and recent past, in which the ethnographer's personal ?cargo' must have had drastic repercussions? on the behaviors of the people under study (1989:35). [...]


[...] Clifford, James. ?Introduction: Partial Truths? Cole, Douglas Value of a Person Lies in His Herzensbildung? Pp. 13-52 in Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, George Stocking. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI. Firth, Raymond. ?Fiction and Fact in Ethnography? Leach, Edmund R ?Glimpses of the Unmentionable in the History of British Social Anthrpology? Pp. 1-23 in Annual Review of Anthropology 13. [...]


[...] It would appear that feminist critiques are more unsettling. They reveal that the ?other' of the feminist?namely, the beneficiaries of patriarchy?are the very authors of the ethnography' who, under the guise of democratizing ethnography through plurivocality, avoid scrutiny of their own power? (Bell 1993:8) (there is more about the relationships between observer and observed later). The discourse between postmodern male anthropologists and feminist anthropologists clearly indicates that the discipline has yet to discover a definitive method or perspective for conducting participant-observation research, but that the idea that ethnographies, like the ethnographers themselves, cannot be completely objective and unbiased. [...]

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