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Six Epistemic Challenges for Ethnographers (and how critical realism might help)

As a result of a series of workshops undertaken over the course of the year, a group of us decided to sit down and have a frank discussion about ethnography; both our own personal experiences as we have gone about our work, the lessons we have learned, and broader reflections about the discipline itself.   We are all attracted to realism for various reasons, and as a result, we decided to write this short article based on our own experience and perspective concerning some of the challenges, barriers, and obstacles that get in the way of good ethnography and what critical realism might be able to help us to think through.

Claire Decoteau, University Illinois at Chicago

Jason Orne, Drexel University

Nicolette Manglos-Weber, Kansas State University

Jeffrey Guhin, University California, Los Angeles

Rachel Rinaldo, University of Colorado Boulder

Jess Lindel, University in Philadelphia

Joe Klett, University California, Santa Cruz

  1. Challenge of having to quantify methods and justify the method to an institutionalized positivist logic

As ethnographers and sociologists, we understand critical realism (CR) to be a viable response to key problems of our discipline’s positivist history. We continue to see the impact of this history on how our work as ethnographers is vetted through institutionalized processes. Each one of us can think of examples where we were asked to quantify our qualitative data, or criticized for having small numbers of cases or relying on “anecdotal” evidence. In the departments where we were trained and now work, we also see evidence of how graduate instruction privileges survey-based, large-N studies, reinforcing the positivist mystique surrounding population-level correlations and their ability to get at law-like social regularities.

Ethnographers working in multiple areas—notably critical theory, cultural anthropology, and feminist theory, among others—have developed a firm epistemological foundation for their methods, but as sociologists we continue to have to justify the value of our research, and why it belongs in top-tier journals and core graduate methods training. The way forward is not just to carve out territory for a non-positivist, ethnographic science, but to critique the institutional artifacts of positivism prevalent throughout U.S. sociology .We must also develop a unified realist model of science for understanding the social world, which we see as one of the primary shared objectives of sociologists influenced by critical realism. CR provides a conceptual grammar for critiquing positivist norms and metrics that continue to shape what constitutes good ethnography, helping to articulate the contributions that CR-informed ethnography can make within sociology as a discipline. Practically speaking, as realist ethnographers our goal is to pursue thorough and fair representations of social phenomena using data with a narrative rather than quantitative structure, engaging deeply with the experiences of others in specific spaces and times.

  1. Challenge of hyper-relativism and over-emphasis on subjectivity

Realist ethnography demands a philosophical basis for holding ontological realism and epistemological humility in tension. Ethnomethods grounded in subjective experience assume that reality can only be known relative to these experiences and do not allow for ontology beyond this limited empirical domain. In contrast, realism assumes that reality is stratified into multiple domains, including but not exclusive to subjectivity. This ontological realism encourages the pursuit of extra-subjective mechanisms through a plurality of epistemologies. Rather than settle accounts of reality by restricting knowledge to subjectivity, realist ethnography remains open to an emergent social ontology that emerges from a creative and necessarily incomplete understanding of reality.

  1. Challenge of the narrow focus on the situation

We see critical realist ethnography as offering a fruitful conceptual provocation to our fellow ethnographers. Like other ethnographers, we make no claim for the representativeness of our cases and we acknowledge the uniqueness of studying particular situations that will never happen again in quite the same way. However, we caution against the fetishization of the situation, particularly the tendency to brush aside ethnographic work that looks at larger structures. There is a mystique around what ethnographers immediately observe, where immediacy conveys liveliness and thick description. But although agency allows for creative, strange, and wonderful things to happen on the ground within the situation, CR holds that the larger structures that shape that situation are also at play. The situation scales up and down, revealing and containing other structures. CR shares this similarity with extended case method, but without sacrificing the broader methodological connotations of scientism. We instead want to reject the narrow focus within the extended case method for finding situations that push forward a pet theory. Instead, critical realist ethnography, like other attempts to bridge ECM and GT, allows the possibility of holding both the situation and its structuration in tandem. CR thus provides a framework for ethnographers seeking to investigate, describe and analyze a local situation while still embracing the ability to make larger claims about societal structures.

  1. Challenge of over-abstracting and the divide between the “theorist” and everyone else

Ethnographers are often criticized by other social scientists for doing work that is descriptive, anecdotal and insufficiently theoretical. These critiques are often connected to a particular understanding of theory that privileges highly abstract concepts and broadly generalizable patterns, resulting in a bifurcation between “theorists” who speak in jargon about abstract concepts and ideas and “empirical” researchers who analyze data a-theoretically.

Yet we argue that ethnographers are always theorists, continually operating with an implicit working philosophy of science and theoretical presumptions that shape the kinds of questions we ask and the phenomena we investigate. A core contribution of CR scholarship is to acknowledge that theories are always incomplete and that structures are real, even as our theories can only approximate the realness of structures; that structures have causal effects, but those causal effects are highly variable and contingent on specific conjunctions, events, and contexts. CR’s emphasis on agency, and its middle way between structuralism and anti-structuralism is helpful grounding for ethnographers who want to explore subjectivity, identity, and experience. Our reading of CR and other recent theoretical and methodological developments leads us to a middle ground between the inductive grounded theory approach and the more deductive extended case method. We agree with grounded theorists that situations and interactions in ethnographic research are crucial and we embrace an inductive approach as a way to be open to unexpected findings. At the same time, we agree with Burawoy about the importance of acknowledging one’s own theoretical and personal presumptions and using those as a starting point, as well as about how crucial it is to situate sites, situations, and interactions in broader historical, social, political, and cultural contexts.

  1. Challenge of limited and reductive conceptions of social action: the rational actor, habitual actor, or situational actor

There is a tendency in sociological analysis, particularly social theory, to reduce social action and the social actor to one plane, and to elevate one dimension of social activity over others (situation vs. habit; structure vs. agency, practice vs. belief, subjectivity vs. observation…  etc. etc.). While this is often filtered through the lens of methodology, these are not only methodological concerns, devices or framings; they are ontological stances and need to be recognized, understood, and analyzed as such.

Realist ethnography is able to make an important contribution to these debates by raising direct questions about the human social actor by taking seriously questions of ontology and more concertedly directing our attention to our theorizing the social actor. But it does not do so naively. Rather, ontological realism is concerned with understanding the interaction of multiple mechanisms operating in and across multiple domains, acting and jostling as they form and assemble social actors across different situations in ways that are not wholly reducible to particular situations. Rather than viewing subjectivity and objectivity or practice and belief as antithetical options to be chosen (even if it is resolved by proxy by taking up certain methodologies), realist ethnography emphases emergent outcomes and an anti-reductive stance. It is concerned with processes of conjuncture, i.e. how beliefs and practices, subjectivity and social positions, personal experience and cultural history, work in tandem to produce novel outcomes, and what methodology will allow us to represent and respond to the situation I am addressing, and the situation of that situation within broader structures. Such a project will involve trying to understand and theorize both the relatively enduring structures that constitute individuals and collectives, through to understanding how various levels and historically instituted structures have formed individual and collective selves to act in particular ways at particular times at particular places without being completely situational. In other words, it is concerned with not only with contextual and cross-contextual, but trans-contextual analysis. This raises questions about how we understand what seem to be the more plastic and the more fixed aspects of social actors? As well as broader questions about to what degree social actors are plastic or fixed?

Insofar as we are interested in understanding broader structures operating across and informed different contexts and situations, what is the place of materiality? History? This raises further, more philosophical and theoretical questions ethnography is not usually fond, and perhaps, as it stands, is not equipped to deal with. How do we construct better models of actors? How do we move beyond unidimensional and reductive models of social activity and human behavior that seem to oscillate between variants of rational choice, utility maximizing, capital pursuing, will to power actors, and move to more complex and heterogeneous models.

While we are able to critique, falsify and even mock these models, how do we generate better ones that can inform our research?

Realist ethnography offers conceptual resources and creates a space to encourage exploration of these various interplays, and working to show how what we might not be able to observe or quantify in the field site might nonetheless has powerful effects not only on what happens in our sites but also on the individual and collective actors within those sites, and beyond those sites. Through such a project, a realist ethnography might not only be able to help construct better explanations and avoid the endless back and forth between the false choices we are presented, but perhaps even to construct better moral and political philosophies that are able to inform debates about “human nature” across disciplines and in the public eye. Indeed, it would seem a realist ethnography is uniquely positioned for such a project.

6. Challenge of the divide between the scientific and the political

One of the core strengths of a critical realist approach to science is that it is avowedly political in both its origins and application.  Emerging out of a Marxist theoretical tradition, CR has remained consistently committed to creating theory and methods that can help social scientists make sense of existing structural inequalities and the cultural ideologies that sustain current power relations, as well as forging theories that imagine and instantiate different futures.  We find this normative and critical component of CR helpful in the context of ethical ethnographic research.  Part of what makes for “good” ethnography is a steadfast commitment to the communities we engage with, entailing a responsibility to tell their stories in a way that is respectful and representative.  But it also requires portraying reality from the ontological perspective of those we study – which often requires us to think “otherwise” about the context of the situation and the structural condition of those within it.  Those we study cooperate in the construction of our interpretations, leading us to be epistemologically humble in our methodological approach and our scholarly representations. Both facets – approach and representation – are crucial components of what constitutes ethnography as science and ethnography as political; the decision-making processes underlying both cannot be agnostic either to theory or ethics. As storytellers and critical realists, then, we seek out polyvocal and complex explanations of the heterogeneity of the social world by combining our own academic voices with the explanations we hear in the field.