This book describes ethnographic fieldwork as the gradual accumulation of knowledge about something you don't know much about to begin with, facilitated by theoretical and methodological instruments. The book provides an easy to read introduction to quite complex ideas about knowledge and the practices in which we gather it.
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About the Author
Jan Blommaert is Professor of Language, Culture and Globalization at Tilburg University, where he is also the director of the Babylon Center. His publications include Language Ideological Debates (1999), Discourse: A Critical Introduction (2005), Grassroots Literacy (2008) and The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010).
Dong Jie completed her PhD at Tilburg University in 2009, her dissertation was about the practices of identity construction of Chinese internal migrants in Beijing. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Babylon Center and the Department of Languages and Cultures, Tilburg University.
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A Beginner's Guide
By Jan Blommaert
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2010 Jan Blommaert and Dong Jie
All rights reserved.
It is a scary thing, isn't it: the idea of being alone 'in the field', trying to accomplish a task initially formulated as a perfectly coherent research plan with questions, methods, readings and so on – and finding out that the 'field' is a chaotic, hugely complex place. Fieldwork is the moment when the researcher climbs down to everyday reality and finds out that the rules of academia are not necessarily the same as those of everyday life. Unfortunately, the only available solution to that is unilateral adaptation by the researcher. Everyday life will never adjust to your research plan; the only way forward is to adapt your plan and ways of going about things to the rules of everyday reality. There is no magic formula for this, and this book should not – not! – be read as such.
But there are things one can do better or worse, and whichever way we look at it, fieldwork is a theorised mode of action, something in which researchers still follow certain procedures and have to follow them; something in which a particular set of actions need to be performed; and something that needs to result in a body of knowledge that can be re-submitted to rigorous, disciplined academic tactics. This book is aimed at providing some general suggestions for how to go about it, at demarcating a space in which what we do can be called 'research'. It is a complex space, not something one immediately recognises, and given the increased emphasis on fieldwork – ethnographic fieldwork – some things may require structured attention.
We will start with a number of observations on ethnography. These are crucial: whenever we say ethnography (and formulate fieldwork as part of that procedure) we invoke a particular scientific tradition. It is amazing to see how often that tradition is misunderstood or misrepresented. Yet, a fair understanding of it is indispensable if we want to know what our fieldwork will yield: it will yield ethnographic data, and such data are fundamentally different from data collected through most other approaches. Informed readers will detect in our discussion many traces of the foundational work by Johannes Fabian and Dell Hymes – the two main methodologists of contemporary ethnography, whose works remain indispensable reading for anyone seriously interested in ethnography. Next, we will go through the 'sequence' usually performed in fieldwork: pre-field preparation, entering the field, observation, interviewing, data formulation, analysis, the return from the field.
One should note that we do not provide a 'do and don't' kind of guide to fieldwork. We will rather focus on more fundamental procedures of knowledge-construction. There are several purely practical guidelines for aspects of fieldwork. Fieldwork here is treated as an intellectual enterprise, a procedure that requires serious reflection as much as practical preparation and skill. Still, it is our hope (and silent conviction) that these reflections are, at the end of the day, very practical. One can never be good at anything when one doesn't really know what one is doing.
A second disclaimer is this. We are both linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists; our views on ethnography and fieldwork necessarily have their roots in experiences with working on languages and linguistic/ sociolinguistic phenomena. Most of the concrete examples or illustrations we provide will, consequently, relate to such issues, and we hope that the non-language-focused student will not be scared by them. An effort may be required to convert these illustrations and arguments into other topics; do try to make the effort. Throughout the book, we will also provide vignettes from Dong Jie's fieldwork on identity construction among rural migrants in Beijing. Her research, carried out between 2006 and 2009, will run through the book as a steady beat. This does not mean that Dong Jie was the only of the two authors who learned and experienced fieldwork; the trials and errors of fieldwork were also very much part of Jan's experience as a researcher. Elements from Jan's experience will occur throughout the book, especially in the final chapter. But Dong Jie's fresh materials may speak in a more authentic voice to our preferred readers: young researchers who are embarking on their first fieldwork jobs.
Finally, we want to use a motto for this text, something that provides a baseline for what follows. It's a quote from Hymes (1981: 84), occurring in an argument about the need for analytic attention to 'behavioral repertoire' – the actual range of forms of behaviour that people display, and that makes them identifiable as members of a culture. This repertoire of individuals does not coincide with that of the culture in its whole: it is always a mistake to equate the resources of a language, culture or society with those of its members. Nobody possesses the full range of skills and resources, everyone has control over just parts of them, nobody is a perfect speaker of a language or a perfect member of a culture or society. In addition, Hymes alerts us to
the small portion of cultural behavior that people can be expected to report or describe, when asked, and the much smaller portion that an average person can be expected to manifest by doing on demand.
And he caustically adds, between brackets, 'Some social research seems incredibly to assume that what there is to find out can be found out by asking'.
Let us keep this motto in mind. People are not cultural or linguistic catalogues, and most of what we see as their cultural and social behaviour is performed without reflecting on it and without an active awareness that this is actually something they do. Consequently, it is not a thing they have an opinion about, nor an issue that can be comfortably put in words when you ask about it. Ethnographic fieldwork is aimed at finding out things that are often not seen as important but belong to the implicit structures of people's life. Asking is indeed very often the worst possible way of trying to find out.CHAPTER 2
Ethnography is a strange scientific phenomenon. On the one hand, it can be seen as probably the only truly influential 'invention' of anthropological linguistics, having triggered important developments in social-scientific fields as diverse as pragmatics and discourse analysis, sociology and historiography and having caused a degree of attention to small detail in human interaction previously unaddressed in many fields of the social sciences. At the same time, ethnography has for decades come under fire from within. Critical anthropology emerged from within ethnography, and strident critiques by, for example, Johannes Fabian (1983) and James Clifford (1988) exposed immense epistemological and ethical problems in ethnography. Their call for a historisation of ethnographies (rather than a singular ethnography) was answered by a flood of studies contextualising the work of prominent ethnographers, often in ways that critically called into question the epistemological, positive-scientific appeal so prominently voiced in the works of, for example, Griaule, Boas or Malinowski (see e.g. Darnell, 1998; Stocking, 1992). So, whereas ethnography is by all standards a hugely successful enterprise, its respectability has never matched its influence in the social sciences.
'True' ethnography is rare – a fact perhaps deriving from its controversial status and the falsification of claims to positive scientificity by its founding fathers. More often than not, ethnography is perceived as a method for collecting particular types of data and thus as something that can be added, like the use of a computer, to different scientific procedures and programs. Even in anthropology, ethnography is often seen as a synonym for description. In the field of language, ethnography is popularly perceived as a technique and a series of propositions by means of which something can be said about 'context'. Talk can thus be separated from its context, and whereas the study of talk is a matter for linguistics, conversation analysis or discourse analysis, the study of context is a matter for ethnography (see Blommaert, 2001 for a fuller discussion and references; Gumperz & Hymes, 1972 is the classic text on this). What we notice in such discussions and treatments of ethnography is a reduction of ethnography to fieldwork, but naively, in the sense that the critical epistemological issues buried in seemingly simple fieldwork practices are not taken into account. Fieldwork/ethnography is perceived as description: an account of facts and experiences captured under the label of 'context', but in itself often un- or under-contextualised.
It is against this narrow view that we want to pit our argument, which will revolve around the fact that ethnography can as well be seen as a 'full' intellectual programme far richer than just a matter of description. Ethnography, we will argue, involves a perspective on language and communication, including ontology and an epistemology, both of which are of significance for the study of language in society, or better, of language as well as of society. Interestingly, this programmatic view of ethnography emerges from critical voices from within ethnography. Rather than destroying the ethnographic project, critiques such as the ones developed by Fabian (1979, 1983, 1995) and Hymes (1972, 1996) have added substance and punch to the programme.
Ethnography as a Paradigm
A first correction that needs to be made to the widespread image of ethnography is that right from the start, it was far more than a complex of fieldwork techniques. Ever since its beginnings in the works of Malinowski and Boas, it was part of a total programme of scientific description and interpretation, comprising not only technical, methodical aspects (Malinowskian fieldwork) but also, for example, cultural relativism and behaviourist-functionalist theoretical underpinnings. Ethnography was the scientific apparatus that put communities, rather than human kind, on the map, focusing attention on the complexity of separate social units, the intricate relations between small features of a single system usually seen as in balance. In Sapirian linguistics, folklore and descriptive linguistics went hand in hand with linguistic classification and historical-genetic treatments of cultures and societies. Ethnography was an approach in which systems were conceived as non-homogeneous, composed of a variety of features, and in which part-whole relationships were central to the work of interpretation and analysis. Regna Darnell's book on Boas (Darnell, 1998) contains a revealing discussion of the differences between Boas and Sapir regarding the classification of North American languages, and one of the striking things is to see how linguistic classification becomes a domain for the articulation of theories of culture and cultural dynamics, certainly in Boas' case (Darnell, 1998: 211ff). It is significant also that as ethnography became more sophisticated and linguistic phenomena were studied in greater detail and nuance, better and more mature theories of social units such as the speech community emerged (Gumperz, 1968).
So there always was more than just description in ethnography – problems of interpretation and indeed of ontology and epistemology have always figured in debates on and in ethnography, as did matters of method versus interpretation and issues of aligning ethnography with one discipline or another (linguistics versus anthropology being, for example, the issue in the Boas-Sapir debate on classification). In fact, it is our conviction that ethnography, certainly in the works of its most prominent practitioners, has always had aspirations to theory status. No doubt, Dell Hymes' oeuvre stands out in its attempt at retrieving the historical roots of this larger ethnographic program (Hymes, 1964, 1983) as well as at providing a firm theoretical grounding for ethnography himself (Hymes, 1972, 1996). Hymes took stock of new reflections on 'theory' produced in Chomskyan linguistics, and foregrounded the issue in ethnography as well, and in clearer and more outspoken terms than before. To Hymes, ethnography was a 'descriptive theory': an approach that was theoretical because it provided description in specific, methodologically and epistemologically grounded ways.
We will discuss some of the main lines of argument in Hymes' work at some length here, adding, at points, important elements for our understanding of ethnography as taken from Johannes Fabian's work. Fabian, like Hymes, is probably best known for his documentary work (e.g. Fabian, 1986, 1996), while his theoretical reflections have not received the attention they deserve.
To start with, a crucial element in any discussion of ethnography should be its history, for inscribed in its techniques and patterns of operation are numerous traces of its intellectual origins and background. Ethnography has its origin in anthropology, not in linguistics, nor in sociology or psychology. That means that the basic architecture of ethnography is one that already contains ontologies, methodologies and epistemologies that need to be situated within the larger tradition of anthropology and that do not necessarily fit the frameworks of other traditions. Central to this is humanism: 'It is anthropology's task to coordinate knowledge about language from the viewpoint of man' (Hymes, 1964: xiii). This means that language is approached as something that has a certain relevance to man, and man in anthropology is seen as a creature whose existence is narrowly linked, conditioned or determined by society, community, the group, culture. Language from an anthropological perspective is almost necessarily captured in a functionalist epistemology, and questions about language take the shape of questions of how language works and operates for, with and by humans-as-social-beings.
Let us immediately sketch some of the implications of this humanist and functionalist anthropological background to ethnography. One important consequence has to do with the ontology, the definition of language itself. Language is typically seen as a socially loaded and assessed tool for humans, the finality of which is to enable humans to perform as social beings. Language, in this tradition, is defined as a resource to be used, deployed and exploited by human beings in social life and hence socially consequential for humans. Further implications of this will be addressed below. A second important implication is about context. There is no way in which language can be 'context-less' in this anthropological tradition in ethnography. To language, there is always a particular function, a concrete shape, a specific mode of operation, and an identifiable set of relations between singular acts of language and wider patterns of resources and their functions. Language is context, it is the architecture of social behaviour itself, and thus part of social structure and social relations. To this as well we will return below.
Let us summarise what has been said so far. Central to any understanding of ethnography are its roots in anthropology. These anthropological roots provide a specific direction to ethnography, one that situates language deeply and inextricably in social life and offers a particular and distinct ontology and epistemology to ethnography. Ethnography contains a perspective on language which differs from that of many other branches of the study of language. It is important to remember this, and despite possible relocations and redeployments of ethnography in different theoretical frameworks, the fact that it is designed to fit an anthropological set of questions is important for our understanding of what ethnography can and cannot perform. As Hymes says, 'failure to remember can confuse or impair anthropological thinking and research, setting up false antitheses and leaving significant phenomena unstudied' (1964: xxvii).
Resources and Dialectics
Let us now get a bit deeper into the features identified above: the particular ontology and epistemology characterising ethnography.
Language is seen as a set of resources, means available to human beings in societies. These resources can be deployed in a variety of circumstances, but when this happens it never happens in a neutral way. Every act of language use is an act that is assessed, weighed, measured socially, in terms of contrasts between this act and others. In fact, language becomes the social and culturally embedded thing it is because of the fact that it is socially and culturally consequential in use. The clearest formulation of this resources view on language can be found in Hymes' essay Speech and language: on the origins and foundations of inequality among speakers (1996: Chapter 3). In this strident essay, Hymes differentiates between a linguistic notion of language and an ethnographic notion of speech. Language, Hymes argues, is what linguists have made of it, a concept with little significance for the people who actually use language. Speech is language-in-society, that is, an active notion and one that deeply situates language in a web of relations of power, a dynamics of availability and accessibility, a situatedness of single acts vis-à-vis larger social and historical patterns such as genres and traditions. Speech is language in which people have made investments – social, cultural, political, individual-emotional ones. It is also language brought under social control – consequently, language marked by sometimes extreme cleavages and inequalities in repertoires and opportunities.
Excerpted from Ethnographic Fieldwork by Jan Blommaert. Copyright © 2010 Jan Blommaert and Dong Jie. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction2. Ethnography3. The sequence 1: Prior to fieldwork4. The sequence 2: In the field5. The sequence 3: After fieldwork6. Postscript