ethnography is totally generalizable
I’m still mulling over some of the issues raised at the Chicago ethnography and causal inference conference. For example, a lot of ethnographers say “sure, we can’t generalize but ….” The reason they say this is that they are making a conceptual mistake.
Ethnography is generalizable – just not within a single study. Think of it this way. Data is data, whether it is from a survey, experiment or field work. The reason that surveys are generalizable is in the sampling. The survey data is a representative sub-group of the larger group.
What’s the deal with ethnography? Usually, we want to say that what we observe in fieldwork is applicable in other cases. The problem is that we only have one (or a few) field sites. The solution? Increase the number of field sites. Of course, this can’t be done by one person. However, there can be teams. Maybe they aren’t officially related, but each ethnographer could contribute to the field of ethnography by randomly selecting their field site, or choosing a field site that hasn’t been covered yet.
Thus, over the years, each ethnographer would contribute to the validity of the entire enterprise. As time passes, you’d observe new phenomena, but by linking field site selection to prior questions you’d also be expanding the sample of field sites. This isn’t unheard of. The Manchester School of anthropology did exactly that – spread the ethnographers around – to great effect. Maybe it’s time that sociological ethnographers do the same.