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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.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 15, 2012 at 12:01 am

42 Responses

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  1. I understand why ethnographers are unwilling to generalize. I don’t think it’s a conceptual mistake but a healthy expression of methodological humility. After all, it’s not really true that “data is data” no matter where it comes from. Data is data in so far as it is “given” to the analyst in advance of interpretation, not “taken” by the analyst in the act of interpretation. It is not at all clear to me that you can just aggregate the field notes of 10 or 20 different ethnographers working in different contexts. You can, of course, compare and discuss their observations, but they are only generalizable in a “humanistic” sense.

    Though one doesn’t want to rely on the indie music scene for one’s philosophy of science, I think Mike Kinsella (Owen) gets it exactly right when invokes “a trenchant critique of anthropology being accepted as a social science/ And not the art of educated observation/ And all the things that we can learn about ourselves in the context of someone else.” I think that art is what your non-generalizing ethnographers are implicitly claiming to be practitioners of. Their work is generalizable only in the sense that they are learning something about themselves in the context of other people.

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    Thomas

    June 15, 2012 at 6:12 am

  2. Could it be that generalizability is a somewhat overrated criterion of research quality? It is relevant for those phenomena that can be expected to be common within a larger space and time frame. Yet there are many things that happen in unique ways and only because there were specific contextual circumstances that conspired to make them happen. Many of these are also relevant to understand and know about, or are they not?.

    Like

    Jim

    June 15, 2012 at 9:43 am

  3. Ethnographic teams seem like a valuable way to generalize, but only about contemporary events, right? There seems to be a lot about theory that would also shape whether or not what is found, at the group level, is actually generalizable from the perspective of the ethnographers (rather than us hypothesizing from a distance). Also, there is the matter of what the ethnography is about (i.e., is the ethnography about cock fighting, a small group, or a social movement…). For example, in STS, Annamarie Mol’s “The Body Multiple” is an ethnographic account of atherosclerosis of leg arteries, hence, her study is an ethnography of something physical that is human-ish, but not explicitly about humans, but the congress of humans and nonhumans (i.e., knowledge, medical tools, etc.) around an object (i.e., a disease). I’m not sure if, for example, you conduct an ethnography of an object or, for example, an event, that you really need teams working to generalize… At that point, you’ve got an ethnography seeking to uncover ontological issues (rather than the epistemological concern over generalizability).

    I suppose this also raises the point we rarely want to discuss in science: if we are worried about generalizability, then what about replication (also a pillar of science) or prediction (a loose pillar of social science)?

    Like

    Nicholas Rowland

    June 15, 2012 at 11:45 am

  4. @Thomas: Why can’t ethnography be standardized? For example, could school ethnographers all say “we’ll conduct this observation in this way and record field notes in similar ways?” No need to get into discussions of the humanities. I don’t believe in ethnographic solipsism.

    @Jim: C’mon, we aren’t talking about apples and oranges here. You can compare ethnographies of schools, or firms, or whatever, with each other. Generalizability may not be the *only* virtue in science, but it is a virtue.

    @Nick: Yes, why can’t ethnographers replicate? In the appendix to Sidewalk, Duinier says he wanted to name names to that his work could be verified by third parties. It happens in journalism all the time. Reported X makes a claim, and then people follow up.

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    fabiorojas

    June 15, 2012 at 4:55 pm

  5. I appreciate the ambition,Fabio, but I’m skeptical. In biology, it was possible to train people to describe flora and fauna in standardized ways. But can we really expect two ethnographers, working within their own culture, to simply “register” what’s going on in some standard way? Aren’t they necessarily going to be subjecting the situation to a personal interpretation, i.e., “learning about themselves in the context of others”, rather than providing the team with “data” for collective analysis?

    But I don’t think the “how can you…”, “why can’t you…” back and forth in the abstract will get us anywhere here. The only way to settle this is to propose (or just point me to) a statement of a method to generate the sort of data you think affords generalization.

    Frankly, however, I think you set the bar too low when you say “it happens in journalism all the time”. On that standard you’ll win. But I’ll one-up you with a Heidegger quote: “The standards of … criticism alters to the degree that historiography approaches journalism.” Mutatis mutandis for ethnography, I’d say. It’s great story telling, and you can certainly do that sort of thing (claim + follow up) in the humanities. But it just ain’t science.

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    Thomas

    June 15, 2012 at 5:29 pm

  6. So, I’ve written about this a bit before on scatterplot (here:http://scatter.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/verifying-results/ )

    Also, I’m an ethnographer who does a lot of generalizing, or better, goes from my micro-level observations to fairly large scale explanations of phenomena. If that’s what we mean by generalizable, then I think, sure. But there are different kinds of ideas being batted around here.

    1.) Generalizability = replicability. This could be meant in two ways. (A) that results can be reproduced by someone else doing the same kind of research; (B) that someone would generate the same arguments using the same data. For (A) I would say that considerable fields of urban ethnography have been doing just this for many years. In some ways people have been re-writing Tally’s Corner every couple years. And I mean that in a good way; they return to places, themes, relations, and re-evaluate them. In terms (B) it’s rare. But not unheard of. For example. Domhoff revisited Dahl’s data from his famous study of New Haven politics (where his pluralism argument comes from) and generates a very different explanation. This is rarer, and requires that someone be willing to share their data (as Dahl did).

    2.) Generalizability = model formation. In other words, the claims made within a work generate a set of propositions about how the world works that can be evaluated by others. This happens all the time. ANd it’s basically what I attempt to do when moving from micro-level interactions to large scale explanations. So I look at some people one year at a little high school and claim I’m able to tell you something about the world (inequality in particular). This kind of generalizability is generated when people use very different data (neither examples (A) or (B) above) in order to evaluate more general theoretical propositions.

    I actually think that type 2 generalizability happens all the time in the social sciences. Type 1, less so. And as I point out in my scatterplot post, when it does happen, it doesn’t always go so well!

    Like

    shakha

    June 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm

  7. Really – the answer to achieving something in ethnography is simply: More case studies? Seriously? I really don’t know whether this is some sort of test…or joke. Shakha is of course spot on in his/her comment.

    Like

    Anonymous

    June 15, 2012 at 9:32 pm

  8. Shakha’s type 1 generalization is of course the hard science approach, and it also includes ideas about the symmetry of prediction and explanation (i.e., if we had the information that is used to explain something, but had had it in advance, we would have been able to predict the thing we have explained). On this view the general is the replicable and the explicable is the predictable. But already in the late 1950s, philosophers of science began to abandon this model of scientific explanation, precisely because they could see that it would render much of sociology “unscientific”. As Scriven (1959, PDF) argued, sociologists would be better served using Darwin (rather than Newton) as a model.

    I’ve never really liked the argument. I think type 1 offers the only clear account of notions of like “generalization” and “explanation”. I think the idea that generalization = model formation is just a loose way of talking around the issue instead of openly relinquishing the honorific “science”. At bottom, it’s exactly the way you say, Shakha: you “look at some people one year at a little high school” and then you simply “claim [you’re] able to tell [us] something about the world”. I agree that you can make such claims, but only because (or to the extent that) we already share your (general) model of the world, i.e., we are already thinking within your interpretative framework. In that sense, again, this looks like humanistic research, which is perfectly honorable work, not science, at least not in any sense of this word that actually has methodological implications.

    I think a great deal was lost by insisting that what Scriven calls “irregular subjects” are just as “scientific” as classical mechanics, only in a very different way. What we get is the sort of “generalization” that, to take another jab at Fabio’s comment, “happens in journalism all the time”. (Which I suppose is why so many social scientists love Malcolm Gladwell.) I think the models of society that we have today are to a large extent pseudo-scientific. I don’t wish they were more scientific; I wish they were more honestly unscientific.

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    Thomas

    June 16, 2012 at 10:03 am

  9. I should add that I don’t think “social science” is in principle impossible. For example, you can have a scientific theory about election outcomes, and even, to refer back a previous post, the role of money in determining them. As long as you don’t claim to know more than you really do, there does seem to be a lot of hard data out there and even some general laws.

    So, for example, we can be quite certain that the president will be either a democrat or a republican in 2013. Also, we know that neither party will get 80% of the popular vote. And the relevant data here doesn’t just come from the historical election results. If the republicans lost 50% of the membership over the next 6 months, we’d adjust our predictions accordingly, because we have pretty good theories about how party affiliation affects (or at least correlates with) election outcomes. Likewise, if Obama started raising only 10% of the campaign contributions he’d been pulling in every month until now, we’d rethink our predictions about how many votes he’ll get too.

    What I don’t like is the way Scriven (and Fabio, I think) wants a principle that will let us claim to have “explained” categorically and “scientifically” an election we were only able to predict very broad features of.

    And I definitely can’t see how an ethnography of any social community can contribute to a “data set” that would give us similar explanatory power, i.e., a basis for prediction. So it’s best just not to call that science. Calling in “science qua type 2 generalization” doesn’t really help us because surely reading poetry can support “model formation” as a well. I think we should read more poetry, too, of course.

    Like

    Thomas

    June 16, 2012 at 10:29 am

  10. Fabio writes, “Ethnography is generalizable – just not within a single study. . . . The solution? Increase the number of field sites.”

    Generalizability has its place, but I am surprised to (still) hear this view from a movements and organizations scholar. In my experience most organizations and movements don’t operate within populations, but in unique fields of action and with unique audiences in mind. Most organizations need or want specific, not generalizable data. It is governments and state-like entities (i.e. large-scale corporations) who seek population data. The rest of us operate in identifiable, unique, often shifting parameters.

    Like

    Austen

    June 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm

  11. “…each ethnographer could contribute to the field of ethnography by randomly selecting their field site”

    Thanks Fabio for continuing this debate. I’m late to this, but I can’t resist adding one further reaction to the above, which is that I have a hard time imagining it becoming standard practice. Random selection of field sites sounds good on paper, and it may be possible for some projects where the data collection procedure consists of public observations. But the logistics of negotiating entree to interesting field sites (and of doing sustained participant observation within them) render random selection nigh impossible.

    To state this another way, it’s probably not the case that Shamus ended up studying his own high school because he was being lazy about finding a fieldsite. Or that I was being masochistic when I trained for 6 months as a craps dealer and systematically bribed a string of pit bosses to obtain a job in a Vegas casino. Or that Burawoy erred by doing the fieldwork for Manufacturing Consent in a factory owned by a company at which his uncle was a manager. Getting access to these sorts of places involves skillful use of one’s existing networks, crafty cultivation of new ones, flexibility, persistence, hustle, and luck. Typically you’re told “no” 99 times before finding that one key gate-keeper who gives you a “yes.” And it’s just a fact that this gatekeeper more often than not ends up being your cousin’s friend or your friend’s cousin.

    Regarding the bigger issues here, I think the Sociological Theory article version of “The Extended Case Method” does a nice job of putting forward the case for why ethnography can never live up to the standards of generalizability, reliability, replicability, and non-reactivity.

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    sallaz

    June 18, 2012 at 6:13 am

  12. Jeff: I think this is an improper response. Yes, ethnographers have problems accessing field sites – but so what? That’s a problem for all social research and you build that into the model.

    For example, lots of people refuse to answer surveys. Do quantitative researchers throw up their hands and give up? No. They do a number of things. They study non-response. They adjust models for selection effects. Etc.

    If people can’t access certain types of field sites, then (a) ethnographers should focus on studying non-access, (b) work on techniques to increase access, just as surveyors and experimenters work on tools to increase response rate, and (c) adjust their conclusions given the bias introduced by selection effects.

    We don’t just give up on science!*

    * Yes, I am yanking your chain.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 18, 2012 at 6:26 am

  13. So you are comparing dealing with non-response issues to trying to get into a multitude of sites and ending up training for 6 months to become a craps dealer?
    Solution: Someone needs to work with their ability to deal with non-response issues if it really takes that long.

    Like

    Anonymous

    June 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm

  14. Anonymous: Yes, I am. The reason that surveys like the GSS and NES are considered quality samples is that people have spent years and millions of dollars measuring and dealing with non-response. The less ethnographers drop the idea that their data problems are unique, the more ethnographic data can be integrated into normal social science. Ethnographic data is simply first hand observation in natural (i.e., not experiments/surveys) environments. Once we accept that, it will be easier to deal with traditional data issues like replication, reliability, and validity.

    Ethnographers – come home!

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    fabiorojas

    June 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm

  15. You all might be familiar with Randy Hodson’s attempt at this in “Dignity at Work”. He and a team of researchers read coded the population of workplace ethnographies, under some selection criteria that I can’t remember, into a data set. He then used this data for some causal inferences across workplaces. Several people quibble with the methods but the work can actually be quite rich. Researchers can identify relationships across workplaces and then refer to the specific ethnographies for causal processes. Of course there might still be issues of generalizability since the “population” of ethnographies will likely have some sampling issues

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    Richard Benton

    June 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm

  16. I applaud Hodson’s work. I just wish the lessons would be carried to newer studies. For example, Mitch Duinier’s sidewalk has a pretty rich methodoogical appendix. but a lot of it focuses on interviews and verifiability, not on situation his field site in a larger population.

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    fabiorojas

    June 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm

  17. If your point is ethnography CAN be generalizable to populations using larger random samples, I will take your word on it. If your point is it OUGHT to be made generalizable in this way, my answer is that it depends on the goal of the research. If your point is it MUST be to reach validity, I will strongly disagree.

    Like

    Austen

    June 18, 2012 at 5:12 pm

  18. Again, I’d refer you to the Burawoy article (on the ECM) which formulates two models of science–the positive and the reflexive–via a comparison of survey and ethnographic methods. The latter (reflexive) model of science makes no pretense to representativeness, reliability, or replicability, but is no less rigorous, systematic, or scientific. I think the article exemplifies really well what most sociological ethnographers are up to these days (even if they aren’t explicitly working in the ECM tradition). Much more so than accusations that they have wandered from or given up on “science” (or conversely, that survey researchers remain tethered to some brute “positivism”). Positive and reflexive science…an organic solidarity in the division of sociological labor. :)

    Like

    sallaz

    June 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm

  19. “The … reflexive … model of science makes no pretense to representativeness, reliability, or replicability, but is no less rigorous, systematic, or scientific,” says Sallaz. I’d like to hear more about what “scientific” means in that context.

    Like

    Thomas

    June 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm

  20. ” The less ethnographers drop the idea that their data problems are unique, the more ethnographic data can be integrated into normal social science” – I mean, really?! We are not doing normal social science when doing ethnography? And furthermore, you know very well I wasn’t comparing the original effort to deal with non-response bias with the 6 months preparations to getting into Las Vegas, but what to do after the first Vegas study has been carried out and after the database has been improved (the manipulation was quite uncomfortable).
    Either we skip the difficult ethnographic studies and only do simple stuff that can be replicated, or we continue with the difficult stuff: Acknowledging that it is difficult.

    Like

    Anonymous

    June 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm

  21. Anonymous: Well, if you believe the comments and the literature, a lot ethnographers are not doing normal social science. I don’t believe that, but some people do. They keep on saying it.

    I acknowledge that ethnography is hard. I’ve done ethnography myself. It’s a huge comittment, even for the limited stuff that I’ve done. But maybe the goal of modern ethnography shouldn’t be targeting the hardest problems first (like getting into a casino many times). Rather, try to replicate in easier to access situations. For example, maybe every ethnography student at a NY area soc program would write an MA paper at an NY area school. It would be practice and it would be standardized.

    Science usually progresses by focusing on easy problems first. Yes, some field sites are insanely hard to get into, and we should encourage *some* people to work on them. However, we should encourage the average person to work on modest problems in ways that promote replication and validity of ethnography.

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    fabiorojas

    June 18, 2012 at 9:37 pm

  22. I’d still really like to see a statement of methodology, Fabio. What is it you want every ethnography student in New York to write an MA paper about in each of those schools? What standards do you propose? In what sense, that is, would these ethnographies generate “data” that could serve as the basis of generalization? (As I said above, feel free just to point me in the direction of a handbook for fieldwork that you’d ask every student to follow.)

    Like

    Thomas

    June 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm

  23. Thomas: The methodology is very straight forward. First, there are many fine books on ethnography and taking field notes, such as “Writing Ethnographic Field Notes.” Use one of them as a guide. Second, the ethnography instructors would settle on a question like “do teachers treat boys and girls differently in classes?” Not a fancy question, but one that is important and that can be answered. Third, the instructors would create a random sample of schools and grades within schools, and give out some standardized directions. Fourth, we send out the students. Students would be required to answer the standard question through observation plus anything else they want. Fifth, using the guidelines for field notes in Groves et al. (or other text) they’d write up memos and summaries. Sixth, these notes would be anonymized and made public to the whole ethnography team. Seventh, meta-analysis of notes would be conducted to answer the question.

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    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2012 at 5:25 pm

  24. I’m with Fabio on this one. The fact that you might require exceptional skills to gain access to certain field sites doesn’t necessarily imply that there is anything exceptional about ethnographic methodology. If you buy the garden variety view of social science where we construct concepts to categorize stuff and test hypotheses by deriving empirical implications and making observations, there is really no reason to see ethnography as anything other than a particular strategy for acquiring theoretically relevant information about the way the world works, much in the same way that we acquire information by reading protocols, legislation, the output of your favorite statistics software, or whatever.

    Like

    Mike

    June 19, 2012 at 6:05 pm

  25. I’d mostly agree with Fabio here. Ethnography (for some of its detractors as well as supporters) resists the “normal” social science label needlessly. Lots of strategies could help make it clear to all that it’s in the fold.

    But I’m not convinced that the random sampling strategy of site selection that Fabio keeps harping on is a necessary component of this. Purposive sampling has its place, in quantitative as well as qualitative research, particularly when dealing with small Ns. As Isaac Reed has it, probably the deeper issue here is our epistemological imagery: is there an underlying social reality that we are uncovering through the testing of theory or is theory’s role to provide (possibly many) interpretations of observed social realities?

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    cwalken

    June 19, 2012 at 6:18 pm

  26. Quick preface: I’m not arguing against ethnography, but against its generalizability and, by extension, against its status as a “science”. I don’t think science is the only worthwhile intellectual pursuit, and have some doubts about social science in particular. But my beef here is not with ethnography, just the use Fabio wants to make of it.

    Anyway, I had a look at Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, and it’s just as I thought. Here’s what the blurb says:

    “[The authors] show how transforming direct observations into vivid descriptions results not simply from good memory but more crucially from learning to envision scenes as written. A good ethnographer, they demonstrate, must learn to remember dialogue and movement like an actor, to see colors and shapes like a painter, and to sense moods and rhythms like a poet. The authors also emphasize the ethnographer’s core interest in presenting the perceptions and meanings which the people studied attach to their own actions. They demonstrate the subtle ways that writers can make the voices of people heard in the texts they produce. Finally, they analyze the ‘processing’ of fieldnotes, the practice of coding notes to identify themes and methods for selecting and weaving together fieldnote excerpts to write a polished ethnography.”

    That last sentence is the sticking point, I think. What Fabio is suggesting is that the final “processing” of the “data” can be a collective enterprise, entirely separate from the literary arts and crafts of the ethnographer in the field (so like an actor, so like a painter, so like a poet). What I am suggesting is that only the observer has the authority to “polish” the result into a proper ethnography, because only the observer is able to reverse the art of writing by “envisioning the scenes as written”, comparing it with memory, and then “make the voices of the people heard in the texts they produce”.

    An ethnography, unlike a survey, requires an authorial presence in the text. A voice that claims to have been there, i.e., speaks with the authority of an observer. That’s why you can’t aggregate the data.

    Consider: Fabio says that “[the notes and summaries written by the onsite observers] would be anonymized and made public to the whole ethnography team [and then] meta-analysis of notes would be conducted to answer the question.” But surely we’d have to test the meta-methodology by seeing whether the sense that the team makes of any one summary matches the sense that the actual observer would make of the same notes in a “polished ethnography”. I really doubt that test would be passed. But it would of course be very difficult to lay the team’s interpretation of a memo alongside the original observers interpretation and make an objective judgment about whether or not they agree that, to use Fabio’s example hypothesis, teachers treat boys and girls differently.

    I mean, unless you’re just going to run the test as a yes or no answer to that question. But in that case, why all the fuss: why not just send the students into the schools with that yes or no question “in mind”. Let them hang out and watch for a few weeks. Then ask them point blank yes or no. There’s your data. 50 schools, 50 answers, 37 yesses 13 nos. Why bother with “the perceptions and meanings which the people studied attach to their own actions”?

    Like

    Thomas

    June 19, 2012 at 6:45 pm

  27. cwalken writes: “I’d mostly agree with Fabio here. Ethnography (for some of its detractors as well as supporters) resists the “normal” social science label needlessly. Lots of strategies could help make it clear to all that it’s in the fold.”

    Is Bourdieu’s analytical work not normal social science, empirical, data driven, systematic, etc? To agree with the position on the table my view is you have to define Bourdieu out of “science.” Most of his data are unreplicatable and ungeneralizable according to the view proposed here. I don’t mind you holding such a position, but it really is a remarkable position to hold.

    Cwalken’s second paragraph presents some ideas and questions I can get more behind.

    Mike writes, “I’m with Fabio on this one,” and then proceeds in my reading to use the rest of his comments to argue against Fabio.

    Most of all, I am very appreciative of the interventions offered by Sallaz and, to a lesser extent, Thomas. I think the problem with social science as defined at the top of this thread is it leaves little room to study fleeting data about habitus, the multiplicity of capitals, intellectual properties, and other sociology of knowledge concerns. Many data today are symbols and text and images that come and go, hide and reappear. To set these data aside is theoretically and methodologically unnecessary. To me, it’s like the world that now exists, and the data that now proliferate, isn’t shaping the theory of method in Rojas’s position.

    Like

    Austen

    June 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm

  28. Austen, you are on crack. Lots of people try to replicate and test Bourdieu’s theories. All the time. Read a sociology journal, you’ll see.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2012 at 7:25 pm

  29. Following up on studies is not the same as saying the ‘data themselves are replicatable.’ Right? If following up on studies is the question, then your whole post is irrelevant, this whole thread is irrelevant. If following up on studies is the issue, then any study can meet that requirement and there is no need for the reforms you mention above or to even have this discussion. Bourdieu’s data simply do not meet the standards you lay out above.

    P.S. I don’t do crack! But I have no problem with the insinuation. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”

    Like

    Austen

    June 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm

  30. Data can be replicable in many ways. One can visit the same field site in ethnography, which does happen, though not enough. One can also conduct the same study with a different group of people, which is what I argue in that we need a sample of field sites. People can do both with Bourdieu’s work – people have revisited Algeria (his big field site) and people have done ethnographies of other groups to test his ideas about habitus.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2012 at 8:56 pm

  31. The strong version of my criticism is that you can’t step into the same river twice. Certainly, until we have something less literary in the way of methodology than “remember dialogue and movement like an actor, … see colors and shapes like a painter, and … sense moods and rhythms like a poet” (and in fact something that explicitly checks, not encourages, these literary tendencies) there’s not much “replication” in simply visiting the same field site. Two painters can paint the same landscape; the one does not replicate the other’s study.

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    Thomas

    June 19, 2012 at 9:14 pm

  32. Of course, they aren’t identical, but they are close enough. Two hydrogen atoms are exactly identical, but they are close enough.

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    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2012 at 9:18 pm

  33. If you honestly believe any difference between two objects prevents comparison and meaningful measurement of differences and commonalities, you preclude learning about anything because everything is completely new and old knowledge is completely irrelevant.

    On the other hand, you were the dude who stood up for post-modernism last year… so maybe you are ok with the impossibility of science…

    Like

    fabiorojas

    June 19, 2012 at 9:20 pm

  34. I think that’s an easy way out for you. You’re not going to insist that painting and poetry are sciences too are you? I’m not precluding anything. But am I saying you can learn something without doing science.

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    Thomas

    June 19, 2012 at 9:47 pm

  35. While Fabio and Thomas duel, an aside to Austen:

    Note my word choice: ”resists”. I didn’t mean that ethnography and interpretivism aren’t normal social science, I meant that some resist their categorization as normal social science. But I don’t think they should. Ethnography is part of our social science toolkit the way it is. Certainly, it and all of our tools can be improved (see Fabio’s suggestions which I’ve made clear I don’t all agree with), but a choice between quantiative/experimental research and ethnography is a false dichotomy.

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    cwalken

    June 19, 2012 at 9:59 pm

  36. Are you saying that accounts of a New York high school produced by two different ethnographers, employing “the subtle ways that writers can make the voices of people heard in the texts they produce” to record their observations, are in some straightforward way “not identical but close enough”, just like a batch of hydrogen atoms, observed by two chemists using laboratory equipment developed for the purpose, or a star observed by two different astronomers through two different telescopes? I really think you need to say much more about how you’re going to “standardize” ethnographic observation before you can claim this is a cinch … and (really?) that people like me who are skeptical must be all-out anti-science.

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    Thomas

    June 19, 2012 at 10:11 pm

  37. cwalken, I understand better now, thank you…You write:

    “I didn’t mean that ethnography and interpretivism aren’t normal social science, I meant that some resist their categorization as normal social science. But I don’t think they should.”

    I concur, which is why I vehemently disagree with the position posited at the top; appreciate the intervention provided by Sallaz; and disagree with Thomas that interpretivism can’t be categorized as science (which I read him as saying). To me and my research questions, the most important data are almost always meanings and in the form of text or image. These data are often unreplicatable — here today, gone tomorrow — and yet they are what I need to attain the ability to say something valid.

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    Austen

    June 20, 2012 at 12:04 am

  38. “Mike writes, “I’m with Fabio on this one,” and then proceeds in my reading to use the rest of his comments to argue against Fabio.”

    Fabio wants to generalize from ethnography. To do this you need some sort of standardized methodology so as to make data generated from one field site comparable with data generated from other field sites. Some people, like Thomas, seem to argue that this is impossible; there is something exceptional about ethnography that makes it essentially different from what people usually understand as science. I’m saying that there is nothing exceptional about ethnographic methodology that makes it different from other information gathering strategies in the social sciences. To the extent that there is a resistance against generalization and other social sciency activities, it is social rather than inherent to ethnography as such (as cwalken points out). If you’re going to argue that ethnography is by its very nature unscientific it seems to me that you would also have to discard the rest of the social sciences (which is of course what Thomas is doing), since at base all data is “qualitative”–just classified and categorized in different ways.

    As for the whole discussion about unique events etc — the fact that some events are unique or incredibly rare doesn’t stop people from doing astronomy, geology, biologi, etc, and I don’t think it should stop anyone from doing social science either.

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    Mike

    June 20, 2012 at 9:38 am

  39. Here’s an example of a collaborative, multi-sited ethnography that may be a modified version of what Fabio is envisioning:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Secret-Love-Marriage-HIV/dp/0826516831

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    rjw

    June 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm

  40. […] ethnography is totally generalizable (orgtheory.wordpress.com) […]

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  41. […] of ‘being empirical’ is represented in the prolific sociology blogger Fabio Rojas’s recent argument: “Ethnography is generalizable – just not within a single study…. The solution? Increase […]

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