surviving, completing, understanding, engaging, correcting

I tend to speak my mind at parties, especially when I feel like someone has said something inappropriate. I recognize it can get obnoxious and that there’s often not a lot of daylight between the big white guy sticking up for social justice and the big white guy pleased at the sound of his own righteousness. So I try to be careful about this, about the nature of terms like “correction” and “holding accountable” and “entering a dialogue,” all of which can too easily be a mask for a preening sanctimoniousness and, anyway, are a bit too heady when we’re having drinks at someone’s house or at some family thing and really it’d just be easier to talk about what somebody’s kids are up to this summer.

Sometimes when my partner senses I’m about to go off, she asks me to treat the situation like an ethnographer. Instead of disagreeing, ask questions: Why do you think that is? How does that work? Get a sense of how the world works.  It’s a trick I told her about five or six years ago, right when I was starting my first field work project, and it’s a method that makes any conversation interesting.  Everyone has a story, and everyone has a world.

Yet there’s a problem with treating the world we encounter like an ethnographer, and it’s helped me to realize that, as a sociological ethnographer, I have five different ways I can approach the world.  And bear in mind I’m a big white guy married to a woman, with a Ph.D. and a good job in a coastal American city, so privilege obviously affects all my interactions as well.  But I’ll talk about that more below.  So, here are the kinds of interactions I’m interested in: (1) surviving, (2) completing, (3) understanding, (4) engaging, and (5) correcting.  There’s a bit of a scale between them but they all blend into each other as well.

The first, surviving, is the scariest, and one I rarely have to deal with, especially now that I’m an adult.  These are interactions in which the balance of power means the situation is quite precarious for usually one of the actors but possibly both. Think of a woman dealing with a sexual harasser or an African-American dealing with an aggressive cop.  Or two people meeting each other in a Hobbesian state of nature. Trust isn’t clear and the point is just to get through it alive and with your health and dignity.

The second, completing, is pretty straightforward and is probably the one must studied by Goffman and Garfinkel inspired sociologists.  It’s the regular interactions we have when we meet people, some of which might well give us a kind of Randall Collins style emotional energy, but not necessarily. Thinking about using a cab, checking out at the grocery store, saying hello to coworkers as you walk past each other in the hall. Importantly, these can go in multiple directions. Completing can easily turn into surviving if the situation gets difficult (say the cab driver gets aggressive or says something bigoted).  It can also turn into engaging, which we’ll turn to later.

The third method of interaction, understanding, to some degree exists within each of these (after all, to survive an interaction you have to understand the person you’re surviving). However, for the other four methods of interaction, understanding is a means to an end.  In contrast, understanding as a category of engagement has understanding as its end.  This is what I mean when I talk about “becoming an ethnographer”: the goal is to figure out how people work: why they do what they do, how their multiple value spheres work together, how their networks and organization and institutions interact and build upon each other (or don’t).  That effort at understanding is not necessarily because you support them or agree with them, mind you.  It’s just because you want to understand.

The fourth, engaging, is what we usually talk about when we talk about democratic dialogue and Habermasian coffee shops and that kind of stuff. It obviously depends on understanding, but the goal is to be able to learn from others and an openness to being corrected not just on methods but even on deep commitments.  What’s critical here is that all sides are willing to have their minds changed.  You have to believe the best argument really can win.  Now this gets tricky for a host of reasons, not least ancient debates about sophism vs. the Truth with a capital T. Yet even more important is the question of whether it’s ever possible to have a conversation that’s even relatively autonomous from power.  For what it’s worth, I think it’s too convenient for academics to be completely cynical about this. Of course power colors everything, but if we didn’t believe better and worse arguments do, at least to some degree, matter, then we’ve all chosen a quite peculiar career.  But this is a much larger conversation I don’t have space for here. The point is that engaging is a means of talking in which both sides are willing to be corrected and come from a position of relative equality, if not equality of social position then at least equality as interlocutors.

The fifth, correcting, is pretty clear. It’s telling people they’re wrong. I’m not sure many of us are actually willing to be corrected, especially regarding things that are salient to our moral commitments. But we are willing to tell people they’re wrong, especially on social media. Yet the problem with correction is also an old philosophical one: who corrects the correctors? Also, how do I know what’s a non-negotiable that will bump my goal of completing, understanding, or engaging up to correcting? If you’re doing field work and someone says something offensive, do you just write it down? Do you say something? Do you critique it later when you’re writing up your notes?

And that gets to the tricky part for those of who do ethnography because we might well be doing “understanding” in our field work, but once we write, we’re not really doing “engaging” so much as “correcting”: the way we describe our respondents, in print, doesn’t give them (or folks reading the book who identify with them) much of a chance to write back.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is a tension.

These tensions aren’t just for ethnographers. All five of these kinds of interactions probably happen multiple times a day, maybe even multiple times in a single conversation.  Yet what’s tricky about them for me as an ethnographer (or even just me as a person at a party) is figuring out when to do which, when to lay down my ethnographer habits of understanding and pick up the citizenship work of engagement, and then when to go from engagement to correction, or to drop it all and try to just get by through completing the interactions that I have to do, talking about traffic and TV as I go to get another round.

How do these questions relate to our separate duties as citizens and scholars? It’s tempting to say the answer is that we all need to have a bit more courage to understand, engage, and even correct, especially those of for whom it’s not as common for interactions to suddenly turn into questions of surviving. But that’s also exhausting, and citizenship is a marathon, not a sprint.  And often there is something aesthetically pleasing in just figuring out how things work without always immediately turning a conversation into a moral struggle. (But then, given the inequalities our social world is built upon, those moral struggles are always there to be seen if we’re willing to see them.)

I’m not sure what the correct answer is here (as usual).  But it is something I’m trying to understand, and even, if I can, engage.




Written by jeffguhin

September 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Re: “And that gets to the tricky part for those of who do ethnography because we might well be doing “understanding” in our field work, but once we write, we’re not really doing “engaging” so much as “correcting”: the way we describe our respondents, in print, doesn’t give them (or folks reading the book who identify with them) much of a chance to write back. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is a tension.” Is this just a rephrasing of the same debate taken up by feminists, e.g. Stacey’s “Can there be a feminist ethnography?”

    Re: engaging vs. correcting – is correcting a subset of engaging, that is, engaging with both a particular purpose and a particular method (that may or may not be a worthy purpose, and may or may not be a successful method)?

    Liked by 1 person

    Dan Hirschman

    September 25, 2017 at 12:15 am

  2. Thanks for this Dan. Yes, it’s definitely related to (if not basically the same thing) as these themes taken up in the 1980’s by feminist ethnographers and the debates brought up in reference to the Writing Culture anthology. And interesting question re: engaging. Your’e broadening the word in really helpful ways. I don’t think correcting as I’m describing it is a subset of engaging, but “being corrected” is part of engaging. “Correcting” as I’m describing it doesn’t presume the corrector has anything to learn. (Think saying white supremacy is bad for example.) The problem, it seems to me, is that most moral problems aren’t as obvious as that white supremacy is bad but are often quite ornate, and even something like white supremacy is more complicated than it seems because people disagree about what the term actually means and what can accurately be describe as “white supremacy” (and therefore be justly called bad). But when I say correcting above, what I mean is those times when we come down hard whether via a scientific fact (global warming is still debated by scientists? wrong!) or what, for lack of a better term, I would call a moral fact, even if I’m uncomfortable with that kind of moral realism but I am in certain key ways a de facto moral realist. So, for example, when I find out people don’t hire women who wear hijabs, I come down hard on that as though they are saying something inaccurate about climate change (which, to be honest, I also come down hard on because of its, to me, moral salience. If people are saying, I don’t know, that jello is not made of animal bones, I really don’t care.)

    Liked by 1 person


    September 25, 2017 at 1:02 am

  3. Well done! You have overcome the Garfinkel syndrome:

    Harold Garfinkel, the most prominent representative of ethnomethodology, has contended that sociologists are like goldfish swimming in a bowl, confidently analyzing other goldfish, without having ever stopped to recognize the bowl and the water they have in common with the fish they study.
    (not sure if this is a quote from Gouldner, an attribution by a third party, or neither)



    September 25, 2017 at 12:49 pm

  4. You don’t do science, you do guilt. Your masochistic postmodernism is disgusting.



    September 25, 2017 at 4:00 pm

  5. I’m a Catholic, palavrot. Guilt is my deal. Even my breakfasts are masochistic. I feel most comfortable in a hairshirt.

    Liked by 2 people


    September 25, 2017 at 8:25 pm

  6. Jeff and Dan,

    This is also a current debate that is happening in qualitative journals – Ethnography, Qualitative Sociology etc. Just do a key word search for reflexivity or methods and you’ll find tons of articles. There are a lot of people writing about this exact thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    A. Nonymous

    September 26, 2017 at 4:54 pm

  7. Hi A. Nonymous,

    I appreciate you bringing that up. Of course there are current debates on these issues, and reflecting (there it is!) on my post, I see I nodded at some dudes in theory but no people thinking about reflexivity, a move driven by feminists. I’m a work in progress, and I’m sorry for the inconsistency.

    However, I am very much aware of this stuff. I’m an ethnographer and I’ve written a bit about this in a paper on Edward Said. The purpose of the post was more for me to think out loud (which is usually how I think about blog posts as opposed to peer review articles) about different ways of interacting and how that relates to ethnography, rather than to do a literature review of people who’ve thought like this. And again, reflexivity is only one piece of this. The argument above is more a laying out of ideal types of interaction, some of which tie into the reflexivity questions, but not necessarily all. That said, I hope it’s obvious (a) I’m not the first one to have these thoughts and (b) I’m not claiming to be the first ones to have these thoughts, though if it’s not I apologize. (More material for my hairshirt.) The post was already getting a bit long though, and, perhaps because I’m within the qualitative world, I assumed people knew about these conversations.

    You’re right that pieces about this stuff are in the journals Qualitative Sociology and Ethnography, even if those journals tend not to have as many pieces as you would expect on method and a lot more that are just examples of the method. Still, there’s good stuff in them every few issues that are straight up methods pieces. I’m also indebted to ongoing conversations in anthropology. It’s a good point that I should do more work to reference those having these conversations in my blog posts. A blog post is not a peer-review article, but it’s nonetheless important to call attention to work that’s relevant to the topic at hand. Thanks again!

    (And by the way, there’s no need for you to be anonymous. I appreciate the note. That’s the only way we get better at this stuff.)

    For what it’s worth for those reading, here are some helpful pieces on reflexivity and ethics in ethnography that I’ve benefitted from. There’s a ton more where this came from.

    Barton, Bernadette. “My auto/ethnographic dilemma: who owns the story?.” Qualitative Sociology 34.3 (2011): 431. (part of a really cool special issue)

    Behar, Ruth. Translated woman: Crossing the border with Esperanza’s story. Beacon Press, 2014.

    Huisman, Kimberly. ““Does this mean you’re not going to come visit me anymore?”: An inquiry into an ethics of reciprocity and positionality in feminist ethnographic research.” Sociological Inquiry 78.3 (2008): 372-396.

    Irwin, Katherine. “Into the dark heart of ethnography: The lived ethics and inequality of intimate field relationships.” Qualitative Sociology 29.2 (2006): 155-175.

    Lassiter, LukeEric, et al. “Collaborative ethnography and public anthropology.” Current Anthropology 46.1 (2005): 83-106.

    Lichterman, Paul. “Interpretive reflexivity in ethnography.” Ethnography 18.1 (2017): 35-45.

    Starn, Orin, ed. Writing culture and the life of anthropology. Duke University Press, 2015. (This is a response to the famous Writing Culture book. See especially the Danilyn Rutherford’s essay on “kinky empiricism”).

    Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. “The Reflexive Turn: The Rise of First‐Person Ethnography.” The Sociological Quarterly 54.1 (2013): 3-8. (intro to special section of the journal)

    And if you’re interested:

    Guhin, Jeffrey, and Jonathan Wyrtzen. “The Violences of Knowledge: Edward Said, Sociology, and Post-Orientalist Reflexivity.” Postcolonial Sociology. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2013. 231-262.




    September 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm

  8. […] 5 minutes well-spent: Jeff Guhin’s piece on the interaction models from which his professional (and non-professional) experiences borrow: […]


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