steven lubet vs. the entire field of ethnography

Contexts magazine recently published an article by Northwestern law professor Professor Steven Lubet where he argued that ethnographers should seriously be interested in verifying claims reported in ethnographies. This is part of his bigger effort to critique ethnographic practices, not only in terms of truth making but also in terms of research ethics. Here are the links, some critics of Lubet, and then I’ll give you my brief opinion:

My take: Overall, I am on “Team Lubet.” I won’t relitigate earlier issues, but I will say that ethnographies are not exempt from the ethical principles that govern human behavior in general and social research in particular.

In terms of his specific issue in the Contexts article, I am mostly in agreement. This isn’t about legal standards vs. social science. It is about the robustness of research. If ethnography is to be taken seriously as a form of data collection, then we should be confident in the individual datum. In other words, if you said X happened, then when people check it out, given available resources, it should check out.

I have actually published some ethnography (see here, for example) but I am mostly an outsider to the ethnography community in sociology. From my “near outsider” view point, I sense that people are conflating Lubet’s fairly sensible criticisms with people who think that ethnography is junk science. Some of the response reflects this sore spot. Michael Burawoy’s point brings up empiricism and positivism, which I think is not quite right. You don’t need to be a hard core positivist to believe that ethnography might be strengthened with verification.

I am not an ethnographer hater. I take the opposite view point. Ethnography is one of the most powerful tools that can be used to study human behavior. But it only works if, within reason, the individual data points are valid (e.g., they report truth) and reliable (e.g., others who investigate report similar data). This is the same standard we hold for any research. Without this standard of evidence, ethnographic field notes are no more valuable than a survey filled out by randomly choosing answers.


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Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2019 at 12:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

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