Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Stoller on Goffman and Ethnography

Paul Stoller examines the Goffman controversy and the future of ethnography. He recognizes that there are really two different sorts of issues involved. The first has to do with her interactions with her subjects. Stoller argues that emotional involvement with one’s subjects is likely to occur in ethnographic research and that ethical dilemmas can arise from getting close to one’s subjects.

doing ethnography, like living life, involves love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, and courage and fear. Sometimes ethnographic experience brings us to face to face with issues of life and death--the real stuff of the human condition.

 This seems reasonable, though, if in the process of research someone commits a crime, I think they should be prepared to accept the consequences.
Unfortunately, when he gets to the second issue, which has to do with methodology, I think he throws up a straw man. He asks

“But can we trust ethnographic accounts? Can ethnographers get "it" right? Given the infinite complexities of the social laboratory "the quest for certainty," as the philosopher John Dewey put it, is an illusion. If ethnographers cannot provide a perfect, scientifically verifiable representation of reality, how can anyone judge the contribution of an ethnographic work? This question, which has been raised by some of Goffman's critics, fails to fully appreciate the aim of ethnography.

I believe we should try to get it right, but I think most of recognize that out understanding of the world is always incomplete, we can only have varying degrees of certainty depending on the degree to which the available evidence appears to support or contradict a particular belief.  I certainly do not want everyone to follow some supposed model of what is “scientific.” I don’t even know what “scientifically verifiable” means.

What I do ask is that a scholar’s attempts to persuade me involve more than saying “trust me.” What appears to be lacking in Goffman’s work is a means by which one can determine whether or not her interpretation is based upon empirical evidence, her observations, or on her imagination. This is particularly problematic because of the numerous inconsistencies within the story that she tells and the inability to find evidence consistent with some of her claims, described here and here and here and here.

In his own work on sorcerers, Stoller reported which villages he worked in. If I thought his stories of sorcery were a little far-fetched, I could visit Tillaberi and see if my observations of sorcerers resembled Stoller’s; I could even ask people if they had any recollection of Stoller. Anthropologists have done this and, occasionally, challenged the validity of earlier ethnographies: Mead on Somoa, and Chagnon on the Yanomami. It doesn’t seem to me that this sort of follow up is possible for Goffman’s study. Goffman writes about an anonymous group of people in an unidentified neighborhood in Philadelphia. Yes, I could go to Philadelphia, but if my experience was completely different than Goffman’s should could just say I got the wrong neighborhood. The problem is not that her work isn’t verifiable; the problem is that her work does not appear to be falsifiable. Any evidence that appears to contradict her work will be explained away.

I want to know how an impartial, or even critical, observer can evaluate her evidence. Michael LaCours and Michael Bellisales, just to name two, have shown that “just trust me” is not enough.

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