Political Ethnography

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  • Created by: moll23
  • Created on: 21-01-16 10:53


  • Hard to pin definition down
  • Very varied, used in most subject areas
  • Uses similar methods to that of the everyday person
  • However, different in that these are not transformed into written reports
  • Good as these can be referred back to in the future
  • Geertz – “thick description", attempt to find meaning
  • Example of eyelid twitch/wink- different implications
  • Our interpretation is never value free
  • Example - ethnocentricity
  • Has clear strengths and weaknesses which can simultaneously enable and hinder efforts to provide insight into the political
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  • Illuminated some important political truths
  • Could see the definite benefit in going right to the source
  • Schatz- liberating aspect of immersive fieldwork- allows the researcher to see through distorted claims made by institutions such as the media
  • Schatz- grounding aspect of ethnography helps to avoid losing touch with the real lived experience of people, not getting lost in abstract concepts and methods
  • Link to own experience of fieldwork
  • Immortalising a fleeting moment - can be used as proof in the case of political inconsistency to hold those in power to account
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  • Malinowski – Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922)
  •  Explored the daily lives of the Trobriand islanders in Papau New Guinea
  • Challenged Western preconceptions of non-market economies
  • Highlighted the “distorted, childish caricature” pushed by imperial powers in order to justify their colonial exploits and showed that so called ‘savages’ in fact have complex webs which organise almost every aspect of their lives
  • Mauss – The Gift (1925)
  • Contemporary of Malinowski
  • Studied ‘potlatch’ ceremonies of the First Nations people
  • Particular interest in the Yup’ik people of the Arctic circle
  • They practiced a total redistribution of wealth on a regular basis due to a belief that any concentration of goods would put a strain on their valuable social bonds
  • Both make the familiar strange and vice versa
  • Challenge the dominant narrative of Western capitalism as the ‘default’ and as somehow representative of an innate ‘human nature’
  • Shows that these systems are products of culturally specific social values rather than overarching universal compulsions
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  • Whilst Malinowski and Mauss’ work challenged dominant paradigms, ethnographic research can equally reinforce harmful narratives
  • Sahlins – Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief (1963)
  •  Explored the political systems of Melanesia and Polynesia – Melanesian big man regimes vs Polynesian cheiftanships
  • Concludes that Polynesians are more advanced and ‘civilised’ as their regimes more closely resemble those of Western societies
  • Derrida- difference, binaries
  • Clastres – Societies Against the State (1974)
  • Narratives like Sahlins are steeped in imperialistic prejudice
  • Rejects idea of ‘underdevelopment’
  • Uses biased Western standards as a measuring stick by which to judge countries with entirely different histories, values etc
  •  Not worse, just different
  • Sahlins provides just one of many examples of the dangers that ethnography can represent
  • Importance of reflexivity so that our work doesn’t merely reflect our own personal biases
  • Geertz reminds us that despite ‘value free’ ethnography being impossible, this should not stop us from attempting to find as valid a truth as possible whilst reminding the reader of their own social, political position
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  • Taussig – The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980)
  • Exposes informal political settings
  • Explores the significance of devil related imagery in folklore of South American peasants
  • Found that the devil represented capitalism, reflecting the political change in their communities
  • Shows us that a finding which, without immersive fieldwork, may seem to be a cultural quirk, is in fact highly political in nature
  • Also highlights the vantage point that those on the periphery often have in noticing features of systems that we are familiarised with
  • Similar to idea of ‘standpoint feminism’ – that the oppressed often have a unique viewpoint which exposes truths obscured to those who benefit from them
  • Further evidence of politics within informal settings comes from Harris and Wyn (2009)
  • Explored the ways in which young people in Australia are unaware of their intimate engagement with politics
  • Highlights disjuncture between supposed ‘political apathy’ and an intense interest in politics when not couched in formal, abstract terms
  • Both studies show that what appears on the surface to be one thing, with immersive fieldwork is soon exposed to be something very different
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  • One of first major debates in which Winch criticises Evans Pritchard’s research on witchcraft among the Azande people of Sudan
  • E.P concluded that in the context of Azande life, witchcraft was as rational as any Western practice
  • However, he then goes on to add that ultimately Azande beliefs are irrational in comparison to our own
  • Winch argues that E.P is mistaken in evaluating Azande beliefs based upon a comparison to Western society
  • MacIntyre - should create a baseline which enables to assess the rationality of both Azande and Western beliefs fairly
  • Winch disagrees, argues that any ‘measure’ attempted would ultimately reflect the values of the person establishing it, either directly or indirectly
  • Exposes the multifaceted nature of debate surrounding ethnography
  • Reminds us that our own values will always have an influence on the work we produce
  • Encourages us to describe situations only within their own context as applying them to another context is ultimately fruitless and exposes nothing
  • Miner – Nacirema shows us that any group can be made to appear foreign when applied to a different context
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  • Clear from my own research and that of others that ethnography has strengths and weaknesses in its quest to illuminate political truths
  • Can liberate and ground researcher
  •  But important to pay attention to reflexivity
  • Has made many positive contributions to our knowledge of the political
  • E.g. insights into informal political settings
  • E.g. challenged preconceptions around non-Western political economies
  • However, has also at times reinforced harmful narratives such as the dichotomy between ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’
  • Sometimes even acted as a pretence whilst imperialistic violence was inflicted upon native populations
  • When paying due attention to reflexivity and employing Schatz’s ‘caring sensibility’, ethnography can expose truths around the political and the social practices that it informs
  • However, must be careful not to simply reiterate our own values, in the process creating work which reflects more about ourselves than that which we are studying
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