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THEORY IN THE FIELD

JAMES S. DUNCAN and NANCY G . DUNCAN

I n the more than thirty years since we began our graduate training we have singly and jointly conducted fieldwork in the United States, India, Canada, and Sri Lanka. Our discussion here is about our work in Bedford, New York, although what we say applies to our other field sites as well. Bedford is our focus because it is the place we know best, personally and professionally. Nancy grew up there and still has family and friends in town, and we return three times a year. Jim first conducted fieldwork there in the summer of 1971, Nancy wrote her dissertation on the area in the 1980s and at present we are completing a monograph about the town. Our essay is divided into three parts. We discuss why we believe interviewing is a crucial component of fieldwork in cultural geography. Choosing to conduct interviews, or not, invokes theoretical debates about structure and conscious action and raises ethical questions of reinterpreting informants interpretations. A second section addresses the use of theories in fieldwork and our choice of various theoretical frameworks over the years. The final section discusses problems raised by our theoretical perspectives and the inevitable intimacy and obligations that arise when we work in a small place over many years. ONINTERVIEWING AS
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THEORETICAL DECISION

For some cultural geographers who study contemporary places, interviewing is integral to fieldwork; for many others it is not. There is a long tradition in cultural geography of visual and behavioral analysis, especially reading the landscape (Meinig 1979; Lewis 1983) and mapping observations (Foote, Hugill, and Mathewson 1994). The landscape-reading orientation has tended to steer researchers away from interviewing informants who have their own readings of the landscape and toward the cultural geographers expert reading. Such a choice often inadvertently, but perhaps not unexpectedly, dovetails with a degree of cultural reductionism, for the decision not to interview informants often reveals an unacknowledged belief in relatively homogeneous cultural reception. Although we conceive of cultures as systems of meanings, values, and practices that individuals within particular cultural groups share in some degree, we prefer to steer clear of reductive cultural determinism. Various national groups can be distinguished by shared assumptions and practices, but analysis need not operate at such a gross level. Any study based on generalized meaning inevitably masks the complexity and fragmentation that exist within overarching structures. This includes differences that members of a national group use to distinguish themselves
% DR.JAMES DUNCAN is a university lecturer in geography and a fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England CB2 3EN, where DR. NANCY DUNCAN is a fellow of Fitzwilliam College.
The Geographical Review 91 (1-2): 399-406, January-April 2001 Copyright 0 2001 by the American Geographical Society of New York

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from other members of the group along the lines of class, age, race, gender, taste, sexuality, place, occupation, and, within these, a still more vast array of individual and group characteristics. A number of useful theoretical frames capture the at once structured and improvised nature of meaning systems. To explore these, individual or group interviewing, participant observation, or, at the very least, written questionnaires are probably needed to open up a studys potential empirical richness. Oversimplification is a particularly great danger when cultural analysis is overly abstract and divorced from fieldwork. But reductionism in empirical fieldwork is a danger, too, especially when it is insufficiently sensitive to differences among informants, is based on small numbers, or assumes homogeneity where none exists. Extensive and intensive interviewing becomes not just one methodological choice but theoretically highly desirable when in the field. There are various general, abstract theoretical perspectives on the structureaction relationship. Choosing among these is a matter of what Anselm Strauss calls theoretical sensitivity to the complexity, nuances, and unexpected contingencies of specific empirical data (1987,ii). This includes not only the immediate empirical context but also previous research and a researchers life experience. Highlevel theoretical frameworks provide general orientations and guidelines. Their frameworks are more likely to be revised, left implicit, or even forgotten than overthrown or disproved. Such frameworks are more for orientation than for the generation of hypotheses. But they can also encourage openness to data and to the formulation of locally and historically specific, grounded, and substantive theory. The structure-action relationship may be explored using semiotics, based on a structural linguistic distinction between langue (the formal structure of a language) and parole (the freer, more creative, manner that individuals use in speaking) (Saussure 1986).Although this analogy applies to material, nonlinguistic cultural practices, its undue emphasis, even if metaphorically, is on the linguistic. The structure of a language may be more stable and less politically or economically invested than many other structures (or networks). The metaphor is not always insightful. Symbolic interactionists approach the structure-action problem with a conception of a highly social and thoroughly relational (as opposed to an individual) self (Mead 1934; Goffman 1959; Blumer 1969). The units of analysis are social networks, reference groups, and generalized others, rather than individuals. Perhaps more than any other, this perspective recognizes interdependency among human actors. Individuals are never independent; they are profoundly affected by others in every thought, action, and explanation despite frequent voicing of individualistic or voluntaristic sentiment. Another attempt to escape the untenable choice of voluntarism or reductive determinism is found in Anthony Giddenss structuration theory, wherein active (but not wholly aware) human agents draw on and shape inherited resources and structures in the course of their daily lives (1979). More recent formulations of the relationship include Latours actor network theory (Latour 1987; Law and Hassard 1999), based on an expanded notion of agency (nonhuman or human) and heterogeneous

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networks (which are substituted for potentially ahistorical and overly coherent structures). Pierre Bourdieus (1977,1990) and Judith Butlers (1990) theories of practice and performance provide alternative takes on the structure-action problem. Let us give a brief example from our informants in Bedford. Most of our interviewees are upper-middle- or upper-class Americans. They share an aestheticized view of residential life and a love for the landscape of Bedford, a rural, pastoral landscape common to many affluent, Anglophile towns of the eastern United States. There appears to be a significant cultural homogeneity in Bedford, and had we simply relied on visual analysis and casual conversation with a few people we might have left it at that. Our interviews revealed something else: Although there is general agreement on the overarching landscape aesthetic, people differ greatly in what details they value and in their opinion of how the aesthetic should be implemented. People have pronounced opinions of how others construct their gardens, walls, and gates and of whether they ought to cut down their trees, sell off a spare lot, or allow horse riding on their property. And they construct multiple meaning systems with elaborate and contradictory interpretations. Differences may seem trivial or superficial to an outsider, but they are all-consuming to those concerned. People so closely and personally identify with their aesthetic choices and landscape taste that when these are judged negatively by other residents as not suitable to the Bedford image, they are often devastated. Variations in local meaning shape consumption-based social divisions within towns and are closely entwined with preservation movements, ecological practices, and land legislation in towns that try, through exclusionary zoning, to maintain particular interpretations of the Anglophile, pastoral model (Duncan and Duncan 1997). The network of links between such heterogeneous phenomena as English landscape taste, nature, and social exclusion are historically and socially complex and subtle, not easily predicted except from within local variants of a cultural meaning system (Duncan and Duncan 2001). Only interviewing or in-depth participatory methodologies can extract the conflicts, interconnections, anxieties, and specificities (historical or emerging) that roil beneath the calm surface of such situated meaning systems. Our favored approach, it should be clear, is hermeneutic, making paramount the interpretations of our informants. The approach we take is also critical. The knowledge we have of the cultural practices and networks of our own society is anything but perfect. Individuals are only partially conscious of the reasons why they do what they do and are unreflexive about the larger structuring processes and resources (networks and political economic technologies). Individuals will provide the researcher with a crucial account of their actions in relation to cultural systems, but the account is always partial. Field-workers should not take respondents statements at face value; rather, they should interrogate them critically. If this seems presumptuous, it is no different from what we do every day: We speculate about the unvoiced motives of others. Researchers try to make their interrogations more rigorous and explicit.

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Analysis creates space for the researcher to engage in a hermeneutic exchange and to investigate the respondents taken-for-granted cultural assumptions. This posits a complexity and speculation that is rather daunting. Certainly it is fraught with ethical questions. How can a field-worker critically interrogate a respondents statements? First, by acquiring in-depth knowledge of the respondents cultural systems. That is crucial to understanding the respondents take on the system and can tease out elements respondents are opaque to but that nonetheless affect the achievement and maintenance of a desired social status. A second acquisition is in-depth knowledge of the place being studied and the intersection of local practices with larger cultural systems. Local places develop interpretive traditions or local lore that serve as a further context for the actions of individuals living there. Longterm research in a place is clearly preferable to shorter-term study. A third avenue is to find a theoretical perspective that guides one through the complex, working across spatial scales. Exploration of causes and consequences, penetrating not only conscious thought but also the practiced but unarticulated, is then feasible.
IN THEORIES THE

FIELD

We adopt a rather catholic view of theory: It is the construction of generalizations (but not overgeneralizations), either from a specific piece of empirical research or from critical reflection about the worlds we experience. Theories help us reconceptualize the local and the specific with references to comparative concepts and by translating specificities into more general frameworks, so that debates beyond the immediate setting can be opened up. Theories should be tools for interrogating commonsensical discourse. With theory we may communicate more effectively with colleagues who do not share our interest in the specifics of the place but who see useful connections between their research questions and ours. The overarching questions that have preoccupied us concern individuals as enmeshed in their constraining and enabling networks. As cultural geographers we have explored the role of landscape and place in constituting and at times aestheticizing (naturalizing and obscuring) this relationship. This overarching question lay behind Jimsdissertation on the superorganic in American cultural geography (Duncan 1980) and has underpinned our fieldwork in Bedford and elsewhere. We prefer a theoretically informed but thoroughly grounded approach to fieldwork over a relatively untheorized, empiricist one on a number of grounds. By employing theory in our fieldwork we can be guided by the work of social scientists and philosophers who have reflected on the nature of meaning systems and the relationships between practices and social structures. These more general notions inform our own explorations of cultural practices in particular places. Our first fieldwork in Bedford explored the ideas of Erving Goffman about the presentation of self and symbolic-interactionist ideas of socially constituted selves (Goffman 1959). His theories helped us understand social divisions within Bedford in 1970 and the role that landscape and landscape taste played in groups and their construction of social identities. Out of this came our theory of the presentation of self through residential landscapes.

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When Nancy conducted research in Bedford on the struggle over affordable housing, she was attracted to various realist theories of the social construction of reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Searching for a social psychological explanation of structured inequalities, she found Giddens theory of structuration a key organizing principle, explaining how often uncoordinated actions of thousands of present and past residents could create, maintain, and undermine broader spatial and political structures, which in turn helped to shape their collective actions. She found Antonio Gramscis (1992-1996) concept of hegemony and Bertell Ollmans (1971) theory of alienation useful in avoiding overly voluntaristic definitions of human agency and in helping to explain both the general consensus of opinion found in Bedford and the lack of recognition of regional interdependencies and social consequences of collective action. Our more recent Bedford work develops notions of the aesthetic and aestheticization implicit in earlier studies. To rethink Bedford we drew on Bourdieus 1984 empirical work on elites in France, which theorized their aestheticized lives. Likewise, we use Butlers 1990 work on performativity to shape our ideas on what our informants in Bedford told us about how they organize and improvise their lives using the residential landscape to construct their social identities. Bedfords landscapes, we discovered, are integral to the daily production of residents identities-identities achieved not just in places but often through places. This is especially so in the more economically privileged classes through aesthetic pleasures afforded by beautifully preserved and maintained sites. Just as clothes, cars, and living rooms enact the identities of the relatively well off, whole landscapes are micromanaged in a performance of social identities for the most affluent. We use the terms enact and perform rather than reflect or communicate because aesthetic objects, including landscapes, are constitutive of identities. History and nature are embodied in landscapes-history and nature as good taste, as aesthetic categories, as distinction-and so become all-consuming goals. Heritage is a kind of self-perpetuation, and through landscape it can be achieved by residents, including new residents, who acquire ancestry and a right to nature through property ownership in a town such as Bedford. We choose our theoretical orientation and develop substantive theoretical concepts on pragmatic grounds. We ask how theory sensitizes us to data at hand, and the data help us rethink theoretical concepts. Does this lead to better understanding of the particular social situation we are researching? We do not want to exemplify theories generated elsewhere. We prefer to refine, revise, and possibly replace theoretical concepts according to our current empirical findings. Although our theories may lead us to see our data in a new light, we hope never to impose theory that is resistant to our data.
ETHICSI N THE FIELD

Fieldwork ethics are far from straightforward. We described fieldwork as hermeneutic, with researchers analyzing informants accounts. That raises ethical ques-

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tions. A researcher should not presume to represent accurately other peoples interpretations, especially not alleged misinterpretations, without careful consideration of the consequences. In studying privileged groups we have tended more toward ideology critique and the study of the successful workings of hegemony than of resistance. We adopt a more critical attitude toward our informants than we perhaps might have had we not believed that their interests lay (sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously) in preserving the status quo and in failing to acknowledge the social consequences (often unintended) of their collective action. Such ethical questions may be less pressing for the researcher who conducts advocacy research than they are for us. Our interest in social justice leads us to expose the structural basis of the privilege of groups such as those in Bedford. The issues of our obligations to informants and to notions of social justice are complex. Although we have tried to be empathetic, even sympathetic, to our informants, we have often found that notions of justice have moved us to an adversarial stance. Although we understand and even share the residents wish to preserve and enhance what they take to be the rural beauty of the town, we are critical of the exclusionary effects of environmentally based zoning laws that are designed to exclude new housing. Our belief that more affordable housing can be made available in the New York Metropolitan Region without sacrificing residents environmental goals outweighs our sympathy for informants who seek to restrict development. How quickly the ethical tension between an obligation to informants and what we see as social justice in housing is brought to the fore turns on how much of our anticipated analysis we choose to reveal. Although we are honest about our views of the connections between preservation and exclusion, our confessions tend to fall on deaf ears. Interview questions may address local environmental protection practices and historic preservation, but most informants simply cannot believe that we might be critical of these practices. Our criticisms will emerge in a monograph that will be widely read in Bedford, if nowhere else, and our informants will feel hurt and betrayed. Such feelings will be exacerbated by our use of long quotations from informants followed by commentaries in which we seek to situate their aesthetic values and exclusionary practices within a broader cultural context of origins and consequences. Although we take great pains to disguise the identities of speakers, some people will recognize themselves. Feelings of betrayal can be particularly pronounced in a field setting where one has worked for a long time. Such is certainly the case for us in Bedford, where some of the people we have interviewed are family and friends. As critical social scientists we must decide whether our obligation to reveal the consequences of the conservation and historical preservation movements that animate the citizens of Bedford takes precedence over our commitment to informants. Given that most academic writing has minimal or no social impact, either positive or negative, we have chosen to go ahead, in the hope of at least bringing attention to interrelationships that many residents of Bedford and similar towns throughout the metropolitan area have not been confronted with before.

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CONCLUSION In our fieldwork we have tried to achieve nuanced, hermeneutic studies of the social construction of structured systems. This combines several apparently incompatible goals. We believe, however, that they can be combined effectively as long as no ontological distinction is posited between ideas and materiality or between critical and realist research. The structured and structuring practices of knowledgeable human subjects in all their diversity and local specificity must be taken seriously and yet subjected to criticism from our outsiders perspective. We know that empathy is a potent research tool, yet we must stand back and be critical. We try to use any expertise we may have acquired as academics in our critical hermeneutic work rather than offer expert readings of the landscapes themselves. This is not to say that, in order to effectively study the constitutive role of landscapes in social practice and in the performance of identities, we do not need some expertise in the natural and cultural history of landscapes. We agree with John Tulloch when he writes, The rich diversity of cultural forms, practices and identities is being celebrated at the expense of a critical analysis of their implication in the daily renewal of the pernicious logics of class, sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, nationalism, amongst others, that are all too indicative of post-modern societies (1999,159). Our studies of exclusion feature class and localism prominently. These pernicious logics continue to result in relative stability in the face of the resistance and transgression that we and other postmodern cultural theorists are keen to explore. Nevertheless, Tulloch continues, and we would agree, there is a need for an emphasis on the inescapably local, partial and fragmentary in the context of the interconnected and globalizing (1999,160).But causal analysis is as appropriate to culturally specific, local, rare, even unique, events as it is to spatially, culturally, or historically extensive regularities. We see no logical difficulties, only practical ones, in doing both extensive and intensive research or in doing both critical and grounded empirical research.
NOTE
I. The model of reading the landscape need not imply a visualist or behaviorist methodology. For example, Jim Duncan uses the metaphor of reading to unravel how different historical actors have interpreted the landscape of Kandy, Sri Lanka (1990). In this instance, of course, the archive is used in place of the interview (for a discussion of some of the problems of using the archive in this manner, see Duncan 1999).

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