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The ethnography of process: Excavating and re-generating civic engagement and political subjectivity
Debra Spitulnik Vidali Ethnography 2014 15: 12 originally published online 23 October 2013 DOI: 10.1177/1466138113502511 The online version of this article can be found at: http://eth.sagepub.com/content/15/1/12

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Article

The ethnography of process: Excavating and re-generating civic engagement and political subjectivity
Debra Spitulnik Vidali
Emory University, USA

Ethnography 2014, Vol. 15(1) 12–31 ! The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1466138113502511 eth.sagepub.com

Abstract This article problematizes the ethnography of process with respect to civic engagement and political subjectivity. Process is approached in a two-pronged sense: as a target of ethnographic/phenomenological discovery and as a place-based issue particular to the US. Regarding the first sense, I examine the dialogic emergence of political subjectivity in specific communication contexts. Concurrently, I raise epistemological questions about the power of words to name states and processes of civic-being. Regarding the second sense, I argue that the experience, expression, and investigation of political subjectivity in the US is informed and hampered by a political/discursive culture that emphasizes discrete ‘engagement measures’ and ‘decisive stances’ over processes. Interweaving these two prongs together, I argue for greater experimentation with re-presentational forms that excavate and regenerate processes of civic engagement and political subjectivity. Data stem from ethnographic and theatrical work with young adults in Atlanta and national survey instruments designed to measure ‘engagement’. Keywords ethnography, civic engagement, subjectivity, phenomenology, publics, discourse, voting, US

Corresponding author: Debra Spitulnik Vidali, Department of Anthropology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. Email: debra.vidali@emory.edu

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As every experienced field-worker knows, the most difficult task in social anthropological fieldwork is to determine the meaning of a few key words, upon an understanding of which the success of the whole investigation depends. (Evans-Pritchard, 1962: 80) Ich fu ¨rchte mich so vor der Menschen Wort. Sie sprechen alles so deutlich aus . . . Ich will immer warnen und wehren: Bleibt fern. Die Dinge singen ho¨r ich so gern. I shudder with fear for the word of man. Everything he proclaims is so precise . . . I want always to warn and resist: Stay away. To hear things sing is what pleases me most. (Rainer Maria Rilke (1898), translated by Cliff Crego)

There is something both magnetic and disruptive about keywords. Keywords attract with the allure of fixity and crystallization, promising to be fast-track windows into a culture, a mind-set, or a state of being. They disrupt with the illusion that culture, or a mind-set, is static, etchable into a small set of words, ones that are key. While many cultural anthropologists have moved past the narrow idea that keywords unlock key concepts, as well as the kind of positivist enterprise exemplified by Evans-Pritchard above, there still seems to be a fascination with and even dependency on the power of keywords. For example, while ethnosemantics has long diminished as a frontal project, its echoes reverberate throughout the social sciences in various forms of what Silverstein has called naı¨ ve Whorfianism (1998: 422). The allure of keywords creates a tension within the work that we do as social scientists, both in our unearthing of lifeworlds and in our professional maneuvering (Bourdieu, 1988; Brightman, 1995; Spitulnik, 2002). The objection to keywords – and all words, for that matter, if one is to follow Rilke – is not just an objection to reductionism, but to the violence that they do to human experience or to ‘reality’. For either the science or art of ethnography, and for the ethnography of our tribe (the tribe of culture-analyzers/documenters), the objection at the professional level might also include an objection to the unspoken acceptance – or lack of sustained discussion – regarding the degree to which keywords are operators of both symbolic and economic capital in our own line of business. With every concept from ‘culture’ to ‘modernity’, from ‘development’ to ‘democracy’, being raked over the coals and turned into a moving target, or a field of relations, we still end up rallying around such terms, cashing in on their value as fetishized, objectified, essentialized things with value, if only as such under erasure. In this essay I am concerned with how key words such as ‘engagement’, ‘apathy’, ‘activism’, ‘democracy’, and ‘citizenship’ both saturate and shape understandings of political agency. These understandings span across numerous arenas of life and discourse, from public policy to social theory, from personal assessment to interpersonal relationships. But rather than unpacking each of these keywords and tracing their

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circulation through various arenas, or hoping that they are fast-tracks to anthropological discovery, I wish to move in a more Rilkean direction: worried about the fixity of words and curious about the potential ineffability of human experience. Here, I offer an intervention into the minefield of buzz words by exploring two interconnected questions: What does it mean to do an ethnography of civic engagement? What does it mean to do an ethnography of political subjectivity? The material that I discuss stems from national survey instruments designed to measure ‘engagement’ and from my own ethnographic and theatrical work on the relation between media use and political engagement among young adults (ages 18–25) from all walks of life in Atlanta.1 The first question – how to conduct an ethnography of civic engagement – has been demonstrated, or tangentially broached, at a case study level through ethnographies or other kinds of qualitative explorations (for examples see Graeber, 2009; Couldry et al., 2009; Putnam, 2000; Eliasoph, 1998). It has not been raised, to the best of my knowledge, in a general sense. For example, it has not been framed in terms of questions about methods and evidentiality. In the following I address this gap, by highlighting the need to ask fundamental questions about where one looks, ethnographically, for evidence of civic engagement or disengagement, and how one attends to the tension between analytical categories, culturally-specific concepts, and internal experiences of engagement or connection. This analytical attention itself might be seen as a delicate choreography (cf. Janesick, 2000), like engagement itself, that responds to and creates pulls and pushes across different force fields (Snapshot 1).
Snapshot 1. Engagement choreography Jin sees Tina walking by.2 Jin: Tina! Tina: Hey Jin. Hey Paul. What are you guys doing? Jin: Hey, how’s it going? We’re trying to get some volunteers to go out and campaign for Obama this weekend. (Approaching Tina with her clipboard.) Tina: Oh, cool. (Tries to keep her pace and walk past them, but Jin comes closer and blocks her path.) Jin: Yeah, are you interested? Are you free this weekend? Tina: Um, not really. (Trying to stay in motion and move past Jin.) I have a test to study for. I haven’t really been keeping up with the election or anything either. I’m not even registered to vote. Paul: You aren’t? Re-Generation: A Verbatim Documentary Play about Media and Civic (Dis)Engagement, by Debra Vidali

In the choreography of this essay, I approach process in a two-pronged sense: as a target of ethnographic/phenomenological discovery and as a place-based issue particular to the US. Regarding the first sense, I examine the dialogic emergence of political subjectivity in specific communication contexts. Concurrently, I raise

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Scene from Re-Generation with Tina, Paul, and Jin (l to r) played by Natalia Via, Ruben Diaz, and Emma Calabrese. Tina ‘‘I’m not even registered to vote.’’ Paul ‘‘You aren’t?’’ Photo by Bianca Copello.

epistemological questions about the power of words to name states and processes of civic-being. Regarding the second sense, I argue that the experience, expression, and investigation of political subjectivity processes in the US is both informed and hampered by a political/discursive culture that potentially obviates the expression and investigation of process, through its over-emphasis on decisive stances and discrete engagement measures, among other things. Taking these two prongs together, I argue for greater experimentation with re-presentational forms that excavate and regenerate processes of civic engagement and political subjectivity. Alongside a discussion of national reports designed to measure something called ‘engagement’, I weave a series of snapshots (from my theatrical work, interview research, and wider ethnographic work) through the article, using them to illustrate analytical points, engagement stances, and re-presentational strategies. Many can be read as analytical contributions at a double level – about both epistemology in general and the anthropological study of engagement in particular.

Subjectivity, evidentiality and the ethnography of process
Like the first question posed above – what does it mean to do an ethnography of civic engagement? – the second question – about ethnographies of political subjectivity – has received little explicit discussion in relation to issues of evidentiality, despite the widespread mobilization of the subjectivity concept throughout cultural anthropology and cultural studies research for almost

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two decades. Ortner seems to speak to this lacuna indirectly, by highlighting the need for a ‘robust anthropology of subjectivity’ (2006: 127) in her farreaching discussion of the concept. Through the exegesis of two Geertz articles, she explains how the interpretive method uncovers subjectivities as ‘complex structures of thought, feeling, and reflection, that make social beings always more than the occupants of particular positions and the holders of particular identities’ (2006: 115). At the same time, however, Ortner seems unconcerned with the possibility that the interpretive method asks readers to take a leap of faith that actual modes of consciousness, states of mind, or experiential realities of real people have been uncovered and connected through the method. There is no direct discussion about how one builds an inductive argument about subjectivity from a range of interpretable cultural artifacts or processes (for example from kinship terms, calendrical systems, gambling games, and so on). Evidentiality in this sense is not overtly on the radar of such kinds of interpretive anthropology (Spitulnik, 2010).3 What is missing, in part, is distinguishing ‘individual subjectivity’ as a phenomenological problem – that is, approaching the experiencing subject in terms of felt processes of experiencing a relation to a self, others, and the world – which is separate but related to ‘culturally-specific concepts of subjectivity’, understood as the subject positions, stances, attitudes, values, and ideal behaviors that are created or promoted by cultures, institutions, and other ideological systems. What does it look like to do an ethnography of processes of political subjectivity? How can such an ethnography of process balance the re-presentation of ongoing and emergent experience with the use of keywords (both emic and etic) – such as ‘apathetic’, ‘engaged’, ‘cynical’ – that name internal states? While there is an extensive set of terms for political positionalities or states, the language of/for process seems rather anemic.4 Such questions join a long-standing concern with – and even theoretical privileging of – process – across numerous fields and approaches, such as phenomenology, linguistic anthropology, symbolic anthropology, practice theory, performance studies, symbolic interactionism, the ethnography of communication, post-Marxist critical theory, and psychotherapy. Significantly, for many of these approaches, a theory of the social maps directly into a method of data analysis. Put into shorthand, the recipe for studying process might then be stated as: Reality is socially constructed, so the goal is to look for the real-time emergence of social values and categories, and the processes that contribute to their stabilization and normalization (neutralization).5 Or, stances and statuses are achievements-in-process rather than methodological primitives, so the goal is to track the emergence of such interactional alignments and co-constructions in practice/discourse/interaction as it unfolds over time, within specific communication contexts.6 Many phenomenological approaches within anthropology and sociology take time, temporality, and process over time as central organizing research problems (see Katz and Csordas, 2003). For the most part, this phenomenological concern is motivated by a theoretical position that the

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experiencing subject is a process in time and that temporality is a subjectively experienced phenomenon. Building on this work, I wish to draw attention to the dialogic and emergent nature of political subjectivity.7 Crucially, such processes of dialogicality manifest in bodily movement, as well as in talk and other semiotic practices. Further, they exemplify what Husserl has defined as ‘phenomenological modification’, that is, ‘acts by which social actors take on differing attitudes, and or more less reflective or engaged stances, when relating to objects of experience or life more generally’ (Desjarlais and Throop, 2011: 88). For the study of political subjectivity, the analysis of such dialogicality is particularly pronounced since certain keywords themselves are semiotic operators in the discursive fields of research, analysis, and professional cultures. As such, they disrupt the possibility of having neat divisions between etic and emic categories. Furthermore, and perhaps even more significantly, these keywords – and the semantic networks and communicative practices which anchor their meanings – shape the phenomenological horizons of experience for those who are commenting, sharing, talking, and being-in-the-world as political selves. This, then, is precisely where the subjectivities that Ornter writes of – culturally-specific concepts of subjectivity and possible subject positions – intersect and inform subjectivities as experienced, i.e. modes of consciousness and sensation, as well as states and processes of mind.
Snapshot 2. ‘Get comfortable with there being gray areas’ Fifteen minutes into the interview, I ask Nathan: ‘What do you think is the burning issue [for you]? . . . Something that needs to happen, or that you want to see happen in your lifetime?’ Nathan dives in. He explains how he thinks people need to question authority and not be so ‘concerned with having a black or white answer to everything’. ‘[W]e have to really get comfortable with there being gray areas’, he says. ‘I think it gives you a chance to make the most informed decisions’. His reflections develop through a seemingly incongruent range of examples: the rote memorization of 2 + 2 ¼ 4 and other basic facts in grade school, being pressured by his parents to improve his dinner table manners when he was a teenager, and the possibility of ethical disagreements when there are cultural differences. He goes on for more than five minutes. His talk is cluttered, redundant, elliptical. It is also forceful, passionate, clear. He has gone inside, to pull this out. He builds up to a conclusion: ‘And it’s not something that can be fixed in one generation. You have to change the way you go about teaching people and that requires a lot of work. But it is something that I think would help a lot’. ‘Thank you, that’s amazing’, I say. ‘It took me a while, but yeah, I can definitely stick to those for sure’. Research interview. May 2011

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Scales of ethnographic knowledge
A wider field of relations, communicative practices, and circulating discourses around political stance and political identity – many of which are buttressed and disseminated by powerful institutions – inform the dialogic emergence of political subjectivity in individual instances of talk, interaction, and behavior. From a phenomenological perspective, they create and reinforce possibilities for what does and can show up within the horizons of the meaningful and the say-able. From a poststructural or critical theory perspective, they are a locus and mechanism of sociopolitical reproduction. One major component of this wider field of relations in the US involves a political/discursive culture which places strong emphasis on what might be called ‘decisive stances’ and ‘forced choices’. Such rigidity – reinforced and framed by apparatuses of polling, standardized testing, and media pundits, to name just a few – potentially obviates the experience and expression of process, uncertainty, and in-between-ness. It also works in concert with certain models of normative democratic citizenship. Nathan nails this, in a very meandering way, in Snapshot 2. For him, there is a connection between the mechanics of primary school education and not being comfortable with gray areas as an adult. The implication of this analytical approach for public sphere theory is that different scales of ethnographic knowledge are required for unpacking and explaining culturally and historically-specific modes of civic-being, being-in-a-public and being-a-public (also see Vidali, 2010). The following sections tackle one dimension of the complex political/discursive culture around civic engagement in the US, through readings of some prominent public reports and surveys related to measures of engagement. These are considered in tandem with a series of ethnographic snapshots.

Forced choice? Measuring the measures of engagement
The balancing act between the re-presentation of ongoing and emergent experience with keywords that name internal states is all the more pressing in the study of civic engagement because the received popular language (and way of using language) for such phenomena tends to be in terms of stances or statuses, not processes. These stances are typically cast and measured as discrete positions, activities, or states. Often these are binaries, ‘as if there is a black and white answer to everything’, in Nathan’s words (Snapshot 2). Examples include:
Approve / Disapprove Favor / Oppose Voted / Did not vote Democrat / Republican Donated / Did not donate Involved as community volunteer / Not involved as community volunteer

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The challenge is both to avoid recapitulating these kinds of forced choices in the ethnographic analysis of political subjectivity and to attend to where people are potentially impacted by such logics in their own political lifeworlds, and as they talk about their thoughts, positions, and experiences within context-specific communication frames, including research interviews. This section offers a window into how the logics of forced choice, reductive keywordism, and engagement measures operate in public polling. While this is not the place to do an extensive review of the literature or an ethnography of organizational cultures themselves, the discussion highlights how ‘engagement’ as a keyword becomes tangled up both in measurement efforts that claim precision and in unstated assumptions about normative citizenship. It also provides a glimpse into how discourses of ‘engagement’ circulate at the level of public opinion and public policy organizations. Space limitations prevent a fuller examination of the precise relations of causality and circulation across such institutions/technologies of ‘the public’, and into the fields of human experience and ethnographic analysis, but the discussion points the way for how such an analysis might proceed. Significantly, polling instruments designed to measure political opinions and levels of engagement are not only framed in terms of binary choices, like many such instruments, they also contain interviewer instructions with additional probes to use if respondents do not respond using the discrete categories presented to them by the survey frame. In this way, interviewees are guided as much as possible to fit into the pre-determined categories. For example, in the Pew 2011 Generations Survey, the first question asks: ‘Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president?’. Telephone interviewers are to code responses as: ‘Approve’, ‘Disapprove’, ‘DK’ (don’t know). Interviewer instructions state that if a respondent answers ‘it depends’, then a follow-up probe should be asked that repeats the same question with the word ‘overall’ inserted at the beginning (Pew, 2011: 105). Instructions state further that if the answer is still ‘it depends’, then the response should be coded as ‘DK’. What is striking in this case (and this is just one of many) is that such instrumentalities of polling yield a survey result coded as ‘don’t know’ that is actually a grab bag for a range of stances and states, some of which are dissimilar, and even opposed.8 In this study, ‘DK’ might mean that the respondent was uncertain (perhaps actually said ‘I don’t know’). Or, it might mean the polar opposite, namely that the respondent had a great deal of certainty, but offered a response that was many-layered. In addition, ‘DK’ might mean that the person refused to answer the interviewer’s question, or that they said that they did not care. These nuances matter, particularly when one-tenth of the interviewees end up being coded as DK.9 While the critique of the pigeonholing of public opinion into discrete categories is nothing new (Bourdieu, 1979), this example illustrates how the reliance on keywords and discrete measures objectifies states and statuses; it pushes out process. And it does not hold space, to use Nathan’s analogy, for all the shades of gray in people’s thinking.

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Numerical measures of something called ‘civic engagement’ have been the subject of tremendous interest in recent years. The quantitative measure of civic engagement has typically been approached as a composite measure of the presence or absence of different activities, competencies, or states. For example, for a major study on civic knowledge, voting behavior, and civic engagement, Educational Testing Service (ETS) created a ‘Civic Engagement Index’ (CEI) based on answers to questions that appeared in the US Census Bureau Current Population Survey (Coley and Sum, 2012: 21). The study focuses on five voting and volunteering activities, assigning a value of 1 if the activity occurred and a value of 0 if it did not occur. Individuals with a CEI index score of 5 are considered the ‘most engaged’ and those with 0 are considered the ‘least engaged’. The five measures of civic engagement are: . . . . . voted in most recent presidential election voted in most recent midterm election volunteered with a nonprofit or government agency within the past year volunteered with a civic/political organization within the past year volunteered with an education- or health-related agency within the past year

At a basic level of data significance, ‘engagement’ is like an on/off switch. It is either there or not there; a 1 or a 0. Since five different engagement measures are combined in the ETS study, the overall concept of engagement is more nuanced than ‘on’ or ‘off’ – it is a gradient across a scale of 5 to 0 – but it is still based on measures of the presence or absence of behaviors. The study begs the fundamental question of whether the presence of a behavior should be considered ‘engagement’. Most synonyms for the word ‘engaged’ – ‘attached’, ‘committed’, ‘involved’, ‘engrossed’, ‘connected’, ‘enthusiastic’ – refer to degrees of affective intensity, cognitive intensity, and/or intersubjective proximity.10 In common usage, the word ‘engaged’ is not just about the existence of an action or a behavior but about some level of subjective or intersubjective experience that is connected with an action or behavior. In the ETS study, however, the affective or cognitive intensity of so-called ‘engagement’ behaviors is not directly measured; it is presumed. The unspoken assumption is that +1 ratings are about high and positive degrees of connection, while 0 ratings are about low and/or negative degrees of connection. Such pro-social meanings of civic engagement are made explicit in both academic and popular definitions of the concept. For example, Korten explains: ‘Civic engagement is about the right of the people to define the public good, determine the policies by which they will seek the good, and reform or replace institutions that do not serve that good’ (1998: 30). Similarly, university centers devoted to civic engagement are replete with such formulations on their websites and other published material, such as this excerpt from Illinois State University:
Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the public life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and

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motivation needed to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community through both political and non-political processes.11

The ETS study does not, however, attend to whether respondents felt they were contributing to a public good, whether they were emotionally or intellectually committed when voting or volunteering, or whether they were bored, frustrated and even disconnected through such activities. The sole binary for coding so-called ‘engagement’ (presence/absence of behavior) potentially aggregates data that would fall into separate and even contrasting categories if other binaries connected to the engagement concept – such as positive/negative affect; high intensity/low intensity interest; empowering/disempowering feeling – were used in association with the measure of the occurrence of behaviors.

Places for complexity
Snapshot 3. ‘I’m happy about not voting’ Bill: So um I, I didn’t end up voting. I’m happy about that. Debra: You’re happy about that. Really? Bill: Well I mean California went to Obama by about 3 million votes. It was like 6 million to like 3.8 . . . So I mean I looked at the map and stuff, and Georgia went solidly to McCain. And I mean, you kind of want to vote when you think your vote makes a difference. And I think the things that I wanted to vote for, like either local stuff – I had no relevance either in California or Georgia, considering I was moving [to DC]. And it just didn’t apply to me. So I mean like, I mean it’s a lame cop out. Research interview. 17 December 2008

In the case of Bill above (Snapshot 3), non-voting, which would be categorized by the ETS study as non-engagement, is explicitly self-labeled with positive affect: ‘I’m happy’. Put simply, for Bill an ETS civic engagement measure of ‘zero’ produced happiness. Looking closely at his words, however, the reality is more complex. The lack of voting was actually a product of an active civic engagement process (not zero), whereby Bill assessed the value of his vote in light of the electoral college, state populations, and his shifting residencies (home in California, school in Georgia, and imminent residence in Washington, DC). While Bill states explicitly that he felt good about thinking through the potential value of his vote, that is, ‘happy’ about making an active choice, he also expresses some concern about lack of power as well as an auto-critique that activates tropes of normative citizenship. It is an open question about whether Bill’s closing ‘it’s a lame cop out’ (slang for ‘poor excuse’) undercuts the sense of agency that he reports. It is also an open question whether this self-appraisal is dialogically responsive in relation to his anticipations of what I might think, expect, or say, based on his perceptions of who I am as

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an adult, a professor, and the interviewer. The likelihoods are high, but these are open questions. The answer to the first question depends on who is doing the interpreting. The answer to the second is potentially unknowable, especially now that the interactional moment has passed. The relation can only be suggested. Regardless, invoking ‘lame cop out’, particularly as part of a closing frame, signals a lingering sense that one should vote regardless of situation. It is dialogically responsive to ideals of dutiful citizenship: voting is an adult responsibility; the importance of voting is incontrovertible; actions (of voting) are better than nonactions. And this would align with ETS’s democratic citizenship model of voting as an individual responsibility and a social good. The normative evaluation is intensified further since ‘lame cop out’ is itself a ready-made expression within popularly circulating discourse in the US. It is commonly used to assess and critique personal responsibility and integrity, in contradistinction to ideals of principled behavior, political and otherwise. Many young voters in my research expressed motivations for voting that were more personal and peer-directed, rather than civically-minded or about high principles. For them, voting was less about contributing to the good of a robust and shared democracy than it was about engaging in the performance of adult citizenship and something that one could talk about later with peers (Snapshot 4). This again challenges a simple reading of showing up to vote as an indicator of positive civic engagement.
Snapshot 4. Facebook confessions The only reason I voted was to get that sweet ‘I’m a Georgia voter’ sticker. #kidding #notreally #butkindof Facebook post. Helena. 6 November 2012

On Election Day in 2012, a continuous stream of status updates and Instagram photos about voting flowed on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Many were not about the meaning of voting in terms of political positions and outcomes, or in terms of exercising one’s rights and responsibilities within a democracy. Rather they were about self-display and documentation, akin to ‘here I am now’ or ‘here’s proof that I voted’. Snapshot 4 is striking as a direct confession or boast about superficial voting. It also contains layers of humor, irony, and ambivalence with a string of hashtags that metapragmatically build on each other to shift the message. At least two different decodings of Helena’s post are possible, depending on which utterance segments are interpreted as being modified by the qualifiers #notreally and #butkindof. Is it the claim of kidding? Or is it the identification of the reason? With the first, a possible decoding would be: ‘The only reason I voted was to get the sticker. I am kidding. I am not really kidding. But I am kind of kidding.’ With the second, it might be: ‘The only reason I voted was to get the sticker. I am kidding. That was not really the reason that I voted. But it was kind of the reason I voted.’ With either of these decodings, internal ambivalence comes

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through in a projection of stances that create a back and forth dialogue, as self comments on self, for others. Again, as with Bill, the moment has passed for further inquiry about authorial intent and a fuller exploration of Helena’s subjective experience in this moment of communication. The possibility is open as to whether Helena actually intended a second layer of ambiguity with the shiftable qualifiers. Perhaps she became aware of the rhetorical ambiguity and then owned it during the process of posting the message. Regardless, what results is a kind of poetic condensation of message in the form of 107 characters. A status update about engagement processes that breaks language to show process. In a fascinating way, a Rilkean breakthrough – with ´ s, irony, and shifting modifiers – speaks to the ineffability hashtag shorthand, cliche (or complexity) of experience. Snapshot 5 illustrates how the expression of a similar ambivalence is co-constructed within the flow of talk among friends. Bryan searches for a way to say that he simultaneously cares and does not care. Evan starts to elaborate on Bryan’s idea and Shea completes the thought with a crisp assessment of real world impact: ‘It doesn’t matter’. Evan continues with specific examples of how he does care and how he does act, but he returns to the theme of feeling ineffective. Unlike Helena’s Facebook post, in this case the expression of internal ambivalence is not witty or humorous. Instead there is a nervous laughter that suggests self-consciousness about failing to meet expectations of ideal citizenship.12
Snapshot 5. ‘Internal ambivalence’ Bryan: I wouldn’t say I’m apathetic, no, I definitely care, I think I just- I kind of feel like I have this internal ambivalence, or I just . . . maybe Evan: It’s like I don’tShea: It doesn’t matterBryan: Complacent, yeah. Evan: Yeah, I mean of course I’ll go out and vote and express how I feel. Or tell people if they ask me. But in my daily life, I don’t really care. (laughs) Debra: You don’t care about -? Evan: To ex- I mean just like expressing or doing something proactive, because I just feel like there’s only so much you can do, and why even bother? Conversation group. 25 April 2007

Through the five snapshots – Jin’s approach and Tina’s dodge, Nathan’s meandering reflection, Bill’s ‘lame cop out’, Helena’s public #kidding #notreally #butkindof, and the collaborative arrival at expressions of internal ambivalence in conversation between three friends – we gain a window into the dialogic and emergent nature of political subjectivity. Attending to these movements and moments, and finding ways to re-present them, gets closer to an ethnography of process. Reducing these processes to a static measure or an off/off switch potentially changes the story to one of counting behaviors, not people.

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The numbers do not add up when non-voter but civically concerned Bill receives a 0 within ETS’s measures of civic engagement, and not sure he really cares but voting anyway Evan receives a 1. Perhaps these coding glitches cancel each other out? But then what to do about witty performance voter Helena who receives a 1? Most quantitative studies necessarily involve some form of reductionism and it is not my intent to create a straw man in that regard. In the ETS study the engagement concept is not only imbued with misleading precision as a single binary measure across five behaviors but it contains unspoken assumptions about ideal democratic citizenship and what positive civic engagement looks like. Voting and volunteering for organizations are considered social goods; they are presumed good for the society and they are presumed to feel good to the individual. Many of the preceding snapshots challenge this. Significantly, the ETS study is limited to measures of voting and volunteering, and nothing more. One might imagine other potentially relevant measures of ‘engagement’ such as doing community service in other ways than volunteering for organizations, making donations, attending public rallies, organizing around community/political issues, or participating in active forms of political communication, such as writing to political leaders, talking about politics with friends, tweeting or blogging about current events, regularly reading news and blogs, and creating or displaying various forms of political signage such as T-shirts, bumper stickers, graffiti, or tattoos. While other public studies do use such activities in their measures of ‘engagement’, they deploy externally-imposed categories and topics and not necessarily engagement categories or topics that might be most salient or relevant for the population under study. Some even deploy more person-centered labels and phrasings – rather than metrics of on/off, or numbers on a scale of 0 to 5 – to classify data and characterize a range of political orientations. For example, Torney-Purta (2009), running a statistical cluster analysis on results from 12 attitudinal scales, finds five distinct clusters among young people’s orientations towards politics and social responsibilities. She labels these: ‘conventionally political’, ‘social justice’, ‘indifferent’, ‘disaffected’, and ‘alienated’. In later work, these labels are joined by a first-person statement (termed a ‘motto’) that exemplifies attitudes characteristic of the young people in the cluster. ‘Indifferent’, for example is: ‘I have better ways to spend my time than thinking about being active in politics’ (referenced in Coley and Sum, 2012: 28). Similarly, Kawashima-Ginsberg et al. (2011), working from a Pew-funded civic engagement research center, report six different clusters of ‘Young Americans’: ‘Political Specialists’, ‘Broadly Engaged’, ‘Civically Alienated’, ‘Under-Mobilized’, ‘Talkers’, and ‘Donors’. Their cluster analysis is based on 11 ‘indicators of civic engagement’ (2011: 10), many of which are the same as or close to the measures in the ETS study discussed above. Such studies provide richer insights into the complexities of civic engagement behaviors and attitudes and how they might co-occur/cluster. They are also thought-provoking as attempts to move beyond narrow assessments of dutiful citizenship and discrete stances to more complex measures across axes of

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action/inaction; affect; attitude; and types of civic actions/causes. This potentially redresses the issue noted above, regarding the contradictions introduced when diverse affective and attitudinal stances are ignored in favor of a simple binary coding of engagement (for example, voting or not). In the Kawashima-Ginsberg et al. (2011) classification, voters and non-voters might be clustered together. For example, voter Evan and non-voter Bill might be grouped together as ‘broadly engaged’, while voter Helena and non-voter Tina might both be ‘civically alienated’. The process through which labels for clusters are selected, however, is not made transparent. They still seem to be created around prosocial and conventional understandings of engagement. Significantly, the labels create an illusion of a person-centered analysis. They use terms for types of people, feelings, and states. And they use ‘I’ statements about beliefs and feelings. Questions about potential circularity and rhetorical effect are also pertinent here since the clusters are labeled with key phrases and terms that are distinctive and catchy, ones which resonate with already existing categories. They are also potentially designed for ready circulation across policy and media venues once reports are published. They do not emerge directly from the data as one might expect native categories to emerge in an ethnographic analysis. Examining precisely where and how people like Bill, Helena, Evan, Bryan, and Shea develop their models of – and discourses about – democratic citizenship is beyond the scope of this essay. In fact, that might be a near-impossible project given the multi-sited and multi-directional nature of such development in an individual life over time. Same too, for making a specific causal link between the narrow, binaristic and conventional understanding of engagement that is registered in techniques of public polling, on the one hand, and what seems to have been internalized – or what operates dialogically – as an ideal model of citizenship, as indexed for example by laughter, self-critique, or avoidance, on the other. The links are more indirect and diffused. What I wish to suggest, however, is that such popular models of measuring and talking about ‘engagement’ reflect a broader cultural model of American citizenship that is normative and socially powerful. It is one which values decisiveness, stable binary stances, dutiful and informed voting, and actions that ‘make a difference’. The model contains little space for expressing political subjectivity in terms of processes, whether they be ones of internal debate, discovery, confusion, uncertainty, irony, or something else. In addition, the perceived positive value of fixity and tangibility – for example, knowing where one stands, or taking a stand and acting in a straightforward way without irony or hesitation in the project of voting – looms large on the phenomenological horizons of experience for those who are commenting, sharing, talking, and being-in-the-world as political selves. If subjective experiences do not fully align with the ideal version of engaged citizenship, or if they do not fit into a language of definitive stances and familiar labels, then there may be laughter, irony, auto-critique, tension, avoidance, or some other action that mitigates the centripetal pull of this perceived normativity.

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How might some of the data in the snapshots presented here be used to name internal states and describe comportments or ways of being engaged and disengaged? I close this section with a proposal: . Enthusiastically blocking path with clipboard . Rambling social philosopher (‘It took me a while, but yeah, I can definitely stick to those for sure’) . Happy about his lame cop out, because it was rationally arrived at . #Witty self on display #kidding #notreally #butkindof . I do care, but why even bother?

Alternative forms of analysis and textuality
For the excavation and re-generation of civic engagement and political subjectivity, both as academic subject matters and as real, felt experiences for individuals, I believe we need to turn to alternative forms of analysis, language use, and textuality for fundamental breakthroughs. Otherwise we remain with normative citizenship measures and well-worn labels for a spectrum of engagement vs. disengagement stances that are variations on on/off, or intensity of affect and commitment. Recent work within cultural studies and political communication provides inspiration for how engagement positions can be mapped within multi-dimensional space and as dispersed (Couldry et al., 2009: 16), ambient (Berlant, 2009), episodic (Vidali, 2010), or moments with a circuit (Dahlgren, 2003). This suggests ways to move beyond binary and scalar categorizations and representations. In addition, following Keane’s rich discussion of epistemologies within American anthropology, which argues for ‘sustaining the project of anthropology as an epistemological critique of received categories’ (2003: 241), we might also begin a deconstruction of the engagement category itself, while simultaneously attending to its circulation and import within discourses of citizenship and technologies of public policy. I have attempted to sketch out here what such a project might look like. Taking somewhat of a balance between Evans-Pritchard and Rilke, my argument through the series of snapshots is that the solution is not to find better keywords that will definitively unlock the mystery of how people engage and disengage, nor is it about completely pushing away the project of trying to understand and document lifeworlds. Rather, it is about embracing an ethnography of process that is to a great degree an ethnography of dialogicality. Re-presenting that dialogicality on the page and in embodied forms on the stage provides fresh ways of seeing into the lived experience of engagement. This is because ‘engagement’ and ‘disengagement’ and everything between, around, and nearby are not only periodic, episodic or phased, but contextual, relative and deeply intertwined with dialogical relations to self and others. Individuals calibrate themselves – their stances, their knowledge, their thoughts, their physicality – to different situations and different groups of people. Jin is enthusiastically holding a clipboard and trying to waylay Tina. Tina is dodging Jin. Jin and Paul are professing normative expectations to Tina. Tina: ‘I’m

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not even registered to vote.’ Paul: ‘You aren’t?’ They are frozen, eyes locked. Tension. Another move forward. Another dodge. Then a sigh, an ‘oh’, a shrug, letting it go. Tina exits. Nathan is working hard to express his thoughts during a moment when he has been given the opportunity to reflect on and explain a burning issue. That might not have happened without the sounding board/prompt of me as a question-asker. ‘It took me a while, but yeah, I can definitely stick to those for sure’. For Bill, the burning issue is sitting right with his transient status, doing the right thing practically speaking. And this is measured against a world where blue and red others are imagined. For Helena it is about play and performance: a self that narrates the self and performs the self and jokes about the self for a Facebook world. For Shea, Bryan and Evan it is about being within the flow of energized conversation among friends, a dialogical collaboration to find language for a contradiction, and possible unease with it. So it is not necessarily a question of finding the best keywords or learning how to better ask about political subjectivity and civic engagement, but learning how to see political subjectivity and civic engagement as dialogical achievements-in-process that are emergent in a host of interactions and utterances. An extreme case of this is illustrated in the final snapshot.
Snapshot 6. ‘I felt like this great country was giving me a voice’ Antonia: When did you register to vote? Jake: Hmm about a week, two weeks ago. Antonia: Wait really? Jake: Yeah well I registered online like three weeks ago and then I just got my thing in the mail and then I sent in my application for an absentee ballot yesterday. Antonia: Why did you register? Jake: So I can fucking vote, what kind of a question is that? Why did I register to vote? To fucking vote? Antonia: Can you take me back to that moment? Jake: Take you back to the moment when I decided to register to vote? Antonia: Yeah, did anything change for you? Jake: Yeah I became able to vote. What kind of a question? I don’t understand the question. Antonia: Did you feel any different? Did you, like, feel . . . Jake: No I just submitted an online form. Antonia: I know but did you feel, like, Jake: (Sarcastically) Yeah I felt like this great country that I live in was giving me a voice and then I really appreciated how my voice was influencing my government. No I didn’t feel any fucking different. Research interview by research assistant. October 2012

Pushing a well-worn question about ‘did you register to vote’ into a line of questions about how it felt to become a registered voter, my research assistant

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Antonia Rovira met her match in the form of Jake. Knowing Jake already, and having a similar sense of humor, helped Antonia stand her ground as interviewer. While Antonia felt this to be a case of interviewer fail, I disagreed, seeing in Jake’s words echoes of everything from high school civics lessons to John Stewart’s Daily Show. At each step of the way, Jake either does not connect, or refuses to connect, with the interviewer questions that try to elicit something more than a practical statement about the fact that he registered to vote. Antonia is trying to learn something more than just a measure of the on/off switch of engagement. Antonia’s probes try to get at internal states, feelings, memories. Finally after four tries, each of which was met by a flat or ironic attempt to shut down the line of questioning, Antonia comes back with her third repetition of the word ‘feel’. Pressured to ‘feel’, Jake finally provides his first extended answer: a ´ statement about feelings of patriotism and the meaning of voting – an cliche extended ironic attack on the concept of ideal citizenship. If the story were to end here, we might place Jake in a similar engagement camp as Helena: voting, ironic, not really committed to a civic engagement meaning of voting. In the broader research, however, Antonia found Jake to be a close follower of news and politics, the go-to person for news and news analysis among his college roommates, and very adamant about the importance of being an informed voter. So Snapshot 6 might be better seen as just that, a snapshot of process. The whole encounter can be seen as part of a dance of stance, where interviewer and interviewee move in and out of particular kinds of speaking roles. Within poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophy, the concept of a unitary speaking subject has been roundly critiqued and replaced with more fluid and polyvalent models of subjectivity. A philosophical tradition dating back to Nietzsche and Heidegger continues to interrogate the degree to which people’s voices and stances can be considered to be authentic and individually possessed versus temporarily inhabited and socially owned. Joining this philosophical tradition are long-established lines of inquiry within linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics regarding the performative and contextual nature of ‘self’ and ‘identity’, some of which have more recently drawn inspiration from Bakhtin’s (1981) concepts of heteroglossia, voice, and dialogicality. While numerous researchers within pragmatics, linguistic anthropology, and discourse analysis have built a skepticism over fixed, unitary selves into the heart of their research agendas, the path is open for sharpening the ways to track the emergence of multiple voices and stances around ‘engagement’ within different kinds of discursive events and in relation to the more broadly circulating tropes and categories of engagement that are boosted by prominent institutions and techniques of ‘the public’. In turn, this provides an opening to challenge through ethnography the normative models that monopolize the current popular language and scholarly methods for understanding political processes. And the path is even further open for experiments with re-presentational forms that write in and draw in, as much as they write out and draw out, these processes, not just as a series of maneuvers, but as felt processes of civic-being.

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Acknowledgements
I am indebted to Frank Cody, Andy Graan, Misty Jaffe, and Thomas Tufte for their very insightful comments on previous versions of this text. I would also like to thank the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University for support during my tenure as a FCHI Senior Research Fellow; research assistants Sarah Howie and Antonia Rovira; and all who have worked on Re-Generation projects as actors, co-writers, artistic directors, and interlocutors.

Notes
1. The first phase of work (2006–8) involved interview and ethnographic research with over 90 young adults (see Vidali, 2010, for a discussion of research methods). In 2009–10, in a second phase of work, I drew on research transcripts to write and produce a verbatim documentary theatrical work that activates the stories and dilemmas around engagement and disengagement that I encountered in the research. The full length play entitled ReGeneration: A Play about Political Stances, Media Insanity, and Adult Responsibilities was performed in Atlanta in 2010. A third phase continues with additional interview and ethnographic research, as well as screenings of the Re-Generation DVD, a new version of the play, and ongoing collaborative projects in civic theater. Videos of performances are on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/ReGenINITIATIVE/ Other information can be found on the Re-Generation Initiative Facebook page. 2. All names are pseudonyms. 3. For a notable exception see Cerwonka and Malkki (2007). 4. I am not sure that there is an easy solution to this, for example one which places the progressive marker –ing at the end of verbs or nouns to make them into process words, much like Heidegger’s (1982 [1959]) linguistic interventions into epistemology with words such as be-ing, language-ing, and world-ing. Some such words are already in our vocabulary – connecting, engaging, closing, opening, questioning, rejecting, wavering, contributing, doubting – and others are not, for example, apathetic-ing, cynical-ing, angry-ing, happy-ing, informed-ing, or embracing the gray. Regardless of linguistic innovations, we might instead entertain a solution that sees ‘state’ and ‘process’ as two heuristic categories of being, not as mutually exclusive categories but as simply what we have to work with. 5. Work within cultural studies, interpretive cultural anthropology, and practice theory takes this approach. See Ortner (2006) for one example. 6. Scholarship in this vein is far-ranging and not reducible to a single school of thought. See Ahearn (2012) for a discussion of such approaches within linguistic anthropology, the ethnography of communication, and sociolinguistics as they are informed by the pioneering work of Austin, Bakhtin, Goffman, Gumperz, Hymes, and Silverstein, among others. 7. Despite the growing field of phenomenologically oriented anthropology (Desjarlais and Throop, 2011), the phenomenology of political subjectivity seems to have received limited treatment to date. Most such studies focus on the phenomenology of political experience in contexts of conflict, violence, suffering, and exclusion. There is a significant gap in the phenomenology of political experience in contexts of relative stability. 8. Andy Graan points out (personal communication) that such a leveling of response and experience is reminiscent of the methodological implications discussed by Rosaldo (1993) in the analysis of cultural ‘patterns’ vs. cultural ‘borderlands’.

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9. Between 7 and 12% of respondents fell into the DK category at different times of the survey’s administration over a 15-month period. 10. The same is true for the opposite set. ‘Disengaged’ can be synonymous with ‘detached’, ‘indifferent’, ‘disaffected’, ‘disinterested’, ‘disconnected’, or ‘dispirited’, all of which refer to degrees of affective intensity, cognitive intensity, and/or intersubjective proximity. 11. http://focus.illinoisstate.edu/modules/what/isu_definition.shtml 12. See Vidali (2010) for further discussion of how nervous laughter figures in young people’s self-evaluation and presentation regarding not achieving ideal expectations for citizenship.

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Author Biography Debra Spitulnik Vidali is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and Director of the Re-Generation Initiative. Her work focuses on public sphere theory, media ethnography, relations between media and publics, the circulation of discourse and critical epistemology. Previous research has focused on media, language and communication in contemporary Africa, particularly Zambia.

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