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In: Thinking Ethnographically

By: Paul Atkinson
Pub. Date: 2017
Access Date: August 21, 2018
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: 55 City Road
Print ISBN: 9780857025906
Online ISBN: 9781473982741
Print pages: 166-173
©2017 SAGE Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the
pagination of the online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.

a report or a paper before embarking on ‘analysis’. So we should not assume that more experienced researchers can use and generate ideas with assurance and self-confidence. analysis should take place hand in hand with the data collection. and ‘analysis’ is always partial. We often feel that we are not doing full justice to the information we have collected. between the concrete and the abstract. tapping away at a keyboard. Ltd. Those ideas are possible starting points. they can approach analysis and writing in something of a vacuum. All Rights Reserved. sociable. and indeed all the social sciences. Well. Ideas do not come easily. from which original perspectives can and should grow. In an ideal world. and for many the process of ‘writing up’ field research is even more demanding. At least the fieldwork itself can be engaging. It is the same for everyone. I fully realise that this is not a comprehensive discussion of all the potentially relevant ideas: clearly such a catalogue would amount to a complete summary of sociology. But in the real world it often turns out that however confident students and researchers are when it comes to data collection. But they will definitely not ‘emerge’ just from our repeated inspection of notes and transcripts. anthropology. We have to bring ideas to Page 2 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . A book that droned on and on about how confused and inadequate I feel most of the time would not be very useful in the long run. there is often a period of hard thinking to be done. cultural geography. while less experienced readers just feel frustrated. It is even worse if one has little or no idea of how to organise one’s thoughts. It is really a bad idea to wait until one is writing a thesis. As all texts of methodological advice repeatedly make clear. our ideas will have been developing and crystallising. Postscript It is hard enough to sustain a period of long-term fieldwork. We never attain perfect ‘data’. Equally. I also realise that my selection inevitably reflects my own intellectual background and interests. The aim is to help us organise our thoughts. fun. The absence of ideas will just guarantee that no further ideas will appear. nobody should regard this collection of ideas as a ready- made toolbox that can be applied literally and slavishly to all and any field projects. As I have explained already. that is partly the nature of the beast. ethnographic fieldwork is not intended merely to illustrate a variety of existing ideas. In reality.SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. Sitting at a desk. Hence my modest attempt to provide some potentially fruitful ideas. by the time we have finished our fieldwork. It is always easy for authors of books like this to come over as smug: we readily imply that we know just how it should be done. That is why we need a repertoire of ideas. the local and the generic. or that we have not done justice to the people who have allowed us to share their lives. But it is important to emphasise that all research is imperfect. There should always be a dialogue between ideas and data. is rarely any of those things.

Consequently it is easy to remain obsessively focused on just that one small patch. There are various habits of mind that need to be cultivated. not as the ends of analysis. to be adopted off the peg. prior acquaintance with the field or others like it. one must always use ideas in a comparative sense. they do not provide ready-made analyses. Indeed. A broad. across a wide range of social worlds (as I was encouraged to do as an undergraduate anthropologist). They provide templates against which substantive issues can be understood. The kinds of analytic ideas that I have been discussing are not confined to specific local social worlds. All Rights Reserved. concrete analysis. They need to be modified in the light of experience in the field. I do not want anyone to regard these ideas as prêt-à-porter. Let me outline a few. in which a glorified content analysis of transcripts or fieldnotes is presented as if it were analysis. Some such work may be useful in organising and indexing our data. We always need to keep an open mind. the sociology of education. derived from a knowledge of the social sciences. First. cultural criminology. All too often simple-minded appeals to stuff like ‘grounded theory’ turn out to be excuses for intellectual laziness. While it is impossible to be equally well informed about everything. the very designation of ‘data’ as a category separate from analytic reflection and strategic decision- making is a gross distortion of ethnographic thinking. They transcend specific contexts. Furthermore. if we are ever to derive ideas from them. it is a nonsense to imply (as some vulgar versions do) that ethnographers ever go into the field without ideas and perspectives. or whatever it may be). and as if that sort of thematic organisation were the end-point of the ethnographic undertaking. our ethnographic imagination ought to be teeming with potentially fruitful ideas. but does not substitute for detailed. and however suggestive they may be for current and future work. However productive some of these might have been in the past. In an ideal world we should all be reading monographs derived from fieldwork. We all become experts on some corner of the field (the anthropology of medicine. and a good grounding in comparative literature. in other words. being prepared to discover aspects of culture that we did not know previously (otherwise any research would be redundant).SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. But that is never the same as an empty mind. our fieldwork and to our data. after all. The ideas need to be used as starting points. comparative perspective helps us to defamiliarise our chosen research sites. there is no excuse for not reading more widely. We should be thinking about making comparisons and links beyond the Page 3 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . only to embark on thinking at some subsequent stage in the research process. Ltd. In the first place. We do not spend time in ‘the field’ just accumulating ‘data’. They help us to understand and capture recurrent forms of social action and social organisation. is the abiding spirit of all ethnographic inquiry. All such ideas need to be tested against the touchstone of data. They are of broad relevance. That.

and it goes beyond the scope of this short text. There is. of course. Hence we can aim to uncover processes and forms that transcend specific examples and particular social worlds. and to seek from them their general. the aim of conducting and writing a major study is not just to tell our readers what people do or even how they do it (important though these are). and social settings with other settings. as I outlined in the Introduction to this book. All Rights Reserved. Sometimes we are. The criminologist can become almost totally preoccupied with criminological topics; the sociologist of health and illness rarely looks beyond the symbolic boundaries of the clinic; the educational ethnographer may remain focused entirely on schools and schooling. Instances provide the opportunity to transcend their particularities. Those formal properties are developed through a comparative strategy. so familiar with a given social setting that we really cannot bracket out our taken-for-granted cultural competence in order to interrogate what we see and hear with freshness or novelty. The general issue is straightforward enough. And so on. We need to abandon our comfort zone. is the underlying logic of ethnographic analysis. formal properties. after all. rarely looking beyond its confines and rarely reading outside its standard literature. of working with ideas. While we cannot cover the entire range of possible literature. or have become. The conduct of fieldwork is not simply a matter of the personal experience of the individual ethnographer. This involves arguing from ‘cases’. plenty of opportunity to reflect on and expand upon the personal aspects of fieldwork. ‘What might this be a case of?’. It is the essence of the abductive logic that we employ. The imperative of ‘fighting familiarity’ has long been identified by a number of commentators (Delamont and Atkinson 1995). After all. We constantly ask ourselves. What is vital. and of looking beyond the obvious. and many authors have done so. It is far too easy for researchers to become locked into a chosen speciality. Cases are compared with cases. Such an analytic perspective develops disciplinary knowledge through ethnographic cases. We only fight familiarity by finding ways of thinking afresh. We need to fashion our own theses or monographs that go some way towards a reconstruction of the social world and its social organisation. Ltd. we need to go beyond themes or standard analytic topics. But if we Page 4 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . in order to find the narratives and images that transform our ‘data’ and our basic ideas into something more. there is no excuse for failing to look beyond arbitrary disciplinary boundaries. Sometimes we have to refresh our ethnographic imagination by deliberately seeking out settings that are different from our normal stamping ground. That. In other words. obvious ones. is to contrive generic narratives and tropes that can sustain an ethnographic account.SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. of any example of socially-organised activity. Using a repertoire of analytic ideas allows one to argue from the particular towards the generic. Ethnography is not primarily an excuse for experiential writing.

The most important outcome of ethnography is the constant reminder of the diversity of human affairs. then we run the risk of distorting the nature of social research. One of Herbert Blumer’s abiding influences is the notion of ‘sensitising concepts’ (Blumer 1954). His is an approachable. It provides a constant reminder of the sheer ingenuity of human actors. which is not really about inspecting and mechanistically coding data. being itself a sensitising idea. Ideas are there to be used. It displays the recurrent dilemmas and difficulties that social actors face. and the regularities that underpin it. non-dogmatic approach that eschews fancy methodological and epistemological vocabulary. the one we know intimately. I do not restrict that to working with ‘data’. Howard Becker has consistently demonstrated the value of thinking through cases. This is self-referential. once again. the ideas outlined in this book should be used heuristically in order to develop one’s own analysis. the kinds of ideas that I have outlined in this book are never to be thought of as the last word. We explore similarity and contrast. One needs always to recall that any ‘case’ (whether that is an entire institution of local culture. and extended through a close working relationship with the fields of fieldwork. asking oneself what can be learned from case to case. but thinking from the specific to the general and back again. The diversity of human arrangements is plastic: it is in principle always available for change. example to example. Consequently. All Rights Reserved.SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. situations and institutions are always potentially cases of multiple things. Note. developing and extending. or a specific. by exploring as much as we can about the first case. and from further exploration of other cases that extend and develop our understanding. It also brings to consciousness the constant adaptability of individuals and social groups. drawing out (abducting) general properties from particular cases. ‘directions along which to look’. In other words. refining and sharpening. They are. speaking directly to his readers (see Becker 2014). It seems to me that far too many accounts of analysis in the literature on qualitative methods imply that one is working Page 5 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . This. concrete event) is always a case of something. He consistently makes the point that we argue from ‘cases’. it is not enough to take ideas and then use one’s data simply to illustrate them. But sensitising concepts are necessary in getting going and keeping going. The kinds of analytic ideas that have been outlined in the body of this book ought to remind us of the sorts of things that have been identified by sociologists and anthropologists. It is not a call for fuzzy thinking. Consequently. and Blumer’s own orientation was towards rigorous conceptual development in sociology. and they can therefore start that process of thinking through cases. Moreover. events. It constantly affirms the extent to which human actors are knowledgeable and skilful. make such writing the main outcome of fieldwork. Ltd. in Blumer’s own phrase. reshaped. is really at the heart of ‘grounded theory’.

All Rights Reserved. and extensions of our ideas. It should be attentive to the varied modalities of order and cultural significance: spatial and temporal. linguistic and interpersonal. Undoubtedly. By that I do not mean just the discipline of hard work. our research should be faithful to the many and varied ways in which social events and interpersonal conduct are organised. It is intended as the equivalent of a mnemonic: it should just remind us that there are multiple modes of organisation that call for our analytic efforts. after all. The ‘data’ can be too inert. and they provide their own ideas. cultural geography or nursing studies should not be doing it. Ideas do not ‘emerge’. we should not leave these observations without adding that the conduct of fieldwork is a privilege and offers us a unique experience as scholars. the repeated manipulation of data never exhausts the meaning or the process of analysis. It is abundantly clear that there is currently far too much ‘qualitative research’ that is divorced from any disciplinary moorings. analysis depends on close readings of such textual materials.SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. The opportunity to share in the everyday worlds of fellow men and women. It is not a matter of the Protestant ethic. aesthetic and material. And ideas certainly will not be developed productively without disciplines. one of the mantras of field research that analysis is a process that is inextricably linked to the process of fieldwork itself. Ltd. comparisons. with interview transcripts and fieldnotes (and possibly other kinds of data such as photographs. they do not emerge magically. I do not want to press the notion of granular ethnography as if it were a novel paradigm. It is. In other words. But it does mean that one really cannot embark on field-based social research in a vacuum. At any rate. I mean the ‘disciplines’ that are also academic fields and traditions. say. But it really is not the whole story. It certainly does not substitute for thinking sociologically or anthropologically. we should already know a great deal of what we think and what we are writing about. and to follow the extraordinary diversity and Page 6 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . either from the fieldwork itself. and we confront the shards of evidence that remain. with no guiding ideas or conceptual resources. Likewise. Finally. documents of life and so on). That is not to say that researchers in. I meant an ethnography that is mindful of the fine-grained organisation of social life. Once we have left the field. Ideas can always go beyond the data. Of course they can and should. analysis does not stop when one has organised data into themes. By that. then we should always be thinking about our ‘field’ through a creative engagement with ideas. So if we take that seriously. In other words. or subsequently from working with data. and of the extraordinarily detailed knowledge and skills that social actors employ. It is a matter of intellectual work. Fieldwork is not self-justifying. it will be recalled. I also mean that ethnographic research should work with the grain of everyday life. In Chapter 1 I introduced the idea of granular ethnography.

So use this book. The intellectual and personal challenge is to worry less about ourselves. or indigenous methods. I think that too many students and researchers feel constrained to look over their shoulder. Use it to get to where you want to. that means bringing ideas to the fieldwork. Ltd. like the proverbial ladder. Recent years have seen too many authors content to study their own experiences. and to turn that into a coherent analysis. as well as deriving ideas from it. class). They ought to provide some sort of inspiration. indeed all methods books. and to try (however imperfectly or incompletely) to make sustained and coherent sense of social worlds. All confine the researcher to her or his local social sphere (gender. humanistic scholarship. All Rights Reserved. While it is true that we each have a social biography and a starting point from which we embark on ethnographic exploration. standpoint perspectives. analysis is the aim of fieldwork. Some more concluding remarks are. repeating the thoughts of others. The purpose of this short book has not just been to provide a shopping list of concepts. as I have tried to maintain throughout this and other publications. and certainly not a celebration of the author herself or himself. noisy. It represents one of the very best versions of liberal. perhaps. not just the celebration of the people one encounters. Too often that means that they end up acting like ventriloquists’ dummies. These examples should be read and used heuristically. I want to encourage readers (students and others) to take a positive and practical approach to the conduct and analysis of Page 7 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . ethnicity. It is all too easy to get bogged down in a welter of theories. the opportunity to write about that work is extraordinarily satisfying. I really cannot think of any way of being a social scientist that is anywhere near as satisfying. The ideas that I have outlined and exemplified in this book merely represent a small selection of the attempts of many scholars to express the complexity and variety of social forms and processes. constantly looking elsewhere for validation. Fundamentally. It is worth preserving and celebrating. So please do not let that happen to your research. If in the past people have been able to come up with some of these ideas and to develop them productively. So let us not lose sight of that. even in the face of colourless. about our theoretical purity or our personal identity. or resorting to the most awful. utilitarian interests. Equally. teeming worlds we observe and share. that does not mean that we can never transcend it. their own social worlds.SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. then surely we can do so too. competing epistemologies and conceptual muddles. They are ways of transforming the messy. obscurantist versions of ‘theory’. Although we do not need to engage in methodological disputation or paradigm wars. originality of those worlds. is a rare and precious one. This can be justified on the basis of fashionable autoethnography. But. and then kick it away. These ideas and others like them are intended to help illuminate social phenomena. in order. Anything rather than create and use ideas that they take ownership of for themselves. busy. As I have stressed throughout.

That is why the concepts I have offered – obvious though many of them are – do not include lots of philosophical. And while we may not have perfectly worked-out epistemologies. Experience suggests that we can all find good intellectual reasons that render research impossible. only part of the process. Ultimately. After all. The development and use of analytic ideas is. and generations of social theorists have occupied themselves with arcane disputes that have involved no practical research whatsoever. I am firmly committed to methodological literature that serves the interests of practical field research. self-evidently. Finally. All Rights Reserved. Equally. while the constant search for terminological innovation can be confusing – creating the appearance of novelty where little exists. It is also a dialogue we have with our intellectual predecessors and our contemporaries. This is a dialogue we have with ourselves. or should be. explanations and conceptual commentaries that add up to an intellectually satisfying whole. that should not prevent us from getting out into social worlds in order to make of them what we can.SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. and it implies a Page 8 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . nobody has ever established perfect consensus over the nature of social science. Each social world can yield a number of different analytic accounts. and not the prerequisites of it. we must always keep in mind that there is never just one definitive analysis of a given social phenomenon. And they in turn imply the organisation of analytic texts. social theory and methodology are equally sterile. epistemological issues. is more than fieldwork. I am more interested in the practicalities of research and analysis than in the perfect representation of others’ ideas. I suggest that perfect fidelity to other people’s ideas is not always the most productive approach. Moreover. Sometimes a degree of misrepresentation can be creative. Again. narratives. there is of necessity a degree of arbitrariness in my selection of topics in this book. The creative uses of ideas can be far more fruitful than slavish replication of them. always imply a degree of choice. Such choice is not arbitrary. and is always undertaken in dialogue with the field and the data it yields. and through their interaction we develop descriptions. and without that constant interaction. and our deployment of analytic concepts. Ideas are the currency that circulates. The entire exercise of ethnographic fieldwork is geared towards a creative interaction between ideas and evidence of various sorts. In the same spirit. Ltd. So whatever the particular perspective. as I have repeatedly stressed. our disciplines are not the preserve of armchair speculation. good methodology and theory should be among the outcomes of good empirical research. We take our ‘data’ and our ‘ideas’. Those ideas need to be organised into cogent arguments. Our choice of topics or themes. There can never be a definitive inventory of concepts that exhaustively map the full range of analytic possibilities. Ethnography. The ethnographic monograph is a major work of reconstruction in its own right. fieldwork. We are. engaged in empirical social inquiry. Ideas and data (in the broadest sense) flow into one another.

and my own contributions need a third book to complete this trilogy that started with For All Rights Reserved. Ltd. Hence a comprehensive overview of ethnography’s intellectual thrust should include a review of the textual strategies that are available to the scholar.n9 Page 9 of 9 Thinking Ethnographically . characteristic way of approaching and reconstructing a social world.4135/9781473982741. That is beyond the scope of this particular book.SAGE SAGE Research Methods ©2017 SAGE Publications. http://dx.