In Defense of Ethnography

In these troubled times in which inhumane global forces threaten our future, we need that ethnographic depth of understanding both to recognize our human fragility and marvel at our social resilience.
08/24/2015 10:16 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2016

As students and faculty head back to college campuses to begin a new academic year, there has been a steady stream of uninformed criticism of the practice of ethnography, a method of inquiry and representation that has become an important aspect of social science research. The most trenchant criticism has come not from anthropologists or sociologists who have long practiced ethnography but from legal scholars or survey researchers who for the most part don't have hands-on ethnographic experience. The most recent critique of this sort comes from legal scholar Paul Campos, who last week used the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) to produce a 10,000-word essay that questions the ethics and veracity of the Alice Goffman's acclaimed ethnography, On the Run. Goffman's ethnographic work describes, among many things, the dangerously tense relationship between the police and young African American men in one of Philadelphia's crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Mr. Campos faults Dr. Goffman's book for its implausibility--faulty time lines, narrative incongruities, and putatively embellished eye-witness descriptions of police behavior. He also claims that Dr. Goffman and her publisher are guilty of shoddy fact checking. According to Mr. Campos, many of the "facts' in Dr. Goffman's ethnography are bungled and/or fabricated--a very serious accusation. Based upon his own "fact checking" Mr. Campos wonders how such a flawed work could be so honored and acclaimed. This concern leads him to question the "plausibility" of ethnographic practice and representation. In a blog summary of his long CHE article, which non-subscribers cannot read, Mr. Campos concludes that the flaws of Goffman's book raise...

... questions about how social science work in general, and ethnographic work in particular, is evaluated and rewarded. From the article:

Science is often bitterly competitive but it depends on honesty. It is not set up to weed out liars. Imagine what research, or talks, or conferences would be like if you had to routinely question not simply the quality or competence but the actual honesty of speakers. The same goes for supervision. Consider having to check not just the quality of your grad students' work, but whether they were lying to you about their data. Much of what we do would become simply impossible.

To which a skeptic might reply: If science is bitterly competitive, and it isn't set up to catch liars, and there are great rewards for liars who don't get caught, then one doesn't need a Ph.D. in social science to realize that this system will produce a whole lot of lying, and that a lot of that lying won't ever be discovered.

I haven't read Mr. Campos's scholarly essays and as an anthropologist I would hesitate to critique work about which I have limited expertise. That said, I assume he is a well-regarded legal scholar. Having worked my way through his long CHE article, I can also say that he is very skilled at building an argument. Those admirable skills do not alter the fact that he is, as far as I know, not a practicing ethnographer who has conducted fieldwork and written ethnographic texts. Even so, he uses his critique of Dr. Goffman's book, to suggest a pervasiveness of lying in the social sciences.

As an anthropologist who has been doing ethnography for more than 30 years in West Africa and New York City, I am compelled to bring into this critical discussion an edifying ethnographic voice. In what remains of this blog post I briefly describe the practices of ethnography and how they are governed by an extensive code of ethics.

Ethnographic practices: Ethnographers engage in fieldwork. They don't visit people for a week or two or call them up on the phone and then and write about them; rather they live in their subject communities for long periods of time--often many years during which they establish and reinforce a network of social relationships--relationships that underscore the complex social, economic and emotional realities of contemporary social life. During fieldwork ethnographers invariably interview many people, but they also participate in the lives of their subjects, developing an interpretative sensitivity that can only be acquired over long periods of time. A cardinal principle of ethnographic fieldwork is this: listen to what your subjects are saying, but pay special attention to what they do. As we all know, what a person says is not necessarily what he or she does. What a police detective might say to a fact checker about an arrest may be very different from how he or she might have behaved during that arrest. To make sense of the inter-subjective complexity of contemporary social life ethnographers need to spend a great deal of time "being-there" to get a fuller and more nuanced picture of the people they want to describe. In short, ethnography takes a lot of time, some degree of courage, and much perseverance. Anthropologists, for whom ethnography is central, have been writing about these issues for more than 40 years.

Curiously none of the recent critics of ethnographic practices make reference to this rich and highly reflexive body of work.

Ethics: The critics also suggest that that social science institutions are set up to produce, as Mr. Campos writes, "...a whole lot of lying, and that a lot of that lying won't ever be discovered." This statement suggests social science ethics are seriously compromised. A brief review of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) code of ethics, however, suggests a robust and profound commitment to ethics in ethnographic fieldwork. Here is snippet of that code:

Anthropologists should be clear and open regarding the purpose, methods, outcomes, and sponsors of their work. Anthropologists must also be prepared to acknowledge and disclose to participants and collaborators all tangible and intangible interests that have, or may reasonably be perceived to have, an impact on their work. Transparency, like informed consent, is a process that involves both making principled decisions prior to beginning the research and encouraging participation, engagement, and open debate throughout its course. Researchers who mislead participants about the nature of the research and/or its sponsors; who omit significant information that might bear on a participant's decision to engage in the research; or who otherwise engage in clandestine or secretive research that manipulates or deceives research participants about the sponsorship, purpose, goals or implications of the research, do not satisfy ethical requirements for openness, honesty, transparency and fully informed consent. Compartmented research by design will not allow the anthropologist to know the full scope or purpose of a project; it is therefore ethically problematic, since by definition the anthropologist cannot communicate transparently with participants, nor ensure fully informed consent.

Anthropologists have an ethical obligation to consider the potential impact of both their research and the communication or dissemination of the results of their research. Anthropologists must consider this issue prior to beginning research as well as throughout the research process. Explicit negotiation with research partners and participants about data ownership and access and about dissemination of results, may be necessary before deciding whether to begin research.

In their capacity as researchers, anthropologists are subject to the ethical principles guiding all scientific and scholarly conduct. They must not plagiarize, nor fabricate or falsify evidence,4 or knowingly misrepresent information or its source. However, there are situations in which evidence or information may be minimally modified (such as by the use of pseudonyms) or generalized, in order to avoid identification of the source and to protect confidentiality and limit exposure of people to risks.

The complete statement on such ethical elements as (1) doing no harm, (2) and being open and honest about one's work can be accessed on the AAA website, which also supports a ethics blog on which ethical issues, which are usually neither clear-cut nor easily resolved, are aired and debated.

None of this information, which is central to the practice of ethnography, is referenced in the recent critiques of ethnographic practices and representation.

The Power of Ethnography: It is much easier to critique an ethnography than to write one. Doing ethnography is difficult. It takes time. It demands patience. It requires diligence, sensitivity, commitment and a foundation of mutual trust. Through the ongoing social implication of the ethnographer in the lives of her or his subjects, these dimensions gradually develop. This painstaking and difficult process eventually enables the ethnographer to tell the story of a group of people with respect, power and a depth of understanding that allows us to better understand the human condition. In these troubled times in which inhumane global forces threaten our future, we need that ethnographic depth of understanding both to recognize our human fragility and marvel at our social resilience.