Excertps – 7: On Validity, Objectivity, and Objectification in Ethnographic Writing

In addition to the ethical danger however, the classic ethnographic view to shape cultures as static, unchanging, with integrity and coherence is problematic with respect to the validity of research conducted. Just as thick description and deep analysis involves differentiating between a wink and a twitch and a parody, and a missed parody, so too communicating in different and multiple ways involves a level of understanding other than “literal” actions, behaviours, or words.  The literal interpretation of “other” cultures often results in a ritualization of events or behaviours that one might find unthinkable to ritualize in one’s own!

Why is this need to ritualize (and in so doing, reduce cultures to the ostensible behaviours of a few members) so prevalent? Validity, the presentation and re­-presentation of other cultures, colonial notions of authority, and the power in authorship are all tied up together in complex ways when conducting research. There is a defamiliarisation that is acknowledged, but never probed as a problem of representation in classic ethnographical accounts. Reading these accounts, I recognize the defamiliarisation presented in them; after all, in the natural sciences, there is this notion of objectivity. Objectivity in the sciences alludes to ideas of “being unbiased”, or of being able to view results in an impartial manner. When working with human participants, such objectivity often involves a maintained distance; we are interested in their bodies, in their anatomy, in the functioning of their valves or capillaries or little bits inside them that are not part of their “humanness” – there is a fear that connecting with them on more than a superficial level may make us “see” our data differently.

But such “objectivity” and distance in the social sciences seems not only counter-productive, but entirely antithetical to the purpose of social studies. Are we not here to understand people and how cultures have come to be? Does the purpose of ethnographic enquiry not circle around the different ways in which humans develop and build relationships and communities with one other? And is the notion, then, not only to recognise differences, but also to be balanced enough such that we do not defamiliarise ourselves with a constructed “Other” such that we dehumanize them? To take a tired cliché – and perhaps to renew it in the process – I would say that if understanding cultures is a bit like peeling an onion, then the most superficial layer is perhaps the least critical. It is also the one that allows for the most distance between the observer and the observed – but it is here with the dry, crackling, superficial, “thin” skin that we find the thin descriptions of classic ethnography. Probing deeper requires some expertise on part of the ethnographer, for the chance to be personally affected (there will be tears, perhaps, and the way in which you cut through the onion matters as well to the layers that are revealed).

Unlike a real onion however, when it comes to cultural studies and ethnography in particular, I am starting to feel that there is no “core”; the connections we find instead become more intricate. Geertz articulates that as we probe deeper, there is often less we understand. One could say that the tears of probing the cultural onion make the whole enterprise a little blurry to analyse – by this, I only mean to say that we as researchers should become more conscious of our own subject-positions when we conduct this kind of research, to at least know where we are in relation to research-participants. Not doing so can result in not acknowledging the blurring, the haziness, the intricacies, the complexities we find. Not acknowledging our subject-positions can allow us to collapse what we find under ‘easy’ explanations, subsuming multiple distinct processes and different layers under a single “explanation”. I suppose my analogy breaks down at this point: ethnography is, at its best, a murky, not-well defined business – and demanding it to be defined can result in simplistic explanations.

So here I would ask: How are objectivity, distance, and validity related? If we are able to successfully draw boundaries around the onion from afar and call the thin skin the literal truth, is this “telling” or simply some basic ‘thin’ description? What dangers lie in us extrapolating from such thin description? Extrapolations to ‘grand truths’ could be invalid, and we risk constructing “Others” who are “less than.” But if we probe deeper, become caught in webs of relationships and understanding, we are forced to acknowledge our own role in the murky onion. How does what we see and write about other cultures change with such positional changes? In becoming “less objective” and “more subjective”, is our data enriched or weakened?

Rosaldo points out how an emotionally significant event repositioned his understanding of death and helped him to better articulate his concept of emotional force as a valid way to understand certain cultural practices. These practices were, prior to his repositioning, too unfamiliar to him. Rosaldo points out that we are living in a world of open boundaries, rather than closed communities; such an environment makes the enterprise of cultural studies as circumscribing communities a difficult process. It might be more realistic to think of cultures as points and intersections of multiple processes and as interactions between multiple subject positions that give rise to particular behaviours, and are localized in particular settings. With immigration and globalisation, cultures are colliding in very real ways making it more impossible to think of other cultures in an entirely defamiliarised way –if such total defamiliarisation leads us to believe that “Others” weep by virtue of a ritual when seeing someone they love, is that kind of objectivity really what we need, in terms of validly enriching our understanding and our writing of other cultures? If similar defamiliarised accounts are so obviously flawed, parodic, and downright silly when applied to one’s own culture, do we not risk dehumanization of Others through such a badly-handled notion of “objectivity”? If such total defamiliaristion risks thin descriptions – they read a bit like outlines for the most superficial characters on bad day-time TV – what is the use or purpose of such objectivity?

There lies too the more subtle aspects of what such classic notions of objectivity do. I am reminded of my past studies in biology – I used to write “field of view”, abbreviated commonly as “F.O.V.” in pencil by my drawings of critters and cells and movement under microscopes. The idea was to present the magnification of what I was looking at, so that a numerical account, (usually something impossible to envision with the naked eye like 4 µm), could be written down. But I also remember shifting the microscope to be able to find what I was looking for. I recalled that the colours I saw were probably artefacts of the microscope’s technology, and not something inherent to the object I was viewing. I recall, when working with guppies, that different microscopes allowed me to visualize different aspects of the fish. What I saw changed with the technology of my vision – and so too, the “technologies of vision” in qualitative research shape the understanding researchers have of what or who is viewed.

I could not help but connect “field of view” to “field of research” in ethnography; they are often seen, in classic ethnographic accounts, as circumscribed spaces  or circumscribed bodies, with knowledge ‘for the observing and the taking’ by an outside I/eye.  The reification of fields as smaller components of a whole fits very well with the classic notions of ethnography – the idea that different smaller parts make up some coherent whole. I would argue instead, that classic ethnographic means have instead shown how different smaller parts make up very incoherent holes! The attempt to ritualize through visualization from a distance has reduced ethnography to a recipe-making process, as though cultures come into existence and are as easily understood as baking.

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