Lying is done… Part Two

Part of the reading group discussion on lying, and specifically of  ‘ten lies of ethnography’, by Gary Fine, published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Peter Metcalf’s book took place last Friday in Amsterdam (Dina, Sarah and Anne). The discussion will continue here…

Metcalf’s book struck us all as a classic, a book to read and to reread, a book that would engage us in different ways at different times in our work. Not only is this book eminently well written, each of its sections is layered, bringing together a compelling narrative, an entry into debates in post-modern ethnography literature, as well as illustrating the links to be constructed between fieldwork and conceptual debates. This part of the discussion also led us to wonder: What is it about this book that makes it so ‘good to think with’, in dealing with issues of truth and epistemology?

We also found that issues of language and truth (How is writing a research plan lying?, asked Dina, or how can we think of  ‘truth as a language game’, as Sarah formulated it) were perhaps least explicitly dealt with in the book–though we did find ways to extrapolate from its contents as to how Metcalf might address such issues.

Another theme we discussed was the evolution of the relationship to the field, over the course of one’s career. We also wondered: At what point can one write such a book? When, and on what basis, can a scholar engage in this kind of writing?

The disappearing field was also striking in this account. How often do we hear that the pace of technological change is a particular challenge for ethnographers of contemporary culture? In the case of Borneo, ways of life are not standing still either, and this sense of urgency and fast-pace of internet researchers rather felt like a particular conceit, when reading Metcalfe’s descriptions of change.

We also briefly talked about Fine’s piece which considers ten ‘values’ that ethnographers are meant to enact, and related it to our discussion of Metcalfs’ book, in terms of the value of values.  Enacting such values might take a different form in different settings (ie what it means to be honest can vary…). We also debated the following: what is at stake in maintaining or breaching such values?

These are some highlights of the discussion, with the questions underlying the discussion foregrounded–looking forward to hearing from the all readers on these or other points.

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2 responses to “Lying is done… Part Two

  1. Well, I haven’t read the Metcalf book so I can’t really comment on what he writes, but I did read Fine’s piece on values. the thing that struck me as missing from his points was any really analysis of power. for instance in his discussion of the ‘literary’ ethnographer, no mention of the power and politics of representing someone else’s experiences. No mention of the ‘truth’ or lies involved in directly quoting or paraphrasing, or the decisions to ‘clean up’ an informant’s words. No mention of the power relationships involved in those White Middle Class Male ethnographers sleeping with women who were ‘given’ to them by tribal chief’s or who were ‘given’ in exchange for money to a pimp.

    I guess that truth is kind of a vexed concept so your question of what is the value of the values is more useful, but rather than couching them in terms of whether they are ‘truthful’ or not, I would couch them in terms of what ethical framework we are seeking to adhere to and who benefits.

    anyway, not a very well thought out response from me, but it’s nice to start thinking about ethnography again.

  2. Hi Sal. What you are writing is very interesting to me. And allow me to make yet another advertisement for Sharon Traweek’s paper “warning signs” that Anne also mentioned on the blog. It’s short but takes into account that there might be a difference between the methodological ways valid in order to gather data and those of writing about it in order to make trustworthy.

    After having read her text, a year after submitting my thesis, made me realize that I had lied – or at least silenced a truth by its absence. I had performed a fieldwork around patients with respiratory complications at a hospital, studying the effect of technology on the clinicians’ workflows. However, I had not written that I was an asthma patient myself and had been admitted to that very same ward several times in the past, though I used this when gathering data. My experiences became a valuable tool when asking about medicine, practices, etc, as it allowed me to consider a time span of more than 10 years rather than the limited duration of the fieldwork itself.
    I realize now, almost a year later, that I never put this into writing. I simply did not see it as data. And I wonder what made me “lie” about it, to use Metcalf’s term. Why was my personal experience silenced, when that same experience was vital while obtaining the knowledge I later represented in my thesis?
    So I really think you are right when pointing out the necessity for focusing on the power and politics of representing someone else’s experiences.

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