Notes on research, thinking and writing: Social Anthropology

Over the years I have collected vignettes of brilliant  insights, and advise on writing and research, undiscovered gems of wisdom passed on through conversations, arguments and debates. This is an effort to compile these ideas. I hope to update this regularly and with discipline. Also check – An archive of Interesting things, which I hope will provide fodder for the more chaotic and eclectical. Other posts in the series will be posted under the category: Notes on thinking and writing.

I will start with the most recent advise I stumbled upon. My friend, Uday Chandra posted his colleague Nate Roberts advice for aspiring ethnographers in a listserve discussion.

“…for practical, nuts-and-bolts guidelines, you cannot do better than the guide that the late F.G. Bailey for his students. See here:https://www.dropbox.com/…/105zg9…/AAAiJO5KlXdUN4ZaPMd2x4XZa….

This gem has been passed down in mimeographed form for generations. Unfortunately the attached scan is a little hard to read, and may have some missing pages. But it is really worth the effort. And if anyone ever decides to re-type the whole thing, it would be a tremendous boon to scholarship.

ethnographer should just collect as much information as possible.

In addition, a bit of advice from my own experience is that the ethnographer should just collect as much information as possible. It is only in the analysis phase that the significance of much of what is collected becomes apparent, and it is generally in those quotidian details—-exactly the sort of things one takes for granted—-that you don’t think are significant that the unexpected emerges.

Another thing to remember is that ethnography is not the same thing as doing open-ended interviews, though these are a part of it. The two biggest things are, first, what people say in daily contexts, to one another, and to the anthropologist in casual conversation, and, second, what people actually do. That is what differentiates ethnography from other methods: the combination of not just what people say but behavioral observations. Hence the need for extended contact that only residence in the field site can provide (even if this means living in some pretty uncomfortable situations. For it is here that the subtle tensions and discrepancies between words and deeds, which are so revealing, emerge. Otherwise all you are doing is playing stenographer to people’s own self-representation.

Hence the need for extended contact that only residence in the field site can provide (even if this means living in some pretty uncomfortable situations. For it is here that the subtle tensions and discrepancies between words and deeds, which are so revealing, emerge. Otherwise all you are doing is playing stenographer to people’s own self-representation.

The problem with relying only on words (especially statements elicited in interview contexts) is that what people tell you is generally what they think you want to hear and/or an image of their own normative picture of themselves and their world. Not just out field subjects’ words, but everyone’s (including our own) are produced dialogically and fashioned to the hearer’s perceived expectations, values, etc.

Another key practice is to ask the same question many different times, in different ways. Also ask different people that same questions. Don’t ever take for granted that you understand what someone is really saying, or its significance. That is a recipe for simply reproducing your own starting assumptions, whereas ethnography is properly understood as a method for getting away from such assumptions.

It may feel weird to repeat oneself, and to dwell at great length on the apparently obvious. But it is precisely in probing what at first seems obvious that the greatest insights emerge. Repeating oneself is easier when you play the role of the naif, downplaying (or simply not taking for granted) what you already know.

Finally, perhaps the most important link in the chain of observation and discovery is taking rigorous field notes. These are the text from which later, unexpected discoveries emerge.”

In addition to these remarks, these are some of Bailey’s books I have read in parts and in entirety, and is worth looking into.

  • — (1969) Stratagems and spoils: a social anthropology of politics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • — (1971) Gifts and poison: the politics of reputation. New York: Schocken Books.
  • — (1977) Morality and expediency: the folklore of academic politics. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
  • — (1988) Humbuggery and manipulation: the art of leadership. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • — (1994) The witch-hunt, or, The triumph of morality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • — (2001) Treasons, Stratagems, and Spoils. How Leaders Make Practical Use of Beliefs and Values. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Pass it on.