June 2, 2007
Understanding Ethnography and Academic Arguments

Grant McCracken recently had an interesting post in which he used a variety of plot points from a typical episode of procedural drama Law & Order to examine the role of ethnographies.

For those who haven't followed Grant's work, he is an affiliated faculty member of the Convergence Culture Consortium and the author of a variety of books on cultural changes surrounding advertising, branding, entertainment, and a variety of other issues we regularly examine here in C3. Some of his latest work is contained in his book Flock and Flow.

He goes through a series of common legal "objections" that are filed on television shows and how the concepts of legal evidence and procedure do not cross over very directly with the way ethnographers come to understand the phenomena they study.

The difference, of course, has to do with the shadow of doubt that most academic work has to construct itself under. There is still the need both for sufficient evidence, perhaps a preponderance of data, that can back up a point, but the ability to construct a good argument often has to do with NOT stating the obvious, whereas the legal world is (supposedly) constructed on establishing only infallible cases.

Just going through a round of student work from the class I taught, I haven't been able to emphasize enough that academic work does not involve reports but arguments...If there's no one out there who could possibly argue with what you say, you often have on your hands not an airtight piece of academic research but rather something that didn't need to be researched in the first place.

Our research at C3 is focused on trying to understand emerging cultural practices and how to map them. That means that we are required to make arguments that a variety of people may not agree with. In the process, by creating links between academia and the industry, we have been called the exact opposite of what media programs should be doing. Again, if no one complains, you often have to wonder if what you are doing is even valid, so it's nice to encounter objections out there from time-to-time.

Grant looks at how discussions in ethnography often go "beyond the scope," how there is always the need for "speculation," how you have to assume things and make hypotheses "not in evidence," and so on.

His piece is eye-opening about the nature of academic research, the need to sometimes argue what can't be quantitatively and definitively proven, and--perhaps most of all--the subjectivity of the ethnographic process. Understanding how research is done and openly admitting the lack of definitiveness in a lot of these research processes, is likely one of the best methods to ensure valid and academically responsible research...and to avoid the pitfalls of treating ethnographic research, whether quantitative or qualitative, as if it were "the gospel."