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The Paradox, Intrinsic Features, The Native's Point Of View?, Ethnography And Globalization

Ethnography, often paraphrased as "participant observation," is a mode of deriving knowledge about particular, local worlds through direct engagement with their peoples and ways of life. As a mode of inquiry, it is primarily associated with the discipline of anthropology, the comparative study of human societies and cultures that took definitive shape as a scholarly field in the early years of the twentieth century. But the implications of the approach are more complex than suggested by this definition; for while ethnography is empirical in spirit, in practice it flouts many of the assumptions underlying positivist investigation, and has long enjoyed something of a maverick status within the social sciences.

Tracing its mythic origins to the celebrated research of Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia in the teens of the last century, anthropological ethnographers have classically worked in non-European contexts, relying less on written records or formal techniques than on qualitative perceptions gleaned from interpersonal encounters in the field. In this enterprise, writes Claude Lévi-Strauss, "[t]he observer apprehends himself as his own instrument of observation" (p. 35). Such frank reliance on the role of subjective experience in empirical investigation sits somewhat uneasily with the value-free ideals of mainstream social science methodology. In fact, while it is in many ways a product of the Enlightenment impetus to bring the universe under the Western gaze, ethnographic observation, and the cultural relativism with which it has long been associated, has always been controversial. While hailed by many as a uniquely sensitive means of unsettling European hegemonies and revealing the cogency of other orders of meaning and value, it has also been accused of biases, ranging from insurmountable ethnocentrism to a fetishism of difference. Ironically, as critique of the method has mounted within anthropology in recent years, ethnography has been ever more enthusiastically embraced in several fields outside itself, among them cultural and legal studies, musicology, education, sociology, and political science. True, it is often hard to gauge, once the method is separated from the anthropological perspective that spawned it, just what it implies (besides "talking to people"). But even in watered-down form, its current popularity is surprising: How are we to explain its appeal in these postcolonial, global times, when many scholars have come to question the capacity of small-scale qualitative methods to grasp the ever more intensive translocal forces spanning the planet?

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background