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Ethnography

Ethnography And Globalization

While rooted in phenomena that pass directly before the observer's eye, ethnographic description also involves selection and interpretation. Its practitioners usually aim to produce generalizations about the nature of relations and significations, about reproduction, rupture, or change in specific kinds of contexts. Classically, participant observation has been deployed within tightly bounded analytic fields, within which a certain coherence was presumed to exist (whether it resided in kin ties, productive forces, norms, signs, networks, subcultures, or nations). While holism of this sort has often lent itself to bold theory-making, ethnography-generated insights tend to be of human scale and humanist by implication. Ethnographers have tended to mount strong arguments against formalist models of economy and society that divorce phenomena like markets or international relations from actual social contexts, or that reduce human motivation to formulae like "rational choice."

The small-scale compass of ethnography, and the relatively bounded fields within which it has been effective, have raised new questions at a time of heightened global awareness, when most social phenomena seem so obviously to extend beyond local situations. At a moment when many domestic groups count transnational migrants among their close kin, and consume goods and images from across the planet, it becomes less and less possible to divorce intimate contexts from larger social forces, such as worldwide movements of capital.

The challenge of practicing ethnography "in the modern world system" (Marcus) should not be underestimated. It has produced creative efforts intended to extend the range of existing methods to accommodate the intensified circulation of persons and things in the world, and to comprehend these expanded flows. In part, this has involved combining ethnographic observation with other ways of generating social knowledge—those of political economy and literary theory, for example. But the most significant response has been to insist that now, more than ever, as people everywhere seem captured by material processes of planetary scale, it is necessary to demonstrate that no world-transforming force exists without the engagement of tangible human agents and interests. As the ideologies of the powerful seek to make their policies seem like technical necessities, operating beyond the realm of politics and value, the perspectives of ethnography insist on the opposite: that all activities, large and small, can be shown to have social and cultural determinations and, hence, are susceptible to debate, contestation, and intervention. Therein lies appeal of participant observation in an unpromising age.

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Jean Comaroff

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEthnography - The Paradox, Intrinsic Features, The Native's Point Of View?, Ethnography And Globalization