08 June 2017

2017: An Ethnographic Renaissance?

I recently read an interview between Smithsonian's Steven Beschloss and sociologist Matthew Desmond. This article detailed Desmond's fieldwork in a trailer park and a rooming house in Milwaukee between 2008 and 2009. There, he conducted fieldwork with eight families and two landlords and, in the words of Beschloss, "captur[ed] how the toxic mix of extreme poverty and economic exploitation can leave individuals unable to keep a roof over their heads."

This article is a series of questions and answers by Desmond whose new book Evicted is recently published. In one question particular to ethnography, Beschloss asks:

What about [...] ethnographies [that provide] not only insights but were part of a progressive tradition to influence social problems?

Desmond responds (this is a selection here):
"If I get down onto the ground with this problem, try and see it as closely as I could and write about it with complexity and humanity, maybe that would make a difference in and of itself.  I am heartened by the fact that we have this wonderful tradition of ethnography and in-depth journalism that’s focused on these moral questions and made a difference."

How accessible is the 'wonderful tradition of ethnography' AND in-depth journalism? Are these supposed to be read as one in the same? Something of a very similar tradition? Is this too traditionalist of a perspective (asking oneself...but is your method informed by ethnographic theory?!?!)?

Deepa S. Reddy, Ph.D. wrote about Ethnography (is) Everywhere! in 2013. Four years ago, Reddy wrote that "ethnography seem[ed] to have acquired a new cachet in the last decade."

She goes on to pose a problem that was originally behind Desmond's answer:
"The trouble is that ethnography has also become industry jargon, used to describe quite a range of qualitative consumer research approaches, often diluting ethnography to simply another way to generate a “real-world understanding” of consumers. The other trouble is that ethnography, classically conceived and thoroughly executed, requires some fairly intensive field studies. Its focus is on studying people and practices in their native contexts. But does this mean that those who cannot immediately commence extensive field studies are stuck at the shallow end of research? Not necessarily."
Reddy then goes on to list a number of ways in which we can draw from ethnographic approaches in a deep (as opposed to shallow) way. Follow the link below to see Reddy's list.

Quick links and further reading: