What Is Ethnography?

Hermes, messenger of the gods, the inspiration of the name Hermeneutics.

What is ethnography? The almighty Google describes it as

“Noun: The scientific description of the customs of peoples and cultures.”

There is just so much wrong with this definition I’m not sure where to begin.

The ethnographic process is not scientific. The concept can stand on its own. In my own Devil’s Dictionary ethnography is a type of hermeneutic analysis, and one of the best explanations of this type of analysis I’ve found so far is in Charles Taylor’s work Interpretation and the Sciences of Man. — might I add that I love the added plurality in Science and the qualifier “of Man”. It’s accurate….

Charles Taylor provides us a sketch of three necessary conditions of a proper analysis of a social group: (1) A proper hermeneutic analysis must have an object of study or a field of objects, (2) it must make a distinction between meaning and expression, and be describable in terms of nonsense, sense, coherence and its absence. Lastly, (3) it must identify the subject for which the meaning is for.

So what the heck does all that mean?

Taylor approaches social groups as cases of meaning which can be written down and then interpreted as one would with a text. Societies according to Taylor are constructed out of meaningful actions. As such, a text can be constructed which can be used to analyze meanings. The object(s) of study or field of objects Taylor considers are those within a social group. Institutions, practices, etc. constitute the objects of study within the given field and the given social group is the field of study.

The distinction Taylor requires us to make by condition (2) is between meaning and expression. Experiential meaning can be understood as what Taylor refers to as “meaning” in condition (2). “Expression” can be understood as what Taylor refers to as our “interpretation“ of experiential meaning. Experiential meaning consist of three things. The first, mentioned above, is that it is always relative to a subject. Second, is that meaning is of something, e.g. the meaning of a diamond ring or of a ritual. Third is that meaning is understood in relation to other meanings. In this way, Taylor distinguishes his use of the term meaning from that of linguistic meaning. The goal of a hermeneutic analysis is to interpret the experiential meanings for the actors within the field of study, i.e. to express experiential meaning in such a way as to make it available to our understanding. Such an expression must be describable in the terms laid out by condition (2). Last of all we must identify the subject for which the meaning is meaningful for.

The ideal result of such an analysis is the construction of a “language of social life” which can be used to re-express, or make sense of what otherwise seemed not to. A language of social life marks distinctions between possible social actions, relations, structures, etc. within a social group. Not only like a foreign language, it allows us to understand the rules by which one engages in social life. Hence, it is “a language of mutual action and communication” because it allows one to talk about social reality and provides a common understanding of norms. Taylor suggest that such a language is constructed by discerning common meanings which are embodied in the practices of the social group. Common meanings are not shared meanings since they can be interpreted differently by different subjects. Instead, they are similar to vague notions with various interpretations that nonetheless make sense to the subject, e.g. justice, morality, beauty, etc.. These common meanings are different from subjective meanings, which are I-intentional contents within individual minds (ask the mighty Google —John Searle”I-Intentions”).

Taylor argues that common meanings are the basis of community”; meaning that when common meanings are articulated in social practices they become constitutive of social reality. Intersubjective meanings refer to this articulation or realization of common meanings within social practices. The common meaning of beauty as used by marketers is a good example of an intersubjective meaning because (1) it illustrates how the common meaning of beauty is articulated in a social practice (commercials/advertising) and (2) how it is constitutive of social reality, (it constructs a conception of what is beautiful and maintains that conception).

Using the concepts discussed above we can describe how an ethnographer conducts a proper hermeneutic analysis. In summary; an adequate hermeneutic analysis of another social group requires the ethnographer to master the group’s language of social life. Such mastery requires one to internalize, or know the common meanings within the group studied. Common meanings, since they are not subjective meanings and not found in the minds of individuals, are accessible only through intersubjective meanings embodied in social practices. Accordingly, the ethnographer must examine social practices. Nonetheless, the entire ethnographic process requires the ethnographer to enter into a hermeneutic circle because in order to understand the field holistically (or language of social life), the ethnographer must understand the parts (individual common meanings). However, in order to understand the parts, the ethnographer must understand the whole.

But, how exactly does an ethnographer enter a hermeneutic circle?

The method employed by ethnographers since at least Bornislaw Malinowski, has been participant observation. Participant observation describes a person’s active and dynamic involvement with another group in their own context, over a prolonged period of time (from several months to years). It aims at getting an intimate familiarity with the people’s beliefs, institutions, practices, etc… by living with them and engaging with them on an everyday basis. Participant observation is similar to moving to a new country. For example, in moving to a new country, you learn what the people there eat, how they dress, how they talk. You often learn their language, their habits, etc… until you finally become something like them. In other words, in becoming something like them, or being changed, you are able to understand them, if at least only partially. This is inline with Taylor’s response “change yourself” to the interlocutor’s objection “I don’t understand”. By using the method of participant observation, an ethnographer can enter into the hermeneutic circle, change himself and understand.

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

The general problem of hermeneutics is epistemological. Verifiability has long been part of our scientific tradition/practice and a hermeneutic analysis has no way of providing verifiable data. Taylor does provide a way in which we can assess the adequacy of an explanation. He explains that an adequate explanation makes sense of something that once was incoherent. In other words, if an explanation is useful in producing some understanding, then it is adequate This solution is pragmatic and requires the adoption of a coherentist view of knowledge. Nonetheless, since there is no verifiable data or foundation on which one’s claims can be justified, an interlocutor can reject one’s explanation. To such a rejection, Taylor responds “change yourself“. This seems insufficient. If an explanation is not convincing or unintelligible, then there is no way we can say that it is adequate. The only possible solutions are to either continue developing your explanation until it is convincing and intelligible, or take a new approach.

A second general problem of hermeneutics is the lack of universal categories, concepts, or laws. Nonetheless, I think this is less of a problem in social-cultural anthropology, than it is among some philosophers. Universal categories or laws are simply unrealistic due to the vast variety of different ways of living around the world. However, the philosophical implications of a lack of concrete foundation, or universal concepts may lead to an extreme relativism. Taylor does not address this issue directly, but we can use the notion of common meanings to provide an answer. One can argue that common meanings are a social groups’ interpretation of universal meanings. Hence, universal concepts are preserved. Yet, certainty about what these concepts are, and there ontology would be hard to obtain. Quite possibly, a full fledged defense may lead towards a view similar to Plato’s Forms.

Lastly there are specific problems pertaining to ethnography. Ethnographers have difficulty with historical objects of study. The method of participant observation cannot be utilized. Hence, an ethnographer must rely on historical documents to do as Taylor suggest, i.e. imagine what it would be like. However, when an ethnographer is interpreting historical documents, the question of who or what is being studied is left open. For example, in reading The Sexual Life of Savages by Malinowski, it is unclear whether the subject for which the words are meaningful is Malinowski, the savages1, or the reader himself. The problem of who the subject is also extends to participant observation. In applying participant observation in the field, a space in which interaction between the subject being studied and the subject conducting the investigation is produced. The claims made by ethnographic texts are assumed to be representative of the subject being studied. However, this assumption is unjustified. It is unclear whether ethnography actually represents the subject being studied, or is representative of the subject conducting the investigation, or maybe is representative of the space in which the interaction takes place. Hence, who/what exactly the subject for which the meaning is meaningful for, is not identified.

1 – Notice the use of the word savage. What does Malinowski mean by this word? Was it a literary device to entice readers? Does he mean primitive, or do we understand the word as primitive or dangerous, irrational, etc?


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