Ethnographies are the "experimental systems" through which anthropologists work out the relation between data on the one hand, and on the other hand: models, explanations, hypotheses, generalizations, and interpretations. Sometimes it is suggested that ethnography is the descriptive level, ethnology the comparative level, and anthropology the theoretical level. In any case, description is always done in relation to comparative and theoretical frames, both to test them and to rebuild or build anew theory and comparative insight and understanding. One might describe the process as a dialectical oscillation between the empirical, the comparative, and the theoretical, in which each is in put in question by (is tested by) the others. Empirical data is evaluated against what is known from other sources, linguistic or other cultural competences. The goals are usually comparative and theoretical, and interpretation is never "free."
The ethnographic method in some respects is both the least "scientistic" and most scientific of the social science methods. Surveys, statistical sampling, and other formal methods are welcomed as probes, but never accepted without unpacking the category and other assumptions and exclusions that go into building the instruments. Validity is usually increased by multiple triangulations on a topic, accepting neither single points of view, nor "objective" formal abstractions. Some would suggest, thus, that anthropology is the social science of epistemologies. Indeed there is a rigorous lineage of such investigations beginning with technical comparative at the grammatical level linguistics (e.g. Friedrich 1970). While in recent decades, cultural boundaries (often built up with great effort by state and colonial/anti-colonial nationalisms over the past few centuries) have again become more and more fluid, the attention to who is saying what to whom in what code and with what exclusions has become even more at issue than ever before (communities of enunciation, renewed questions of discourses, hegemony, visual communication, etc.)
This philosophical-epistemological rigor of anthropology has implications for the writing of ethnographies. While some dismiss such attention as an invitation to compose at personal will, most anthropologists view the challenges of no longer being able to enunciate such sentences as "Cantabridgeans believe x" as ones of increasing the bar on precision and ability to negotiate competing discourses in the many political fields that configure social reality. "Precision" here involves humility, and not just redoubled scientistic energies, as anyone who works in spaces of intense interpersonal communication, and situational abstraction, knows. Among the negotiations involved are those of transference and counter transference, the use of "thirds" to attempt to stabilize dialogue, efforts to leverage strategies of suspicion, and in the end resting with "good enough" approximations "given the available light" and acknowledging these as such. Under these conditions, there are also wonderful renewed opportunities for creativity in both the collection and presentation of ethnography, be it through the new electronic multimedia technologies, or be it through lessons learned from those well-researched, well-experienced, and cultural genre-attuned, creative writers who sometimes convey ethnographic realities more powerfully in novels and essays than do the standard ethnographic forms.
Subject prerequisites: STS.250J/21A.750J