What I’m reading: July 2019 part 3


Literature, Myths and Stories

Finally, let’s bring in a rather different way to understand the ‘foreign’: through fiction.  Here I want to reflect on two very different books: Kalypso Nicolaidis’ Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit (London: Unbound 2019) and Timothy Pachirat’s Among Wolves: Ethnography and the Immersive Study of Power (Abingdon: Routledge 2018). In the end, neither is directly fiction that helps me to understand the ‘others’ that I am seeking to understand, but they are helping me make sense of our project in different ways.


Nicolaidis’ book is an enormously impressive undertaking, to which I really cannot do justice here. It’s a reading of the different possible meanings of Brexit through (European) mythology: Greek and Roman myths, the Old Testament canon, and so on, interspersed with evocative works of art, symbolising the different accounts of meaning and ways of making sense of (post-EU referendum/post Brexit) realities. I have heard (and told) so many stories about Brexit and what it means and will mean, and to whom, that it becomes dizzying. This book puts them into a highly nuanced yet comprehensible order and structure: Brexit as British exceptionalism; Brexit as an indictment of the EU and an exposition of its ‘dark side’; Brexit as the salvation of the EU (including the possibility that the sacrificial lamb of the UK, at the eleventh hour, Isaac-like, is spared).

I loved that Nicolaidis calls for a ‘do no harm Brexit’ (p 14): ‘a kind of Hippocratic oath to be applied to the societies involved. I hope that such an imperative will come to pervade the future relationship between sides which are bound to remain intimate rivals’ (p 14). One can read that hope as about between the ‘sides’ of the UK (perhaps without Northern Ireland, perhaps without Scotland?) and the EU-27; but I am also reading it as about the ‘sides’withinthe UK, which we are studying: the Quitlings and Remoaners, the London ‘intelligensia’ and the ‘ordinary, ignorant people’, to use some of the pejorative language which would be utterly inconsistent with ‘do no harm’, which I record here because I have observed it first hand, and which ethical and respectful ethnographic practice otherwise totally precludes.

For the project, though, what is most illuminating is Nicolaidis’ claim for the epistemology of storytelling and metaphorical expression. ‘The purpose of telling stories is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express our understanding of ourselves in the world in which we live.’ (p 183). ‘As our shared imagination, metaphorical shortcuts or paradigmatic clutches, myths can create meaning by distorting and deepening reality at one at the same time. They help us to make sense sensitively and provide structure to a fragmented narrative’ (p 184-185). Thinking through myths, argues Nicolaidis, allows us a critical distance from the stories that we tell ourselves ‘by placing question marks around our collective self-righteousness’ (p 182). I permit myself a wry smile when reading those words, reminded of McGarvey’s account of the anguished Guardian readers’ responses to the ‘crisis’ of the referendum vote. Nicolaidis also suggests that mythical stories can play a role in democratic process:

‘If these mythical stories can serve as compass, they cannot chart a destination, but only take us to an open sea of meanings where we may accept the incompleteness of our narratives and open them up to each other. If we appear to be inconsistent in the process, we can console ourselves with the banal thought that consistency is the virtue of small minds. Better still, let’s recognise inconsistency in all its glory, as the primary material of the pluralist democratic encounter. True democracy is about all of us accessing the overlapping and contradictory meanings of the stories we tell each other. In this, no answer should have to power to silence the questionners’ (p 187).


With Pachirat’s Among Wolves, we return to the device of the trial. But this is a different take from Lubet’s or Duneier’s – though both appear in Pachirat’s book. It’s a story: in fact, a story recounted as a play. The more I think about it, the more I think that it’s a story about the meanings of ethnography, or of social science, or perhaps even of research and knowledge creation and circulation more generally.

The introduction tells us that Pachirat was invited to publish a book about ethnography. With enviable chutzpah, he agreed, but only on the condition that he would do so in the form of play in which representatives of key positions in ethnography interact with each other. The book, like Harrison’s and Jerolmack & Kahn’s, does indeed provide a primer, on both practical, how-to, and on ethnography’s relationships with deeper conceptual questions. It’s a book one could easily use in teaching contexts.  But it does so in a way that makes me want to say out loud I would so love to write a book like this, that is at once of its discipline and shakes the accepted practices of its discipline.

The opening Act, set in a barn in the Finger Lakes of New York State (which I’m hoping to visit next week, as it happens), introduces the mysterious character of a ‘one-eyed wolfdog’ (p 1), and the author as the sort of narrative voice of the play. We learn that Pachirat, along with 9 other well-known ethnographers, has been mysteriously summoned to a secret ethnographic trial. The ethnographers include Alice Goffman, who is to be tried for her On The Run (2014).  The ethnographers’ works are introduced through a series of dreams, which the wolfdog recounts. I’ll come back to the device of the wolfdog in the story in a minute.

In Act 2, we learn more of a vial and documents that the wolfdog has brought. It is a ‘fieldwork invisibility potion’, developed to ‘advance United States military, political, economic and social interests’ by allowing researchers to study non-American countries and cultures, without marring the research by introducing the presence of the researcher (p 10). Act 3, in the form of a radio show, explores the ‘fieldwork invisibility potion’, its relations to positivism and interpretivism, and introduces some of the themes that recur in the book: co-generation rather than mere collection of data; the relations of researcher positionality to research design or framing, and to ethical requirements of contemporary research; and the superiority of ethnography because it surfaces these matters where other methods do not. This latter theme recurs throughout: eg ‘TIMOTHY … every method draws extensively on an unspoken … wellspring of tacit knowledge … ethnography is unique in the degree to which it underscores and calls attention to [this] dimension of tacit knowledge’ (p 94). Indeed, one of the meanings of the story Pachirat’s play tells us is that ethnography is a practice under threat: the trial is a powerful device to get across that meaning. It is not Alice Goffman’s On the Run (2014) that is on trial: it is ‘ALICE: …. the entire enterprise of ethnography’ (p 139). I was struck by the thought that every academic method/ology or discipline that I know of regards itself as under threat: even the (to me) most powerful natural sciences. I guess the whole Higher Education sector feels under threat, perhaps justifiably.

A long Act 4 follows. This consists of a conversation between the 10 leading ethnographers assembled in the story, interspersed with interactions with the wolfdog, who is ‘nearly lifeless at their feet’ (p 23). First up, we learn that each has consented to come having been summoned by The Prosecutor ‘KATHERINE BOO: … wearing “[a] flowing black cloak woven with the strands of truth and carrying an oak staff fashioned from justice”.’ (p 23) At the end of Act 4, The Prosecutor duly arrives on a Harley Davidson, presumably meant to signify a kind of masculine wealth, power and insouciance in the face of danger, in contra-distinction to the femininity of the relatively powerless wolfdog. In some sense, the 10 ethnographers are there in the service of the future of their practice, because The Prosecutor has been ruining ‘ALICE: … many promising intellectual futures’ (p 23) and putting off others from doing ethnographic work.

On one level, Act 4 is a didactic device. It goes through – with seamless transitions – all of the key points one would seek to get across in a conceptual course on ethnography, or an ethnography primer. A quick summary of at least some of these, as presented in Act 4, is in order:

  • Taxonomies of ethnography (p 27-33)
  • Writing conventions within ethnography (p 33-35)
  • Ethnographies’ relations with other methods, and other disciplines, including journalism and fiction writing; are the roots of ethnography in anthropology or sociology? (p 35-41; 54-57)
  • Links between modern ethnography and global capitalism, and state power; contemporary ethnography disavowing its colonial and imperialist past (or not); the ethics of the relatively powerful academic ethnographers studying those with less power; ‘studying up’, ie studying those with more power (p 42-45; 48-53; 57-61)
  • The contrast between a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ and a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ adopted towards those being studied; the types of truths found in stories (p 46-47)
  • Researcher positionality, and the obligations it brings, as well as the coincidences implicated (p 62-67).
  • How can one ‘relate small facts to large issues’ (Geertz, 1973: 22) (p 36-41, but this theme recurs throughout the text, and is the ‘Among Wolves’ of the book’s title)

Act 5 continues in didactic mode. Much of it is a conversation between three of the characters (Timothy Pachirat, Piers Vitebsky and Karen Ho), out for a walk with the wolfdog, in which they reflect on how they teach ethnography. In playful mode, Pachirat adopts the role of ‘professor’, with the others as ‘students’. There is a discussion of the boundaries (or lack thereof) between research and the rest of life; of the ‘good old days’ when people just went into the field and learned there; and then a long discussion of a stylised life cycle of ethnographic research:

‘TIMOTHY: … negotiating a research question; defining “the field’; reflecting on the project’s ethical considerations and gaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) or other ethics committee approval; gaining access; building relationships; navigating the field and dealing with improvisation, serendipity and ambiguity; writing fieldnotes; and leaving the field’ (p 79).

Every one of these is problematized. This includes the idea that one can even ‘teach’ ethnography:

‘PIERS: Well, I don’t think you can actually teach it [‘that kind of spirit, that kind of sensibility’]. All you can do is create an environment in which students who are already inclined to it can be nurtured, nourished and encouraged to take risks.

‘TIMOTHY: That is so opposite to the environment of a lot of graduate education in the social sciences, which produces a slow anesthetization through inducing timidity and safety’ (p 83).

The Act ends with the dramatic device of the wolfdog growling, then howling, and sprinting off back towards the barn.

The penultimate Act 6 comprises the trial, being held in the barn’s upper room. The remaining 7 ethnographers agree to play the key roles in a trial: judges; defendant; counsel for the defence; witnesses. The Prosecutor’s role is obvious, and he disavows that it can be described as a ‘role’ (p 135), claiming that he is there in a realist sense to represent the public interest and the integrity of science (p 138). Loïc Wacquant and Mitchell Duneier begin by objecting to the very notion of a trial, and Duneier points out that his ‘How Not to Lie …’ is ‘intended solely as a thought experiment that ethnographers might apply to their own work’ (p 137), not as a justification for a literal trial.

There follows Goffman’s explanation of why she has consented to the trial: many of the critiques of her work have evoked the notion of a trial. Lubet’s Interrogating Ethnography, at the time not yet published but in the public domain as the subject of a conference, is explicitly discussed.

‘ALICE: … So yes, reflecting on the ubiquity of courtroom tropes in both the public and academic treatments of my book, the figure of The Prosecutor does seem an apropos way of synthesizing all of these critiques in a single person and of asking whether a legal framework is an appropriate oe for the judgment of ethnographic work, and of scholarly work more broadly.’ (p 139)

The remainder of the Act consists of a summary of the critiques of Goffman’s work (and by extension that of all ethnographies) (p 140-147) followed by a carefully elaborated summary of the defences (p 147-157).  But before judgment can be given, the characters are interrupted by Vibetsky, Ho and Pachirat, ‘their panic palpable’ (p 157). The wolfdog is missing: and sounds offstage tell us that the vial of fieldwork invisibility potion and the formula have been destroyed, and the wolfdog is howling. Because the trial is interrupted here, and because the defence has followed the prosecution, the author’s intention must be to leave the reader/audience on the side of ethnography.

A one page Act 7 concludes the play. The wolfdog, no longer visible, lets out ‘a long chilling howl’ (p 160). Terrified, ‘[e]veryone involuntarily shivers with fear, and The Prosecutor holds out his staff like a weapon.’  (p 161).

‘THE PROSECUTOR: They’re real? The wolfdog and the invisibility potion are real?’

[A sudden, hair-raising growl followed by a piercing scream as Piers Vitebsky throws up his left arm to shield himself against a ghostly attacker before he is thrown backwards onto the dirt.]

Growling diminishes in volume as lights fade to darkness. All goes silent.

End of Act Seven

END OF PLAY’ (p 161)

This final Act must be deliberately equivocal on the part of the author. My preliminary reading is this. With the destruction of the fieldwork invisibility potion, the wolfdog become less corporeal, more ghostly. But, even as a ghost, she is able to floor Vitebsky, and to silence all ethnographers’ speech. So, the wolfdog is ultimately shown to be more powerful than ethnography: or at least capable of temporarily silencing its practitioners.

Acts 4 and 5 are where the book responds most directly to the question I posed at the outset of these reflections: how can one (purport to) understand the ‘other’? That question is also touched on in Act 6.

‘ANNA … Under what circumstances, if any, is it legitimate for people to conduct research on and represent the lives of those who are different, sometimes radically, from themselves?

‘These are difficult questions, and the answers are surely as messy as the realities that shape them …  (p 155)

But the idea that ‘the rich cannot conduct research on or with the poor (or vice versa) should be rejected, so long as differences of power are neither denied nor erased. On the contrary ‘ANNA: … there is much to be learned … from the strangeness that comes with being a near-total outsider to a situation, but this strangeness must be accompanied by an abundance of reflexivity and humility’. (p 155).

Ethnography is more visibly problematic than other ‘MITCH: … enterprise[s] of knowledge creation’ (p 45):

‘JIM: … Because ethnography takes as its stated aim the understanding of the other from the perspective of the other, it creates a much more tangible and palpable tension than other kinds of projects of knowledge creation that do not make those kinds of claims’ (p 45)

This, and other, tensions implicit in the practice of ethnography are the ‘wolves’ among which ethnographers must live. On another level, then, as well as being an overtly didactic device, Acts 4, 5 and 6, in particular, use the device of the play to explain something profound about ethnography through an extended metaphor.

Ethnographers must live ‘among wolves’.

 ‘KAREN: … These wolves, these enduring tensions between small facts and large issues, are pesky, dangerous and evil …’ (p 38)

We could just try to kill them off, but,

‘KATHERINE … instead of thinking about an antagonistic relationship, pitting humans against wolves, we might think of the ethnographic sensibility as offering the possibility of living among wolves.’ (p 39).

‘TIMOTHY: This is where the magic of ethnography happens, in this uncomfortable but generative tension between local and object … – ethnography asks its practitioners to live in the creation tension between locus and object … to live among wolves.’ (p 39)

‘KAREN: We’ve noted the ethnographic maxim that you can’t know what is there to explore until after it’s been explored. How does this tension get reconciled?

‘TIMOTHY: You know, that’s such an excellent question and such a difficult one. There is no formula to resolve this tension.  … it’s an inherent part of living “among wolves”.’ (p 94)

‘KAREN: So one implication [of the insight that observation, inscription and analysis are not distinct or distinguishable] is that even the act of writing fieldnotes is itself already interpretative. … I suppose that’s really where a positivist and an interpretivist might part ways on what fieldnotes are about. There are some positivists who really do believe in not just the possibility but also the necessity of capturing “mere reality”, whether it is in fieldnote form or in the form of survey responses or coded variables. So, for a positivist, this kind of answer from Geertz is deeply discomfiting. It suggests that data are not reliable, not replicable and if data are not reliable and not replicable, then what is the science in our enterprise of scientific knowledge production really all about, anyway?’

‘TIMOTHY: Better to acknowledge that than live in denial of it. We don’t gain anything by creating an alternative universe in which data are declared to pre-exist interpretation. So an interpretivist response to these positivist concerns is that they are hardly unique to ethnography as a method. It’s just that ethnography calls attention to the inescapable inevitability of interpretation in ways that other methods do not.

‘KAREN: Back to the wolves again’ (p 113)


What do we gain by substituting the word ‘tension’ for the metaphor of wolves? Wolves evoke a sense of danger. We evoke an allusion to old folk tales (Peter and the Wolf; Little Red Riding Hood; The Three Little Pigs) where the wolves are the dangerous ‘other’ ‘in the forest’, outside the safety of ‘home’, and might destroy our homes, swallow our grandmothers, or us.  We evoke an allusion to the concept of werewolves: the idea that there are humans among us, unknown to us, who are sometimes in wolf form and are out of control. Ethnographers are in danger, and they may not even know where the danger comes from.

But we also evoke an allusion to excitement, to the frisson of the wild, the untameable. Ethnographers, we are being to encouraged to learn, live among the undomesticated, and as such, we are being encouraged to see them as heroic figures in the academy, constantly ‘ANNA: … opening up spaces of possibility’ (p 39).

What to make of the mysterious character of the wolfdog? I tried to track all the instances where the wolfdog, mainly inert or mute, growls or otherwise interacts with the human conversation. I couldn’t glean any sense from that, perhaps because I don’t know the literature well enough. What I understood Pachirat to mean in this character includes the following. The wolfdog is the ultimate ‘other’ in the story. She is, and is not, simultaneously, ‘real’. She symbolises a different way of knowing than Western academic thought. When we observe the wolfdog, as ‘other’, we deprive her of all meaning (p 7; p 26), because her ways of knowing and being known are not our ways of knowing and being known. The very act of understanding, with our Western eyes, seems to kill off that which we seek to understand.

The wolfdog is not only a female. She is also disabled: she is one-eyed. The double disadvantage surely is meant to evoke more than an intersectional disadvantage: being one-eyed also resonates with ‘seeing’, a near metaphor for ‘understanding’. Is the idea that the wolfdog can only see (ie, understand) in one way? If so, that is to suggest that she is unlike those of us with two eyes, who claim to see, at least in some sense, in more than one way. Is the implicit claim that ethnographers, and perhaps all who study ‘others’, can learn to ‘see’, and thus to represent, however conditionally, however partially, however humbly and reflexively, not only their own realities, but also those of others?

And, finally, how does the story told in Among Wolves represent law and legality, and indeed my own discipline of legal scholarship? It is here that the story most disappoints: what it tells me is something I’ve already experienced, which is that many from across social sciences deploy a distinctly flat, unproblematized and uni-dimensional notion of law and legality. Not only is law/socio-legal studies missing from the list of disciplines in which ethnography is practised (p 62) and the hermeneutics of law are absent from a possible method which could be mixed with ethnography (p 35-36); but law itself is reduced to the binary: guilty/not guilty, as opposed to the heroic problematized discursive notions associated with ethnography. This – among other things – is what we seek to redress in our project.

What I’m reading: July 2019 part 2



Let’s turn now to a different route to understanding ‘the foreign’: ethnography. The form of ethnography that we are using in our project has been described as ‘hit and run’ (Rhodes, Everyday Life in British Government, OUP 2011). Rhodes used the method in an elite context (Westminster): we are using it in streets and shopping centres in towns in the north of England and Northern Ireland.

Ethnography seems to me an overwhelming field or method, perhaps because it’s not one with which I am directly familiar, although plenty of legal scholarship deploys it. So one of the things I’ve been doing is reminding myself about the legal ethnographies that I have read in the past, and revisiting them with an eye on their methodological accounts, and where they situate law or legality in their enquiries.

So, for instance, in Order Without Law, (1991/1994) Robert Ellickson combines law and economics theory with ethnographic data gathered over several years in Shasta County, California. Although law is decentred in Ellickson’s account, it is very much present, especially in his description of his positionality, and the research design. Ellickson describes himself as a law professor who had become increasingly dissatisfied with ‘doctrinal’ work. His is a multi-disciplinary work: it couldn’t have been conceived, much less written, by someone who didn’t understand the intricacies of legal doctrine, as well as the economic theory. The law led the choice of field site: it had to be a place where both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ approaches to cattle owners’ liabilities were co-existing geographically.  And the opening sentence of the book tells us immediately how Ellickson grapples with the generalizability question:

‘Events in a remote corner of the world can illuminate questions about the organisation of social life’ (p  1).

By contrast, John Heinz and Edward Laumann (Chicago Lawyers 1982/1994 Northwestern University Press) makes no claims to generalisability: it is unashamedly an interview-based, quantitative systematic description and analysis of the legal profession in one major US city. So it’s not really an ethnography in the ordinary sense. As we learn from their reflection in Simon Halliday and Patrick Schmidt’s Conducting Law and Society Research (CUP 2009), Heinz and Laumann were also seeking to develop conceptual or theoretical accounts, inductively rather than deductively. There’s a great description there too, of how they built their working relationship, starting by ‘catching up with each other’s disciplinary understandings’ and about how they built their team of graduate student research assistants.

Probably most encouraging was reminding myself of Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey’s The Common Place of Law (University of Chicago Press 1998). In the authors’ own words, the book ‘uses stories of everyday life to discover the different ways in which people use and think about law’ (p xi). Almost ruefully, the authors continue ‘ “Collecting stories” and “having conversations” is not the usual way of describing social science research (p xii). Again, Ewick and Silbey work across disciplines, and use both textual interpretation and survey data alongside their ethnographic data. Again, they develop theoretical and conceptual accounts that are generalizable from the specific conversations and interactions that ground the book:

‘By illustrating the diversity of law’s uses and interpretations, we hope to demonstrate that legality is an emergent feature of social relations rather than an external apparatus acting upon social life. As a constituent of social interaction, the law – or what we will call legality – embodies the diversity of the situations out of which it emerges and that it helps structure. … Legality is not sustained solely by the formal law of the Constitution, legislative statutes, court decisions, or explicit demonstrations of state power such as executions. Rather, legality is enduring because it relies on and evokes commonplace schemas of everyday life. Finally, we argue that the multiple and contradictory character of law’s meanings, rather than a weakness, is a crucial component of its power’ (p 17).

I had forgotten that this book deploys the methodological appendix device, explaining that it is like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the true nature of the ‘wizardry’.


The other thing I’ve been doing is dipping in to some overviews or primers on ethnography. The field is crowded, but the ones I’ve chosen are all published in the last couple of years, and one is specifically focused on law.  I want to highlight three here:

  • Anthony Kwame Harrison’s Ethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research (OUP 2018)
  • Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Kahn’s Approaches to Ethnography (OUP 2018)
  • Steven Lubet’s Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters (OUP 2018)

Anthony Kwame Harrison’s book is a reflective guide for those new to ethnography, bringing together practical advice with an introduction to ‘how to think about and understand ethnography as a research, writing and representational practice’. This was – for me anyway – an excellent short overview of the contemporary field; its historical roots in anthropology and sociology; the concerns and orientations that animate its contemporary practice; and its paradigm orientations.

This latter discussion of paradigms was particularly useful in animating a line of thought about the type of knowledge we hope to produce in our project: where do we sit in a choice between positivism (which underpins much legal and political science scholarship); interpretivism; and critical paradigms? I think we may be able to make explicitly critical contributions to the literature (in particular, Ivanka is already working in critical disability studies), and that we have already published what are essentially positivist analyses of post-Brexit health governance (Fahy et al 2017, 2019); but that our predominant paradigm for this project will be interpretivist. In looking at the language deployed by people with whom we engaged in conversation in the street, during particular weeks, in northern English and Northern Irish towns, we are seeking to understand their realities through their meaning-making, meaning being spatially and temporally contingent (p 155). This may present some challenges when seeking to publish our work, in that we will have to exercise care not to present our data as inherently generalizable, yet we will want to offer insights that are broad enough to be publishable.

Harrison’s book explains some of the giants of the field (Malinowski 1922/1966; Geertz 1973; the Chicago School and urban ethnography) and some of its more recent causes célèbres (especially Goffman 2014, of whom more later; but also Harrison’s own work 2009). I learned a lot from the strong emphasis on writing as an ethnographic practice: from ‘scratch notes’ taken in the field, through to longer-from written fieldnotes, which are reflections captured soon afterwards, and finally to polished narratives and analyses presented for publication. ‘For the ethnographer, writing is simultaneously a means of recording data, analysing data, and representing social life’ (p 118). I began to understand the ways in which some ethnography centres embodiment (where the ethnographer picks fruit alongside migrant farm workers (Holmes 2013) or learns to dance (Hancock 2013)) rather than discourse or text. I noted Harrison’s idea of credibility, as encompassing reflexivity, transparency and sincerity (p 183-184), and that we should expect a certain degree of messiness in a credible anthropological account: ‘the absence of unexpected twists and turns tends to generate skepticism’ (p 184). And I reflected on the idea of ethnography as ‘bricolage’ (p 123, drawing on Lévi-Strauss 1966): ‘cobbling various data and utilizing different modes of representation in such a way as they hang together through a sense of narrative coherence – and occasionally through intentional, effective disjuncture’ (p 123). I don’t know of any law publisher which accepts that kind of approach to data and its analysis: this is going to be a challenge for us.

What I didn’t find was anything on ethnography as a team effort: the underlying assumption seemed to be of lone scholarship, which is very far from what we are trying to do in our project. Also, for anthropology-based ethnographers, what we are doing will barely count as ethnography, because we simply are not ‘in the field’ long enough.

Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Kahn’s Approaches to Ethnography (OUP 2018) isn’t a ‘how to’ manual on ethnography, but a reflection on how different approaches to ethnography work out in different contexts. By ‘approaches’, Jerolmack and Kahn mean this:

‘To make fieldwork manageable in a way that is methodologically defensible (ie, not arbitrary), the ethnographer must decide what aspect of social life will be privileged in data collection or analysis … That is, she must select what we call an approach to ethnography.’ (p xii)

They distinguish three schema of approaches: micro/meso or organizational/macro; people & places / processes & mechanisms; dispositions / situations. Reading the contributions to the book, which are descriptions of existing ethnographies in extremely varied contexts, leads me to provisionally place our project in the macro; and in people & places; and the situational rather than the dispositional.

Although their fieldwork is temporally long-form, and ours is ‘hit and run’, like Leslie Salzinger and Teresa Gowan, (in Jerolmack and Kahn 2018: 89-90), we are seeking to make visible strands that resonate in our field data, and draw out their links to larger structures. We are interested in at least one aspect of subjectification: the meanings people make of their social conditions (Salzinger and Gowan: 91).  Of course our research sites are complex, and the cultural structures embedded therein flow “all the way down” (Geertz 1973: 28-29): that’s a way to make sense of the idea that ‘all micro is macro, and vice versa’ (Salzinger and Gowan: 92). I absolutely loved the account of a reflexive relation between theory and data analysis, and a scholarly flexibility, that is summarised as Burawoy’s (1998) “Be Bold, Be Wrong!” (Salzinger and Gowan: 70).

Douglas Harper (in Jerolmack and Kahn 2018: 110) reminds me that we need to create some rich evocations of the places that we studied; and to place them in the times in which we studied them. We chose significant dates for our fieldwork, such as the week leading up to ‘Exit Day 1’ (29 March 2019) and the week of the European Parliamentary elections (23 May 2019).  Harper also reminds us that early anthropological work, such as Malinowski’s ([1922] 1961) seminal work in the western Pacific, ‘appeared to be steeped in respect for difference’, but actually, as the publication of his diary eventually revealed, really was not. I know that my co-investigators and I have deep respect for the people we seek to draw into our conversations: I can only hope that those people understand that and don’t misinterpret our intentions.

The book ends with a discussion of abductive reflexivity (Forrest Stuart, ‘Reflexivity: Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument – Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity’, in Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Kahn Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation(OUP 2018)): a process where ethnographers embrace their otherness, and uses ‘both inductive and deductive models of inference. In other words, it is both “bottom up” (data driven) and “top-down” (theory driven).’ (p 221) I think we can deploy that kind of approach, although our ‘hit and run’ limitations mean that testing and re-testing initial hypotheses will have to come through reflection on the data we have, rather than returning to the field to gather more data.

Steven Lubet’s short Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters (OUP 2018) is – at heart – a plea for accuracy in social sciences (p 137), especially ethnographic work. These points resonate with Harrison’s ‘credibility’ and ‘ethnographic comportment’. Lubet tells the story of how his infuriation with Goffman’s (2014) acclaimed book, and what, to him as a law professor must have been inaccurate claims, led him on a forensic journey of checking the veracity of the truth-claims made in a range of ethnographic work, from the point of view of a lawyer, checking the evidence. His test throughout is ‘would a judge in a criminal or civil trial accept this claim, without corroboration?’. Essentially, this is a detailed and compelling application of Mitchell Duneir’s (2011) imaginary ‘ethnographic trial’: the researcher imagines themselves accused of standing trial for malpractice, in offering a reader an unreliable rendering of the social world.

In natural, and social, sciences, replication of results is the ‘gold standard’. But the study we are doing, which is both temporally and spatially contingent, cannot be replicated. This will mean that we will need to think carefully not only about the specificity of the claims we make (a point I’ve made already, above), but also about how to present as reliable an account of the meaning-making that we found as possible.

Of course, we know that, even in the natural sciences, false claims are made from data which is incomplete, or in either honest or dishonest interpretations that turn out to be mistaken (Horton 2015; Smith and Roberts 2016; Ionnidis 2005, all discussed p 129-130). As Richard Horton of the Lancet puts it, ‘the quest for telling a compelling story” too often leads researchers to “sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world”.’ (p 130).  So here, we need to be careful in our project that the ‘inconvenient’ (for a line of thinking or theory that has emerged) (p 66) phenomena that we encounter in our fieldwork are not suppressed.

What I’m reading: July 2019 part 1



How do you study a culture that is far from your own? I don’t mean, in this instance, geographically far. The cultures that I’m trying to understand are close to home: in the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But they could be – as I physically am as I write from the University of Toronto – thousands of miles away from my reality, as a comfortably-off professor of EU law in a northern English university, and from the realities of the people whom I know and love. What I’m talking of is social distance, and in particular the distance that is labelled, fuzzily, social class.

Of course, one answer to this question is that it is impossible, in any meaningful sense, to understand someone or something that is too ‘foreign’, removed, or remote from what I already know. I think – and I hope that I am right – that this answer is overly defeatist.

There is a valuable warning in it, though, that goes to the ethics of claiming to understand any ‘other’. We can’t ever claim to really understand, not from the inside. And so it behoves us to be circumspect with our claims, and explicit about our biases and assumptions – at least, as explicit and self-aware as we can be, as well as constantly seeking to check and question what we perceive we have discovered or understood. In ethnography, ‘the ethnographer – a living, breathing, feeling individual – is the primary instrument of data collection and interpretation’ (Forrest Stuart, in Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Kahn Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (OUP 2018) p 211). Further, we need to attend to the relational in our research: to understand that knowledge ‘draws from relationships, interactions, interpretations , and appreciation of the Other’ (Douglas Harper ‘People and Places’ in Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Kahn Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (OUP 2018) p 113). To do otherwise would be unethical – it would be to lean on our privilege in order to claim a hegemony of knowledge that is not rightfully ours.

But I want to insist– this ethical obligation of reflexivity or ‘ethnographic comportment’ (Anthony Kwame Harrison, Ethnography (OUP 2018) p 28-33 and throughout the book) aside – that we in the social sciences and humanities (and I include law here) can and should seek ‘to discover and understand’ as my university’s motto has it. One of the things Mark Flear, Matt Wood, Ivanka Antova and I are studying in our ESRC Health Governance after Brexit project is communities in the north of England and Northern Ireland, and how people there feel about Brexit, the NHS and what a legitimate post-Brexit health law and policy would look like to them.

Political memoires

Let’s start with one way of ‘discovering and understanding’, reading the words of the ‘foreigner’. I’m thinking here of memoires such as McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (London: Picador, 2017). This isn’t the only memoire about social class I’ve read in recent years (I learned a lot from Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable (London: Allen Lane, 2016)), but this one is explicitly about politics, and about (lack of) communications across the class divide. Writer and rap artist McGarvey (aka Loki) takes us through a biting and visceral account of poverty in Glasgow’s south side. One of the things I liked best about this book is how explicit and honest McGarvey is about the compromise that it costs him to communicate with his (middle class) audience, and about himself as a reflexive learner. The account of the interaction with artist and activist Ellie Harrison (pp 183-195), and McGarvey’s eventual realisation that ‘in all her middle class glory’ (p 195) Harrison is in fact an ally, not an enemy, is compelling in its ruefulness. Its opening pages describe McGarvey’s inability to read books. In a bizarre way, it reminded me, in reverse, of the parlour game in the David Lodge novel Changing Places, where you win by admitting that you haven’t read one of the most classical of ‘the classics’. McGarvey writes about the feelings of harsh judgement that come from his early interactions with other social classes.

‘Those botched attempts to move among the affluent became the germinal events that eventually led to my deep sense of grievance with anyone I perceived as well-off … my simmering resentment … lay with those in society who appeared to be doing much better than the rest of us … those who were gliding through life unimpeded by the constraints of poverty … ’ (p 29)

McGarvey is thoughtful about the way that jargon, especially the jargon of government, reinforces assumptions driven by social class. These assumptions are held on either side of the social divide. He writes,

‘Whichever side of the track you come from, it is likely that you harbour unconscious beliefs or attitudes about the issue of class: about yourself and the people across the way. For me it was this idea that middle class people have it easy, are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and benefit from a plethora of unseen advantages that I do not. For you, maybe it’s a belief that poor people stay poor because they don’t work hard enough, or that the system is fair and it’s people’s negative attitudes that are holding them back.’  (p 50)

Now, I don’t subscribe to either of those assumptions, but of course the people in the communities that I’m trying to understand may well believe that I do, and that I’m ‘exploitative and patronising’ (p 50) or a ‘chancer, careerist or charlatan’ (p 115).  They may believe all kinds of things about my intentions in seeking to understand the world as they see it. These kinds of beliefs, perpetuated through generations, are what makes dialogue, especially in the realm of political participation, so difficult. ‘When attempting to express our thoughts and opinions across vast gulfs in social and cultural experience, nuance gets lost in translation’ (p115).

And, as McGarvey points out forcefully, botched attempts at dialogue make matters even worse (p 51; p 79; p 115). People involved in well-meaning third sector interventions into working class communities run the risk of acting ‘like an imperial power; poorer communities are viewed as primitive cultures that need to be modernised, retooled and upskilled.’ (p 79).  This insight weighs heavily on me. I have found myself, when ‘in the field’, or reading the team’s fieldwork notes from our project, repeatedly thinking thoughts to the effect of ‘this person would be more effective/better off if they had a better understanding of the EU/the NHS/domestic politics’.

McGarvey’s account concentrates on interactions between material deprivation, (mental) ill-health, addictive behaviour, and criminality. But there is a running thread through it about democratic legitimacy – not just about political activism (which is very much part of the book), but about not being heard, and the political apathy that ensues.

‘This is the other deficit we rarely talk about or acknowledge. The deficit in our respective experiences when we come from lower class or higher class backgrounds. The deficit in how that experience is represented, reported and discussed. This deficit, which appears to be widening, has led to a culture that leaves many people feeling excluded, isolated or misrepresented and, therefore adversarial or apathetic towards it. And it’s often based on people living in run-down social conditions, with little money, in stressed-out, violent communities, turning on the television and making observations [about people from upper/middle classes]. It’s the belief that the system is rigged against you and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile. That the decisions that affect your life are being taken by a bunch of other people somewhere else who are deliberately trying to conceal things from you. A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a good reason for it: it’s true.’ (p37)

In the parts of the book where he reflects directly on the EU referendum vote, McGarvey wonders whether it can be understood as what happens ‘when people who are rarely heard decide to grab the microphone and start telling everybody how it is’ (p 119).  McGarvey describes the disjuncture between the investments for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games (public WiFi, multilingual signage and so on) and the deprivation of nearby Glasgow communities (summarised as the library having ‘a WiFi service that would make the 90s blush’ p 127). He goes on:

‘People sitting in their homes watching the carnival on television could have been forgiven for thinking: am I living in the same world as these people? … When you live in these communities, it always feels as if your concerns are regarded as narrow-minded, short-sighted and parochial; the story that ascends is the story that meets the needs of the many. Which, coincidentally usually aligns with what many in those areas would regard as ‘middle class’. …

‘Perhaps that would explain why some people, in the aftermath of Brexit [sic] began referring to an ‘elite intelligensia’. … They were, perhaps clumsily, trying to describe the phenomenon whereby the accepted culture, comprising news, politics and entertainment, which they were presented with every day, was contradicted and undermined by the reality of their own lives. Perhaps they were trying to express how the vast contrast between the world they were being presented with as reality and the one they were actually living in was so stark that they could only conclude it was a deliberate fabrication.’ (p 128)

‘Brexit Britain, in all its disfunction, disorder and vulgarity, is perhaps a glimpse of what happens when people start becoming aware of the fact they haven’t been cut into the action but have no real mechanism to enfranchise themselves beyond voting … When people vote against their own interests because they don’t think it’s going to matter either way.  People who are then called ‘arseholes’ and ‘scum’ by middle class liberals for expressing genuine shock that their vote actually did bring about change – for the first time in their lives. … When the full wrath of working class anger is brought to bear on the domain of politics, sending ripples through our culture, it’s treated like a national disaster.’ (p 129)

‘The morning of Brexit [sic] multiple crises were announced simultaneously by middle class liberals, progressives and radicals, who were suddenly confronted with the vulgar and divided country the rest of us had been living in for decades. A country filled with violence and racism. A country where people had become so alienated by the mainstream conversation that they were beginning to create their own parallel cultures and even their own ‘alternative facts’. It was infuriating to witness one hyperventilating Guardian subscriber after another, lamenting how a once-great nation had gone to the dogs.

Of course, by ‘dogs’ they meant the working class.’ (p 130)

McGarvey goes on to describe how, for the communities he visited in late June 2016, after the referendum vote, it was calm ‘business as usual’.  Violence and racism are part of everyday reality. Yes, there was anxiety from foreign nationals about what their position in the UK would be. Many BME people were on the receiving end of racial abuse, who used the vote as an excuse for such behaviour. In another part of the book, McGarvey captures this unthinking racism perfectly, describing a conversation with two challenging teenagers in an additional needs school (p 146-147). He doesn’t shy away from tackling racism and immigration in the book, pointing out that the conditions of poverty and exclusion from political voice feed racist feelings towards migrants and that a politics of shaming such lack of inclusion simply won’t be enough to change people’s emotions (p 148-153). But in the context of the referendum, ‘[i]t was perfectly appropriate that communities moved quickly to acknowledge those fears and to show unconditional solidarity with those affected. But much of the outrage that was flying around had nothing to do with what immigrants actually thought or felt; it was about people using those issues to conceal their own naked classism’ (p 130). In fact, for McGarvey, Brexit, like Trump, is ‘just another side-show that detracts’ (p 142) from poverty.

McGarvey doesn’t believe poverty can be solved by politicians, party politics, or the political system as it stands. For him, this is because it has become too politically difficult to have an honest conversation about what it will require. That really resonated with me: an honest conversation from the Labour leadership about the costs of Brexit to the poor, and whether their policy is to be a poorer, but more equal, country, is something I’ve been hoping for in vain for months.

The issue of poverty is ‘far too complex to blame solely on ‘Tories’ or ‘elites’.’ (p 107). In fact, no one group can be the scapegoat for poverty, although political conversations are structured so that the blame for poverty is apportioned to the ‘outgroup’ that enables and benefits from poverty. Left wing circles, in McGarvey’s experience, don’t want to hear that they are also complicit. Communities like McGarvey’s are ‘just as hacked off with the left as they are with everyone else’ (p 142). He calls for a ‘new leftism’ which goes beyond ‘railing against the system’ to scrutinizing its own thinking and habits, and which reclaims ‘the idea of personal responsibility from a rampant and socially misguided right wing that has come to monopolise it’ (p 112), recognising that ‘part of the solution lies with the individual’ (p 177). When I read that, I thought about the data from our street conversations about responsibilities and the NHS.

Some of the people we talked with very much agreed that individuals need to take more personal responsibility for their own health, rather than thinking of health as a collective responsibility, institutionalised through the NHS. One example McGarvey discusses is Castlemilk Against Austerity, a community group which ‘doesn’t spin a ‘poor us’ narrative. Instead, as well as organising to resist the system, they challenge the community to examine its own shortcomings and false beliefs. Whether it is blaming immigrants for social problems or paying lip-service to wanting change while sitting on your hands and doing nothing, CAA are on the front line, calling out bull***t wherever it is found’ (p 143).  Bullshit reminded me that this metaphor recurs in our street conversation data: whatever one might think, the ability of working class communities to spot it and call it is clearly present in the places we are studying.