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.

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