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07 December 2010

Ethnographic Methods and the Transformation of Reality

This is something I've been thinking a lot about recently - as a result of my field work in Nevada and reading John Law's After Method.  I've mentioned it here and elsewhere before, but only in passing and I'd like to think it through a bit more and hopefully engage some discussion.  The question is: what would happen if we reconceptualized methods not simply as techniques for collecting data, but as tools for constructing realities? 

If we take reality as being heterogeneous and in a continual process of becoming within which we are all situated (a set of claims which requires further justification, perhaps, but bare with me for the time being), it's clear that every action alters reality in some way - by creating new sets of relations, or by dismantling  or reaffirming old relations.  Methods, then, could be seen as ways of altering reality. 

What does this view do for us?  I think it widens our view to look beyond the collection of data to the broader effects of our research.  No longer is the question how do our methods influence the information we collect?  Instead we have to ask how do our methods alter the existing set of relations? 

Yes, critical and postmodern anthropology has offered us a plethora of participatory and collaborative methodologies, but my sense is that most of them are still focused primarily on the production of knowledge and the creation of a text.  I would like us to think beyond the text to understand how we might create new sets of relations that will constitute a new reality.  

That's not to say that data collection is secondary or unimportant - the data is a new relation, the analysis of the data another, and the written report, film, or other "text" is another.  And sometimes the information will be the most significant of sets of relations that we create or alter in the research process.  What it means is that we have to look also at our activities within and beyond the community during and after our interactions with them.  All research has to be seen as an intervention - the question is what kinds of realities do we want to foster and what realities do we want to avoid? 

This has all kinds of ethical and practical implications.  We can think about how the methods that we normally use - participant observation, interviews, surveys, etc. - alter the conditions of reality when we use them, and we can also think of possible new methods that we might want to adopt - I'm thinking in particular of conflict resolution methods and mediation, but there are a lot of possibilities. 

As I said, this is going to require a lot more consideration, but I feel that this is a potentially important line of thought. 

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