Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Challenge Question Cycle

Rebecca's Challenge Question
What do you think constitutes an appropriate motivation to undertake ethnography and what should its ultimate goal be? Consider the following list of reasons one might study a specific group of musicians and contribute additional vantage points as you see fit: personal interest or connection to a subject; filling a gap in academic research; the prestige of the subject being studied; promoting broader understanding, etc... You don't necessarily need to discuss each item on the list, just consider each as you discuss the purposes and goals you see as being most important in conducting ethnography.

Perhaps the question is whether to undertake ethnography as opposed to a less-personalized form of objective study (if there is such a thing). It seems as if the style of ethnomusicological writing we have been reading in class has been highly anthropological and ethnographic--the articles and chapters are typically rooted in a bounded community where the author's own experience constitutes as much of the analysis and narrative as do the experiences of the subject(s). In making a decision begin academic research, one must ask why a particular subject is worth studying as well as whether that subject should be studied using the ethnographic method.

In terms of the "vantage points" provided by the question, I feel that all of those tacts are important components of the answer to "why we study". Of course, personal interest and/or a connection are essential for the researcher to thoroughly undertake a subject so that his or her time will be well spent and enriching intellectually. Filling a gap in academic research is also essential. At Brown, it seems as if much of the anthropological thought concerning ethnography is often to "give a voice to the voiceless". This can be a key point of entry when it comes to selecting a subject, however ethical questions arise: whether ethnographic study intrudes on a particular culture, whether a particular culture should be subjected to the advantages/disadvantages of being "studied", and how power relations dictate the mood being the research and the subject? Broader understanding is an honorable goal, however, once again similar ethical questions arise. How can accurate information and understanding be disseminated when ethnographic writing is constructed by the biased author. Insider/outsider statuses affect the reliability and objective nature of the depiction. The prestige of the subject has, perhaps, some bearing, but I would like to believe that there is something worth knowing about in every person or culture. Prestige can maybe be taken to mean propensity to lend itself towards theoretical or intellectual development. It is this idea that leads into what is the unifying goal for ethnography.

That goal is to demonstrate a framework by which to understand a particular culture and oneself. With music and ethnomusicological writing, it is the music which usually becomes the linchpin for said framework. In all of the articles and chapters that we have read, the take-away points are never about the subject of the article, rather the process by which the article was derived and written or the method through which a particular person, culture, or practice can be understood. There is no simple way to write or depict a people, culture, music etc. plainly, factually, or objectively. Those facts are interesting and essential--for what they are, they broaden our understandings and allow us to develop a more complex and analytical way of thinking about them.

The essential characteristic of ethnography is its narrative nature and author-involvement. Personalizing a research project with ethnographic narrative doesn’t let the framework ascend into generalization on how the world works. The piece is bounded to its actual subjects and its author. With a theoretical goal in mind, however, the researcher/writer of an ethnography can be certain that the his/her subject is rich and interesting enough to provide something beyond a personalized survey, that the research will either fill in or expand academia, and lend an informative (albeit a most-likely hyper self-reflexive) look at a subject for the ends of broadening understanding.


rr sigel said...

You've gotten at a lot of the fundamental issues in play in ethnographic purpose. I think the ultimate issue is one of relevance: who is supposed to care about the ethnography. You write, "those facts...broaden our understandings and allow us to develop a more complex and analytical way of thinking about them." This is all well and good, but dependent on a loosely constructed idea of who "our" or "we" is. "We" is dictated by publishing venue, writing style, and relevance to peoples' lives. Part of the ethnographic method is practicing cultural relativism and not comparing one society to another. But doesn't that mean that ethnography loses its ability to be relevant to a reader? What if the ethnographer admitted: "I am writing from an American perspective (for example) for an American readership. That is going to inform my perspective and my reader's perspective, anyway. That doesn't have to be a hidden element of my ethnography and can actually enter into my discussion." We've discussed how ethnography is inextricably intertwined with the ethnographer's perspective, but the purpose of the ethnography is also intertwined with the reader's background. Disengaging those two elements with the writing itself in an effort to maintain objectivity and cultural relativism seems to miss an opportunity to say something more substantial.

The opposite of musical ethnography would seem to be music journalism. Mainstream music journalism is usually too focused on the cult of celebrity to say anything too substantial about context or social connotations, and it does not abide by the standards of ethnography. But it's relevant to its readers, and it never purports to be more than what it is. With some tweaking, some of the articles we've read could easily be redirected towards a more popular audience, without compromising content. The most recent article we read, the one about Ghost World, could easily be retooled to show up in Rolling Stone or a publication of that ilk. With some more clear writing, the link between a known (American Pop Culture) and an unknown (Bollywood film) provides a more accessible entry into that unknown. It seems to me that one (music journalism) could benefit from taking on some aspects of the other (ethnography) and vice versa.

Alex Spoto said...

I agree with you in saying that with some changes in tone and style, a bunch of our articles could appear as a feature in a Rolling Stone type publication. I don't know if sidestepping the "standards of ethnography" and aiming at a more mainstream audience (as in the case of mainstream music journalism) achieves any better connection with one's reader/audience. Compared to academic, ethnographic writing, I think writing in Rolling Stone, Spin, etc. has just as little relevance to a reader as a jargon heavy article from Ethnomusicology, it's just that "pop" music writing presents its content in a hands-off, matter of fact kind of way which leaves less room for the reader to doubt or question. With pop writing you have a pretty good idea about what you're learning from an article. In ethnographic writing, the reader is faced with endless questions, possibilities, and open ways to read what's being said. Usually, though, ethnography is up front about how its content is only what it is, and that with the experiences related by the author, there are points "X" and "Y" to understand about the culture at hand. Ethnography doesn't ask the reader to relate directly, while journalism assumes the reader's trust and understanding. "Ethnography is inextricably intertwined with the ethnographer's perspective", but with most ethnography we have read, I feel like we know what we're getting ourselves into--therefore we can be comfortable building our understanding from there. Because of the hyper reflexivity present in conscious, academic writing, one can assume that the content and vantage are both paths to some greater idea or understanding.