The statement ‘Being an Ethnographer is to be in two places at the same Time’

Ethnography is a form of social research that has become more popular over the decades, along with other forms of qualitative research (M. Hammersley and P. Atkinson, 1995). The dictionary definition states that it is “the direct observation of an organisation or small society, often involving participant observation” (D. Jary and J. Jary, 1991:p 204). It also says that the researcher tends to put themselves into the society or social setting in which they are researching, but at the same time keep non bias records of occurring activities (D. Jary and J. Jary, 1991).

This essay will explain the statement made by Pearson, quoted in ‘Interpreting the Field’ by Dick Hobbs and Tim May in 1993, that “being an ethnographer is to be in two places at the same time”. Particularly in relation to the concept of verstehen, and illustrate it with references to ethnographic studies.

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“Ethnography is the study of a way of life” (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000: p 1008) and was first introduced by anthropologists studying small, pre-industrialised societies. They recognised the need to get as close as possible to the subjects of their investigations (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000)

Ethnography can take many different forms and is used by many different types of sociologists (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). It normally involves the researcher participating in the lives of every day people for a period of time to see what happens and listen to what is said, collecting whatever data gives information on the issues of which they are researching (M. Hammersley and P. Atkinson, 1995).

“In a sense, all social researchers are participant observers; and as a result, the boundaries around ethnography are necessarily unclear” (M. Hammersley and P. Atkinson, 1995: pp 1-2).

The history of participant observation in sociology is long, having been used be researchers with differing theoretical perspectives. “This method became employed by the USA in the 1960’s and has since been regarded as the most appropriate way of obtaining qualitative data” (Haralambos and Holborn, 2001: p 1009).

The word verstehen originates from the German language, meaning understanding. Used in a sociological context it usually means ‘meaningful understanding’ (D. Jary and J. Jary, 1991). It is especially associated with the work of Max Weber, a German sociologist regarded as “one of the three great founders of sociology, along with Marx and Durkheim” (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000: p 1050).

Weber referred to aktuelles verstehen, which means ‘direct observational understanding’. For example, it is easily understood that when a woodcutter is hitting wood with and axe that he is chopping wood, but Weber was not satisfied with this level of understanding. He then referred to erkl�rendes verstehen, which means ‘explanatory understanding’. He wanted to understand the meaning of an act, or, for example, why the woodcutter was chopping wood (Haralambos and Holborn, 2001). Sociologists using the concept of verstehen placed themselves in the position of other people to see the meanings given for their actions and what their purposes were. To be unable to investigate the meanings of certain actions may be seriously misleading and actions could be grouped together when in actual fact they are meant completely differently (Abercrombie, Hill and Turner, 1988).

Although associated with the supposed three greatest sociologists, verstehen has been criticised from two points of view. Sociologists have argued that there are no ways to validate its interpretations and it has also been suggested that “the attempt to reconcile causal and verstehen analysis actually ends up denying the actors point of view” (Abercrombie, Hill and Turner, 1988: p 265).

Sociologists associated with the ‘Chicago School’ came from various backgrounds such as journalism and social work. Aware of the failings in their own societies, they bought a critical edge and sympathy for the underclass, the principle subjects of their studies, to ethnography (N. Fielding, 2001).

Ethnographers have the idea of ‘appreciation’. It has become a main part of studying people in their natural environments, “a stance which emphasised seeing things from the perspective of those being studied before stepping back to make a more detached assessment” (N. Fielding, 2001: p 147). This generally means that an ethnographer must be able to put themselves into the natural environment of others to observe and appreciate their actions, and yet be able to give a detailed analysis of the research subject, that is totally unbiased. Or to put it another way, to be in two places at the same time: that of the observer and that of the observed. “Early sociologists were mindful of the American Indian saying that one should ‘never criticise a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins'” (N. Fielding, 2001: p 147).

It was argued that the researcher must be involved in the daily world of the research subjects. Goffman (in N. Fielding, 2001: p 147) wrote:

“any group of persons – prisoners, primitives, pilots or patients – develop a life of their own that becomes meaningful, reasonable and normal once you get close to it, and … a good way to learn about any of these worlds is to submit oneself in the company of the members to the daily round of petty contingencies to which they are subject” (Goffman, 1961)

He thought that every social group was distinctive in its own way and that the only way to understand it totally was to be as close as possible to it. Goffman was just following information from Hughes and others who had taught other students to start ‘real’ research that takes place in the ‘real’ world and not the library (N. Fielding, 2001).

The principles of Goffman’s statement includes the idea that ethnography has to study behaviour in ‘natural settings’ “as opposed to the experimental settings of clinical psychology” (N. Fielding, 2001: p 148). The researcher must understand the world in which his subjects live and the perspective of them must be understood, in an attempt to see the world as they do (N. Fielding, 2001).

Denzin, 1981, “referred to ethnography as ‘a curious blending of methodological techniques'”(N. Fielding, 2001: p 148). Ethnography includes, according to McCall and Simmons:

“some amount of genuinely social interaction in the field with the subjects of the study, some direct observation of relevant events, some formal and a great deal of informal interviewing, some systematic counting, some collection of documents and artefacts; and open-endedness in the direction the study takes” (McCall and Simmons, 1969: p 1)

The final point made in the quote above is significant as it takes us towards analysis and away from techniques. “but whether the ethnographer is a Brit in Borneo or a professor on an assembly line” (N. Fielding, 2001: p 148) the system used to record and make sense of the experience is likely to include interviews, the analysis of documents, direct observation and the ability to be able to imagine oneself from the perspective of the subject. Weber called this verstehen (N. Fielding, 2001).

The study done by Nigel Fielding in 1981, the study of the National Front, which is an extreme Right racist organisation, combined demonstrations, meetings and participant observation of marches. It also included interviews with opponents of the party and party officials. He had to put his own beliefs to one side to be able to give an unbiased, valid judgement of his research subject (using the concept of verstehen) (N. Fielding, 2001).

A problem when using ethnography as a form of research is that of personal involvement. In exchange for the subjects allowing the research to take place, the ethnographer may feel obliged to help them in their every day lives. For example, “services range from giving lifts and stuffing envelopes to illegal activities” (N. Fielding, 2001: p 151). The problem is small in studies of criminal behaviour: “in one case, the observer agreed to hide a gun in his house for a criminal expecting a visit from the police (Polsky, 1971)” (N. Fielding, 2001: p 151).

John Van Maanen did a study of urban policy in 1982. He was trained as a police officer as part of his research. He was unaware that some of what was going on was purely for his benefit. He realised this when the police did something that “broke with his previous knowledge of their demeanour” (N. Fielding, 2001: p 156):

“I … witnessed a bizarre encounter in which a young boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, was verbally assaulted and thrown to the pavement because he had aimed a ceremonial upright third finger in the direction of a passing patrol car – a gesture from a child that would have been routinely ignored or returned in my previous experience” (Van Maahen, 1982).

In conclusion we see that Pearson was correct in his initial statement that ethnographers have to be in two places at the same time. We have proved that to be and ethnographer, the ability to be able to insert oneself into the natural world of another and yet keep a totally unbiased, analytical view of the subject in question is required. Weber gave this concept the name verstehen.