Conference Report: Living Cultures: Contemporary Ethnographies of Culture

For the last two days I have been at this conference, organised by the Institute for Communication Studies at the University of Leeds. I was there to present a paper setting out how we are using ethnography as a research method for the study of community archives. My paper was entitled ‘Owning the past, imagining the future: towards an ethnography of heritage practices in a community context.’ One reason for presenting the paper was to road-test some ideas for a methodology paper, which we will use to make the case for the extension of ethnographic methods in heritage studies. In my paper I used the following quote from McKemmish et al.:

Archival ethnography could be used to study cultures of documentation, the forms of records and archives, the recordkeeping and archiving processes that shape them, the worldviews made manifest in their systems of classification, the power configurations they reflect, and associated memory and evidence paradigms. (Sue McKemmish, Anne Gilliland-Swetland and Eric Ketelaar, ‘“Communities of Memory”: Pluralising Archival Research and Education Agendas, Archives and Manuscripts 33 (2005): 146-174).

Whilst the agenda they set out is exciting, their statement continues to reflect a set of possibilities, rather than describe an existing research field.

Overall, I was disappointed by the fact not to find more people working on cultural heritage and the ways in which the past is mined by individuals and groups for its symbolic content. There was one paper on museums, but this dealt with visitor responses to contemporary art and the challenge of developing an ethnography of the senses (a theme of the conference, following Les Back’s exhortation in his opening address to a ‘sensuous scholarship’), rather than encounters with historic material. Moreover, my paper did not give rise to much discussion, possibly because there was too much contextual information and not enough of the ethnographic detail that tends to pique the interest of listeners, but also possibly because I spoke first in a panel of four and questions were left to the end… Surprisingly, perhaps the paper that mostly closely echoed my concerns was a paper on the way that nostalgia for a lost golden age of white working-class heroes is used to maintain rugby league as a space of hegemonic whiteness. The consequence, as Stan Timmins put it is a racism that is, “like the wind: you can feel it as a black person, but you can’t see it.” But the vast majority of papers were much more concerned with cultural experience and production in the here and now, rather than the use of the past as a resource.

There was however a lot to take away from a methodological point of view. Here are a few things that I picked up, in no particular order:

¨ No one has, as yet, come up with a satisfactory method for conducting ethnographies of online communities (it’s not just me not knowing where to look!). This wasn’t always explicit in people’s papers, but was discussed quite freely over coffee. Even multi-media scholars are by no means sure how to track web interactions, and are particularly troubled by how to account for ‘passive’ web use, that is to say, visiting pages without necessarily commenting on them (an activity which still fosters identity construction).

¨ The enormous range and potential of non-textual ethnographic output. Over the course of two days I saw photos, video, animation, stills from ‘ethno’-theatre productions and fragments of art installations that all seek to translate research data into new media to facilitate their communication. As a creative practice in its own right ethnography is clearly thriving. I’m not sure how I could use these kinds of methods myself, at least in our current project, where it seems to me that our research participants have certain expectations with regard to our outputs and want us to generate material that offers them some form of institutional legitimation. But it highlight the extent to which ethnographic methods can feed into creative outputs both inside and outside the academy; the only limiting factor is the imagination (and technical skills – I could never shoot photos as carefully lit and composed as some of those I saw) of the researcher.

¨ Ethnography, as a research tool, may only be able to offer limited responses to the question of the ‘social impact’ of culture. This partly derives from the multiple difficulties associated with defining and measuring ‘social impact’, but also from the lack of fit between criteria established by government and what participants themselves value, which is what ethnography seeks to format. A visitor to an exhibition or a gig-goer is not going to tell you what s/he learned or how the visit enhanced their social capital, unless prompted in some very artificial ways. They’re going to tell you how they felt, or what thoughts a performance or image triggered. And it’s hard to squeeze the diversity of these responses into the categories of formal ‘impact’ evaluation. Moreover, as Victoria Foster pointed out in an inspiring presentation on her use of drama with Sure Start families, to engage with ‘impact’ assessment often requires us to use the language of capital, which, even in the Bourdieusian sense, can be deeply uncomfortable, suggesting the reduction of human difference to sets of quantifiable attributes that allow individuals to be situated within a logic of capitalist production, or as “means to an end” rather than an end in themselves (a point Foster illustrated with reference to the work of Kathleen Lynch).

¨ Following on from this, the importance of ‘attentive listening’ (as characteristic of ethnography) was emphasized on several occasions (not least by Les Back). However, as we were reminded in the closing plenary session, attentive listening does not just mean sympathetic nodding in agreement; it also means opening up critique, both in the conventional sense of deconstructing the worldview of participants but also in terms of challenging academic colleagues and allowing contrasting interpretations not just to coexist but sometimes actively to clash.

¨ Through a commitment to listening ethnography may yet do something that, in Les Back’s view theories of ethnicity and difference have thus far spectacularly failed to do and that is “to provide robust descriptions” of how people live “across difference”, a point he illustrated with reference to a south-east London market trader, who happily reconciled his laments for a lost white working-class with his children’s marriages to foreigners and cheerful interactions with his customers from all over the world. (Back’s work I think will be essential holiday reading before I start with Eastside…)

¨ And finally, generating these descriptions, whatever form they may take, also needs, to be fun. As Victoria Foster, citing Peter Reason, noted, the questions we should be asking of our research are, fundamentally “What injustice and suffering does it address?” but also “What joy does it bring?”

In the plenary session mention was also made of the fact that few of the papers had referenced ethnographic precedents. I’m fairly confident I’ve read everything in archival ethnography (not hard!), and I’ve yet to read anything that matches Georgina Born’s Rationalizing Culture (see my post on it here) for sound empirical research linked to serious intellectual work (Born was sadly unable to make the conference due to ill health, to everyone’s great disappointment) but nevertheless, I came away with a number of ideas for reading, based on citations from papers:

Back, Les, New ethnicities and urban culture: racisms and multiculture in young lives. New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Burawoy, Michael eds, Global ethnography: forces, connections, and imaginations in a postmodern world, Berkeley, Calif. ; London : University of California Press, 2000.

eds Reason, Peter and Hilary Bradbury, The handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice, London : SAGE, 2001.

Stewart, Kathleen, Ordinary affects, Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press, 2007.

A space on the side of the road : cultural poetics in an “other” America, Princeton: Princeton University Press,1996.

And for a long time I’ve been wanting to read Danny Miller’s latest book, The comfort of things, Cambridge: Polity, 2008. (Although in the current circumstances Miller, Daniel, Capitalism: an ethnographic approach, Oxford ; Washington, D.C : Berg , 1997 might be a better place to start…).

All additional suggestions gratefully received…

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One Response to “Conference Report: Living Cultures: Contemporary Ethnographies of Culture”

  1. Community Archives and Identities » Blog Archive » Reading Les Back’s ‘New Ethnicities’ (1996) Says:

    […] day back after a break but campus is still shut so I’ve had a reading day and made good on my intention to read Les Back’s New ethnicities (1996). In some ways it’s now a bit dated; the research that forms the basis of the book took place […]

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