Summer reading: Ethnography and power

Timothy Pachirat’s (2018) book, Among wolves: Ethnography and the immersive study of power, is one of a series edited by Dvora Yanow and Pergrine Schwartz-Shea. As stated by the editors, the Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods focuses on interpretive methodology, and engages with three concerns: (1) methodological issues, (2) approaches and methods, and (3) applications in disciplinary and subfield areas. So far, books published in the series have dealt with research design, doing interpretive research in the area of international politics, analyzing social narratives, social science concepts, and interviewing. Pachirat’s book takes a decidedly innovative approach to a methodological text by discussing issues in the form of a seven-act play. Pachirat’s preface (p. xiii) outlines the three conditions upon which his text is founded: (1) an explicit avoidance of a “dry methods” approach to the issues discussed, (2) engagement with ethnographers whose books he has used in teaching, and (3) use of an experimental genre. Pachirat is very successful in accomplishing these aims.

Pachirat’s book starts with the premise that ten ethnographers — he includes himself — have arrived at a barn in New York State’s Finger Lakes district to stage a trial concerning sociologist Alice Goffman’s (2014) ethnography, On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. There is also talk of an invisibility potion and an exhausted wolfdog. (In the interests of omitting spoilers – you will have to read the book to find out more about these!) Each act puts the work of the ten authors in dialogue with each other. Pachirat, who is in the field of political science, is careful to note that these dialogues are his own representations of other authors’ arguments, rather than their own. Although he shared the play with all of the featured authors, and a few provided comments and feedback (p. xiv), he cautions readers to “approach the play for the overall themes and questions rather than as any sort of assertions of what each character would or would not argue for in real life.”

Pachirat draws extensively from a wide range of literature. For example, anthropologist Clifford Geertz and sociologist W. E. B. DuBois, among others, are quoted liberally. Nevertheless, the main “characters” featured in the play and their ethnographies referred to include:

Anthropologists:

  • Karen Ho, Liquidated (2009)
  • Anna Tsing, The mushroom at the end of the world (2015)
  • Piers Vitebsky, The reindeer people (2005)

Sociologists:

  • Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk (1999)
  • Alice Goffman, On the run (2014)
  • Loïc Wacquant, Body & Soul (2004/2016)

Political scientists:

  • Séverine Autesserre, Peaceland (2014)
  • Timothy Pachirat, Every twelve seconds (2011)
  • James C. Scott, Weapons of the weak (1985)

and

Journalist:

  • Katherine Boo, Behind the beautiful forevers (2012)

It is not necessary to have read all of these ethnographies prior to reading the play – I had read several and have two others on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I’ve now added several more to my reading list! I did find it helpful to have read Alice Goffman’s book, as I was acquainted with debates that have taken place since this book was published. Pachirat’s book would be useful as a complement for anyone who is using On the Run in teaching, since it provides a useful synthesis of the key criticisms of the book, as well as responses.

Pachirat’s play provides an intensive discussion about the merits and pitfalls of doing ethnography. This includes the history and practice of ethnography, questions to do with reflexivity and positionality, as well as commonalities as to how scholars across multiple disciplines approach the conduct of ethnography. Readers also learn why researchers use ethnography as a method – in spite of the problems that they encounter in the field and criticisms of published work. The play presents ideas in a reader-friendly manner, although Pachirat includes extensive endnotes for each chapter for readers who would like to search out original sources. The actual “trial” occurs in Act 6. Here, Pachirat collects the primary critiques that have been leveled at Alice Goffman’s book, On the Run, and the authors “present” discuss and respond to these. The trial is artfully managed, leaving readers to make up their own minds as to the merits of the arguments presented.

Among wolves is thought-provoking, clearly organized, well-referenced, and enjoyable to read. It also teases out some of the disciplinary differences in the ways that scholars discuss ethnography (i.e., political science, sociology and anthropology). The book would be a useful resource for anyone teaching a course on participant observation or ethnography, and could be enacted in class. The play’s dialogue is well-crafted – and I expect it would inspire much more animated discussion among students. For other qualitative researchers, the book provides an intriguing and thoughtful way to think about some serious issues much discussed in the literature. I also found lots more to read in the reference list.

I love learning about new books from my students, and am grateful to Ameya Sawadkar for letting me know about this one. Do read Ameya’s review of the book to get another viewpoint. If you have come across a book on qualitative methods that you would like to share with others – post the title in the comments box below.

Kathy Roulston

Reference

Pachirat, T. (2018). Among wolves: Ethnography and the immersive study of power. New York & London: Routledge.

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