WP34 Ethnography as counter-hegemony: Remarks on epistemology & method



Ethnography is a strange scientific phenomenon. On the one hand, it can be seen as probably the only truly influential “invention” of anthropological linguistics, having triggered important developments in social-scientific fields as diverse as pragmatics and discourse analysis, sociology and historiography and having caused a degree of attention to small detail in human interaction previously unaddressed in many fields of the social sciences.1 At the same time, ethnography has for decades come under fire from within. Critical anthropology emerged from within ethnography, and strident critiques by e.g. Johannes Fabian (1983) and James Clifford (1988) exposed immense epistemological and ethical problems in ethnography. So whereas ethnography is by all standards a hugely successful enterprise, its respectability has never matched its influence in the social sciences.
“True” ethnography is rare. More often than not, ethnography is perceived as a method for collecting particular types of data and thus as something that can be added, like the use of a computer, to different scientific procedures and programs. Even in anthropology, ethnography is often seen as a synonym for description. In the field of language, ethnography is popularly perceived as a technique and a series of propositions by means of which something can be said about “context”. What we notice in such discussions and treatments of ethnography is a reduction of ethnography to fieldwork.. Fieldwork/ethnography is perceived as description: an account of facts and experiences captured under the label of “context”, but in itself often un- or undercontextualized.
It is against this narrow view that I want to pit my argument, which will revolve around the fact that ethnography can as well be seen as a “full” intellectual program far richer than just a matter of description. Ethnography, I will argue, involves a perspective on language and communication, including an ontology and an epistemology, both of which are of significance for the study of language in society, or better, of language as well as of society.