Agar on ethnography

Happy New Year!!

Anthropologist Michael Agar‘s book The Professional Stranger published in 1980 is an informal romp through one academic’s straightforward, behind the scenes and sometimes humorous perspective on how novice ethnographers should embark on doing their first ethnography, as well as the role of ethnography in scientific inquiry, in particular its role in understanding the ‘human situation.’

I’ve only read the first few chapters but here are some of the highlights so far:

Agar on the importance of reading novels as an ethnographer:  

“…When budding ethnographers reach advanced graduate standing, and their minds are sufficiently polluted with ambiguous and vague social science jargon, someone will often call them aside and say, ‘By the way, be sure and read so and so’s novels.’ Alan Beals did that for me, for example, before we left for India. He recommended all the novels of R. K. Narayan, who writes about Malgudi, a town in South India.  Several Junkies at Lexington suggested a number of novels and autobiographies to me shortly after I got there, including things like William Burroughs’ Junkie, and Iceberg Slim’s Pimp and Trick Baby …Good novels often provide that elusive ‘feel’ for the lifestyle of a group better than a social-scientific description” (1980, p. 26).

On disagreements among ethnographers who study the same ‘area’, in particular the ‘Lewis-Redfield’ debate:

Most famous among these disagreements is that of Oscar Lewis and Robert Redfield.  Redfield had done a study of a Mexican village, as well as several other areas in that country. Oscar Lewis cam along later and decided to do a restudy of the same village…Lewis came out with a description of village life much more negative than Redfield’s.

To oversimplify, Redfield had portrayed village life as harmonious and integrated, especially when contrasted with life in the city.  Lewis on the other hand, described the same villagers as displaying such unharmonious emotions as hostility, jealousy, and greed. The debate is something of a landmark even in the history of American cultural anthropology. Two competent, trained ethnographers produced dramatically different descriptions of the same group of people…

…It’s interesting that common theme in many of these disagreements, including Lewis and Redfield’s, is related to a different emphasis on conflict or harmony (p. 7-8).

On nonfunctional literature reviews for ethnographers, when Agar needed to get a grip on past research when embarking on an ethnography of heroin addicts:

“The literature” did not leave me very satisfied…I did need to know about this material when I began writing and speaking to other professionals who worked with heroin addicts, but reading it at the onset of my ethnographic work introduced a lot of unnecessary noise into my mind as I tried to learn about being a heroin addict from ‘patients’ in the institution…Part of the problem here was that almost no ethnographic work had been done with heron addicts.  As studies slowly began to appear in the mid-to-late 1960’s,  I realized I was not as crazy as I thought.  Other ethnographers also pointed out that the social-psychological failure status attributed to the addict didn’t necessarily reflect what they had learned in their ethnographic research”  (p. 25).

The book’s main argument is centered around the role of theory and methodology in ethnography.  He cites a quote attributed to William James to bring up this point: “Even picking up rocks in a field requires a theory.” 

“…as ethnography moves from an academic exercise to a coparticipant in the many niches of complex modern societies, we must continue to be more explicit about its underlying theory and the procedures by which it is done.  Ethnography is, I think, potentially the strongest social science metaphor within which members of some group can display the complexity and variability of their lives.  Earlier I spoke of ethnography as “humanizing stereotypes,” but unless this is done in a credible way, we lose whatever political value their is in operating within “social science.” I think that would be tragic.  To the extent that ethnography can complicate the simplified and often incorrect notions that one group has of another, it can play an important role in  present and future worlds” (p. 204).

From my own experience, I think it’s fair to say that most of what I’ve learned about how to do ethnographies has come from simply doing them, and reading about methodology and/or theory had only been able to help with more general or universal issues for ethnographers such as developing an ethically mindful stance in doing your research or grounding your research in the past literature.  

But Agar, by delving into the details of his own ethnographic experiences and the often political waters that need to be navigated as an academic in the world today, shows that much of the issues that ethnographers have faced in the past are still very much around today. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that this book reminds me of why it’s important to read stuff published before 1985, and not just confine myself to the more ‘recent’ publications.  

Sometimes things have already been written about much more clearly (and more interestingly) than they are being written about now, and it’s nice to come across these kinds of expositions from the past of a common topic from time to time.

Here’s another chapter that’s also been useful to me in doing the kind of ethnographic work that I do in applied linguistics.

The featured image for this post is from the 2013 Billabong Pipe Master’s which I was lucky enough to attend. See more photos the event here.

Sources used for this post:

Agar, Michael (1980). The professional stranger: An informal introduction to ethnography. New York: Academic Press Inc.

2 responses to “Agar on ethnography

  1. Hi Gavin,

    Cool post on Agar and ethnography! I like his stuff (my first encounter with him was “Language Shock”, 1994) because he can communicate the essence without the jargons and with a good dose of humour too. He was also the one that helped me see the practical applications of ethnography–“like someone can actually do this for a living!”–and so I admire him. Well, I’m not doing ethnography for a living but it has certainly justified my hobby of people-watching ;-)

    Going back to your post, yes I definitely agree with you that ethnography is one of those things that need to be done (very hands-on). I didn’t have a very happy beginning to ethnography (all the concepts just eluded me that first semester), but as I TA-ed the course (with a different instructor!) and saw other people’s journey of discovery (my students’ and the professional ones written), everything just clicked and I’ve loved it since! All that to say, understanding and appreciation of ethnography comes from doing it (even vicariously!).

    Speaking of which, one of my colleagues teaches ethnography and it hasn’t been easy for her to find a good textbook for the course (I can’t remember what she’s using now)–one that really gives students the basic framework so they can go out and do it. If you know of any good titles, please send them my way.

    Last but not least, I try to sneak in some Agar stuff into the language and culture acquisition course I teach and this article has been enlightening: “Culture: Can you take it anywhere?”, 2006 (http:/​/​www.ualberta.ca/​~ijqm/​backissues/​5_2/​html/​agar.htm). It deepened my understanding of what culture is–that it is dynamic–and what an ethnographer is essentially doing via his analogy of translation.

    Anyways, that’s all for now. Thanks for the food for thought! ;-)
    Daryn

    • Hey Daryn, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post, this is the first time I’ve really read any of Agar’s stuff so it’s been interesting and I’m looking forward to exploring more of his work. I’ll be sure to check out the link you posted as well to the article you mentioned. As for text books on ethnography, I’m not sure of any (that I’d recommend) but I have used a more general text on interpreting qualitative data which I think is quite good, at least for generating discussion on issues related to ethnography.

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