Reading Guide to: Clough, P. (1992) The End(s) of Ethnography: from Realism to Social Criticism, London: Sage.
[This is a justly famous book, which offers a critique of ethnography, and, by implication, most social science. It draws upon feminist post structuralism as the main theoretical resource to do the critique, and explains the basic tenets and procedures of that stance extremely clearly. The preface and introduction to this volume state the theoretical case particularly well, but I have begun with the substantive criticisms of ethnography. Incidentally, the book then goes on to critically analyse some major films as well. The background is American theory, but I noticed lots of links with British work on the 'male gaze' (Mulvey) or on the ideological functions of realism (MacCabe)].
[Clifford has done much to raise the issue of the authority of the ethnographer, and he uses a famous ethnographic photograph and an engraving to begin to make his point. Clough uses the same engraving to argue that ethnography is driven by desire to master a writing technology, in the process struggling with both tradition and empirical reality. The traditional technologies in the engraving are represented by a woman and other signs of the feminine. Incidentally, there is a reference to deCerteau as offering a similar interpretation].
Ethnography tells the story of an heroic struggle to enter the field, undergo some trial, then leave the field and write about the experience. It is about trying to get empirical knowledge via the struggle. The story repeats a familiar narrative logic, which is also clearly sexed -- the hero is male, and the obstacles he faces are represented by or coded as the female. Film theory, especially in de Lauretis, reminds us that the story expresses the fundamental oedipal myth of boundary and passage, which classically represents the point of view of the male hero in his struggle to achieve a proper identity. This activity transforms and brings culture and understanding. It is the same with ethnography, which can also be read as a struggle to gain full subjectivity.
The ethnographer's struggle for identity clearly involves the arrangement of other people's stories, the data, which have to be distributed and classified. Ethnography is therefore about maintaining the subjectivity of the author, using the classic narrative form to do so. It is the narrative form, rather than the actual person of the ethnographer, that has to do the work, as will be explained below. The narrative form can be understood as 'a practice of writing and reading', or a semiotic structure 'found in a text' (19). Individual writers also struggle with this conventional structure and with previous narrative traditions. The struggle is driven by authorial desire, but this has to be disguised as 'factual representations of empirical reality' (19). The classical realist narrative is the most conventional way to do this.
The realist novel seems to solve 2 historical and cultural problems -- (a) how to develop true representation; (b) how to comment on the integrity or unity of the human subject. Both of these problems were established in a 19th century context, where there were key debates about both topics. For example, empiricism first arose as a search for true representation as opposed to romance or fiction. A general scepticism about whether the world was knowable arose after this debate. The aristocratic notion of the subject [heredity? breeding? elitism?] was also being challenged by a progressive project which argued that individuals could produce themselves as full subjects, and this in turn led to a conservative response arguing that self-production of this kind was fictional. Realism ended these debates -- in realism, the subject develops a unified identity and therefore claims authority over the representations of reality. Thus realism became 'the generic form of all factual representations for empirical reality' (21).
Realist narrative produces one more important effect. The fully unified subject emerges only at the end of the narration, when the effect of realism or of knowledge of the real is delivered. Therefore the role of the narrator is not the same as the main character or hero of the narration. This effect arises from the discursive production itself, from narrativity as such. Narrativity conveys a retroactive authorisation [note the similarities between authorisation, author, and authority].
In a realist narrative, certain passages in the story relate to the development of this authority. We can detect an oedipal desire driving this forward, unconsciously. It is important to turn to the level of the unconscious also to explain the ways in which readers can identify so easily with realist narrative. This is done via the reader's own 'displacements and projections of unconscious desire' (22). Again, this is not recognised but disguised as relating to something real. This follows from the cycle of identity and disavowal, mechanisms of desire which produce characteristic distinctions and classifications [and there is also a hint that the censoring role of consciousness is involved in disavowal, in matters such as homosexual identifications with male heroes and so on].
The processes of identity and disavowal take a conscious form as working distinctions used to understand the world. Often, these involve 'crude sexual oppositions', between men and women, male and female [many other binary categories of this kind have also been criticised in feminist work]. Distinctions of this kind seem natural, because the processes involved in them are unconscious and easily erased. In this way, people think they are simply depicting empirical facts in deploying these binary oppositions.
In realism, there is an explicit focus on grasping empirical reality, rather than displaying any particular artistry or literary skill on the part of the author. Indeed, artistry is denied, and nothing is allowed to appear as constructed in the story. Characters seem real, with lives of their own, self-absorbed in a real world: 'Factuality is always composed as a narrative defence against narrativity' (24). The real appears to confront the characters in the story too, so that they can experience castration anxiety [the freudian root of anxieties about being powerless, undone by events, losing yourself in a strange world, and so on]. [This is pleasurable for viewers who are frightened and can then see how castration anxiety is dealt with -- and all in perfect safety].
Castration actually is characterised according to two 'thematisations', a male and female one. The male one involves relations between father and son, where initial conflict ends in healing and reconciliation, so that the son can actually acquire the father's authority. The female thematisation sees castration as 'chaotic, hysterical', threatening and disempowering. Realism manages and articulates these two thematisations, seeing a necessary struggle with chaos and externality as a kind of rite of passage essential in the final healing and reconciliation. The narrative adopts simple sexual distinctions in order to render all this as natural. One implication is that the female story is never developed -- the female is just a screen or background for the real story about transferring authority from father to son.
In realism, the real, with all its complex differences and differentiations, is reduced to series of crude oppositions, grounded on male and female. The differentiations are erased and replaced with simple 'natural' relations between the sexes. The complexity of both the real and of narrativity and its production is therefore concealed.
This is the ideological function of realism, rather than that it represents the cultural interests of the emerging bourgeoisie, which is the usual marxist line. Realist narratives naturalise important social divisions such as 'self and society, nature and environment, sexuality and economy, private and public' (26). Realist narrative establishes 'relays' between the individual and the real, usually in the form of stories of heroic individual struggles against the real.
Social science has adopted the same narrative technique. Social statistics, for example, construct a 'average' subjectivity. In ethnography, the role of the author is suppressed as an active, writing, narrating subject. Other people appear as representatives 'statistical personations, events, situations and perspectives' (26). Others are embodied, but as categories produced by sets of distinctions. The desire which drives the whole process is suppressed or disavowed -- writers cannot admit that they have an oedipal desire to establish themselves as an author(ity). Instances are chosen to describe which show how obstacles have been overcome. The same mechanisms of desire as above enable rapid identification between readers and writer.
Finally, ethnography displays a classic privilege of vision and visual metaphor. Vision can clearly be distributed, with people able to see more or less clearly, and this can be organised according to Power/Knowledge relations in the narrative [the narrator oversees all the others]. [As other critics have noticed, vision is a particularly unemotional and objectifying sense, and also conveys a particular form of pleasure in peeping at the unaware -- scopophilia]. It is not surprising to find that ethnography develops as cinematic realism develops. Ethnography should really be seen as cinematic.
Chapter 2 [on Blumer]
Blumer's contribution to ethnography involved urging researchers to develop 'sensitising concepts', which would help them to look more objectively -- an example of the link with cinematic realism outlined above. The world was to be mastered by vision. Objectivity was guaranteed after a suitable struggle by the researcher to see clearly . Blumer actually studied the impact of movies on the audience, part of a [rather notorious] project [well described by Becker]. However, Blumer was unaware of the impact of cinematic forms on his own work.
Blumer recommended naturalistic observation, the reporting of the empirical. Of course he recognised the need for certain depictions or concepts, but these were to be tested against the empirical. A guarantee of the test was that the empirical seemed to resist the initial concepts, leading to a necessary struggle to move from common-sense to science (and from inconsistency and partiality to coherence and rational relation). Participant-observation was seen as a necessary part of this struggle, a demonstration of the difficulties, the need for successive refinement of concepts.
[As in the traditions of American pragmatism], scientific concepts were to develop both for theoretical reasons and to permit political action, to develop a form of shared knowledge, or 'common property', which would allow collective action. Participant-observation therefore was to incorporate the perspectives of those studied. The researcher must see the world from the point of view of the natives first. The limits of these native points of view then have to be overcome, not suppressed but transformed, so they can contribute to common understandings [shades of the Chicago School 'melting pot' project here too]. This can be no simple aggregation, because science also has to be faithful in the way it represents the empirical -- hence the need for a struggle. The struggle is often depicted as a journey, entering and identifying with the field, but then necessarily leaving it in order to do scientific analysis and writing -- a 'necessary but mournful and therefore heroic' journey (42). This journey is the basis of the claim to objectivity of Blumer's ethnography. These are really male heroics, universalised and abstracted, and claiming to be somehow above sexual difference.
Writing is therefore a necessary part of the procedure. Writing generally embodies or makes visible desire; it is a way of beginning to manage feminine disorder by marking it. The writing process is concealed, and spectacles have to be produced which then seem transparent and factual. There is the usual disavowal of construction and production, done classically by including the observer himself in the writing, apparently akin to all the other people being described. It seems as if ethnographic writing is describing 'what participant-observation made of the observer, how it made him a hero, from which the writer is humbly distanced' (43).
Blumer's writing uses the same sort of technique as cinematic production in that it also constructs real world and then develops an objective position on it, and takes one subjective view to be finally united with the totalising view. It made its mark in social science as a discourse of factuality, a response to the prevalent scepticism about the unknowability of the world in America at the time (supported by disillusion about the power of capitalism to reform the world, and the growth of mass media, says Clough). For Blumer, codified procedures offered some guarantee of empirical objectivity, rather than the myths peddled by images [compare with the Adorno on the reassuring magic rituals of positivist science, following procedure blindly in the hope that it will deliver the truth -- echoed in so much social science stressing the special methods of the social scientist or the 'work' they do, clearly aimed at trying to distinguish their findings from 'common sense'. Did you note how I switched to calling social scientists 'them' and not 'us'?].
But objectivity was not guaranteed, and the tensions of scepticism not resolved. Blumer attempts to repress these tensions, but he was still deeply indebted to cinematic realism and its narrativity, despite his anxieties about it. The repressed returns [as it always does!] in later ethnographic work.
Becker has offered advice in Writing for Social Scientists. His aim is to encourage clear and concise sociological writing, and he openly discusses writing techniques. Even so, the book is really a sociological analysis of academic writing, covering the social organisation of the field and the social influences on what looks like a private activity. There is an adjustment of cinematic realism here -- writing is private but it is to be made public; the actual form of advice can look like therapeutic disclosure of private concerns.
Becker's ethnography is focused on 'ordinary folk', and this has produced a new kind of empiricism, this time more like television melodrama -- 'emotional realism', as Ang calls it (cited 63). Ethnographic writing is to privilege the ordinary, rather than develop a totalising gaze as in Blumer: it is to reveal the melodrama of ordinary lives. Initially, Becker's concern was to champion the underdog, but as his critics reveal, especially Gouldner, the effect was to contribute to a new official sociology of the welfare state. The later work is a more explicit commentary on the withdrawal from public life into the private. Sociology is no longer needed for official surveillance in a society where self surveillance and self discipline is widespread.
Writing is produced by the social world for Becker, although he was not to develop this insight by subjecting the process to critical scrutiny. His position on aesthetics is revealing -- he denies that aesthetics is an activity that requires independent judgments. As with the labelling of deviance, whatever is labelled as art is art (64). As with social life generally, social action comes first and a system of evaluations for it comes afterwards. It follows that we need to settle theoretical disputes by studying action, what ordinary people are actually doing [American pragmatism in here too, surely?]. Ordinary people can understand sociologically, but they are unaware of the collective origins of their perceptions. The task of the ethnographer is to arouse 'self-feeling in the face of the anonymity of large systems' (65) [one reason I like the studies of plagiarists and other middle-class deviants]. This requires studies of the emotional realism of ordinary people.
Authoritative ethnographic writing of this kind borrows from forms found in television. A path can be traced showing the connections between clear sociological writing, life history, autobiography and the realist novel. Ethnographic writing has inherited distinctions between fact and fiction, and borrows from the development of melodrama as the main form to express emotion.
Becker argues that life history is central to ethnographic method, rather than the novel (fiction, not accurate) or mere autobiography (personal but centred just on one person). All these forms express the oedipal struggle for subjectivity, argues Clough. Life history has a specific form with its own specific history -- Clough traces it to Renaissance newsletters, which were often written in the first person, and offered accounts involving self disclosure, but they were also fiction. They offered a way of revealing reality and giving access to the readers, often involving some disembodied observer able to comment and look on (usually voyeuristically observing some sexual behaviour). These newsletters combined the clever use of preaching and moralising, with the pleasures of being able to observe sins taking place. The genre soon met objections from puritans, worried about the possible persuasive nature of the writing, leading to a plea for 'plain language' as a corrective. This plain language meant a reference to plain (respectable?) things and facts, rather than a particularly plain style.
The description of ordinary lives was supposed to reveal the spirituality of ordinary people -- this was the fundamental form that spawned later genres such as autobiographies novels and social science and history. The unfolding life story was seen as evidence, a mixture of the personal and the historical [actually the historicist for Clough]. This mixture was later separated out again, divided into factual and fictional. The novel developed fictional narratives. Here, the characteristics of a detached observer get clarified and formalised, developing away from a particular expression in life history. The first novels emerged as deliberate fictions, still with the intent to describe particular historical events [Moll Flanders is the only example I can think of]. Novels did not aim to be true, but to be realistic.
Novels also relied upon a plain style to guarantee this reality. They were still about character as the key to social or historical events. The subject-matter of the private or domestic was to be read as a social commentary. A plain style suggested that there were established facts. Readers of novels needed to be able to develop this kind of reading at first. The plain style also had a class dimension -- it replaced aristocratic artfulness with the bourgeois values of plain speaking and self-sufficiency. (Clough refers to the early novel Pamela, the story of a servant girl, allegedly based on private letters, where the heroine emerges as a fully sufficient subject, able to resist social and sexual oppression and develop her own world view).
Since the subject matter focused on domestic space, it was soon feminised. This sort of novel did help loosen the ties of patriarchy, by valuing private feelings, and it had a considerable impact at the time in widening the new bourgeois notion of a public sphere. However, the basic intent soon became exhausted, and novelists found themselves having to offer 'an excess in representation to evoke emotion at all' (69).
It is this excess that characterises television and its emotional realism. Television no longer attempts to use emotion as a means to reveal social and historical forces and events -- 'Self revelation becomes compulsive without end, without the end of envisioning a reality external to the image' (69).
Emotional realism is about feelings rather than factual representations. As a result it has a wide appeal to viewers. Television's 'melodramatic imagination' is not about the development of the unified subject, since individuals are just there to transmit feelings and link various elements together -- they '[only] display excessively the ups and downs of ordinary life' (70). Melodrama characterises most popular television, and tends to colonise reality rather than represent it. As a result, the televisual becomes dominant, as pure spectacle [hints of the idea of hyperreality here]. It searches hysterically for new sites, and peddles nostalgia. It diminishes the contrast between the reality and the image, and this substantially reduces anxiety for the viewer. Ordinary life is seen as some essential bedrock for social life, denying its banality and the phoney sentimental unity offered by a focus on life's ups and downs: fatalism replaces the idea of moral struggle.
Television is therefore radically democratic, in the sense of being available to everyone, hence the spread of its characteristic representations and style. It promises some pre-oedipal reversion to a common infantile state before language structures and divides people [but is this really a way around the oedipal struggle that seems so permanent and dominant in every other form for Clough?].
There is therefore a history to the kind of plain writing advocated by Becker. His methodology 'prepared sociological discourse for the appropriation of the emotional realism of television' (72). This appropriation continues in the blurring of genres. There are now several acceptable ways, both in sociology and in the media, to tell the story of ordinary people. It is no longer possible to claim the life history as a more scientific procedure. Becker can only claim that some approaches offer better results than others. He accepts that there is no longer a need to separate fact and fiction, and can even acknowledge the educational value of fiction [common in English artistic discourse, and seen in the claims that art offers some sort of deeper truth than social science]. Indeed, sociological writing is also to be artistic -- 'formally interesting or emotionally compelling', in his own words (73).
This is again in the interests of sociology being for ordinary people, being democratic. But it is 'ambiguously radical... between a politically self conscious form of representation and a form of escapism, engulfing the reader and writer in a nostalgia for the absence of conflict and difference' (73). [My views exactly of those filmic depictions of the English working class in British New Wave, Ken Loach, sentimental depictions of striking miners with ballet-dancing kids and the like].
The politics of sexuality is especially erased from this project, and we find the usual disavowal of the oedipal logic that lies behind distinctions. One of the contributors to Becker's volume on sociological writing is a woman -- P. Richards. Her self-disclosures are of a different order from Becker's, leading to her becoming 'the data of his analysis, the figure of the subject that the text constructs' (73). Her account is full of the anxiety about being found out as a fraud. It is far more personal, and even includes material about her dreams -- she becomes a character rather than an author.
In other words, Becker has feminised the structure of feeling that he wants to describe and explain. Richards becomes a figure or metaphor [supported by a lot of detailed references to what she has written about the terror she feels while writing]. Her fears of inadequacy are easily explained in Freudian terms as stemming from the lack of a penis. She is literally unable to depict herself as a writer. She risks attacks by other women even if she does dare to write, she reports. Her story is dramatised as a struggle against patriarchal institutions, but it is clear that there is an internal dimension, a 'struggle over phallicity' (76). The contradictions she reports are inside, classically projected outside in the usual way, where women are represented as either angels or monsters.
For women, the struggle to write is different. They must see themselves through a 'male inscribed text' (76) [compare this with Mulvey on the nasty options awaiting the woman who attempts to identify with films dominated by the male gaze -- see her second article]. For women to write they must first take on and deconstruct the oedipal struggle and its connections with narrative and the sexualising of the author. Such women risk feeling 'unfinished'. They often require some persona to write. The desire to write invokes different sorts of unconscious fantasies, shown in the need to re-read, re appropriate [I'm not at all sure I understand this, but it may have some connection with the idea of a female 'redemptive reading' of apparently unpromising forms like cinematic melodrama -- women have to re-read the melodrama, for example as a story about women's skill at reading and managing emotions compared to the male hero, and how a woman can eventually come to domesticate such males -- see Gledhill, C. (ed.) (1987) Home is Where the Heart Is: studies in melodrama and the woman’s film,
Becker urges us to write without sympathy, which he sees as the main source of methodological error. But in practice, it is his writing that attempts to manage sympathy rather than the use of 'methods' as such. Avoiding sympathy involves a re-reading. Becker sees his own relationship to the text as the main way to link with the reader or develop a suitable emotional relationship to himself (78). This is why he has to use a female writer as a figure to distance himself 'while informing sociological discourse with an emotional realism' (78). [But does he use female figures in his actual ethnographic work? The way to distance yourself while adding emotional realism is surely to deploy along quotes from your actual respondents -- they can be the figure. This seems to me to be exactly what Willis does in his famous study of working-class 'lads' -- they add the colour, emotion and anxieties, while Willis does the cool marxist analysis in the second half of the book].
Goffman's methodology is expressed in an essay [AJS, 1983, 89 (1)]. The article also makes a remark about Derrida on writing, whom Goffman finds both hilarious and sound. What is the connection between Goffman and Derrida? They seem quite different -- Goffman's sociology has been seen as a study of parole rather than langue, of speech, of speech in context. Derrida emphasises the importance of writing rather than speech. Writing has been excluded from consideration, he argues, whereas speech is seen as simply natural. Derrida's critique of Saussure pursues this point [discussed at some length pages 95-96]. In particular, Saussure denies the power of language to simulate, owing to a natural bond 'between sense and voice'. This leads him to see the sign as necessarily arbitrary, while the subject is the 'natural origin of meaning' (95). The human subject becomes the source of speech 'around whom the system of arbitrary signs is re-centred or naturalised' (96).
However, for Derrida, writing is the key practice that articulates a unified identity, not some natural subject. Writing offers a series of practical techniques to codify all experience, not just the linguistic or semiotic. Writing also points to a crucial ability to offer a 'dissimulation' of the origin of meaning. Finally, new techniques like computer mediated communication reveal new possibilities: they 'materialise the collapse of the opposition between men and machine, between reality and the techniques of inscription' (96).
Goffman's work is not explicitly deconstructive like this, although he hints at the possibilities, especially in his later work. His work developed a new kind of realism, arising from the implications of computerised simulation.
Goffman's writing technique involves offering a flow of information, lots of little examples rather than organized theoretical categories, with the intention of stimulating 'interaction and dialogue' in the reader (97). He demonstrates concepts in use rather than pursuing formal validation as such. He is not concerned to represent reality, but to show how 'the workings of the protocol... [can]... produce a reality effect' (97). His texts read 'like the displays of a computerised program' (97). His actual analysis is closely linked to the development of inscription techniques -- he abandons the oppositions between fact and fiction, theory and application, writing techniques and reality. There is no attempt to develop a totalising gaze, nor to invoke emotions. Instead he offers a 'commercial realism' [Goffman's own term, 97]. This is shown best in his work on advertisements, which he sees as simulations, perfectly conceivable aspects of reality, but making no claims to be authentic, and involving no critical inquiries on the part of viewers either. The frames or protocols which produce advertisements organise their contents, rather than any external purpose: his work does the same.
Goffman therefore offers a potential criticism of both realism and oedipal narrative, says Clough. Frames make narrative techniques visible, they offer the deliberate simulation of apparently 'natural' speech. But these radical implications are not pursued in Goffman's work.
As examples, Goffman analyses the interesting pauses in conversations ['response cries', the deployment of words like 'um']. These reveal the efforts made to converse. They are used to give the impression that communication and genuine expression is taking place. However, they are not pure expressions, but are designed to maintain the 'reputational contingencies of... [the]... emitter' [Goffman quoted, 98]. They are a simulation, a part of impression management. As such, they are an obvious example of non-natural speech. They suggest that the speaking subject is not a simple unity, but a number of positions and possibilities, deployed according to the requirements of participation in a conversation. This is obscured, and speech is taken as emanating from a normal subject. However, speech is really an utterance of a character: this character needs to be consistent and play a part, and deploying words like 'um' helps speech seemed natural, and unintended [the current fashion for British politicians to effect a stutter, but only on certain words, would be another example -- they seem to be groping for the best word, but are merely managing an impression of sincerity]. This work suggests a 'semiotic space in which the subject is imaginatively embodied' (99), and reveals that speech itself is required to maintain the naturalism of speech.
Another example turns on the figure of the anaphor. When people use expressions such as 'I went to the movie but didn't like it', the term 'it' is assumed to refer to the movie. But it does not simply substitute for the movie, but carries meaning more generally. Using terms such as 'it' helps later participants in the conversation recall meaning, and participate in its extension [referring later to 'it' is a way of developing further thoughts on the topic, or even referring to another aspect of 'it' -- reminds me of the work on topics in conversation in ethnomethodology -- here]. The same goes with all 'allusive or laconic phrasing'-- these offer the possibilities to explore agreement among the participants in a conversation (100). There is even a suggestion that people deliberately choose topics which will permit this kind of minimal communication, only understandable to the participants [conversation between long married partners is a good example? It becomes possible to refer to 'the kid', and both partners know who is being discussed]. Allusions are not usually seen as signs of incompetence or insanity on the part of the speaker [and indeed, there is often embarrassment when participants have to ask for a literal explanation, because it shows that they don't share quite as much with the speaker as the speaker assumes?].
Speech has to allow for these gaps and breakdowns, and for expression which is not literal and transparent [which accounts for Goffman's criticism of formal philosophical analysis of speech acts, apparently]. Expressions like this enable participants to make a shift from what is said to what is meant, and speech must offer breaks to permit this kind of sharing. [Apparently, Derrida draws inferences about the subversive power of written signs especially, using this sort of argument].
Allusion is not just the result of the speaker's subtlety and complexity, but is better seen as a response to a conversation. It even empowers speakers -- 'Speech calls forth context and makes personal history possible' (102) [in other words, speech itself helps us to recall the personal contexts for our expressions and those of others?]. Allusion can be seen in Freudian terms as revealing repression, displacement, or condensation, but the Unconscious can also be seen at work in examining the actual 'knots of associations' developed by speakers. In particular, 'Laconic and elusive phrasing suggests that the speaker unconsciously fits himself to the figuration offered by the other speaker, whose constructions are also configurations' (102). The apparent natural bond between sense and voice is therefore a simulation, and, just as Derrida suggests, speech defers meaning endlessly [as it constantly adjusts itself to the speech of others?].
Goffman's work can be seen as a move 'from an ethnography of experience to a semiotics of speech' (102). He is ambiguous, though, and some critics suggest that he does operate with some real foundation for speech, some primary experience of the real world. However, for Clough, even this primary experience is still framed, since all perception must be framed [and she argues that framing is a narrative activity, referring both to past and future]. What appears to be natural is contrasted with what appears to be consciously willed, but framing is still involved -- perception takes as real 'only what is pictured or narratively produced as such' (105), which accounts for the equivalence between simulations and real life, as noted above.
As Goffman knows, for example, nothing is simply natural, not even the body, which expresses the tension between the complexities of sexual difference and the crude categories of male and female [for feminists]. The work on gender (Gender Advertisements) suggests this connection between sexual differences and the role of narrative in turning them into crude oppositions. [Commercial] representations of gender now guide the framing of what appears to be natural expressions of gender identity. People still need to learn how to display these differences as natural ones. Gender displays involve not just accurate representation, but the demonstration of possibilities [idealised versions?].
Goffman admits that gender differences are basic, and frame 'all the other social arrangements' (106 ). People learn to gender display at particular strategic moments, for example, and this permits power relations to be seen as natural as well. Interactions between the genders take on the form of 'benign control', combinations of assertion and submission. Goffman traces this to infantile parental influences, but what he really needs is an explicit account of oedipal logic.
Perhaps Goffman was amused by Derrida because he realised how close he was to deconstruction? Goffman's work has considerable implications for the authority of ethnography, especially his focus on everyday experience as rule governed [not as simple natural behaviour to be used as data]. His claims to authority turn not on accurate representation of reality, but more on the ability to get readers engrossed in the activity he describes, to feel they can enter the worlds of other people, even if these worlds are fictional. No normal empirical analysis is possible, only a re-reading [of other people's narrativity].
Goffman shows us that what appears to be natural is really highly social. 'Natural' bodies perform and display. Framing has a core of what participants take to be untransformed reality, but participants are also capable of recasting or re-keying in order to produce a sense of the actual [that is, what looks like concrete specific activity]. Human activity actually is a series of simulations produced by the flexibility of framing.
Goffman's work follows no clear narrative, but offers a stream of examples. How was authority claimed? The intention is to engross the reader, to write texts with 'holding power', to offer a stream of interesting examples.
Goffman shows the limits of the usual ethnographic narrative, but does not proceed to make a positive deconstruction of it. He recognises that ethnography is only another kind of framing itself. For him, ethnography is [just] another valid form of expression. His work does offer a valid description of the social disorganisation of advanced capitalism [shades of Gouldner here], but Goffman can only describe 'the crisis of sociological description, without becoming fully engaged with it' (110).
Some of his critics are on to this, especially Psathas, who suggests that Goffman's descriptions seem immediately familiar to the reader, which avoids Goffman having to be explicit about validity [rather like the analysis of how advertisements appeal?]. Clough wants to apply his perception to all ethnography. Goffman ends his work with the recognition that these effects might finally end ethnography's scientific pretensions, and thus he 'ironically becomes the last great sociological ethnographer' (110). For example, the closing section of Frame Analysis recognises that even face-to-face communication is not really an encounter with Others. The Other is a mask, seeming to respond, but not capable of being pinned down, always constructed by my own activity.
Goffman fails to take the final step, to see all the claims of ethnography as linked with the oedipal scene. He would be able to do this if he acknowledged that the Other is feminine, and that the struggle to understand the other is driven by the desire to 'save, finally, the unified subject identity in the masculine figure' (111).
[Here are some critical comments of my own, although I should admit straight away that I cannot match Clough's scholarship and detailed knowledge of the people she criticises. I think she makes powerful connections between the media and their characteristic discourses, and various kinds of sociological discourse, expressed in ethnographies, but obviously found in other sociological approaches too. I'm less sure how she actually establishes this connection. She sketches out some historical context to show how the similarities and differences between media discourses and sociology have emerged, but often in the form of some sort of evolutionary development towards the present from some common primeval forms.There are also some apparently universal freudian mechanisms of Desire and the unconscious common to both media and sociological discourse -- or to all discourse?
Impressive as this is, I found discussion of the actual connections a bit thin. Is the argument that ethnography somehow only unconsciously reproduces realist styles? Are there no immediate, political, conscious reasons for the adoption of realism by academic work -- I make my own modest contribution here, suggesting that realism is a form that happens to coincide very nicely with the established conventions of academic work in actual universities, in the here and now, as a solution to political problems and as a way of providing suitable academic material. Clough's work may well underpin this, but I am always suspicious about apparently universal mechanisms that can be found everywhere, at all times, in all practices, and that thrust up, so to speak, unmediated.
One problem is that if these mechanisms are universal, Clough's work cannot itself be exempt. It would be perfectly possible to read her own work as a heroic struggle to preserve the unity of post-structuralist feminism against diverse rival claims, and possibly even to trace the authority claims of post-structuralist feminism to some unconscious fantasies. Clough in particular seems to deploy a writing tactic she has criticised in others -- exposing the scandalous irruption of popular cultural material, like televisual realism, into academic work itself. The Freudian unconscious seems to serve the same function for her as Becker's embodiment of the female writer, permitting scandalous emotions to be depicted, so the writer can then maintain calm discourse about them, claiming a kind of authority . Set against the flaws of ethnography, only post-structuralist feminism can achieve a kind of theoretical and academic purity.
To reverse this argument for a moment, if Clough's work, and that of post-structuralist feminists, has escaped from these contaminations and these unconscious determinations, how has it done so? Perhaps there is some disavowed belief in some magic critical procedures or foundational concepts which guarantee purity?
More specifically, I think the argument would have been stronger had Clough included some examples of what ethnographers have actually done, instead of relying on often single texts in which they lay out their thoughts about methodology, perhaps rationalised and post hoc. What would be welcome is some specific deconstruction of actual ethnographic studies. My own favourite for this would be Willis, but I'm sure we could do it for Becker and Blumer as well. Goffman is the only one whose work gets discussed in any detail.
I would like to see the argument applied to other approaches, especially to ethnomethodology.]
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