Clough, P.  (2001)  'On the Relationship of the Criticism of Ethnographic Writing and the Cultural Studies of Science', in Cultural Studies -- Critical Methodologies, 1 (2): 240 - 270.

[This is a reprise of Clough's famous work on ethnographic writing and how it involves  various literary forms of realist narratives. This thesis is brought up-to-date and generalised to include the impact of new kinds of  'teletechnology'. There's also a fascinating parallel account of recent developments in the cultural, largely ethnographic, studies of natural science, which I am going to skip over pretty rapidly. Go back and read the real thing, as usual].

Clough's own work, together with that of Clifford, showed how important the practice of ethnographic writing was to construct the authority of the account given by the ethnographer. One issue that arises is whether this completely relativises ethnographic authority, and whether this might have politically conservative implications. This is seen best in recent controversies over cultural studies of science, sparked off by the famous hoax article written by Alan Sokal, ostensibly on a Cultural Studies approach to natural science. The debate that followed led to criticism of ethnographic deconstruction and a view that  'writing and textuality were all too narrowly conceived and treated as  "merely cultural"' (241). What Clough thinks the debate shows is that we need  'a new understanding of materialism and a revision of ontology... in the age of teletechnology' (241).

Teletechnology refers to computer and other technologies that provide networks of information and communications. These are now so dense and omnipresent that they  'constitute a reality rather than represent one' (241). There are implications for the globalism debate, but also for notions of human agency, which are traditionally seen as emerging from  'the social structural configuration of family and national ideologies, the state and civil society, and the public and private spheres' (241). Post-structuralist feminist and other critiques have done much to demolish this configuration and a central role played by the family. But teletechnology has also destabilised it, and now offers and new way to conceive of social space and its changing boundaries. These new conceptions affect traditional as well as Western societies. This also provides a context for some of the early criticisms of ethnography, which were based on a diminishing colonial dominance and authority.

Now, cultures interpenetrate and technology provides a diverse series of identities and linguistic resources. Technology has also provided a much richer environment of  'knowledge objects' (243), which also affect sociality. This environment is still traversed by power/knowledge relations, but in new, less centralised forms.

Some developments are clearly revealed through the sociology of science  [a useful summary ensues, 243 - 50]. The social relations among scientists have become seen as crucial, especially in terms of the  'deployment of inscription devices or knowledge objects embedded in the relationship of writing, textuality, and technology' (244). Scientific knowledge is socially produced, and its production could be studied by ethnographers. Ethnographers of science soon noticed the important role of 'inscription' or writing, and the way science develops networks between scientists and the wider society as constitutive of science itself. Scientific objects themselves are the result of inscriptions, best seen in the strange world of sub-atomic particles that are both defined by and recorded by particle detectors  (246). Scientists also use  'cultural forms like the realist novel with its powerful narrative mechanism' to organise reality and to claim authority for a particular viewpoint. However, ethnographic studies that have produced these findings have themselves been subject to critical analysis, especially in the way that they also use writing forms and inscription devices. As a result, ethnographers are still naively claiming some authority for their work, instead of realising that ethnographic accounts are also part of what Haraway calls  '"the potent incarnated fictions of science"' (247). In particular, it is no longer possible to claim a strict opposition between science and culture, so that one cannot use cultural understanding as a privileged site to grasp science. Ethnographers of science like Latour also use realist narratives, and tells the story of his virile heroic struggle in the field. There is the familiar oedipal logic of depicting whenever his natural or resistant to the struggle as feminine.

Ethnographic studies of science have responded with some experimental techniques to meet this criticism. Woolgar, for example,  'autographs or personalises the text with dialogue and commentary about the writing' (248), although he also realises that these experiments could also be seen as a device to claim authority, as a form of introspection. They are also clearly textual devices themselves -- the text simply becomes a more self-conscious text, still alluding to some reality outside, which it struggles to represent. Haraway in particular is critical of this autographing, because  'reflexivity and self-reflection... only sustain  "the search for the authentic and the really real"' (249). Haraway offers a technique called  'diffraction' instead which apparently involves  'registering histories of movement in a field of moving forces such that the movement... can be reoriented or re directed -- that is, disturbed and changed' (249). It is evidently a technique involving critical engagement with the forces of textuality  [I am still baffled, and I think of more familiar avant-garde techniques to disrupt textuality, such as Adorno's deliberate use of logically contradictory phrases, aphorisms, fragments and the deployment of irony]. Diffraction might be away to resist deep relativism and conservatism  [although the technique of stressing the  'constructed and never finished credibility of those who do it' can look rather like an endless deferral and avoidance of the issue of authority].

[Back to the post-structuralist critiques of ethnographic writing]. Clifford pointed to the importance of realist narratives in ethnographic writing as a way to claim objectivity, and also as a way to avoid the vexed issue of the ethnographer's presence. The ethnographer becomes a hero, struggling to help his or her  readers see the reality. Clifford argues that this realist narrative also reproduces a structural functional approach, and validates the method of participant observation. As such, it was deeply implicated with colonisation and globalization.

Cinema as well as novels deploys realist narratives, and cinematic narratives have also influenced ethnography  [see Clough]. Cinematic narratives have been analysed by feminists such as Mulvey to reveal the play of the dominating male gaze and, via de Lauretis, oedipal logic, whereby men dominate the feminine in an heroic struggle. What of new communication technologies? There are hints of the possibilities in work on the development of medical technologies which enable the interior of the body to be displayed and thus regulated  (252).

However, new communication technologies are changing  'memory and being, temporality and spatiality' themselves  (252), and the possibilities may no longer be captured by realist narrative. For example, video technology can undermine cinematic realism and permit more experimental ethnographic accounts  [I once read of an attempt to train Australian aboriginal peoples to video their own lives as they saw them, for example. Feminist videos, or those that use lightweight film equipment, also attempt to tell women's stories without framing them in conventional male ways, including one produced by Mulvey and Wollen]. One implication is that a focus just on literary forms, including literary experiments like the autographed text, misses the new possibilities. Power/knowledge relations are found in the new technologies but in different forms.

One technique is pursued by Trinh to deliberately collide technologies and genres in experimental film, in order to  'perform the complexities of the native woman and Other and she comes to write for herself and others in the wake of colonialism' (253). Her work also reveals the tension between deconstruction of authority, and the need to lend authority to the accounts of excluded others. This has led Spivak to deploy a  'strategic essentialism', a kind of temporary authority lent to particular accounts in order to produce a critique. This kind of feminist work also insists on the limits to knowing, and on the endless non fixed aspects of identity. Clough herself refers to this as a  'deferral of the authorising identity of the ethnographic writer, the endless displacement of self - same identity' (254), but sees the political merits in such a stance.

A discussion of one of Trinh's films follows  (254 - 5), which apparently takes Vietnamese women living in America to talk about life in Vietnam as if they were still there. Clough thinks this is a better technique than conventional avant-garde ones, incidentally, because the avant-garde has already been incorporated and  'transferred to video and television' (255) [see file]. The technique is to involve a multiplicity of voices, and to pursue flexible hybrid multiple identities.

Trinh's work might be more generally applicable as a way to grasp cultures as necessarily  'fluid and mobile' and where critics must both engage with the interconnections of the local and global, and also recognise their own critical impulses or desires. Is no longer possible to base ethnographic authority on simple oppositions and a simple narrative technique. The implications need to be made evidence to those still experimenting with literary techniques such as autoethnographic writing -- the debate has moved on to deeper levels of anti-essentialism. 

Autoethnography was a first response to the criticism of ethnographic writing and its claims to scientific authority. It did have some useful provocations in threatening to challenge the opposition between factual and fictional forms, which classically depend on the absence of the actual writer. However, there are deeper connections between autoethnography and the objective writing it criticises. Both still deployed realist narratives, for example, both depend on a  'self-possessed, self identified individual' (256). Autobiography has also been incorporated into media forms, which threatens its critical potential in ethnography.

These criticisms are lost in attempts to adopt  'standpoint epistemologies' [classically, feminist standpoint epistemologies], a classic source of authority. In ethnography this takes the form of the claim that the development of women's experiences and women standpoints lead to greater understanding, especially of everyday life. Feminist standpoint theory has also led to a critique of classic empirical research. The argument follows Marx in suggesting that some oppressed groups have a greater knowledge of the whole system: in particular, women can come to realise that abstracted social science depends on males being liberated from the domestic, and can offer a practical alternative knowledge production in  'nurturing and mothering' (257), in a  '"valuation of concrete, everyday life"' (258)  [or in the natural affinities between women in different cultures, as in the notion of the 'chora' in Wearing and Wearing].

Ironically, however, this depends on conventional views of the central role of families in the social configuration. This configuration is left uncriticised, while women wish to oppose a their subordination in that configuration. Further, there are questions about whether all women's experiences are uniform. The emergence of diverse standpoints is an example of how the classic social configuration has been transformed by globalization and new technology. Nor can marxist arguments, which relate to the old configuration, be deployed in the new circumstances. In particular, the creative role of knowledge is now central to the mode of production, and  'technoscience... [is now]... the primary agency of power/knowledge' (259). The separation between private and public spheres is also weakening. Finally, it is just as possible to generalise standpoint theory, so that a wide variety of groups can claim an authoritative perspective, unless the objective position of women is retained, much as was the position of the proletariat in marxism.

Nevertheless, there was an affinity between standpoint epistemology and autobiographical ethnography  [and some examples are presented on 261]. Ellis, for example, writes about her own feelings in order to  'coax the reader' to do likewise, and to valorise the work of women as ethnographers. Richardson apparently offers the same personal and reflexive account of her position in the University. However, many of the assumptions about the social configuration remain unexamined, as above -- especially the view that women are particularly suited to nurturing or emotional work.

Commercial television has also adopted the autobiographic form, as emotional realism or melodrama. A focus on the private sphere has led to an emotional hyperreality  [as in the original Clough]. In this way, autoethnography is not as liberated and independent as it might seem. In this context, autoethnography  'turns sociology into a therapeutic expertise tuned into the personal or the interpersonal' (262).

The idea of travelling cultures in Clifford means we must rethink the idea of cultural and political location, and to discuss  'various displacements... such as exile, emigration, immigration, border crossing, homelessness, bondage, forced labour, and tourism' (263). The impact of technology here has changed unidirectional concepts such as diaspora in favour of more of a communicative circuitry, different ways to link the local with the global  [one example that occurs to me is the ways in which Australian Aboriginals are unable to identify with black American culture. Clough gives an example of native peoples of Colombia preserving their rain forests in alliance with global groups, and also negotiating for the property rights in things such as genetic discoveries]:  'territory is conceived as something other than homeland. It is an economic resource for sure but also something more, something like the ground for writing futures' (265).

The implications for ethnography is that it should also pursue  'an endless circuiting from poetry, autobiography, sociology, anthropology, and the cultural studies of science' (264), moving from self criticism and self-reflection towards Haraway's diffraction. As for writing, it should become  'rhizomatic', using and critiquing different 'genres, technologies, images, scenes and screens' (264), and disrupting narratives  [and following different movements of desire -- presumably, different political personal and academic projects or motives]. There needs to be a new ground for criticism, taking into account the shift from disciplinary to control societies  [from Foucault to Deleuze] -- in control societies, power relations or even more dispersed,  'more molecular and more directly engaged in producing bodies' (265). Bodies take the form of different sorts of embodiments, not just those associated with classical capitalism  [or classical patriarchy?]. Cultural criticism and ethnographic writing have to respond.

back to key concepts