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On the Need to Supplement Ethnography

In Ang on April 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Review by John Hutnyk (from The Sociological Review 1998)

Ang, Ien 1996 Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World, Routledge, London.

Although restrained in tone where scaremongering might even have been appropriate, Ien Ang’s comment on a ‘wider recent trend in the advertising community’ where anthropologists are hired to do ‘observational research’ on the ‘minutiae of consumer behaviour’ (Ang 1996:63) is most interesting where she links this trend to the growing popularity of ‘ethnography’ among critical cultural researchers. Job prospects there might be. However, anything insidious and new about this is past its use by date, as such compromise was long ago factored in to the methodologically vaguery of ‘ethnography’. Evidence for this could be gathered from a brief survey of what, even in Ang’s presentation, passes as ethnographic method here. Anything from a few unstructured interviews in a studio, through to deep ‘hanging out’ seems to be gathered under the one term. Methodological discussions were nearly always only camouflage for those who hadn’t yet done their research or those who hadn’t quite got the results they expected (of course both these epistemologically thought-provoking predicaments are preferable to that of those who found exactly the right questions for the answers they already had).

A key to the book, all of chapter five serves to set up the final coup de gras in favour of ethnography as a tool of use for both audience studies and for capital, showing that statistical and mechanical methods of viewer behaviour assessment fail and every new technique has only raised yet more complicated questions. Necessarily, Ang ignores here the notorious ‘failures’ of ethnography and instead simply presents the horribly all-too-real scenario of anthropology in the direct employ of commerce with merely a side glance to the epistemological debates that have destabilised ethnographic practices within that discipline. It would not do to simply condemn such recruitment of anthropology to commerce (television studies of course will still have to struggle to be considered ‘real’ anthropology vis a vis witchcraft, pig-exchange and kinship taboos) on moral or ethical grounds, but neither is it enough to say this is ‘perhaps thought provoking’ (Ang 1996:63). Instead, it is necessary to choose and push a political programme.

Ang raises questions that could be recruited for such work, especially where she asks what is the politics of an ethnographic rendering of television audiences (Ang 1996:71). The drift towards ethnographic methods is considered in part a response to the crisis within the industry around the reliability of ratings research, but unfortunately Ang leaves ‘aside’ the economic and institutional aspects of this crisis. There is much work that could be done here, but in this context more deserves to be said about the institutional role of ‘ethnography’, and the theoretical debates and context in which it becomes possible on the one hand for educational and media researchers to show a heightened interest in the method, and for anthropologists to have spent the past twenty years fighting over its very plausibility.

In a footnote – indeed the first of chapter two, and one so important I don’t see why it is not in the text proper – Ang notes that the term ethnography ‘within anthropology’ refers to ‘an in-depth field study of a culture and its inhabitants in their natural location, which would require the researcher to spend a fair amount of time in that location, enabling him/her to acquire a nuanced and comprehensive insight … [and] … enabling him/her to produce a “thick description” of it’ (Ang 1996:182). She admits that ‘most qualitative studies of media audiences do not meet these requirements’ (Ang 1996:182), though she still considers use of the term ethnographic justified. From any familiarity with debates ‘within anthropology’ it would be clear that not that much anthropological research fits her strict definition of ethnography either. The deployment of essentialisms like ‘a culture’ and ‘its natural location’ returns us to an, admittedly not too distant, anthropological past which simply does not wash. A quick survey of some of the conventional and now dated (e.g. Geertz, see Hutnyk 1989) critiques of ethnography notwithstanding, Ang’s discussion is rather tame on the role of ethnography, though her inclusion of a citation of Talal Asad makes the important point that ‘the crucial issue for anthropological practice is not whether ethnographies are fiction or fact … what matters more are the kinds of political project cultural inscriptions are embedded in. Not experiments in ethnographic representation for their own sake, but modalities of political intervention should be our primary object of concern’ (Asad 1990:260)

Where Ang cites Meaghan Morris there is perhaps more scope for the kind of ethnographic political interventionism that Asad envisions, but Morris’s rather jaundiced abstractionism defeats the purpose. She may have a worthy point, that ‘thousands of versions of the same article about pleasure, resistance and the politics of consumption are being run off under different names with minor variation’ (Morris 1988:20 – she says this is her ‘impression’) but in Ang’s ‘freely translated’ précis this becomes just the ‘impotent generalisation’ that ‘the ethnographic perspective on audiences has led to a boom in isolated studies of the ways in which this or that audience group actively produces specific meanings and pleasures out of this or that text, genre or medium’ (Ang 1996:136). Resistance has disappeared in the reformulation and the mockery of everyday life as merely the locus of many forms of coping, or of complexity, fails to move the argument forward.

Ang makes a good point that the ‘existence of diversity’ is not … continue reading

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