Saturday, July 30, 2005


fact or opinion? the mass market ethnography

I've finished Kate Fox's Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. I discovered this GBP 7.99 "popular science" paperback at a local bookshop, and was excited to see discussion of "participant observation" already on page 3. Fox is a social anthropologist writing about the most ordinary of topics, English life. I felt hopeful I would pick up some tips both on techniques to obtain ethnographic data, and ways to present it to a general audience.

Generally, the book was disappointing as ethnography. Fox works for an organization called "the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford," which describes itself as a non-profit think tank. In contrast to most ethnographies, which are published by academics, Fox was able to write a breezy book unencumbered by methodological discussions. But I also felt the book lacked credibility. Far too many assertions were made without any backing information. Very often I was left with the impression that Fox was giving top-of-the-head opinions, instead of doing detached observation to arrive at her conclusions. Much of the book seemed like a running debate with the TV presenter Jeremy Paxman, who has written on the English character. But it was a case of one opinion countering another. Fox never says "look at his evidence..."

The only useful data tip was if you want to interview DIY enthusiasts in the parking lot of a DIY store, offer them tea and donuts, since that is in keeping with the spirit of their DIY mindset.

I was also disappointed that Fox never contradicted any stereotype of the English. She said she wanted to "get inside the stereotype", that is, to explain it. But she was adamant that all the stereotypes of the English are true, even when others say the culture is changing. (Is the queue a vibrant tradition or a fading one?) I found this insistence of the immutability of English culture silly. I think good anthropologists today believe that all cultures are changing as a consequence of technology, exposure to other cultures (travel, multiculturalism), and other forces of adaptation.

In general, I would have expected a 400 page ethnography written over a period of three years to contain something that would surprise me. A good ethnography should ring true, but also provoke at least a few thoughts along the lines of "I hadn't thought of it that way before." One expects a detached observer to pick up on something that generally escapes everyday notice. The book is valuable to me in illustrating how important it is to demonstrate one has done research, if one is reporting that common perceptions are indeed true. And if you say something novel (for me, that coasters are considered lower class), also show that your assertion is based on fact, not just stereotype.

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