Over the course of the 2014 semester, I have read ethnographic texts that have differed from each other on a variety of fronts. The texts differed in style, methodology, theoretical orientation, and aim. We read ethnographic texts that spanned disciplinary boundaries from journalism to history to sociology. Likewise, in discussing these texts, we cover a broad range of themes and questions, one of which I would like to elaborate on and further explore in this essay. That is, can we draw a distinction between ethnographic texts that are more humanistic than social scientific (and vice versa), and if so, how?
Using examples from my ethnography course, I will argue that this distinction can be made, and that the sole way to distinguish between humanistic and social scientific ethnographic accounts is by examining the questions asked and how they are answered. First, I explore the general distinguishing factors that exist between the humanities and social sciences to provide a baseline understanding for what it might mean for an ethnography to be more humanistic that social scientific. I then move to an explanation and framework for how I will then evaluate three texts from our class as more or less humanistic or social scientific. To conclude, I consider why this distinction matters for young ethnographers.
What distinguishes the humanities and social sciences?
In investigating how people conceive of the difference between the humanities and the social sciences, I started where most of us in the 21st century would: Google. Not too surprisingly I found a wide array of definitions for both social science and humanities, and where the typical academic disciplines fell within each. For example, Stanford Humanities Center defines humanities as “the study of how people process and document the human experience,” which includes the disciplines of history, English, religious studies, philosophy, etc. The website goes on to state:
Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.
This definition and explanation of what the humanities are, and what they do, seems to be the standard way to think about them as a field of practice and knowledge production. Focus is placed on developing an understanding of the human experience using various means spanning from the study of ancient texts to the composition of orchestral masterpieces. In contributing to our knowledge of the human experience, the humanities, performance to religious studies, “preserve the great accomplishments of the past, help us understand the world we live in, and give us tools to imagine the future.”
Another major distinguishing factor of the humanities is the widespread reliance on interpretative methods. If the humanities are defined as the study of human experience, then study of that experience must include the interpretation of the products of that experience, such as the cultural and physical artifacts. Interpretation is not limited to objects and texts, but ideas that people have about their own lives and the world in which they live. It is for this reason that I’ve seen Anthropology listed as one of the key disciplines in the humanities in various places. That is of course if we are talking about the fields of anthropology that utilize interpretative methods such as archaeology and social and cultural anthropology.
According to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK’s largest funder of economic and social research, defines social science as “the study of society and the manner in which people behave and influence the world around us.” In elaborating on this definition, the ESRC states:
It tells us about the world beyond our immediate experience, and can help explain how our own society works - from the causes of unemployment or what helps economic growth, to how and why people vote, or what makes people happy. It provides vital information for governments and policymakers, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and others.
Here we see social science as defined as the study of society. It is science because it is objective and seeks to go beyond our immediate experiences as individuals. Focus is placed on explaining patterns of causality, that is, what causes some social phenomenon, or individual action. Social science relies on a host of methods that are deemed empirical, in the sense that they are viewed as objective, even if this notion can be challenged. In the quantitative social sciences, such as economics, and segments of political science and sociology, positivism represents the normative aspect of knowledge production. Often, the aim of social science is to generate and test hypotheses in an effort to construct theories that explain causal mechanisms of social significance.
I would be remiss in neglecting to point out the interpretive turn in social science, at least in sociology, and the loosening grip of the positivist paradigm of knowledge production. However, I would still argue that in general terms the major distinguishing factors between the social sciences and the humanities is lies in their aims of understanding the human experience and the meaning attached to it, and the explanation causal sequences that lead to given outcomes of interest. To be concise, the aim of the humanities is interpretive understanding, whereas, the aim of social sciences is causal explanation. Given this difference, the best way to think about humanities versus the social sciences is to look at the questions that are raised by each. When it comes to ethnography, I would argue the same is true, and I will attempt to demonstrate this in the next section.
Ethnography: Humanities or social science?
Ethnographic accounts can be categorized as more humanistic, or social scientific, depending on the orientation and aim of the scholar producing these texts. If the question is geared more towards understanding how people create meaning in their lives and what is meaningful to them, and the scholar must use interpretive methods to address the question, then I would argue that the ethnography is more humanistic. On the other hand, if the research question is geared towards explaining a given outcome with emphasis placed on causation, then I would argue that the ethnography is more social scientific. Of course, more often than not, ethnographies complicate this model by falling somewhere in between. Some ethnographic accounts rely on interpretive methods to explain a given outcome, and have an explanation of causation built into them that are not always explicitly the focus of the study.
It should be noted that these different orientations within ethnographic accounts fall quite neatly along disciplinary boundaries, at least in terms of thinking about the social sciences. Political science ethnographies are the most scientific in its orientation preferring to focus on testing hypotheses and explaining causal mechanisms of various political outcomes. Sociological and anthropological ethnographies tend to fall either on one side of the divide or the other, with sociology tending towards the social scientific. However, again, it is a lot messier than what I might present here, but the general differences are interesting and worth exploring. In order to do this, I have selected three texts that we’ve read over the course of the semester, which I think can be used to examine the typology that I’ve presented. To make things interesting, I’ve chosen texts from three different disciplines: anthropology, history, and sociology. To mix it up a bit, I’ve chosen an anthropological text as an example of a social scientific ethnography because more often that not anthropology tends towards being humanistic, whereas sociology might be viewed more often than not as social scientific. The history case was chosen because it so clearly represents a humanistic orientation towards ethnography, if we can even call it that, which I will come back to.
Humanistic Ethnography: Natalie Zemon Davis (1983)
Before I can analyze Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre, I need to establish the historical text as ethnographic. Ethnography, as is usually conceived, always first and foremost involves participant observation, which is something a historian certainly cannot do with the court documents, objects, diaries, and other historical evidence that they work with. However, ethnography never is only about direct observation, but the examination of what people say. For ethnographers in sociology, political science, or anthropology, this means interviewing, or simply having conversations, with living people, which becomes data as transcribed speech. Historians have access to a similar kind of data though, in the use of diary entries and recorded testimony. In this case, Natalie Zemon Davis works with court testimonies and the account of someone that witnessed the trial, so she arguably has access to some of the same sorts of data that an ethnographer might have. What is more is what she does with this data. Finally, what does an ethnographic account do in the first place? Etymologically speaking, ethnography is the combination of two words ancient Greek words: εθνος (ethnos) and γραψια (graphia). Ethnos means people and graphia entails a description of something. Therefore, in its simplest and broadest form, ethnography entails the description of a people, including but not limited to, their believes, values, and practices. The Return of Martin Guerre certainly attempts to do this.
Having, hopefully convincingly, established the historical text as ethnographic, I can now discuss why I view it as a more humanistic ethnography. More than anything, this ethnographic text seeks to provide an understanding of 16th Century peasant life in France. History, as a discipline, usually falls into the category of the humanities because of its reliance of interpretation and recreation of the past to provide better understanding of the human experience at a given time. In telling the story of Martin Guerre, his disappearance, the emergence of an imposter, and the return of Guerre, Davis is able to provide us with her best attempt at showing us what life was like for peasants at France at the time.
At the same time, Davis provides us with a reinterpretation of the story of Martin Guerre, not placing the imposter Arnaud Du Tilh as the protagonist, but rather Guerre’s wife Bertande de Rols. In this way, Davis offers us a feminist reinterpretation of the past, which gives women more agency than otherwise presumed. Instead of painting Bertande de Rols as a victim of deceit by Du Tilh, Davis presents her as a willing accomplice in deceiving their families and community, and by doing so she provides us with an understanding of what it might have been like to not only be a peasant in 16th century France, but a woman. Davis writes, “What I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past” (5). She makes no claims of presenting the ultimate truth of what happened and what might have caused it and often intuits what the actors in her story might have been thinking. For example, in discussing the false return of Martin Guerre, Davis writes of Bertrande, “Beyond a young womanhood with only a brief period of sexuality, beyond a marriage in which her husband understood her little, may have feared her, and surely abandoned her, Betrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different” (34). In writing, Davis uses language like “might,” “may have,” and “perhaps” signifying again the extent to which her telling of the story makes no claims to absolute truth, but rather a reinterpretation of the standard way the story is told. As a (re)interpretive text, The Return of Martin Guerre is a humanistic ethnographic account that provides an enlightening, and thought provoking, depiction of what the human experience might have been like in 16th Century France.
Social Scientific Ethnography: Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2001)
Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland, written by esteemed anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, has been both celebrated and condemned. Putting the controversies aside, I would suggest the fact that the book won the Margaret Mead Award is telling. This honor is “is presented to a younger scholar for a particular accomplishment, such as a book, film, monograph, or service, which interprets anthropological data and principles in ways that make them meaningful to a broadly concerned public.” Given that the accolade is awarded in conjunction with the Society for Applied Anthropology, suggests already that the text and its subject matter is more social scientific, in the sense that social science more often than not seeks to be politically, or and policy, related. If you can understand the causes of some social outcome, in this case mental illness, you can do something about it. Further exemplifying this point is the overall tone of the book, which is woeful of the demise of Irish rural life. “I only lament that in another decade there will be so many the less of these beautiful children born into Ballybran—a loss not so much for this little community as for the world at large […]” she writes at the end of introductory chapter (75).
Scheper-Hughes is concerned with the prevalence of mental illness in rural Ireland. In her words:
I attempt a broad cultural diagnosis of those pathogenic stresses that surround the coming of age in rural Ireland today. I explore the particularly high vulnerability of young and middle-aged bachelor farmers to schizophrenic episodes in light of such social and cultural problems as the current disintegration of village social life and institutions; the remarkable separation and alienation of the sexes; a guilt-and shame-oriented socialization process that guarantees the loyalty of at least one male child to parents, home and village through the systematic scapegoating of this (usually the youngest son; and, finally, cultural attitudes toward the resolution of stress outside of family life and though patterns of dependency upon “total” institutions. (Scheper-Hughes 2001:60)
In this explanation, we find the use of language that implies causation. Her concern is with the high rate of mental illness amongst the rural Irish and her aim is a cultural diagnosis. In other words, she wishes to explain why there is a prevalence of high mental illness in her region of interest by pinpointing the cultural causes of such an outcome. Though Scheper-Hughes writes that she is “not so much interested in the phenomenon of schizophrenia, the disease, as I am in schizophrenics, the social outcasts or social critics (as the case may be), and in the rituals of definition, inclusion, and exclusion that surround them,” much of the rest of what she rights suggests that she is more interested in identifying causes of a social outcome (72).
The methods used in this ethnography allow me to further conclude that this more a work of social science than humanism. In addition to traditional ethnographic methods of semi-structured, and formal interviews, and participant observation, she utilizes psychological tests as well as data gathered from essays written by local school children. Relying also on demographic data and history, her “orientation is both psychological and social structural, insofar as [she] examine[s] the interplay of historical circumstance and economic determinants with the largely symbolic spheres of beliefs, values, and behavior” (61). She also shows a concern for objectivity and truth, “Beyond crosschecking information, the only safeguard the fieldworker has against ‘converting the lies of peasants into scientific data’ (as one critic of participant-observation method commented) is simply getting to know the villagers well enough to read the nonverbal cues that signal evasiveness or lying” (71).
Overall, given the evidence I’ve provided, it seems fair to classify Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics as a superb, though controversial, work of ethnographic social science. Yet in some ways, it seems that it could also be considered a blurred ethnography in the sense that a good deal of interpreting was (and probably always is) involved, especially when it comes to the psychological testing. Though, in the end, she seeks to make causal claims about the cultural origins of the high rates of schizophrenia found amongst the rural Irish. This, for me, is what makes it a clear case of social scientific ethnography.
Blurring the line: Javier Auyero and Debora Swistun (2009)
Javier Auyero and Debora Swistun produce a fascinating account of environmental suffering in a heavily polluted Argentine Shantytown, in their book Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown, which blurs the line between humanistic and social scientific ethnography. Their main motivating question is “how do people make sense of (and cope with) toxic danger” (4)? The text is humanistic in that it “describes the life-threatening effects of environmental contamination in Flammable and explains the (sometimes puzzling and contradictory) meanings its residents ascribe to it” (4). Focus on human experience makes the text humanistic, but the fact that it also seeks to explain why the residents of Flammable are subject to toxic experience and environmental suffering makes it social scientific at the same time. For Auyero and Swistun, “Experience of the polluted reality is […] socially and politically produced; the meanins of contamination are the outcome of power relations between residents and outside actors” (5).
This ethnography breaks the model of one ethnographer and one field site by way of its “cubist” orientation, which captures the essence of an object, only by showing it simultaneously through multiple points of view” (16). Auyero is a sociologist who lives most of the time in the United States and Swistun, trained in anthropology, was a resident of Flammable during the period of fieldwork. In addition, the analysts move between observation and discussion with residents of Flammable to that of officials working for the companies responsible for the pollution of the community, making this a multi-sited ethnography. In Flammable, the two authors worked using a division of labor as well. Swistun, as the local, did most of the interviews and participant observation of residents within the villa, while Auyero spoke with most of the experts and officials.
This cubist orientation to ethnography is both humanistic and social scientific in that it allows for Auyero and Swistun to capture not only the experience of residents of Flammable, but the structural constraints that obfuscate knowledge about their environments and health, thereby stifling any action. Auyero and Swistun write:
Rather than being a determined, cohesive crowd up in arms against the assault, Flammable is dominated by doubts, lack of knowledge, and errors. Flammable’s toxic experience is also characterized by divisions (“they,” the shantytown dwellers are the ones who are really polluted) and a seemingly endless waiting time […]. (Auyero and Swistun 2009: 66)
Submission works through the reliance of Flammable residents on the power of lawyers, doctors, judges, and state officials. Submission is experienced as “waiting for others to make decisions over their lives; surrendering themselves, in effect, to the authority of others” (128). Auyero and Swistun further argue that “residents in Flammable are condemned to live in a time oriented to and by others” (129). This statement is made even more powerful given the fact that waiting in Flammable is a matter of live and death, health and disease. The authors consider this sort of work tempography, or the “thick description of sociotemporal order” (111).
Blurring the line between humanistic and social scientific ethnography, Auyero and Swistun provide us with an understanding of the human experience of environmental suffering, the causes of that experience, and how social and political forces mediate our human understandings of our environments.
I have argued that we can indeed make the distinction between more humanistically inclined ethnographies and those that fall more on the side of social science, by examining what questions are asked and how evidence comes to bear in addressing them. I have also argued that the line separating these two orientations can at times be very porous. I would like to conclude with a discussion of why it all matters.
As young burgeoning academics, interested in ethnography, we have to be cognizant of how our own ethnographic work will be perceived and received by our peers. Within the social sciences, there is a definite hierarchy of value when it comes to knowledge production. At their emergence, the social scientific disciplines sought to resemble the biological and physical sciences. In trying to establish themselves as nomothetic, the social sciences have placed value in objectivity. At least within the context of the United States, there is still a culture of scientism, which to me overvalues the principles of positivism.
That said, we have to be aware of how our ethnographic work might be read by our peers within the social sciences. If our work is read as being too humanistic it could be pushed aside and devalued, depending on what discipline one belongs to. In sociology, when ethnographic work is too descriptive and interpretive it might be viewed as not contributing much. Sociologists tend to be interested in more than documenting and understanding the human experience. They want to say something about the larger picture, whether that be making theoretical claims, or identifying causal mechanisms. Whereas it seems that anthropology is more lenient in this regard, being satisfied with grasping a better understanding of experience and the meaning of that experience to the human being. I personally see value in both. For me the most compelling of ethnographic work is able to straddle the line between the humanistic and social scientific, contributing not to one or the other, but both.
 The website can be found at this address: http://shc.stanford.edu/what-are-the-humanities
 The website can be found here: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/about-esrc/what-is-social-science/index.
 I acknowledge the fact that in conversing, and interviewing, with people the ethnographer has access to data that cannot easily be transcribed like gestures, facial expressions, and the like, and this certainly further distinguishes ethnography from history.
 I do not view all historical work as ethnographic! Much of the historical work that I do is not ethnographic because of its focus on structural conditions, and not the reconstruction of the human experience in the past. Historical work should only be viewed as ethnographic when it attempts to provide a picture of the human experience in the past, using rich detail and description.
 Margaret Mead Award Website: http://www.aaanet.org/about/prizes-awards/aaa-margaret-mead-award.cfm
Auyero, J. (2009). Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown. Oxford ;
New York: Oxford University Press.
Davis, N. Z. (1983). The Return of Martin Guerre. United States of America: Harvard
Scheper-Hughes, N. (2001). Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural
Ireland (20th anniversary ed., rev. and expanded.). Berkeley: University of