Dorinthe de Man

Critical Ethnography – Chapter 1

In the first chapter of her book Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics and Performance D. Soyni Madison describes her view on the subject. She starts with an example of a documentary about female circumcision in Ghana. According to Madison the filmmaker is responsible for the representation of Ghana in her documentary. She claims that even though the filmmaker is not an anthropologist and she produced a movie instead of writing an academic article she is accountable for the consequences of the documentary. Madison states that researchers have to take their own views on the world into account while conducting their research. They have to be aware of their privileges and prejudices while observing the others.

The influence of a researcher’s personal views on his research, or in this case a documentary, is also mentioned by several other academics. Sigrid Royseng discussed this issue in her review of Pierre Bourdieu’s book The Field of Cultural Production: Essay’s on Arts and Literature. “The identification with the field of study which follows from the love of art is of course beneficial because it means that the researcher starts out with invaluable knowledge. At the same time, there is a risk that the researcher is incapable of questioning world views that are taken for granted both in the field of study and in the research field”.

An other point that Madison makes in the text is related to the aim of ethonographic research. According to Madison the aim is to shine a light on hidden power structures and to stimulate better living conditions for people. Ethnographic research can be used to disrupt conventions and change society. Disrupting conventions as a goal is also mentioned in the field of arts and culture. Claire Bishop states that art should be critical and reveal hidden inequalities in her article Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. “Yet artistic practice has an element of critical negation and an ability to sustain contradiction that cannot be reconciled with the quantifiable imperatives of positivist economics”.

The Work of Art in the World – Chapter 1

In the first chapter of the book The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities Doris Sommer describes the work of Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia. Mockus made the very dangerous city of Bogota a better place to live  in through the use of playful artistic interventions, so called cultural acupuncture. The program Mockus used to make the city safer is called Cultura Ciudadana. “It’s not a recipe but an approach. It combines the ludic with the legal and counts on analysis of local conditions”.

For example, Mockus replaced the corrupt traffic police by mime actors who made fun of citizens disobeying traffic rules. By doing this Mockus added pleasure to behaving according to the rules. “Without pleasure, social reform and political pragmatism shrivel into short-lived, self-defeating pretensions”. This practice can be combined to the notion of civic culture, which “combines pedagogy and persuasion to harmonize the competing norms of moral, legal and cultural practices, first by demonstrating the costs of divorce among them and then by cajoling citizens to reconcile formal with informal codes of behaviour”.

Another notion that is linked to the practice of Mockus is that of an amphibian society. A society based on “the idea that modern democracy is inseparable from the possibility that different reasons may back up the same rules. To bridge the dangerous divorce of law from morality and culture by translating the rules of the one into the others”. Sommers also sees a danger in this capability of artistic practices. In the hands of the wrong government, art can be used to mislead citizens. This reminds me of the use of propaganda art by the Germans in the Second World War. In their art they depicted Jews as teribble people. I wonder if this would still work in our modern society where everyone has access to social media and information.

However art is also used as a means for resistance. “Art is like science emancipated from all that is positive and all that is humanly conventional; both are completely independent of the arbitrary will of men. The political legislator may place his empire under an interdict, but cannot reign there. The difference between dictatorial and democratic arts, then, is formal as much as ideological. Recognizing the citizen as artist promotes rhizomes and or networks of civic effervescence, as against a pyramid of creator atop his creation”. After the recent American Elections, there is a a lot of protest againt the President Elect Donald Trump. During the campaign period a lot of artists openly criticized Donald Trump. I think it is interesting to see if they will use their art as a means for protesting against the Trump presidency.

Using artistic interventions as a means to change society is also advocated by Bishop when she describes antagonistic art. “A democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased. Without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order – a total suppression of debate and discussion, which is inimical to democracy.” BAVO also stated the importance of artists being critical of society. “Critical art practices create positions of resistance that start from the premise that there is something so fundamentally wrong with the existing order that every attempt at making it better, however well-intended, will always be perverted by it, and that one should thus aim for nothing less than the radical subversion of that order”. The argument that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current status quo is also used by the Anti Zwarte Piet movement in the Netherlands. They see Zwarte Piet as a pure form of blackfacing and therefore argue that the figure of Black Pete should dissapear completely. I personally disagree with the reasoning that Black Pete is blackfacing and that he should dissapear from society. Changing the appearance of the figure to prevent associations with blackfacing is a better solution in my opinion.

Critical Ethnography – Chapter 2

The second chapter of Madison’s book on Critical Ethnography describes the method of conducting ethnographic research. Madison starts the chapter with the discussion among ethnographic researchers whether or not method is necessary to conduct good ethnographic research, or that ‘deep hanging out’ based on theory is enough. According to Madison theory and method are different, but they can also be the same. “There are moments that theory and method are at a discreet distance: for example, when it is time to design interview questions and log data. But it is theory that still informs the kind of questions I will ask and the categories of data that take priority. .. But there are still other moments when the method is the theory. For example, in the interpretation and analysis of certain data, theory and method become one and the same”. For my bachelor thesis I conducted several interviews. For these interviews I prepared a list of questions that I wanted answered. Looking back at these interviews, I think I was too focussed on the questions and therefore I listened less carefully to what my informants were telling me. I think it is necessary to find a good balance between preparation or methods and the so called ‘deep hanging out‘.

Madison describes methods as a set of procedures or a process for achieving an end, a goal or a purpose. The theories of Glesne and Spradley are used as examples of the step-by-step creating of a methodology for your research. According to Madison the first step in conducting research is defining your own position. What do you want to research based on your life and ambitions. Once you have decided on a broad topic, you need to look into the publications of other academic authors to position yourself within the field. The next step is to make the topic more specific. In the research plan you describe the problem you want to solve, with which methods, who you are researching and within which time frame the research will take place. The people, study population, that are part of your research need information on what it is that you are researching. The lay summary is a document that provides them with information on your research and the role they play within the research.

After all the preparations are taken care of, the researcher can move on to the fieldwork. Ethnographic interviews can be based on 3 forms: “oral history, which is a recounting of a social historical moment reflected in the life of lives of individuals who remember them and/or experienced them; personal narrative, which is an individual perspective and expression of an event, experience  or point of view, and topical interview, the point of view given to a particular subject, such as a program, an issue or a process” Madison also describes several models that can be used to formulate interview questions. Questions can be based on experiences, values, feelings, knowledge, senses or backgrounds.

While analysing the answers of the subjects, the researcher should distinguish between the factual happenings and the memory of the subject. “how memory lives in oral history and how it’s been created”’. While conducting the interview the researcher should listen sympathetically, “with an open heart and kind reception, …, not motivated by judgement, but by understanding. … You are actively thinking about what is being expressed; you are not just present in body, but deeply engaged in mind”.