Be the Street: On Radical Ethnography and Cultural Studies

The man who only observes himself however never gains
Knowledge of men. He is too anxious
To hide himself from himself. And nobody is
Cleverer than he himself is.
So your schooling must begin among
Living people. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the underground, the shops. You should observe
All the people there, strangers as if they were acquaintances, but
Acquaintances as if they were strangers to you.
—Bertolt Brecht, Speech to the Danish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Observation (1934-6)

“Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence,” Claude Levi-Strauss once said. Poetic as that statement is, I prefer the more precise and less gendered words of esteemed anthropologist and Johnson-Forest Tendency member Kathleen Gough: “Anthropology is a child of Western imperialism.” Much like Catholic missionaries in the Spanish Empire, anthropologists examined indigenous groups in order to improve colonial administration, a tradition that continues into the present day with the US military’s Human Terrain Project in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often, this colonial imperative has fed a racist disrespect of the subjects under study. It was not uncommon, for example, for researchers to draw upon colonial police forces to collect subjects for humiliating anthropometric measurements.

According to Gough, at their best, anthropologists had been the “white liberals between conquerors and colonized.” Ethnography, the method in which researchers embed themselves within social groups to best understand their practices and the meanings behind them, had only mediated this relationship, while Gough, a revolutionary socialist, wanted to upend it. Writing in 1968, she urged her discipline to study imperialism and the revolutionary movements against it as a way to expiate anthropology of its sins. Gough later attempted this herself, travelling throughout Asia in the 1970s. Although she lacked a solid university connection due to her political sympathies, she managed to conduct fieldwork abroad, analyzing class recomposition in rural Southeast India during the Green Revolution, and detailing the improvement in the living standards of Vietnamese peasants after the expulsion of the United States.

Years later, anthropologist Ana Lopes sees fit to ask, “Why hasn’t anthropology made more difference?” The problem is not that anthropologists are reticent to contribute to ending imperialism. Indeed, there are probably more radical and critical anthropologists now than during Gough’s time, and certainly the discipline takes anti-racism and anti-imperialism incredibly seriously. Gough herself articulated some difficulties:

(1) the very process of specialization within anthropology and between anthropology and the related disciplines, especially political science, sociology, and economics; (2) the tradition of individual field work in small-scale societies, which at first produced a rich harvest of ethnography but later placed constraints on our methods and theories; (3) unwillingness to offend the governments that funded us, by choosing controversial subjects; and (4) the bureaucratic, counterrevolutionary setting in which anthropologists have increasingly worked in their universities, which may have contributed to a sense of impotence and to the development of machine-like models.

None of these plague anthropology today. Anthropologists are often incredibly deep knowlege about multiple disciplines (I have an anthropologist friend I consult on any questions of structural semiotics, Marxism, 19th century literature, or gambling); they have examined culture within large industrial and post-industrial societies; they have been involved in all sorts of radical issues, from unionizing sex workers to analyzing the securitized state; and while the university may remain a bureaucratic, counterrevolutionary setting, anthropologists have largely abandoned machine-like models. So what gives?

One issue is how anthropology chose to atone for its complicity in racism and imperialism. Instead of making a direct political intervention into imperialist practice, ethnography attacked imperialist hermeneutics. A deep critique of the Enlightenment subject, the source of anthropology’s claims to science and objectivity as well as metaphysical ground for Western notions of superiority, became a major target of the discipline. Thus rose critical ethnography, deconstructive in spirit. According to Soyini Madison, critical ethnography “takes us beneath surface appearances, disrupts the status quo, and unsettles both neutrality and taken-for-granted assumptions by bringing to light underlying and obscure operations of power and control.”

This functions at the level of the method itself: critical ethnographers should be self-reflexive. Rather than assuming an omniscient authoritative viewpoint, they should highlight their own positionality in the field by emphasizing it in the written account, thereby deconstructing the Self and its relation to the Other whenever possible. In an attack on Enlightenment pretensions to universality, accounts became partial and fragmentary, a way to head off potentially demeaning totalized portrayals at the pass.

However, ironically enough, by performatively questioning one’s own research, the figure of the ethnographer risks becoming the central figure in the study, rather than the social group. Even as it produces an often-engrossing literature, critical ethnography can undermine its own political thrust by drastically limiting what it permits itself to say. While Marxist sociologist Michael Burawoy, who shoveled pig iron for years in the name of social science, claims that with excessive reflexivity ethnographers “begin to believe they are the world they study or that the world revolves around them,” I’d counter that this isn’t so much professional narcissism as a product of the very real anxiety surrounding the ethics of representation. How best to fairly, but accurately, portray one’s subjects? How can one really know the Other? I’ve struggled with this in my own work, and I know colleagues who have been all but consumed by it. Writing about oneself seems, at the very least, safer. But this abandons scientific rigor in its reluctance to make any generalizable claims.

My own experience in ethnography came from a study of popular culture. I had grown tired of scholarly textual analysis: it seemed like more of a game for the commentators, where we critics bandied about speculative assessments of books and films and TV shows, trying to one-up each other in novelty and jargon. These interpretations said more about our positions as theory-stuffed graduate students eager to impress than they did about the putative “audiences” for the texts. Our consciousness of the objects in question had been determined by our material lives as critics-in-training. I felt pulled further away from cultural phenomena, when I wanted to get closer in order to better understand its significance. So I revolted against the rule of thoughts, starting to learn the methods that got closer to the matter at hand: ethnography,

In cultural studies, ethnography (or as a fully-trained anthropologist would probably write, “ethnography”) is most closely associated with audience reception and fandom studies. Textual analysis tells you only what a critic thinks of the work; in order to discover how “average” consumers experience it, you have to ask them. This way you avoid the totalizing, top-down generalizations of someone like Adorno, where a reified consciousness is determined by the repetitive, simplified forms of the culture industry.

This was Janet Radway’s goal when she studied female readers of misogynist romance novels. She found out that readers cared more about having private time away from domestic duties than the borderline-rape occurring in the books. However, she was forced to conclude that romance novels worked as compensatory mechanisms, securing women in capitalist patriarchal domination – in other words, she took the long way around and ended up in the same Adornoian conclusion: we’re fucked and it’s our mass culture that makes it so.

My chosen topic helped me get on a different path, one that I believe has more relevance to radical politics than haranguing the choices of hapless consumers. I wanted to study independent popular music instead of romance novels. This meant I was well positioned to examine music from the standpoint of production, rather than just surveying audience members, a technique that always felt too speculative and a bit too closely aligned with market research.

Not that market research was totally off base. Popular music exists in the form of commodities. Its form, as Adorno rightly points out, is dictated by the needs of the culture industry. If the music industry was a factory, then musicians were the workers, banging out products. A peculiar factory, to be sure, where operations spread to the homes of the workers, the machines were pirated software, and the products were derived from unique creative labors, becoming objects of intense devotion among consumers.

You can run into resistance when you define art in this way – it seems to cheapen it, as if you can’t call a song a “commodity” without implicitly sticking a “mere” in there, just as referring to artists as workers seems to demean their abilities. But this resistance comes almost entirely from music fans, who commit their own Adornoian blunder by placing music on that archaic crumbling pedestal of Art. The producers and DJs I spoke to in Detroit didn’t see it that way. They saw themselves as creative workers; at best, as entrepreneurs. One DJ talked about remixing songs in the morning over coffee. “You know how some people check their email or read the newspaper? Well, I’m making a remix of the new Ciara song during that time.” He took pride in his work ethic, but never romanticized his occupation.

There wasn’t much to wax romantic about in the Detroit music scene at that time. The culture industries were undergoing a restructuring for the immaterial age. Vinyl was no longer moving. Local radio and local music venues had gone corporate, squeezing out local music. DJs who wanted local gigs had to play Top 40 playlists in the suburban megaclubs instead of the native styles of electronic music that had given Detroit mythic status around the world. Many had given up on record labels entirely. Everyone looked to the internet as the saving grace for record sales, promotion, networking – for everything, practically. Some of the more successful artists were attempting to license their tracks for video games. Almost everyone had other jobs, often off the books. For critically acclaimed Detroit producer Omar-S, music is his side job, in case his position on the factory line is eliminated.

I wasn’t embedded within this community, as an anthropologist would be. Instead, I made the 90 minute drive to Detroit when I could, and spent the time interviewing artists in their homes or over the phone. I attended some events, participated and observed. And still, I could have written volumes on my subject-position and how it differed from many of the musicians: I was white, college-educated, not from Detroit (the last one being the most salient difference). But my goal was to go beyond self-reflexive interrogations, in spite of their importance as a starting point. I aspired to write something that would in some way, however minor, participate in the implicit political projects of musical workers.

I can’t say I succeeded in this goal. But while I may have done little for the political fortunes of Detroit musicians, I had started to think about how to revolutionize my theoretical tools. The point was not to efface or undermine my role in my research, but to identify the structural antagonism the artists were dealing with and describe it from a partisan perspective. Beyond the self-reflexive analysis of the ethnographer’s subject-position was the possibility of picking sides.

Deciding to pick sides is the difference between militant research, of the kind Kathleen Gough practiced, and purely scholastic exercises. Burawoy argues that this is a fundamental element of Karl Marx’s “ethnographic imagination”: Marx rooted his theories – not just of how capitalism functioned, but how best to destroy it – in the concrete experiences of workers, as relayed to him by Engels and others. Kathleen Gough is an exemplary figure in this respect, remaining a firm materialist in her studies. As Gough’s friend and colleague Eleanor Smollett puts it in a special journal dedicated to Gough’s legacy,

she did not arrive in Vietnam with a checklist of what a society must accomplish to be ‘really socialist’ as so many Marxists in academia were wont to do. She looked at the direction of the movement, of the concrete gains from where the Vietnamese had begun… Observing socialist development from the point of view of the Vietnamese themselves, rather than as judged against a hypothetical system, she found the people’s stated enthusiasm credible.

After studying material conditions and foreign policy in the socialist bloc, Gough decided that the Soviet Union, while certainly no workers’ paradise, was a net good for the workers of the world – heresy for anyone trying to publish in the West, let alone a Trotskyist.

Analysis is important, but the really explosive stuff of ethnography happens in the encounter. Accordingly, ethnographers and others have increasingly turned towards the methods of participatory action research (PAR). In these studies, a blend of ethnography and pedagogy, the anthropologist takes a partisan interest in the aspirations of the group, and aids the group in actively participating actively in the research. Members of the group under study become co-researchers, asking questions and articulating problems. The goal is to tease out native knowledges that best aid people in navigating difficult circumstances while mobilizing them to create political change.

But participatory action research has returned to the same old problems of imperialist anthropology. In the hands of radical anthropologist Ana Lopes, PAR led to the formation of a sex workers’ union in Great Britain. But in the hands of development scholar Robert Chambers, PAR is a tool to better implement World Bank initiatives and govern populations by allowing them to “participate” in their subjection.

The point, then, is to realize that ethnography has no political content of its own. Politics derives not from the commitment or beliefs of the researcher, but from engagement with wider social antagonisms. Ethnography enables Marxism to trace the contours of these antagonisms at the level of everyday life: a militant ethnography means Marxism at work, and functions not by imposing models of class consciousness and radical action from above, but by revealing the terrain of the struggle – to intellectuals and to workers – as it is continually produced. Ethnography can contribute in just this way, as a method where researchers listen, observe, and reveal the now hidden, now open fight for the future.

Author of the article

lives in Washington, D.C.