Practices in Ethnographic Research Block, 7., 8.,
Discursive Practices in Ethnographic Research
Block, 7., 8., 11.12.2000
Language may be regarded as a particular kind of activity, as discourse. Seeing language not merely as representation but as action, as participating in the construction and maintenance of social worlds provides innovative ways to study human action, mental states, and social interactions, new ways to investigate all aspects of social realities.
A focus on discursive practices permits us to investigate "culture" as:
a) locally produced phenomena, negotiated and discoverable through the ongoing interactions of its participants;
b) systems of resources used by participants in that negotiation and discovery;
c) the context shaping meaningful action in given situations; and
d) systems of historic and social constraints that delimit the possibilities of discourse for particular participants.
The "Discursive practices approach" to culture identifies and examines the processes by which cultural meanings are produced and understood. The key objective of this seminar is to familiarize students with the theories and techniques relevant to the analysis of culture as meaningful behavior in actual situations. Readings and discussions will emphasize linguistic, semantic, and interactional aspects of culture, exploring ways that discourse is constructive of social action and of social realities.
The discursive practices approach to culture is grounded in four insights concerning discourse. One is the affirmation that social realities are linguistically constructed. The second is the appreciation of the contextbound nature of discourse. The third is the idea of discourse as social action. The fourth is the understanding that meaning is negotiated in interaction, rather than being present onceandforall in our utterances.
Since the basis of a discursive practices approach is the insistence that discourse is action and not merely representation, we as analysts must attend constantly to what is being accomplished through particular discourse. So, for example, proverbs are treated not as general bits of cultural wisdom, but as resources available for use in certain situations. The object of study, then, is the proverbasutteredincontext. The question is not merely "What do proverbs say?" but "How are proverbs used?", although there is a recognition that what they say is part of how they are used. As with proverbs, so with culture generally - culture is viewed as a flexible resource that society's members have available to them, a way of creating meaning and accomplishing activities, not as a cause of members' actions or a goodforallpurposes representation of the world.
A signature move in a discursive practice approach is to "bracket" such matters as mind, truth, reality, morality, and common sense (both the native's and our own), including common sense about culture itself. Instead of focusing on how things "really" are or should be, we attend to how truth and morality are established, negotiated, maintained, and challenged in discourse. So, for example, the question of whether morality is absolute or culturally relative is put aside in favor of an analysis of how morality is invoked and negotiated in discourse. In general, a discursively oriented anthropologist studies as topics of inquiry whatever participants use as resources, seeking to discover how social activities are organized and brought off.
The discursive practice approach can be seen as a further development of ethnographic description in terms of native categories. The extension consists in the move from abstract and fixed cultural categories to actual, situated activity. The concern in both cases is with the categories and concerns of a culture's members, rather than with the theoretical or ideological preoccupations of the analyst. The discursive practice approach seeks to understand the cultural member's world foremost in its own terms.
Since discourse is constructive of social action and reality, the study of the social and linguistic constraints on discourse itself is central. Anthropology has a tradition of interest in linguistic constraints on discourse and understanding at least since Boas and, more especially, Whorf. Other constraints on discourse are of a more structural and historical nature. These include asymmetrical access to cultural capital, the limits of technological resources within particular societies, as well as aesthetic and conceptual conventions that limit the acceptability and apparent veracity of cultural practices.
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Recommended Additional Readings
Austin, J.L. 1965. How to do Things with Words. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Becker, A.L. 1979. "TextBuilding, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in Javanese Shadow Theatre," In The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems. A.L. Becker, and Aram Yengoyan, eds. Norwood, N.J: Ablex Publishing Corporation. Pp. 211-43.
Boas, Franz. 1938 . Introduction to The Handbook of American Indian Languages. Gluckstadt; New York: J.J. Augustin.
Daniel, E. Valentine.1984. Fluid signs: being a person the Tamil way. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Garfinkel, Harold and Harvey Sacks. 1970. "On Formal Structures of Practical Actions." In J.C.McKinney and E.A.Tiryakian (eds.), Theoretical Sociology. New York. pp. 338-66.
Lucy, John. 1992. Language diversity and thought: a reformulation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1923. "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages." in Ogden, C.K. and I.A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sacks, Harvey. 1974. "An Analysis of the Course of a Joke's Telling in Conversation." In Bauman and Sherzer, (eds.). Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. (Second Edition, 1989.)
Sacks, Harvey. 1984. Notes on Methodology. In Atkinson, J. Maxwell and John.C. Heritage, Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 21-27.
Sapir, Edward. 1949. "The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society." In Selected Writings of Edward Sapir, D. Mandelbaum (ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Schlegloff, E. and Harvey Sacks. 1974. "Opening Up Closings." In R. Turner (ed.), Ethnomethodology. 233-264. Harmondsworth.
Tambiah, Stanley. 1985. A Magical Theory of the Word. In Culture, Thought and Social Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language." In Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings. Cambridge, Ma.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wilce, James M. 1998. Eloquence in Trouble. Poetics and Politics of Complaint in Bangladesh. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
Winch, Peter.1958. The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. London: Routledge & Paul.
Witherspoon, Gary. 1977. Language and art in the Navajo universe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.