FOLK ETHNOGRAPHY

Just as there is the term folk psychology, meaning the subjective psychological assumptions and models individuals deploy to navigate the interpersonal universe, there could be the term folk anthropology to designate the subjective assumptions each of us deploys to understand the human universe.

Mr. Obama got himself in a lot of hot water recently when he waxed ‘anthropologically’ in just such an informal, subjective mode.

He answered a questioner with these now infamous remarks:

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

The offered stereotype probably does fit some people, but the error in anthropology, (Aside from the tactical error,) was described neatly by Obama, his choice of words was “inartful.”

My experience is folk anthropology is almost always at least inartful, artless. The reason is that there really isn’t any presumptive method other than what kinds of descriptions can be made to hang together out of both experience and other received data. And, it gets kicked along uncritically and often prejudices and biases and logical faults of attribution bang one’s findings into new and oft ridiculous shape.

A higher order folk anthropology would remain subjective but would be leavened by a critical sensibility. My sense is this is a skills set that can be taught and I’ve done so, yet lacking even an ability to focus on rich data rather than surface data, it is no surprise poor data gets reduced to stereotypes.

Although Obama has been advised by hundreds that, next time, his social analysis should be expressed as a matter of empathy, I’d go farther and suggest that any anthropological insights be rendered in as rich and nuanced a description as possible given the context.

His faulted remarks don’t exist at the vaunted level–in a negative sense–of the truly cynical and condescending anthropological musings of the pundits. They, to a man and a woman, are always standing up for, “Joe Six Pack.”  I’m confident the descriptions underneath this term would be appallingly incorrect. I see no evidence that the punditry has even the slightest clue about what’s going on with most people outside the pundit’s obvious bubble. Bubbles. Elitist bubbles.

As soon as Obama was taken to task for calling people bitter, the punditry weighed in with what these same people were going to feel in response to being called bitter. At least Obama has some data to go on! But the punditry traffics in all sorts of “ur-stereotypes” and so it was both not surprising and shocking to hear almost every cable commentator, and Mrs. Clinton, repeat Obama’s mistake by suggesting they knew how the subject in fact ticks. B.S.

The crucial practice of informal anthropology is careful inquiry unhooked from any of the biases which can be identified and ‘put away’ prior to the inquiry. The point is to reduce the influence of the filtering grid one normally interposes in an informal inquiry, i.e. how one comes to know by coming to ask. Any worthwhile inquiry done over 10 to 30 minutes will reveal the human subject to almost always be complicated in affect, cognition, and overall configuration. The point of a focused inquiry is to discern and differentiate particularity and then piece together the human operations and higher levels of order and at larger scales.

This is too much to ask of politicians of course. Still, most tossed-away ‘ethnography’ in the commons and in public discourse is worse than Obama’s attempt to highlight an actual socioeconomic predicament and its affectual and routine consequences.

As for elitism, it’s not so simple; J.K. Galbraith wrote in 1971:

Among all the world’s races, some obscure Bedouin tribes possibly apart, Americans are the most prone to misinformation. This is not the consequence of any special preference for mendacity, although at the higher levels of their public administration that tendency is impressive. It is rather that so much of what they themselves believe is wrong.

 

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