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Participant Observation at Its Best: How Max Weber Concluded Nine out of Ten Politicians are Windbags!
It was January 1919, and Max Weber was on a roll in his career as a German politician, journalist, and academic. Germany had on November 11, 1918, more or less surrendered to the Allied forces of France, Britain, Italy and the United States, and Germany slowly began to collapse into an anarchic state. Bavaria sort of seceded under the apologist Kurt Eisner, and set up its own government—this new government was releasing documents from the Bavarian archives so that the Allies meeting at Versailles could better make the case that World War I was indeed started solely by Germany.
Street demonstrations were erupting in Berlin, and the Spartacist forces of Karl Liebcknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were ruling the streets (Liebknecht and Luxemburg were assassinated that same month, on January 15).
The Rhineland was being occupied, and Max himself was campaigning vigorously as a Center-Left candidate of German Democratic Party, even as he was publishing articles in the German press critical of the Allied role in starting World War I.
It was indeed a lively time.
Let’s see what he had to say as the month went by in his role as a political speechifier, journalist, and academic:
Standing (unsuccessfully) on the German Democratic Party (DDP) list for the new German Parliamentary elections of January 1919, he made speeches proclaiming sentiments like:
We have this revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles. All we see I dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else. Liebkencht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens. (see Radkau 2009:507)
In other words Weber knew himself what it felt like to be a full-throated political hack.
It gets better though. Justifying Germany’s war conduct in an essay “War Guilt” published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine in January 1919, in which Weber blamed The Russians and Belgians for provoking World War I:
In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia…it never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans…
Finally, at the end of the month on January 28, 1919, he was invited to give a speech, the long-winded “Politics as Vocation” by the Student Union of Munich University. What did he have to say about politics? He could no longer compare the now-assassinated “revolutionary of the street” Rosa Luxemburg to creatures in the zoo. So he wrote something that echoes through the annals of social theory even today
…in nine cases out of ten I was dealing with windbags who do not genuinely feel what they are talking o themselves but who are making themselves drunk on romantic sensations
This is of course the speech that has endured; it is part of “Politics as Vocation” which is considered to be one of the most important essays about the sociology of politics ever written, and which should be part of every liberal education in ways that the two other things cited here should not.
But talk about a participant observation as a research technique! If anyone was to know about the how and why of political windbaggery, it was certainly Weber. January 1919 was indeed Weber’s month!
I am teaching a Population class here in Chico, California, this semester. Sometime during the class, I generally ask students about how many children there are in their families, and what their own fertility intentions are. To avoid the complications of the modern family, divorce, remarriage, and so forth, I break it into three questions, which are:
1) How many children does your mother have?
2) How many children does your mother’s mother have?
3) How many children do you intend to have?
Framing it this way has up to now kept the classroom discussion relatively precise, and on track. In keeping with the traditions of population science, framing the question keeps things relatively biological–which is appropriate in this type of class. Until now–when I was again reminded that definitions are always generated from a broader social context.
Anyway, about three days after this semester’s class, I had an apologetic Saudi student come to my office. He had written on his (anonymous) survey that his mother had nine children.
Him: “I’m sorry that I lied on your question—I really come from a family of 29 children.”
Me: “So your father has more than one wife?”
Him: “Yes, I have four mothers.”
Me: “So you didn’t lie, since I had asked only about your own mother.”
Him: “Yes I did lie, and I’m sorry for it; my mother gave birth to nine children, but she of course has 29 children.”
Me: “No, you didn’t lie because your mother has nine children.”
Him: “Yes, I did lie, my mother has 29 children…”
It went back and forth in a friendly way for a few minutes, both of us somehow satisfied. He told me about his home in Saudi Arabia. His father died a couple of years ago, but his mothers were still living there. He had a great deal of affection for his siblings, or course, who he remembers as being a rambunctious lot.
I think it took me about four days to realize that despite the friendly conversation, we were still talking past each other with respect to the definition of what “mother,” “wife,” and probably “father” is. Not to mention the relationship between “giving birth,” and being a “mother.” Next time I give this survey I will have to think things through a bit more carefully!
This Week in Ethnography: Writing Live Fieldnotes With Social Media: Towards a More Open Ethnography | Ethnography Matters
So I found another hidden gem that came out this week: a great post on “Writing Live Fieldnotes“. It describes a technique that could solve a challenge I am facing in a research project where I will be tracking the behavior of a group of high school students. My challenge is to generate solid data on their entire lives without actually following them (minors) off campus.
TECHNOLOGY: I’ve used diary techniques elsewhere but I fear high school students will be less reliable than the college students I have studied earlier. In the post below, Tricia Wang describes a technique that got me thinking about a solution to my problem. Technologically I’m considering purchasing a number of Ipod touches, distributing them to the subjects, training them in some basic observation and self reporting techniques and seeing what happens.
METHOD: Shirley Brice Heath was is the first person I ever heard use the phrase guerrilla ethnography at a talk she gave at the U. Penn Ethnography in Education Conference in the mid 1990s. Basically, she took a group of high school students and trained them to extend her observations at a high school.
What I am thinking of doing is have my subjects, read Tricia Wang’s post and follow her lead. I’ve added the first few lines of her post her, but I urge you to read the entire thing. There is real knowledge there!
Writing Live Fieldnotes With Social Media: Towards a More Open Ethnography
I just returned from fieldwork in China. I’m excited to share a new way I’ve been writing ethnographic fieldnotes, called live fieldnoting. I spoke about live fieldnoting in a recent interview with Fast Company that also featured a slideshow of my live fieldnotes. I want to elaborate on the process in this post.
At one point in time, all ethnographers wrote their notes down with a physical pen and paper. But with mobiles, laptops, iPads, and digital pens, not all ethnographers write their fieldnotes. Some type their fieldnotes. Or some do both. With all these options, I have struggled to come up with the perfect fieldnote system.
I have experimented with the Livescribe Pen, regular old notebook, and a laptop. The Livescribe digital pen didn’t work for me because it’s really uncomfortable to use after a half hour of writing and its dependency on digital paper makes it inflexible for fieldwork outside of the US and longterm extended fieldwork (my review of the pen on CulturalByt.es). The notebook seems like the most practical solution. But I can’t seem to find the “perfect” notebook. Do I use a really small one that fits in my pocket? A medium size one that allows me to write more? If it’s too big then it looks like a “notebook.” And what should this notebook look like? Does a black moleskin look too nice for my fieldsite? Does it look too official? Does my notebook allow me to fit in with teens? But the notebook with bears and hearts that I use around teens doesn’t work for my meetings with government officials. And in the end no matter what kind of notebook I use, I still have to type all my notes to Evernote. So using a laptop is inevitable as all notes eventually end up there and are cleaned up there.
But the problem with a digital pen, notebook, and laptop is that they are all extra things that have to be carried with you or they add extra steps to the process. If I forget to charge the Livescribe or if it runs out of batteries, then I would have to remember to pack a backup notebook and pen. If I was in an area where I couldn’t get electricity, then I couldn’t charge my laptop or pen. If I’m in situation where I can’t take out a notebook because it would distract from the situation or it would be too cumbersome, then I would have to memorize everything.
I still haven’t found the perfect fieldnote system, but I wanted to experiment with a new process that I call, “live fieldnoting.”
Another classic question in the age of the internet: How do indigenous peoples feel about anthropology graduate students doing fieldwork? Mark Dawson first reported his research about this subject in a classic post here at Ethnography.com on April 1, 2007.
The following post from culturnicity got me thinking about the ongoing grudge match between those who demand a year in the field [imagine someone with a long beard in an arm-chair saying “to record a full record of experiences during the ecological annum”] compared to those who are more focused on the content and outcomes of the project. In Ethnography as participant listening, Forsey drives this point home with the following point:
Defining ethnography according to its purpose rather than its method encourages participation in, and engagement with, the lives of our fellow human beings (Forsey, 2011: 569).
In the following post, Casey has moved beyond the debate by focussing on a comparison between what he calls a “Team-Based Categorical Model” and a “Team-Based Geographical Model”. This is a great example of Forsey’s point and I urge you all to read the entire post, a tidbit of which follows:
Ethnographic Research – Long or Short Term Approach?
Traditional ethnographic research takes a long time, but the time is necessary for an accurate and in depth understanding of the culture or phenomenon under observation. When an anthropologist embarks on a research project in a totally new area, a year of language study is often needed before detailed ethnographic research can begin. Fieldwork often lasts 2 or more years. Such longer term approaches to ethnographic research are crucial for accurate understandings of culture. These published ethnographies have been the basis for many of the major theories that have arisen in cultural anthropology over the last 150 years.
While there is tremendous value to the long term approach to research, there are instances when a short term model can produce accurate and helpful results. For example, anthropologists are more readily hired as consultants by companies looking for specific and focused research on a particular aspect of society. Other times, an anthropologist may be employed to give a general overview of a culture with specific findings and suggested strategies for doing business in the area.
I’ve been involved with several of these short term ethnographic research projects. In some instances I was the sole researcher. In other instances I was part of a team commissioned to research and report on some culture or aspect of culture. I’ve found that the short-term, team approach to ethnographic research can be a very helpful, time efficient means of understanding a culture. Look at it this way – one researcher can spend two months in an area and put in about 400 hours of research. A team of eight can spend less than a week in an area and put in the same number of man hours. In this post, I want to give a brief overview of two approaches to the team based research method, along with pros and cons of each.
There is not much to report in “This Week in Ethnography”, a segment I am inventing as a means of reporting on the global pulse of this most important subject. The one item that jumped out of my feeds at me was that I missed the application deadline (of July 22, 2012) for the:
Second Digital Ethnography Week _ Trento 17-21 sept. 2012
The second “Digital Ethnography Week” (DEW), an intensive week focused on the study of digital methods and digital ethnographic approaches. The DEW is intended for Ph.D. students and researchers interested in developing advanced methodological skills to account for the digital in contemporary social life.
As their website reports, this looks like a great opportunity for aspiring digital ethnographers.
Ethnography and Journalism
Be warned: The Data Journalism School in Rome is involved in this effort. I know the conflation of ethnography and journalism is shocking to some. During my graduate training, I recall one of the senior faculty members of my anthropology program criticizing a students’ work by referring to it as “journalism”. The context for this event was a thesis draft presentation based on ethnographic fieldwork in a doctoral colloquium. I believe the Professor’s intention was to imply that the student was “only out for a story” and had “little theoretical or methodological reasoning” for how they had generated the data they were reporting on.
The irony of this situation was that this was a program in applied anthropology. In any event, let us not “throw the baby out with the bath water” or in this case, throw good data or solid technique out with the researcher using it. Data Journalism is a fantastic means of getting at reality. For example, check out the following TED talk by David McCandless: The beauty of data visualization and try to tell me that this “journalist” is “only out for the story”.