Ethnography II: The scarcity of time, and the narrowing of the horizon

Ethnography is a research style, which usually involves long-term participant observation as a primary means of data collection. This style of research is undertaken to produce what is often referred to as ‘deep’ or ‘rich’ understandings of how a certain area of social life operates, be it an asylum, a boxing club, a science lab, a residential children’s home, a factory, a prison, an educational institution, a music festival (insert a particular area of social life ad infinitum). What unites (or at least should unite) ethnographies concerned with such disparate arenas is the desire to rigorously theorise why social life operates in the way that it does, by actively engaging, or developing and intimate familiarity with those who sustain the existence of that area of life through meaningful interaction.

This is why ethnography cannot be undertaken as a short-term project. It requires the researcher to immerse themselves in an area of social life, and to build up to an understanding of that area of social life through participation in it, to the extent that the point or meaning of what is being done or said is grasped incarnate. Without ethnography, we are deprived of knowledge on how and why humans interact with one another, and what the consequences of these interactions are. Of course, other forms of social research exist, but none of these take the researcher to ‘where the action is’ in itself. Moreover, given that interaction is how the social world is brought into existence, we ultimately need ethnography to understand how society itself is possible. Ethnography is a time-consuming activity, with the benefit of this activity being a deeper, better understanding of the human world. This understanding is based on an analysis of the human world which no other research approach can achieve.

Life is ‘speeding up’, and is increasingly characterised by short-termism. Universities are not impervious to this acceleration. The ‘accelerated academy’ creates challenges to academic craftsmanship, in writing and researching, and this includes ethnographic research. As Jeffrey and Troman noted in 2003: ‘The amount of time spent on research is now a central factor of a cost effectiveness discourse in which funders of research want quicker results. They are also less impressed with arguments that the time taken for ethnography or the use of ethnographic methods should be determined by the researcher as the expert in the field’. In being the institutions from which ethnographies are undertaken, that universities operate at a fast and increasing tempo hinders ethnographic practice, which precisely requires researchers to operate slowly (see Matthews 2021 for a further discussion of this, including the pitfalls of blitzkrieg/so-called ‘short-term’ ethnography).

Of course, the accelerated academy is not entirely bereft of ethnographers, and ethnographies are undertaken by academics currently working in universities. A quick search for “ethnography” on Google Scholar, with parameters set to 2021, will let you know that this is the case. The questions then become, though: who is able to undertake ethnography? Who has the time to undertake ethnography? As Martell has noted, in a reflection on possibilities to slow down the academy: ‘It’s easy to say slow down and take more time for yourself’ but, at its core, the possibility of slowing down and for these purposes therefore being able to undertake ethnographic research  – is bound up in power relations. Martell continues: ‘Slow is not a choice or something that is in isolation from underlying structures and pressures’. Who can do ethnography, therefore, reflects and is bound by these underlying structures and pressures.

The marketisation of higher education is important to consider here. Teaching is dependent on research, in that to teach students knowledge at the cutting edge of research, academic staff must be competent and active in research terms. Ironically, though, there is an antagonism between research and teaching. Academic staff undertaking research poses a threat to university income via tuition fees, through a diversion of their time away from fee-paying students. The resolution to this is that researchers must literally buy their time from their department or school, through research funding. We can arrive at an answer to the questions posed above through this: ethnography can be undertaken by those awarded research funding.

Perhaps this is stating the obvious – particularly for those reading this who are familiar with the research landscape of HE – but then it also raises other questions: who is awarded funding to conduct ethnographic research? The funding landscape of HE overall is one that reproduces institutional hierarchy. Consider this, for instance: In 2018-19, Oxford University received circa £144 million of research funds, compared with the ‘post ‘92’ Oxford Brookes which received circa £4 million. There are vast discrepancies in research funding awarded depending on institution. Moreover, ethnography is – or has become – particularly costly. What hope, therefore, for those ethnographers operating outside of elite institutions? It might be easy for ethnographers at elite institutions to deny the death of ethnography, and to suggest those unable to undertake their craft have simply ‘stopped doing fieldwork’ succumbing to a ‘professional surrender’. The story, however, is not so simple (see Matthews 2021, pages 215-219 in particular). Those who cease to undertake ethnography have not simply surrendered, but are subject to a hostile takeover, shorn of their time through operating in an accelerating scenario, without access to funds to mitigate this. Those who can conduct ethnographies are ultimately a select few, and their capacity as ethnographers is facilitated through their privileged positions within the sector.

The commodification of knowledge, coupled with the acceleration of time, erodes for many the possibility of a vital way of understanding of the human world. That is, the contemporary, marketized university depletes the possibility to produce a rich understanding of the world in which we live via ethnography. And what are universities for, if not enhancing our understanding of the world in which we live? There must be a greater accommodation for ethnography within the contemporary university, else we will narrow – and not broaden – our horizons.

Dr Ed Wright – Lecturer of Sociology and Criminology at Nottingham Trent University

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