Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Ethnographic Responsibility without the "Real"

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Ethnographic Responsibility without the "Real"

Article excerpt

Over a decade ago, Harry Wolcott (1990) wrote about qualitative researchers' preoccupation with persuading readers of the veracity of a study's description and interpretation as distracting researchers from the more important task of communicating understandings. He rejected qualitative inquiry's quest for certainty, explaining that "our efforts at understanding are neither underwritten with, nor guaranteed by, the accumulation of some predetermined level of verified facts" (p. 147). More compelling than discovering a verifiably "found world," he argued, is a question of what one does with what one "finds" there: "I do not go about trying to discover a ready-made world; rather, I seek to understand a social world we are continuously in the process of constructing. ... Validity stands to lure me from my purpose by inviting me to attend to facts capable of verification, ignoring the fact that for the most part the facts are already in" (p. 147). Wolcott positioned himself, and qualitative inquiry in general, as participants in interpreting and constructing social worlds rather than as recorders of verified data. In this essay, I take up Wolcott's discussion of the quest for certainty, a quest to represent a "real" by assuring readers of the veracity of the "real" and one's interpretation of it. I argue that this search for a "real" limits qualitative inquiry's potential to break with predictability and to offer new readings of its subjects of inquiry. I call for and elaborate on the possibilities engendered by ethnographic and qualitative inquiry that places itself "in pursuit of a less comfortable social science" (Lather, 1993, p. 673) by acknowledging uncertainty and venturing new interpretations. (1)

I share Wolcott's skepticism of the scientism often underlying preoccupations with verifying that what one represents is indeed "real." However, I also understand a need for researchers and readers of research alike to be attentive to the vicissitudes of fieldwork, concerned with consistencies and inconsistencies within and across forms of data, and mindful of the implications of researcher perspectives and relations with participants in inquiry--all of which constitute the "facts" and meanings that researchers and readers alike must grapple with in the textualization. In this regard, what is often most interesting are textual and lived moments of doubt, uncertainty, and irresolvability in the practice of research. These moments highlight the idea that, like life, qualitative inquiry is fiction, in the sense that it is made or constructed, but not in the sense that it is pure invention, lies, or imaginings. In other words, qualitative inquiry has a grounding in "real" events and "real" lives, but learning about and representing events and lives is a process of constructing others' constructions of the constructions of the world. Geertz (1973) called this "explicating explications. Winks upon winks upon winks" (p. 9). These winks, either the "original" or researchers' descriptions and interpretations of them, are never fully representable in language or verifiable as faithful copies of a "real." We gesture to them as best we can.

In this essay, I consider the goals and uses of ethnography and qualitative inquiry in higher educational research as they are limited by commitments to verifying data and representing the "real" and argue for broader understandings of the practice and uses of such research. In particular, I am concerned that our field's practical orientation creates pressures for verification of data, presuming that research can represent a "real" and that this "real" is essential to useful research. I then examine elements of verifying a "real," including member checks, triangulation, and transferability, and relate them to research purposes. I argue that if we limit ourselves to foreseeable utility (as we presently define and understand problems) and to representing a "real," we limit our research to repeating itself and to repeating the status quo. …

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