Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Among Wolves, Ethnography and the Immersive Study of Power

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Among Wolves, Ethnography and the Immersive Study of Power

Article excerpt

Among Wolves: Ethnography and the Immersive Study of Power by Timothy Pachirat (2018) is a title in the Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods, a series of books about issues encountered in interpretive methods. Titles in the series specifically discuss three areas: methodological issues, approaches and methods, and disciplinary and subfield areas. Among Wolves is a discussion on how power and subjectivity may impact doing ethnography in the field. In the preface to the book, Pachirat mentions having accepted the invitation to write a book about ethnography on three conditions -

First, I did not want to create yet another dry methods book that fails to evoke and provoke, the sense of excitement and uncertainty that ought to accompany our choices about how we ask and attempt to answer questions about the social world. Second, I wanted to engage as interlocuters the ethnographers whose books I feature in my graduate seminars in political ethnography, ... And third, I wanted to experiment with writing in a non-traditional genre for the social sciences: specifically, with writing the book as a play that would bring many of the ethnographers featured in those seminars out of the footnotes and into direct dialogue with one another. (Pachirat, 2018, p. xiii)

These are the exact things that make the book an engaging read. Readers are dealing with a seven act play with familiar characters (if you have been reading about ethnography, and sometimes - the sciences), locked in conversation around something an ethnographer might call an alluring prospect -turning invisible in the field. The play brings together prolific contemporary ethnographers Karen Ho, Anna Tsing, Mitchell Duneier, James C. Scott, Katherine Boo, Loi'c Wacquant, Severine Autesserre, Alice Goffman and Piers Vitebsky along with Pachirat himself as characters in the play. The terrific ensemble is forced to gather in a barn - the workplace of Pachirat, when sent summons by a mysterious prosecutor to appear at a trial of Alice Goffman's much discussed ethnography - On the Run. Before the trial starts, however, an equally mysterious one-eyed wolfdog appears at the barn with a secret formula and a potion that claims to have the ability to render the ethnographer invisible while in the field. Faced with this, the ethnographers are forced to deliberate on implications of the trial and the potion while discussing each other's work, and rediscovering and reconciling with what happened during their individual landmark ethnographic studies.

The book is divided into seven acts, each of which is uncompromising in its endeavor to be true to the format of a play. It is necessary to mention here by Pachirat's admission in the preface that the dialogue between the characters is comprised of his own interpretation and representation of the scholars' work (p. xiv). Having been involved in theatre to some capacity, I could appreciate how Pachirat never concedes the format to pivoting a chapter around a specific discussion in ethnography. The plot is extremely lively with all the elements of a lighthearted thriller which are augmented by addition of relevant and interesting characters like Dr. Popper Will Falsify, Anonymous graduate student, and Michio Kaku among others. These are not only great plot points, but also work by providing every potential reader a stake in the story. Apart from that, as is a requirement of the genre of writing, Pachirat is successful in creating just the right amount of humor, suspense, curiosity and tension as and when the plot demands.

The content of the book is an imagined, conversational discourse between the scholars on all imaginable aspects of conducting ethnographies. In the dialogue leading to the trial of Goffman's book and events that transpire alongside, the characters discuss the largely western and colonial origins of ethnography and debate their own stands in their respective work. …

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