Book Reviews (Researching Culture: Qualitative Method and Cultural Studies by Pertti Alasuutari; Marrying and Burying: Rites of Passage in a Man's Life by Ronald L. Grimes)
Greenhill, Pauline, Ethnologies
Researching Culture: Qualitative Method and Cultural Studies. By Pertti Alasuutari. (London: Sage Publications, 1995. Pp. ix + 208, references, index, ISBN 0-8039-7630-8 cloth, 0-8039-7831-6 pbk.)
Marrying & Burying: Rites of Passage in a Man's Life. By Ronald L. Grimes. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995. Pp. xii + 263, $59.50/$18.95 U.S., ISBN 0-8133-2459-9 cloth, 0-8133-2460-2 pbk.)
As the boundaries of folklore as a discipline, and of disciplines in general, become more permeable, answering our often-asked question "yes, but is it folklore?" holds greater difficulties. This query's new context makes it more fraught than previously, but it nevertheless has the particular discursive qualities of all questions. And these attributes are not always as straightforward as they might initially seem.
A prime characteristic of questions is that they constrain answers. When asked by the more powerful of the less powerful (as when judges interrogate accused persons) they overdetermine the power of the questioner, because the interlocutor must respond. However, when asked by the less powerful of the more powerful, questions can be attempts to exercise some control over discourse. Feminist analysis has shown that women often use questions -- and question-intonation -- in mixed conversation as attempts to influence the choice of topics on the discursive floor, or other aspects of a discussion's direction, or simply to ensure they receive some response. Questions can also be asked rhetorically, in which case the speaker's assumption is that no right-thinking person could give any but the answer s/he expects. And like other discursive structures
I periodically recall when the question "yes, but is it folklore?" was asked of my MUN M.A. thesis proposal, nearly twenty years ago. My repeatedly unsuccessful responses dealt with the question at hand, until somebody took pity on me and explained that the issue was not my intellectual/ideological framework, but instead my plan to conduct fieldwork in Ontario rather than in Newfoundland. "Yes, but is it folklore?" didn't have anything to do with the theoretical issues I had engaged; it was a way of obscuring issues of cultural, social, and economic power. No Newfoundland thesis topic, no fellowship. But I digress. Questions, including this one, engender -- indeed, demand -- dialogue. But when one is in a position of power and control, as a book reviewer is over the text s/he produces, questions don't necessarily constrain responses within the parameters they seem to define.
I will address each one of the above books in terms of how they might suggest possibilities for answering the question, "Yes, but is it folklore?" I'll also consider how the answers implied by each book might open up the discipline of folklore's possibilities in ways that do or don't constrain its current, though permeable, boundaries. These prospects concern taking account of cultural studies, extending audience research, considering reflexivity and autobiography as research, and attempting accountability and advocacy on research subjects' own terms.
I will begin with what is, as I see it, the most conventional of the four books, Alasuutari's Researching Culture. Its subtitle, Qualitative Method and Cultural Studies is somewhat misleading to those of us who were taught to see method in terms of actual modes of research -- interviewing, participant observation, and so on. In fact this is what I would call a methodology text, exploring how to conceptualise questions and answers more than it does how to gather data to answer them. Though folklorists may find the author's initial suggestion that he wants to include quantitative methodology in cultural studies somewhat less than simpatico, they may feel more comfortable with his metaphor for qualitative research -- the riddle.
Alasuutari traces a historical definition of cultural studies, focusing primarily on its European roots, and then discusses a series of systems for producing observations. …