Why So Few Ethnographies?

Ethnography is one of the standard research tools used by academics in the social sciences and humanities nowadays. Surprising then that academia often seems remarkably under-studied in ethnographic terms. One would have thought that universities would be fertile ground for ethnographers but there are surprisingly few studies available that I know of.

When I was at Oxford, I could never fully understand why there was no concentrated ethnographic study of an Oxford college. The nearest seemed to be various college memoirs and a few student exposes. But it isn’t just Oxford or Cambridge: you would be hard pressed to find ethnographies of academic life, even though there is a thriving field of educational ethnography.

That is not to say there are none. For example, there is Gaye Tuchman’s recent and accomplished Wannabe U. which is based on a serious ethnography. There are several pieces by former postgraduates and postdoctoral fellows. There is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Ethnography of the University Initiative which uses ethnography as a technique to encourage undergraduate research in the humanities.

But you have to cast around.

I suppose that there are three explanations in response to this dearth. One is that it is all just too close to home and therefore uncomfortable. The second is that it is indulgent: we are here to study other people, not ourselves. The third is that there is a distinct genre of campus novels which do much the same thing as an ethnography. If only. Most campus novels tend to go down the rather tiresome Kingsley Amis/ David Lodge route, playing up stereotypes for comic effect. There are exceptions – I think of a novelist like Alison Lurie – but most of these novels seem to me to be deeply unconvincing, building cliché upon cliché.

So ethnographies are important. But most studies of academia that go beyond description tend to be either formalist like Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus or part of the running commentary by higher education on itself. Yet ethnography can act to destabilize comfortable categories and show up the ways in which worlds can be constructed differently. What we need is something like an academic equivalent of Daniel Miller’s remarkable study of consumers in a North London street, The Comfort of Things, which can acknowledge the diverse ways in which academics and administrators and students make their worlds, instead of feeding stereotypes which tell us little or nothing.  Or there is Bruno Latour’s study of the Conseil d’État and legal reasoning, The Making of Law, as an instance of a bureaucratic ethnography that gets inside the skin of an institution.

In other words, there are multiple instances that can act as exemplars. In particular, of course, and showing that the exception is the rule, there are all the works falling under the rubric of the social studies of science. Since Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life, science has come under the ethnographic spotlight and, as a result, all kinds of insights have been offered about the nature of scientific reason and the structure of science. Transferring this style of work to academe can at least act as a starting point, one which would lead to making excellent books like Rhoten and Calhoun’s recent edited collection on the research university, Knowledge Matters, even more pertinent.

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