Mind the Gap!
Problematizing Social Gaps and Ethnographic Knowledge
Two elections broadened the public discourse on democracy with a new narrative in 2016: the result of the Brexit in the UK as well as the outcome of the presidential election in the US have been interpreted in a critical introspection as signs of a gap between actors of the public discourse and a part of the population which has been underrepresented and therefore misunderstood. Among other assessments and evaluations, it is this self-critical call of a “loss of contact”, which seems interesting and at the same time problematic from an ethnographic point of view. That is why we want to organize this workshop.
Journalists of the qualitative media were primarily the ones who formulated this narrative and who self-critically attested themselves a lack of knowledge regarding the outcome of the elections as well as a “co-responsibility” in misjudging the electorate. Thus, this is above all a self-critical analysis of these journalists themselves. It can, however, also be read as a call to other intellectuals to reassess their analyses in relation to this formulated gap.
This articulation of a gap raises different questions especially for a discipline that uses ethnography as the main research method such as Social and Cultural Anthropology, which deals with both the life experiences of the socially "other" as well as the internal and external ascriptions and dominant constructions of the "other": Which gaps exist in ethnographic research with regard to social milieus and questions? What is the relationship between ethnographic knowledge and the democratic processes of social representation? How is ethnographic knowledge integrated into media coverage and political decision-making processes and which potentials can be increased? Is the problem description of splitting societies at all accurate? Which other problem descriptions can be possibly applied?
These questions can be divided into the following three complexes of questions that are relevant to us from an ethnographic perspective:
1. Fragmented Research Focuses?
Which gaps exist in ethnographic research, whose competence lies exactly in the "closing" of gaps in the sense of an exploratory examination of the everyday reality as well as of internal and external ascriptions of the "others"? By sharing the "other's" life, ethnographers are able to translate cultural self-images of these everyday realities into scientific knowledge and make it socially accessible. So, where are the gaps in ethnographic research fields? Whom "misses" an empirical cultural science, whose research fields are always devoted to find new societal spheres ("the other"), since it is no longer only the socially marginalized groups, but also the middle class and elites, which are ethnographically examined? Ethnographers have not only been concerned with familiar cultural scenes or "sympathetic" milieus, but also with those that are alien to one's own habit or which contradict one's own political attitudes (i.a. Binder 2009, Bürk 2012, Ecker 2014, Ege 2013, Geden 2006, Schaaf 2004).
2. Fragmented knowledge practices?
If we assume that ethnographic research fields largely cover the range of social situations and relationships – being possibly even able to explain the current mobilization of the right-wing populist positions in Europe and the US –, this knowledge does not seem to have a particularly broad spectrum of impact, neither on the media and established policies nor on other academic fields. This begs the question as to what is the relationship between ethnographic knowledge and other areas of knowledge and representation formats: Does academic knowledge simply not go beyond the scientific community? Are there any practical possibilities of exchange or mutual reception? What kind of knowledge gets exactly consumed? What interests journalists – is it the research fields per se, the problem outlines, the concepts or empirical results? Which are the bridging formats that make ethnographic knowledge accessible outside the academic field (or the other way around)? Do widely discussed concepts of co-production of ethnographic knowledge such as para-ethnography (e.g. Faubion / Marcus 2009, Marcus 2013) have to be re-evaluated in this context?
3. Fragmented problem analysis?
If the politically pointed social situations are not based on knowledge gaps or on a lack of knowledge transfer, what conditions have led to the observed "alienation", the gap, within Western societies? Do the analyzes of the elections maybe point more to a crisis of the self-understanding among intellectuals than to a divided society? Who exactly is not in contact with one another and is this a state that has to be described as "no longer" or as "never before" (see Appadurai 1990)?
In the workshop, we would like to come to an adequate and potentially different problematization of this self-perception, in which the potentials and limits of ethnography as a research and representation mode are discussed again.
In the light of these three question complexes about ethnographic knowledge production, transfer and problematization, the narrative about the gap can be analyzed in two different ways: On the one hand, it can be seen as a contemporary version of intellectual self-criticism (as it was articulated in the ethno-sciences, for example, as the so-called "crisis of representation" in the 1980s and later also as a "crisis of the reception"). On the other hand, it is important for us to understand the discussions about the "alienation" or the gap as problematizations of society, in which the relevance of ethnographic knowledge is also discussed.
This workshop is meant as a first step into the subject by bringing together various ethnographers who briefly comment on these issues. We further invite everybody to join us who would like to deal with these issues of cultural and social shift and the role of ethnographic knowledge in the future.
27th of April 2017: 6.30pm
Keynote lecture by Ida Susser (NYC): The new populism in the U.S.: Ethnography on the margins.
28th of April 2017: 10:00am - 4.30pm
Workshop with Moritz Ege (Göttingen), Kerstin Poehls (Hamburg), Thomas Bürck (Hamburg), Marion Hamm (Klagenfurt, t.b.c.)
If you would like to attend, please send a non-binding registration to firstname.lastname@example.org
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