In the Weeds of Ethnography: First Person Narratives

I sometimes feel crazy as I write dissertation sections that delve deeply into short pieces of interviews  – I recently wrote ten pages about two minutes of a single interview – or notable gestures that seem to perfectly capture a moment or feeling. As computing power allows the owner of even an entry-level laptop to analyze huge sets of numerical data about thousands of individuals, and as research funding for long-term immersive research into social groups and communities dries up, both social scientists and the research dollars we’re constantly chasing are increasingly drawn into projects that analyze human behavior on a grand scale. In some ways, my scholarly taste for extended analysis of seemingly incidental or mundane activities feels anachronistic.

That’s why I was so excited when I came across this quote in the introduction to a new book by anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly, called Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. She is similarly interested in the mundane struggles of caring for family members with chronic illnesses. Introducing her research methods, Mattingly writes,

And yet I insist upon an anthropology of morality grounded in a first person virtue ethics that takes disempowered people’s moral projects and their belief about the good seriously. I do so in a way that regularly puts me at odds with some of the most influential contemporary trends in social theory. I speak of individuals more than about social groups and social categories, the singularities of experience more than its reproductive features, inner emotion and selfhood more often than public personhood.

There’s a lot of jargon there, but the point is this: she’s interested in the stories people tell about themselves and what they reveal about how individuals put their ideas about the meaning of “a good life” into action. This is at odds with fads in applied areas of the social sciences that look at how groups of people respond, on average, to stimuli in their environments. It’s also at odds with more scholarly trends within anthropology which go to great lengths to situation contemporary problems in deep historical time or the global economy. She insists (and I agree) that there’s still something interesting and important about how people manage life with chronic illnesses in the here and now, especially when those illnesses add to already difficult life situations.

There’s a lot going on in the here and now, after all! Medical science has so many high-tech tools at its disposal that let physicians see smaller, more hidden, and more fleeting things in the body than ever before, as well as tools that let them understand better how what goes on in several different parts of the body may be interacting. The effect of this seems to be that we in the general public have a better idea of what might be conspiring to make us sick without necessarily having access to effective new tools (new drugs, new surgical procedures, and so on) to fix those problems.

At this point, I’m guessing this is starting to sound familiar to those of you who have been tested and treated for food allergies, or taken care of someone who has.

What’s interesting then, in Mattingly’s words and in my own view, is how “people who are primarily trying to get by and make do with the (mostly bad) lot that has been handed them” manage the challenges posed by everyday life with chronic illness.

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