Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ethnography - The Invisible Social Justice


I have long wondered what it would be like to work at the cutting edge of a field of study, to introduce new concepts, or to apply prior methods in a new ways.

The two readings for today - Philips's The Invisible Culture for the book club and Heath's Ways with Words - have both been seminal works in the ways they've revealed the importance of ethnography in examining the deep relationships between language, culture, and the social structures which define our societies.  Both authors were writing at a point in time when the influence of science overshadowed many of the important contributions of quantitative analysis, and I think their works reveal just how unknown and "invisible" many aspects of human culture are to those of us who are comfortably position within our own lives.  And yet, for all the strength of their insights, I don't think these texts have reached some of the audiences who most need them - teachers, public leaders, and students.  In this post, I'd like to consider why this may be.


As early as the acknowledgements of Ways with Words, we see just how important Heath and her colleagues viewed her work.  Marjorie Martus "kept reminding me [Heath] of the need to speak to teachers as well as researchers" (ix).  In the Prologue, she writes of "black and white teachers, parents, and mill personnel who felt the need to know more about how others communicated," who needed to know "why habitual ways of talking and listening did not always seem to work" (2).  In The Invisible Culture, Philips describes "evidence of Indian students' lack of comprehension" in a scenario where "the teacher defines the Indian children as noncomprehending, by her failure to ratify their efforts to get the floor" (127).  In both cases - examining the contact zones between marginalized American cultures and Anglo-American society - we see that the disconnects in communication are have a detrimental effect on student performance.  And in both cases, the authors provide insights which would allow us to better address the educational needs of marginalized students.  And yet the main point they've made - that fully engaging students from a different culture from one's own requires an understanding of the cultural norms of communication - is not a point currently circulating within popular discussions.  We have this question of how to address the issue of minority underperformance in America's school systems, and yet the majority of parents, teachers, and policy makers cling to the idea of "teaching the basics."  Instead of the widespread application of pedagogies which specifically aim to reach the students who most need and education, we have No Child Left Behind, the natural offspring of the 1980's neoliberalism policies identified by Gee.  As far as I can tell, President Obama's Race to the Top is little better - it is simply another reassurance that yes, the U.S. federal government does indeed care a great deal about the trend of minority students continuing to perform poorly on standardized tests designed for students who have been socialized to Anglo-American norms.

The problem, I think, is that most "Anglo-normative" Americans - myself included - have been brought up believing in inherently positivist ideologies.  There is the romantic ideology of the "self-made man" who finds "The American Dream" on a land that promises "liberty and justice for all."  This ideology, however, carries with it a dangerous corollary - the idea that anyone who isn't self-made simply isn't trying hard enough.  And in the readings, Philips and Heath are both illustrating the fundamental flaw in this ideology.  Through long-term observation, they've seen that marginalized subcultures in the United States are socially and intellectually cut-off from the the dominant society not only through differentials in economic wealth and political power, but also due to linguistic barriers between groups who speak the same language.  The problem, though, is that it's a mutual disconnect - and the disconnect is so subtle that many people refuse to see it as a linguistic problem.  For observers who know about linguistics, as in Heath's courses, anecdotes provide clear evidence for "children learning to use language across and within groups of the region" (3).  The problem, though, is that most Americans have not been exposed to linguistics as a field of study - instead, they've been enculturated within the domain of local, monolingual experiences.  They know how they're supposed to act - just as the older preschool students in Roadville knew that they were supposed to sit still and listen to their bedtime stories without interrupted as a younger toddler would (Heath 223) - while in Trackton, members of a church "just know" when to add new lyrics to a hymn and how to repeat the appropriate chorus (208).  When someone enters a cultural space and "does it wrong" - either not speaking up in time with the music, or failing to fall silent in a church - it's usually seen as less of a cultural issue and more of a reminder of why not to mix with other groups.

The problem for ethnography, I think, is that most Americans have been brought up with an inherently positivist ideology.  There are scientists who believe in experimental truth, there are religious individuals who believe in revealed truth, and then there are those weird people in the humanities departments who believe in whatever it is they feel like believing in.  Ethnography has explanatory power - strong explanatory power - but qualitative is mistaken for opinion by those who haven't been previously exposed to it.  If it doesn't fit on a chart and it doesn't "feel right", then it can't really be all that valid (and how, I wonder, could we ever "chart" a human personality?  How could descriptions of other cultures "feel right" if you don't already empathize with them?)

This, at least, is my theory - one for which I don't even have qualitative data.

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