Ethnography and History

What is the difference between (sociological) ethnography and history? In taking a methodological course in each of these disciplines this semester I've been attempting to find an answer to the question; I offer my current, imperfect, understanding.

Simply, the ethnographer is present to the social phenomenon of interest whereas the historian has some remove in time and place. Each then has a different predominant focus on the question of subjectivity. Ethnographers tend to think about their own position and biases relative to their environment, and historians are concerned about their relationship to their sources. However, a reflective practitioner of each method appreciates the subjectivity of herself and the object of study. Whether it is a discussion in the present (predominantly ethnography), a recollection of the past (oral history and ethnography), or records of the past (predominantly history), each is shaped by the social environs.

Another possible difference is that while history is often content with the particular, sociology reaches for a transcendent theory. This is not to say sociology has no concern with "thick description," nor that history has no thesis -- it is an argument about humans in time -- but that their primary aspiration and style differ. Whereas sociological theory creates, or is the result of, a distance by the researcher, time often does the same for the historian permitting a triangulation (of many sources) whereas thte ethnographer often looks for contemporary comparison. (Comparison with the past is often called the "ethnographic revisit.")

In addition, one might then ask how journalism and anthropology fit into this mix!


Ported/Archived Responses

Lois on 2005-10-17

Ahhh But how do you fit historical ethnography into this scheme?  Check out the National Communication Association Pre-Conference on the topic at http://www.natcom.org/nca/Template2.asp?bid=3053  I am attending to try to garner some new techniques to apply to online ethnography.

Bryan d'Pfaff on 2005-10-30

Forgot to mention - how does anthropology fit in?

With history. Most anthropologists are fundamentally allergic to grand sociological theories, and see contingency, etc. What's more, to the extent that we try to explain what people do, we do so by saying:  "People act on the meaning that the situation has for them." People can construe meaning in about 6.5 billion different ways, it seems.

Bryan d'Pfaff on 2005-10-30

You've got it right, basically. Sociologists are "top-down," and tend to reason from first principles, while historians and anthropologists are, typically, eager to point out contingencies and details that question the utility of "grand theories." There are a couple of ways around this no-win standoff:

  Glaser and Strauss's wonderful Grounded Theory (theory that emerges from the qualitative data); and
  Middle-range theories, that draw inspiration from the grand theories and also from detailed studies of contingent historical processes... I think Tom Hughes' work on electrical utilities as a technological system is a perfect example of this.

biella on 2005-10-18

hi joseph.

i think some of the distinctions you make stand. but at the same time, more and more anthropology is not taken seriously if it is not historical. that is, how can one even understand a current phenomenon without putting some sort of historical len or analytical apparatus on it?

For some good discussions on history and anthropology check out the work of Michel Rolph Trioullout, Silencing the Past and especially the first chapter of:

1992 Ethnography and the Historical Imagination.
by J and J Comaroff.

biella

Joseph Reagle on 2005-10-18

I don't know, and I find that topic description rather odd. How would they then distinguish themselves from a historical method when they make claims like "Methodologically, historical ethnographers rely on artifacts from the past (e.g., journals, diaries, census data, and/or other archival documents) to bring the past into the present." Sounds like history to me! :) I suspect this, simply, is a disciplinary artifact. Sociological/Cultural ethnographers who then get interested in the past while maintaining their canon of literature and theoretical lenses -- which would still be distinct from those in a history department.

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