Problems of Evidence in Ethnography. A Methodological Reflection on the Goffman/Mead Controversies (With a Proposal for Rules of Thumb)

Keywords: direct observation, methodological rules of thumb, Alice Goffman, Margaret Mead, ethnographic evidence


The contestation of ethnographic authority in the post-truth era revolves around the credibility of ethnographic evidence. This doubting of ethnographic evidence is usually explained as the consequence of postmodern relativism coupled with political opportunism and the social impact of the internet. I argue, however, that evidence in ethnography comprises a much older unresolved methodological problem that arises because: 1. ethnographers' unique observations are difficult to marry with the scientific ideal of replication, but what other tests are then available to support direct observation?; 2. social proximity to the community studied is essential for making direct observations, but how does that correspond to the ideal of outsider verification?; 3. facts are considered central in credibly reporting ethnographic thick description, but is it possible to write ethnography in an interesting way without resorting to the instruments of fiction? These methodological challenges are explored by juxtaposing two ethnographic controversies: Margaret MEAD's "Coming of Age in Samoa" (1973 [1928]) and Alice GOFFMAN's "On the Run. Fugitive Life in an American City" (2014). I conclude with a proposal for methodological rules of thumb for conducting ethnographic research in the 21st century in a way that is (hopefully) both effective and convincing.


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Author Biography

Joost Beuving, Radboud University Nijmegen

Joost BEUVING is a lecturer and senior researcher in anthropology and development studies. His research interests are in the sociology of everyday economic life and in qualitative research methodology. He conducts ethnographic fieldwork in various places in Africa and Europe. With Dr. Geert DE VRIES, he published "Doing Qualitative Research. The Craft of Naturalistic Inquiry" (2015, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press).

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