Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Review: Institutional Ethnography

[Dorothy Smith. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005]

Dorothy Smith is perhaps Canada's foremost feminist sociologist. Her greatest contribution to the discipline is the elaboration of a sociology -- not a methodology, but an actual alternative sociology -- called institutional ethnography (IE). This book is her most recent, most complete theoretical discussion (albeit with plenty of concrete examples from actual IE studies over the years) of the bases and major features of IE. (There is also a companion volume from another publisher which is a collection edited by Smith of more practical essays on IE. Doubt I'll read that one.)

I first became aware of Smith's work about four years ago when I bought a book by her, Writing the Social, from the book table of a conference I was at. Just this year, that conference resulted in a book on a subset of institutional ethnography called political activist ethnography, a book I have since read and reviewed.

In my initial reading of Writing the Social, though I'm sure there was much that I didn't quite get, there were also a number of things that impressed me as addressing concerns that had troubled me in my thinking about the world -- questions about how to think about the vastly different scales across which our political thought and action must extend, from the brief and interpersonal to the global; questions about how to respond to the extremes of crass and clumsy pseudo-materialism of certain Marxist grouplets on the one hand, and the disconnected discourse-bound entrapment of certain strands of academic thought on the other, while rejecting neither the material world nor text; and questions of orienting knowledge production towards changing the world rather than just describing it.

A number of traditions fed into Smith's work. Feminism and her experience in the second wave of North American feminist movement were central. She noticed that the world she experience as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, really had very little to do with the world that the mainstream (or malestream) sociology that she learned and taught as a graduate student seemed to be describing. If there was a disjuncture between conceptually-based explanations coming from mainstream sociological discourse and the everyday lived experiences of women -- and she noticed that there were, all the time -- then sociologists would inevitably favour the former, if they noticed the disjuncture at all. The approach also comes from a certain reading of Marx and what he had to say about grounding understandings of the world in the physical lived everyday of human beings, an important idea even if many later intellectuals claiming to follow him have disregarded that insight, and even if Marx himself really only applied it to men. And finally, as I was reminded the other night, she drew on an approach to sociology called ethnomethodology, something I do not really know much about but that I understand is relevant because it insists that the world we experience is continually being produced and reproduced in the moment through human actions.

Underlying IE is the idea that the social world is created not through abstract and indepently existing "structures" or "systems" forcing us to do things, but through the concerted activities of ordinary people. These activities are concerted, or translocally organized, mostly in our current era through texts that get activated in local, everyday spaces by human beings. The coordinating function of texts means that there are standard features across workplace A, workplace B, and workplace C, and that there are material, learnable connections between the goings on of shop floor A and boardroom A and regulatory agency supra-A. The experiences of someone on social assistance are produced in a direct interaction with her case worker, and her case worker's activities are a product of activating regulations and directives (texts), which were written in bureaucratic offices by specific human beings, who were obeying other human beings by implementing certain specific discourses in how they wrote the regulations. And so on.

You start off by figuring out whose experience you are putting at the centre of your research -- whose standpoint you are adopting -- and then you proceed to figure out what is going on in terms of translocal coordination of activities to produce those features of local experience that matter to those at your starting point. Along the way you probably do detailed observation of or have detailed discussions with people about their work (understood broadly to mean any deliberate activity) as they actually do it. This will include not just those people at your starting point, who continue to provide the orientation for your inquiry, but also people at work in lots of different parts of the process you are learning about. And you read lots of texts, and thereby figure out how it all fits together.

Institutional Ethnography serves as a convenient, clearly written, one-stop method for understanding IE, with plenty of guidance towards earlier writings by Smith and others which go into greater depth on specific topics. Smith's writing can be dense but it is usually quite clear, and the occasional glint of humour shows through.

I am not a sociologist, at least not in any sense that those who have the blessing of the discipline to apply the label to themselves would recognize. At the same time, the general interest sparked by Writing the Social and its more active application to politics in Sociology for Changing the World would have been enough to light within me at least a certain level of passive interest in reading Institutional Ethnography, simply because of the relevance that I find in IE to thinking about activism and about any kind of writing or theorizing related to activism. I also, in the last few weeks, have begun auditing a sociology course at the local university for which this is a source of a few supplementary readings, though I actually ordered the book a couple of months prior to any hint that I might be doing so and only received it recently.

Probably the most immediate reason for moving it from my ever-growing passive to-read list and on to the list of books that I am actually likely to read in a reasonable amount of time was because of feedback on a draft of the Introduction to my book-in-progress that I received last spring. In the way that I am approaching history in that work, as I have briefly described before, one of the concepts that I am making use of that is alien to conventional history is the idea of standpoint. The term was originally coined by feminist theorist of science Sandra Harding in reference to the work of a number of women in the social sciences, including Dorothy Smith. When I wrote the version of the Intro that was the subject of feedback in the spring, I did not understand that there have been multiple approaches to theorizing and applying the idea of standpoint, and the feedback suggested making use of things that Smith has written on the subject. My current understanding is that there are at least three different major approaches: seeing standpoint as being an almost (or even in some cases actually) essentialist attribute of individuals most crucially centred on gender and giving one access to certain kinds of truth about the world; seeing standpoint as being a lot less stable than the first version and constructed via a wide range of experiences of privilege and oppression but still treating it as an attribute of individuals; and, finally, the IE approach, which involves treating standpoint as a shared space constructed by dialogue which focuses on understanding what is important about the socially produced experience of the group in question via that dialogue as a basis for directing social inquiry and social change. I may be simplifying and vulgarizing, but I think I've caught the gist of them. The middle of the three is the one that has been closest to the de facto use of the term that I have developed through reading and writing and doing that tries to be informed by anti-oppression analysis but I have never encountered a formal construction of that position in quite those terms (though I have a feeling the place to go would be woman of colour feminists). Reading this book has certainly helped me deepen my understanding of the differences among theories of standpoint, particluarly Smith's unique approach which refuses to assign it as an attribute of individuals and instead insists that it is most usefully understood as a socially produced space.

I still have reservations about Smith's approach to standpoint, simply because it seems to me that while it is very useful in producing the kinds of research she wishes to produce, it does not provide sufficient guidance to researchers. It still seems to me that some kind of analytical category related to the sedimented impacts of an individual's history of experience of privilege and oppression on that individual's ways of knowing and being and doing (i.e. my functional understanding of "standpoint") is important in helping said individual make decisions about her or his own engagement in political activity and research in the social world -- in other words, how you participate in the shared space that is standpoint in Smith's formulation depends in part on your standpoint as I have historically understood it. In terms of my work, I think there are elements of all three approaches to standpoint that are reflected, and I do not feel particularly pressured to come up with a final, coherent, comprehensive theory of standpoint for that purpose (though I'm thinking I could write a pretty interesting essay on the subject if I wanted to take the time to read another half dozen books or so of theory, which, alas, I don't think I can afford right now).

Another attribute of the overall approach that is institutional ethnography is that it feels, at least as Smith describes it, to be a bit pessmistic about the possibilities for radical social change even as it provides insights of great practical use for those of us who want to create exactly that. The subset of IE known as political activist ethnography (PAE) applies its theorization of the social and its methods specifically to moments of confrontation between social movements and ruling regimes, rather than more broadly to the everydays of oppressed people as IE does. In my class the other night, someone asked about the disctinction between PAE and IE, and wondered if it might map in some rough way onto the old divide between revolution and reform. The professor did conced that, over time, Smith herself has become less optimistic about the possibilities for radical social change. Certainly making the transition from seeing (for example) capitalism as a featureless blob that is the respository of all evil and that we just need to (abstractly) destroy and replace, towards an understanding of how ruling relations and capitalist social relations are actually put together and what would be needed in practical terms to transform them, can be a bit daunting even if it is absolutely necessary to effecting that transformation rather than just engaging in pseudo-radical posturing. At the same time, after some reflection, I think mapping PAE and IE onto the old revolution/reform divide -- a way of conceptualizing change I have always thought to be silly -- is a mistake, and in some ways it replicates a common mistake of privileged activists. PAE applies its investigation exclusively to moments of active, collective, public confrontation, and that is absolutely vital. However, I would argue that the insights of IE are just as crucial to creating the details of a better tomorrow: it is easy to see the confrontational moments as the only things that matter when you are a privileged activist whose engagement with oppression is episodic and mainly via such moments, whereas what I have learned over the years from activists who experience the impact of oppressive social relations in North America most directly is that the everyday must never, never, never be written off as an important field for struggle.

This is a book well worth reading. It is the place to start for understanding institutional ethnography, and the place to get a firm grounding in the crucial basics of the approach even if you are more actively interested in political activist ethnography. Even as I move forward to exploring the world both through my direct experience and through texts (always lots of those!) there are certain core concepts from the stream within my reading of which Institutional Ethnography is the latest that I will definitely carry with me and seek to build upon.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Jay Taber said...

Your post teminded me of the phrase "habitual opinions." Indian Country Today online currently has an interview with John Trudell that you might find interesting.

Scott Neigh said...

Thanks for the pointer...I actually stumbled across that interview a couple of days ago but it was at a point when I didn't have time to stop and really read it. I will make a point of doing so now!

Anonymous said...

"Clearly written" ?? Some of the sentences are so long it's impossible to figure them out without getting a headache.