As you can guess from this post’s title, this week’s two readings inspired me to question the necessity of fieldwork. Kiri Miller’s article applies itself to an English-speaking culture of which she is a part. While her two x chromosomes and two graduate degrees might seem to place her outside of Grand Theft Auto‘s target audience, it would be sexist and classist to assert this as a fact. Furthermore, Kiri’s informants serve mostly to back up her points. Her fieldwork (beyond playing the game) adds little to her scholarship.
Harris Berger’s article also deals strangely with the question of fieldwork. Berger writes,
I had looked to fieldwork to acknowledge the suppressed and disparaged cultural difference of American popular musicians, but the new ethnography warned about the tendency to reify difference and exoticize others. The new ethnographers didn’t urge us to abandon fieldwork, but to be more reflexive and dialogic in our ethnographic practices. This came as a relief as I began to read the 1980s cultural studies scholarship on popular music.[…]A still developing literature, cultural studies was important in that it drew attention to the role of power relations in music and acknowledged the importance of popular culture as an object of study. However, much of this work seemed to have no concern for the experiences of the people who made and listened to the music and treated them as ideological dupes enacting cultural scripts. The old ethnography may have had its problems, but this new anti-ethnographic cultural studies seemed elitist and dismissive. (Berger, 66-7)
Unfortunately, Berger’s argument against “cultural studies” scholars does nothing but “reify difference.” Berger sets up a false dichotomy between the scholars and those (perhaps even “exoticized others”) “who…listened to the music.” The word “elitist” is particularly problematic, as Nitsuh Abebe shows in this post:
And something I’ve noticed, over the past many years of talking about culture on the internet, is that this privilege that’s being deplored actually tends to come from the people who are deploring it. They are conferring the very privilege they rail against. This doesn’t negate the complaint, or anything, but it’s an interesting wrinkle: sometimes the difference between a niche and an elite isn’t real power, it’s the fact that you respect the thing, you think the thing is important enough to consider it elite instead of dismissing it as a niche.
You can only call someone “elitist” if you think they’re part of an elite. It is hard to identify from Berger’s article any legitimate problems unique to either “new” ethnographers or cultural studies practitioners. Thus his attempt to create a flawless synthesis comes across as equal parts pointless and fruitless.
I’ll admit that I didn’t understand most of what Berger had to say about “phenomenology.” But what I did understand seemed so obvious as to not merit writing. E.g., “Husserl argued that to address the basic issues of Western philosophy, one must set aside speculative theorizing and ground one’s arguments on the only thing we have for certain — our experiences (68).” This is sensible (I’ve been known to criticize “speculative theorizing” myself) — so sensible, in fact, that ethnographers have been doing it ever since they abandoned their armchairs for the field. Not to mention that anyone who limits her studies to music (as opposed to “philosophy,” “culture,” or “theory”) has already grounded her arguments in a specific type of experience.
Of Berger’s “Three Tenets for Phenomenological Ethnography,” the first two amount to the same thing Berger claims to have learned from folklorists (before encountering Phenomenology): “practices of production and reception are one’s proper study object (65).” The third tenet is so obvious as to need no stating: “phenomenological ethnographers seek to partially share the meanings that their research participants find in social life (72).” Berger ends up with a “phenomenological ethnography” that looks no different from the normal kind. (Side note: which “-logical” were people objecting to in the last class? “Ontological”‘s my peeve, but “phenomenological”‘s almost as bad.)
What are the results of Berger’s phenomenological ethnography?
Respecting my research participants enough to engage them in a critical dialogue paid off, and the metalheads’ responses offered a realm of ethnographic insights. They made it clear that they were aware of the difficulties that they faced in deindustrialized America, and they depicted their music as a form of emotional exploration and a way of confronting the stultifications of daily life in a hostile world. A good show didn’t ventilate tensions and leave the person in a serene, apathetic state, they said; it removed the emotional stumbling blocks placed there by a hostile world. I would not have discovered this interpretation without engaging in critical dialogue. (74)
It would be unfair to ask Berger to summarize the results of his fieldwork in two sentences. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try to do a good job of it. As far as I can understand the third sentence above, it translates to “Music doesn’t cure life’s ills, but it can improve your mood.” I’m sorry. Seriously. WTF is an “emotional stumbling block”? And how many interviews did Berger need to come to this uninteresting conclusion?
After writing this post, I think it’s more important to keep the practices of ethnography and cultural studies separate while allowing the fields to mingle. Musicologists should feel free to use ethnographic fieldwork when it provides an interesting interpretation, but shouldn’t feel obligated to use it when it doesn’t.