Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

critical or applied ethnography?

September 17th, 2005

As I’ve been reading the new chapter, Ethnography Reconstructed, that Michael Agar added to the new edition of his text, The Professional Stranger, I was reminded of the discussions I had with some EuroParl interpreters regarding journalism and research. The question, as I’m revisiting it now, was clearly about concerns regarding what I would actually do with the data. Several interpreters were concerned with misrepresentation, having what they said taken out of context. A few had had bad experiences with the press and were even more wary. Some just wanted to be clear that I was not a journalist because interpreters are professionally proscribed from speaking to journalists about their work.
The question of what I am ‘going to do’ with all those hours of audiotaped interviews and notes is serious. I don’t know if the question of journalism/research was a mirror or parallel for the question of critical or applied, but it is obvious to me now that I’ve been a bit confused about the differences between these two modes and need to gain clarity and make some decisions pretty darn fast.


It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that I lean to a critical mode, always interested in the presence and application of power, asking the question not only what is, but “what could be” (Thomas, Doing Critical Ethnography, 1993:4, in Agar, p. 27). BUT, I think there are serious problems with a critical approach that is premised on an automatic assumption that, as Agar succinctly puts it, “Capital – especially ‘transnational’ capitalism – is evil, period” (23). I like how he describes his own conflicted take: “it’s partly true most of the time, and completely true some of the time” (23). Yet, there are also times, places, and spaces when capitalism isn’t evil – when it serves ‘the people’ broadly-construed, and not just (always and only) the elite.
So perhaps my views have matured. I certainly have usually approached hierarchical situations with suspicion and a tendency to distrust persons in positions of authority. I’m much more interested now in what is probably characterizable as a pragmatic approach. How can what is learnable from interpreter discourse be applied in constructive ways to further both the larger macrosocial aims of the European Union and improve conditions and communication in the daily activities of delegates, staff, and interpreters trying to do their work? Agar argues that applied ethnographers accept a wider range of ideologies than critical ethnographers, contrasting them in this way: “Critical ethnographers . . . take as their focus the way affluent interests oppress ordinary folks. An applied ethnographer . . . might work with those affluent interests with the goal of introducing folks’ voices into the pool of officially sanctioned ‘knowledge.'” (29).
This latter is my agenda. While I don’t want to pull any punches on the ways power perpetuates itself at the expense of those with less, I’m not interested in any kind of knock-out blow. I’d like to get some attention focused on the insights, suggestions, and critiques that interpreters have of communication processes within the EU legislative structure so that weaknesses and inequities can be addressed. I believe this will improve working conditions for everyone, enhance multilingual communication systems and decision-making, and therefore generate some foundational preconditions that can help yield a stronger European Union. By stronger, I mean one that operates in practice according to its stated vision of multilingual democracy.

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One Response to “critical or applied ethnography?”

  1. annmariesauer Tumbleweed says:

    Why can’t you do both? By all means be pragmatic and look and listen to what the ep interpreters had to say, but keep the powerstructure in mind; Those who were talking to you might have practical feelings about but no theoretical insight into the power. An outside “agent” might do a good job of consciousness raising. I fail to see the opposition between both modes if the critical is applied last. Maybe I am too tired and dense… Take care!

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