LINGUIST List 32.2373

Wed Jul 14 2021

Review: Anthropological Linguistics: Blommaert, Dong (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <jecoburnlinguistlist.org>



Date: 16-Jan-2021
From: Manuela Vida-Mannl <manuela.vidamannltu-dortmund.de>
Subject: Ethnographic Fieldwork (2nd edition)
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Book announced at https://linguistlist.org/issues/31/31-2471.html

AUTHOR: Jan Blommaert
AUTHOR: Jie Dong
TITLE: Ethnographic Fieldwork (2nd edition)
SUBTITLE: A Beginner's Guide
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Manuela Vida-Mannl, Technische Universität Dortmund

SUMMARY

The second edition of ''Ethnographic Fieldwork: A beginner’s guide'', by Jan Blommaert and Dong Jie, is a practical guide on how to plan and enact ethnographic fieldwork. Similar to the first edition, this edition is aimed at students who are at the beginning of their research journey. The book is divided into three focus areas: a theoretical part (Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 1-15), an assessment of ethnographic fieldwork (Chapters 3-6, pp. 16-85), and a postscript (Chapter 7, pp. 86-98) which focuses on the increasing digitalization of research fields and, according to the authors, constitutes the main difference between the first and the second edition. Each chapter ends with a recommendation of additional readings.

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-3) provides the reader with the aim of the book, which is “providing some general suggestions […] at demarcating a space in which what we do can be called ‘research’.” (p. 1), an outline, and an overview of the following chapters. Chapter 2 (pp. 4-15) is the heart of the theoretical part of the book, as it assesses the scientific tradition of ethnography. The authors offer a comprehensive but compact overview of the history, the roots, and some key aspects of ethnography, focusing especially on its ontological and epistemic level. They stress the anthropological roots of the field and the potential insight an ethnographic perspective offers when the target of its implementation is not a “simplification and reduction of complexity” (p. 11) but approaches language as a situated, complex, and messy social action. The chapter ends with a summarizing discussion of why and how generalizability and representativeness of ethnographic data can and should (or should not) be achieved.

The second part of the book takes a more hands-on perspective and assesses ethnographic fieldwork. This elaboration is divided into “The Sequence 1: Prior to Fieldwork” (Chapter 3, pp. 16-23), “The Sequence 2: In the Field” (Chapter 4, pp. 24-61), and “The Sequence 3: After Fieldwork” (Chapter 5, pp. 62-83) and is followed by a conclusion (pp. 84-85). In Chapter 3, the authors describe why preparation before fieldwork is essential and unique for every project or topic. They claim ethnographically collected data, i.e., situated language use, to be understandable and relevant only within their micro- and macro-contexts. Rooted in this understanding, examples are provided as to how researchers should prepare, what information should be known, and which questions should be answered before departing for data collection.

In Chapter 4, the nature of working in the field and the demands it brings with it are described, while helpful and reassuring advice is offered. Blommaert and Dong use quite extensive descriptions of Dong’s experiences during fieldwork in Beijing to contextualize their elaborations. After reassuring the reader that all field trips start chaotic (at least to some degree) and that all fieldwork must be understood as a learning opportunity for researchers, the authors continue to present different ways of collecting different kinds of ethnographic data. In so doing, they present common misconceptions, such as attempting to observe everything or the tendency to perceive only recorded data as “real” data. When introducing ethnographic data collection, they differentiate between observing and collecting, and stress the importance of multiplicity, i.e., including recordings as well as, e.g., field notes and photographs. The final part of this chapter offers a helpful guide to conducting fruitful interviews and addresses some common mistakes that occur when interviews are perceived as “neutral information collection” rather than “interactive conversations”.

Chapter 5 is concerned with the tasks and challenges researchers face after returning from fieldwork. After confirming that the messiness of fieldwork is represented in messy data, the authors again reassure the reader of the importance of reflecting the complex reality of language use. They claim that research can never be “carried out in a ‘context-free’ manner” (p. 65) and, therefore, it and the collected data will always be subjective. Rather than ignoring this subjectivity and pretending to be objective, researchers should make use of it to question their interpretation of what they have observed and collected. Since interviews are a common data-elicitation method, the authors offer an overview of techniques and methods that might be useful during their transcription and analysis. Special focus is put on identifying structural units and patterns within created transcripts, as they are a means for going beyond the words and accessing the social contexts and relations of the narrative and/or the interviewee, something often implicitly given in the data although at the center of ethnography. Chapter 6 (pp. 84-85) marks the end of this part of the book and offers a summary of the key aspects introduced in Chapters 2-5.

Chapter 7 (pp. 86-98) has been added to the second edition to account for the increasing importance of digitalization and online activities. Blommaert and Dong reflect on this development and argue that aspects of (ethnographic) research that used to be unproblematic have become complex and noteworthy because of the increasing importance of the “online-word”. In assessing what the authors call “The Online-Offline Nexus” (p. 86), they focus on three main aspects of research: 1. What is observed?, 2. Who is involved?, and 3. Where is it observed?. Due to the difficulties of determining and the impossibility of truly controlling these parameters of research in an online setting, the authors argue that (ethnographic) research has to be adapted and further developed to continue to elicit relevant information. Rather than using less ethnography, because fieldwork has become more complex, they suggest using this tradition more to increase the understanding of dynamics.

EVALUATION

This book represents a down-to-earth summary of key issues in ethnographic research and offers helpful and practical advice for (beginning) researchers. Mixing anecdotes from their own research journeys with core literature, Jan Blommaert and Dong Jie have created an informative yet joyful read. The authors aim at providing an accessible starting point for researchers who are at the beginning of their ethnographic fieldwork, and are truly successful in achieving this. While the authors provide the reader with a very handy summary of the ethnographic tradition and its development, relying heavily on its well-known roots (cf. Blommaert 2001 for references and discussion), more recent assessments and work are missing. However, this is not necessarily needed, as the goal of the book is a practical rather than a theoretical one.

While the book at hand provides important information and considerations about fieldwork within the tradition of ethnography and beyond, its main achievement, in my opinion, is the reassurance it offers. Rather than pretending to know all the answers and to have found “the one right way” to do research, Blommaert and Dong confirm, e.g., that not understanding the situation and relations one finds oneself in may be part of the experience and is not necessarily a sign of lacking preparation. They stress that things rarely go as planned and chaos happens. Rather than teaching and lecturing junior researchers and students, who are likely to be the readers of this book, about their flaws, Blommaert and Dong include themselves as experienced researchers when addressing frequently occurring problems.

The authors have created a humorous, honest, reassuring, and heartfelt book that can help us to remember the true reasons we conduct research: our curiosity to understand and analyze complex interactions. Especially in times of social and academic pressure, of “routes” and schedules young researchers must follow to be “successful”, to enter the next phase of their career or to become visible, we read that chaos is normal, that one should enjoy small victories and be open to learning. This perspective has the potential to lift a huge weight from junior researchers and students. In not focusing on being preoccupied with details and necessities or on feeling the pressure for our fieldwork/research to be successful, the authors stress the importance of uniqueness and understanding rather than postulating uniformity. This book encourages beginner researchers to do meaningful research.

The positive mindset in which this book was rooted when first published is continued in its final chapter. The authors explain that, due to the increasing difficulties in determining and controlling even basic parameters of research in the digital age, ethnographic research—and all research really—has been aggravated. However, rather than dwelling on this hardship and finding reasons to limit their scope, Blommaert and Dong argue for more ethnographic research and more careful assessments of complex relations and messy reality. Rather than being overwhelmed by assessing and ordering the influence of digitalization, the authors happily declare that their work has become even more interesting. Despite minor shortcomings (i.e., dated literature), I enjoyed reading this book very much and would recommend it for beginning as well as experienced researchers; It might very well offer new or neglected perspectives for both groups.

REFERENCES

Blommaert, J. 2001. “Context is/as critique”. Critique of Anthropology, 21(1): 13-32.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Manuela Vida-Mannl is a post-doctoral researcher at TU Dortmund University, Germany. Her research foci include multilingualism, sociolinguistics, language acquisition, and the use of English in global settings. She is especially interested in the dynamics of (social & spatial) mobility and social stratification on Global North-Global South trajectories and is currently working on an investigation of these dynamics within multilingual settings in Cuba and Croatia.



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