Monday, September 13, 2010

The Ethnography of Cake

This is my cake approach to the ethnographical study of a text.

In Linguistics you can spend a lot of time counting items. Which is okay and fun and is why I think highlighters should be tax deductable for linguists. But if all you do is count them then it's like telling me how many eggs there are in a cake. That doesn't tell me what sort of cake it is.

There's many things to take into account:

This is the counting bit. How many eggs? How much flour? How much milk? And so, equally, how many nominalisations? What types of processes? And so on. But if you just give me eggs and flour and milk, that doesn't make a cake. Similarly, nominalisations and material processes don't make a text by themselves.

If you look closely at a cake all you see is crumbs and icing. So while it is interesting to look closely at a tiny bit of a text, it is important to look at the big picture and take it all into consideration.

This is fairly obviously analogous for method. How did this text come about? How was it written? Multiple drafts or one quickly written version?

You need to take into consideration the social conditions in which a text was formed.

If you tell me all the ingredients, I might be able to tell what sort of cake it is, but that wouldn't necessarily tell me the social purpose of the cake. And the social purpose of a text is also important. Does it qualify people for a job? Does it give instructions? Does it renew a relationship?

Also important are the participants. Who made the cake? And did they make it/buy it for someone else? Does that person actually hate cake but ate it anyway? Similarly the writer and audience of a text are important to take into consideration.

It's quaint and trivial, but every now and then I remember it and it helps. Even while writing this I remember that while I'm looking at excerpts of my data at the moment (because it is too much to do analysis of the whole texts), I still need to check my results against the greater text, and draw conclusions on what this means. This can be hard because as a student I basically need some external authority to qualify my conclusions, which can be very difficult when nobody's talking about the exact feature you're looking at, but that's a whinge for another day.

So whenever I hear a presentation or read an article in which the researcher has just counted features of a text, I think (and sometimes mutter) they're just counting eggs. Tell me that the eggs make the cake inappropriate for vegan consumption! Tell me that this textual characteristic indicates a particular epistemology or perspective of the world! The ethnographic perspective requires looking at the big picture and the close up and understanding that just as the point to a cake is that somebody eats it, the point to a text is that somebody reads it.

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