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Saturday, May 13, 2023

Fact Checking Ethnographies (or Anything Else)

My essay on fact checking ethnographies has been posted on the American Sociological Association's Contexts Blog. It derives from some research I had left over from Interrogating Ethnography, which I came across when clearing out some post-retirement files. The piece is basically an example of how to use documentation and circumstantial evidence to evaluate questionable claims and assertions.

Here is the gist:

The author’s field site was a university cafeteria, where they obtained a job in order to observe staff and customers. After some weeks, it occurred to the author that many of the mostly African American employees could barely read. Some workers even had trouble with the timecards because their names were written in cursive, which, according to the author, a significant number of employees could not recognize.

Could there actually be such a significant number of people in the 21st century United States who could not recognize their own names?

I could not go back in time to the author’s research site, but there were other ways to evaluate the reading claim. I surveyed the cafeteria workforce at a similarly located university, to see if there was even one person who fit the author’s description. I also contacted literacy organizations and reviewed national studies to determine the prevalence, if any, of such profound reading deficits among employed adult Americans. 

The ethnography’s editors, at a leading university press, evidently made no effort to confirm the inability of the workers to read their own names. The author presented this observation as a meaningful discovery, which is not unusual in urban ethnographies that prize unexpected findings, with an incentive to interpret ordinary events in novel ways.

Upon examination, however, such claims often fall apart under scrutiny.

The essay is not paywalled. You can read it here.

Posted by Steve Lubet on May 13, 2023 at 05:35 AM | Permalink


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