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Thesis Shock: Dialogando Conmigo

Middle of July Tuneup

Overwhelmed by a Spanish Title

Some time ago a student at the University of Sevilla, Luis Muñón Villalon, flew a friendly email my way. He was using my work in his thesis and wondered about a couple of things. The things he was wondering about were things I have wondered about for a long time, so we corresponded for a bit.

I just received an email from him. He completed his thesis and received a score of 10 – out of 10, I imagine, since he also received honors for his work. On the elegant cover, reproduced above, was the title of his thesis, "Dialogando Con Agar." Good lord, a thesis that is a dialogue with me? Shouldn't we do dinner first?

When someone tells me that my work helped them with their own, there is no higher honor in my book of compliments. But I've never been the title and focus of a thesis. My first reaction was embarrassment, because of my 1950s black-and-white cowboy movie socialization where the hero never takes credit for anything. But of course I had to read the thing right away.

It's a fine piece of work, in ways that have nothing to do with my ego involvement in it. And I have no plan to recapitulate in this blog all of what Luis did, or all of what I did that he used. You can read the thesis for yourself at https:/​/​​file/​view/​MUÑOZ%20VILLALON.%20Dialogando%20con%20Agar.%20TFG2015_16%20R.pdf/​586928479/​MUÑOZ%20VILLALON.%20Dialogando%20con%20Agar.%20TFG2015_16%20R.pdf. It's in Spanish of course. But I thought it'd be fun, if a little embarrassing for an old guy who’s supposedly seen it all, to write something about what I eventually thought of as “receiving a Spanish title.”

As I started in, it felt like an out-of-body experience. Luis had reviewed work from the early 1980s up to the present. I can't remember where I left my cell phone an hour ago, never mind what I wrote in 1980. As I continued reading with my medium-rare Spanish, I worried that I would feel like I was driving by an elaborate highway accident – my collected works – with the usual shock and horror at the catastrophic damage. But no, he put my work – together with the work of many others and his own creative intelligence – to good use in solving the problem with which he began.

Here was the problem. Ordinarily, anthropology students produce an ethnographic case study to get their union card. Instead of doing that, Luis convinced his committee that he wanted to think about just what an "ethnographic case study" was before he did one. Since I've obsessed about this very question over the decades it made sense for him to use my work, not as an answer to his question, but as opening moves in the same language game that he wanted to play. In a perfect world, he would've been a student at a University where I was on the faculty so we might have continued the game over a longer period of time.

I was more or less forced into the problem because of the Vietnam War when I was assigned to be the lone anthropologist at a treatment center for narcotics addicts. Suddenly all shared vocabulary built up inside the anthropological academic cave was null and void. What I did there looked – to staff who, if they thought about anthropology at all, mentioned Indiana Jones and Carlos Castaneda – suspiciously like a mix of bad journalism and goofing off. Oh, really, it wasn't that? Then what in the hell was it? I wrote several different kinds of things over the decades shaped by different historical moments that tried to answer the question.

I did get divided into Agar One and Agar Two, the boundary being before and after the work I did on complexity theory that began in the late 1990s. I was happy about that. It's an old academic trick – when a particular figure X in the social sciences is being discussed and someone asks you about them and you really have no idea what X said, you just ask, "Do you mean early X or late X?" So now I could say, do you mean Agar One or Agar Two? Luis developed threads of continuity between one and two but also noticed that references to anthropological and other social science literature appeared only on the horizon in the agar two era. He was right. I wondered why.

By the late 1990s I had left my university position and started working independently, often in nonacademic settings. The usual French theoretical gremlins were the dominant force at the time – still are. Luis draws on them frequently in his thesis. And I could write another blog about some of the quotes he includes from colleagues in Spanish anthropology whose work I wasn't aware of. It's definitely “in” to talk about world anthropology now, but there's this languaculture problem that no one has figured out, Google Translate to the contrary notwithstanding.

I was pretty happy with the shift to complexity theory for many reasons that go beyond the limits of this blog. One important reason was, it represented the issues that I needed to talk about in the so-called real world in a way that was easier to explain to the various mixes of non-social science academics and practitioners and just plain folks that I was dealing with. If you have to start your work with background lectures on “habitus” and “doxa” and “symbolic capital,” you're going to leave a trail of annoyance, confusion, and a desire to get the fathead who has launched a monologue out of the room. Bourdieu – one well-known and popular example who is the source of those terms – is sufficient but not necessary to get the job done. Complexity is also sufficient and works better in intellectually diverse organizational teams where conversational norms are in play.

So I started paying more attention to the literature on organizational complexity rather than current debates in social theory, for better or for worse. I guess it showed, but it was good to see – according to Luis’ overview – that I had carried the same issues forward rather than using complexity to ignore them.

Another interesting jolt to me in the “Dialogo” had to do with the concept of reflexivity. It is key for Luis and neglected by me. He does a great job of talking about the many things that the concept has been taken to mean in social theory, one reason I neglect it. And he shows how some things I wrote aim in the right general direction to help him get where he needed to go.

It made me think. I've never been comfortable with the concept, though I don't have anything better to offer. For a long time I've been fond of saying "You are part of the data." And I've used Habermas’ concept of “Erkenntnisinteresse” to foreground the human, economic and political interests involved in a piece of social research. Lately I’ve tossed around the notion of "intersubjective science" by way of rendering the objective/​subjective argument moot.

But none of this handles the problem that Luis is trying to solve. He wants a systematic way to include the ethnographer in his compass of how ethnography works. And he finds it, using many sources, of course, but also by figuring out what "breakdowns" and "rich points" and "abduction" and “recursion” and other concepts I've used over the years have to do with each other. I won't review all that here. But the main move in the game is, what he wants to call "reflexivity" isn't a separate issue; it can't be isolated from the more general question he asks. Reflexivity is implicit in everything that the ethnographer does, its relevant parts made visible throughout the ethnographic process. The "compass" that he builds for his future research has to include it, otherwise the compass wouldn't have a needle.

I like this move in the language game, but then I would. Lately I've been using the term "self reference" to summarize the old homily that "you are part of the data." That concept carries some ideas from linguistics, computer science, and mathematics that help understand the nonlinearity and paradoxes of ethnographic research. The version of "reflexive" that Luis is developing makes sense, though I'm still not completely clear about it, and I'll be curious to see how it works out as he develops his research.

Well, as Bette Midler supposedly said, "Enough about me. Let's talk about you. How do you like my new hairdo?" I don't mean this blog either as a review of Luis’ thesis or as a summary of my own work. Overall, I think he took some of the latter and moved it towards places that it didn't quite arrive at. I wrote this blog to enjoy the shock of being "titled." As Forster said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Luis gave me a different point of view on what I said and helped me see new moves in the epistemological language game we both enjoy. Reading it was good brain food for one of the farmers who provided a few of the ingredients.

I leave this blog with a quote from the conclusion of his thesis for those who read Spanish. Even given my self-interest (because of self reference) I agree that he deserved a 10 with honors.

Para cumplir estos objetivos, y en relación con los objetivos generales de este TFG, dos han sido por tanto las líneas argumentales seguidas. Por un lado, la profundización en el lenguaje etnográfico propuesto por Agar, además de una revisión epistemológica y metodológica en constante diálogo con él; por otro lado, y en relación con lo anterior, una argumentación epistemológica-metodológica que se nutre de la hermenéutica, sin quedarse atrapada en ella. Centralidad del lenguaje etnográfico construido a partir de Agar, retomando la necesidad a la que él hacía referencia en el final de su artículo y que escogí como primera cita del TFG: “La hermenéutica define un contexto para la etnografía que se ocupa de la significación. Pero la aplicación, la modificación y una especificación más precisa son problema nuestro” (Agar, 2008[1982]:137). 

Life is interesting.

Selected Works

Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography