I’m a qualitative sociologist, so most of my work is carefully considering interviews, images, texts, and the experiences I’ve had at a field site. Yet I reject the dichotomy that insists this approach makes me altogether different from those who mostly study numbers: we’re all in the business of interpretation, and, more importantly, we’re all in the business of figuring out the relationships between psychological, social, and institutional processes. I’m also not convinced I’m that different from anthropologists, political scientists, or even psychologists: in my reading across the social sciences, many of us are asking similar questions and using similar methods to get at the answers. Of course, that similarity extends beyond the social sciences into the humanities. Some of my biggest influences are from philosophy, literary criticism, religious studies, and history.
All of which is to say that I read quite widely in the hope of finding fellow travelers, and that wide reading affects the way I research. I didn’t realize what I was doing was “abductive analysis” until I discovered this useful article, but I did know that I couldn’t just build theory from the ground up, and I also couldn’t try to force a theory into data that just didn’t fit. I’ve found it useful to think of my wide reading as the assemblage of a theoretical toolkit that I can apply to situations as needed. Yet to argue I’m assembling a toolkit isn’t to imply that I’m not, in some sense, trying to build a coherent and cohesive theoretical vision. It’s simply to say that the world is a complicated place, and I’d rather err on the side of enlarging that vision than shrinking my theory or data to fit it.
Yet perhaps more important than the question about theoretical parsimony vs. empirical applicability is the much broader question central to any social scientist, but particularly an ethnographer: are we telling stories or creating theories? That’s obviously a false dichotomy as well, yet most ethnographers I know definitely choose to go in one direction or the other. The question relates to another: to whom are we writing? Do we write dense theoretical arguments only our colleagues can understand, or do we we write approachable narratives that might not make as significant of an academic contribution? If I were forced to choose, I would say I’m a theorist before I’m a storyteller, but I take the narrative impetus of ethnography quite seriously, and, more importantly, I think it’s precisely through an ethnographer’s attention to the stuff of narratives (the places and the people, the gossip and the goals) that we gain the data to make any theory at all. It’s important to me to tell good stories as well as to create good theories, not only because I want my writing to be approachable (even, dare I dream, pleasurable) but also because I take seriously the trust my respondents have given me to talk about them, to use their stories not only to create arguments but also to create a bigger story about these people I met and what they’re trying to do.