George Eliot, Middlemarch and ethnography

Can the fiction that George Eliot wrote be thought of as a kind of ethnography? And, if so, what implicit lessons might her work have for academic ethnographers?

These are questions raised for me by two texts I’ve recently read, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (read over three weeks of the summer break) and an article called ‘Ethnography: problems and prospects’ (read this morning).

Middlemarch is a wonderful book. Through reading it, I

  1. learnt more about the wider social and political contexts, in particular about class and gender relations, the background and intent of the Reform Bills, the impact of the coming of the railways.
  2. learnt more smaller contexts, such as the nature of life in a particular rural village which, although fictionalised, was clearly informed by knowledge of existing towns and villages
  3. reflected freshly on the nature of human desires, idealism, selfishness, solipsism, relationships, vicissitudes, and in particular about the co-existence of ethics based on aesthetics and duty
  4. was reminded of the way human events and relationships are shaped by both conscious and unconscious motivations and impulses, and how these are affected by, and affect, the bigger context (whether that’s a relationship, a community or a nation).
  5. thought about the possibilities that a member of a marginalised group (Eliot as a women) could have an impact beyond that assumed was possible, given contemporary notions about the distribution of intelligence, capacity and duty.
  6. contrasted the previous insight with the concluding thought about one of the novel’s main characters, who, Eliot wrote, ‘Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, thought they were not widely visible. Her full nature like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are no so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tomb.’

The novel, in other words, engaged, informed and moved me. It had an impact.

The article on ethnography has, as its largely unstated assumption, the idea that ethnography – the study of the world through some kind of participation in the lives of human beings – involves the pursuit of some version of objective truth about what is being studied, and is a theoretically-neutral technique. The article traces tensions and differences between various groups of ethnographers, but rejects the idea that ethnography’s aim is just to tell one version of many possible truths. The author rejects the point of view

… that the choice of context by ethnographers is necessarily arbitrary, in the sense that a host of different stories could be told about any situation, each one placing it in a different temporal and spatial context. From this perspective, ethnography is simply one means among others for telling stories about the social world, stories that need not be seen as competitive in epistemic terms. Of course, given this orientation, there would be a puzzle as to why anyone would go to the trouble of engaging in ethnographic fieldwork. Why not just write fiction in the manner of novelists and short story writers? (pp7-8)

Yes indeed, why not, especially given what surely our experience (and novels like Middlemarch) tell us: that truth is an elusive and many-sided beast, experienced quite differently depending on the background and vantage point of the viewer.

How important it is, then, to represent the world in more complex ways, with many possible meanings present and possible.

How much more likely such ethnography (fictional or not) will engage, inform and move.

How much higher its potential impact factor!

 ________________________________

 (Martyn Hammersley (2006) Ethnography: problems and prospects, Ethnography and Education, 1:1, 3-14, DOI: 10.1080/17457820500512697) in which the author

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