Industrial-Scale Ethnography: An Unfinished Project in Search of a Team

I have been invited to give a talk on March 13 at the Institute of Technology, Academia Sinica, in Taiwan, where, it appears, I am now regarded as an anthropological elder. Fair enough, given my age and the fact that my dissertation research was conducted in Puli, a market town in the exact center of Taiwan, in 1969-1971. Trying to pull together my thoughts about what I might talk about, I have drafted the following proposal. Any and all feedback will be appreciated.


This paper begins with a remark from Clifford Geertz, who observes that while anthropologists discover insights in microscopic settings, they cannot be validated there. Their value will be determined in larger conversations. The usual alternative is what, adapting another concept from Geertz, I label “Ethnographic involution,” the study of smaller and smaller topics, impoverishing anthropology as a whole.

This paper suggests another possibility. It describes three encounters with very large topics, and three responses to them. The thread that connects these projects is the inspiration provided by the Manchester School case method, embodied in the work of Victor Turner. All three grew out of efforts to follow Turner’s model: (1) begin with social structure, (2) examine social dramas, (3) closely examine the symbols in which conceptual conflicts and contradictions are linked to emotionally charged sensory experience.

The first was in Puli, where the author conducted his first fieldwork, intending to study Chinese religion and ritual, and found himself overwhelmed by the richness and complexity of what he discovered. Forced to be selective, he was given a unique opportunity and isolated the topic of what became his dissertation.

The second is a book about Japanese consumer behavior that rejects the stereotyping implicit in arguments about “the Japanese.”Adopting an approach that might be labeled “piggy-back” ethnography, it draws on the free-wheeling research conducted by advertising agency think tank. The anthropologist’s collaborators, his key informants, are the think tank’s researchers. The artifacts examined are examples of an internal newsletter that presents the results of their research. The symbolism analyzed is that of the words and imagery found in that newsletter.

The third is a new project, announced in 2008, and still underway. This project combines social network analysis of credits data from a major advertising annual, ethnographic interviews with key industry figures identified by that analysis, and historical research using the wealth of data provided by the Japanese advertising industry’s trade press. So far, the results are interesting, but the lesson is clear. This project is far too large for a single, independent scholar, working on his own, to complete.

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