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Abstract

In some respects, the decade of the 1990s was an anachronism even in its own times. The crossed preoccupations with "posts" (postmodern, postcolonial, postindustrial, post-Marxist, among others) and "precedents" (the impending millennium) made it paradoxically easy to miss the moment. The debates over constructionist and interpretivist approaches to ethnography and the cultural analysis of texts makes a case in point. Such theories gained widespread acceptance in the humanities and social sciences in the 1980s and 1990s (if always as counter-canons), but they never worked free of the persistent criticism that they lacked attention to power. What and where was this "lack"? In this Essay, I will suggest that it was not in the method, but in the object of inquiry - the public sphere - as the civil rights era yielded to neoliberalism, and as the lines of confrontation took form, as both partisan divisions within the federal government and competition among the branches. Advocates and critics of constructionism and interpretivism alike took for granted these pragmatic circumstances; however, a reflexive analysis of interpretivism reveals assumptions about realism and readership (among other things) specific to the politics of that time and place. Interpretivism's power for projects of cultural critique is a power of association with the textual genres, tropes, and institutional practices of legal activism and citizens' movements of the previous generation - the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. This remains part of their power, but in the places in the United States where ethnographers work, the law has moved on, and its power is recognizable in interpretative ethnography primarily in traces of that association, which are evident as nostalgia, irony, and allegory, among other things.

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