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  • Ethnography as Ethics and Epistemology:Why American Studies Should Embrace Fieldwork, and Why it Hasn’t
  • Jane Desmond (bio)

In the US American Studies scholarly community, the last thirty years have produced significant changes: changes in the demographics of our practitioners that are marked by the rise of women and members of US minority groups (racial, sexual, and ethnic) to the highest levels of leadership in the American Studies Association (ASA) and the move of scholarship addressing racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual issues to the center of the field. New specialties have emerged to appear on the programs at conferences, too, including disability, performance, and border studies, and there has been a passionate embrace of popular culture as well. A concern with social class remains present, more often invoked than investigated, but it is still part of our scholarly concerns. More slowly, an acknowledgement of the transnational dimensions of US lives and of scholarship regarding the United States produced outside the United States is emerging.

Methodologically and theoretically, our work has changed too: myth and symbol studies have given way to work influenced by (among others) feminist theories, critical race studies, cultural studies, the new historicism, deconstruction, sexuality studies, poststructuralism, and postnationalist, postcolonial, and transnationalist concerns.

What we haven’t done is move substantially closer to the social sciences. For all the invocation of American Studies as an interdisciplinary field/method/discipline/antidiscipline (fill in the blank) in the United States, it remains [End Page 27] deeply social historical and literary, even if the notion of a literary text has been stretched to include comic books, films, fashion, even sport. It is interdisciplinary, yes, but within a restricted yet unarticulated and largely unexamined scope of allowability—within the humanities.1 It hasn’t always been this way. The unique legacy of the now-defunct program in American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania long stood for excellence in integrating social science and humanistic approaches. But this model never became the dominant one. It is time for a rigorous reconsideration of this issue.

In this article, I argue that we should actively restructure our research, training practices, and institutional formations to more fully integrate the qualitative social sciences, and especially ethnography, into our work. To do so will not only enlarge our constituencies and readerships, but also enable us to better investigate key issues close to the epistemological and political heart of so much American Studies work: the ways in which social hierarchies and social formations shape and are shaped by the lived experiences of those living in or engaging with the United States as a geopolitical entity or cultural imaginary. I hope to help generate a substantial debate within our field about why ethnography is not a central or even defining practice in American Studies scholarship, although some scholars and some programs are supporting this trend and its institutionalization. What intellectual and field formation legacies might have kept it from becoming central? How might we work intellectually and institutionally to change that, as I think we should?

To persuasively make a case for this transformation within American Studies, I must do several things. First, I want to demonstrate and document the startling degree to which such an absence actually exists in arenas such as publishing and training explicitly denoted as part of the contemporary American Studies scholarly community. I will then consider some of the reasons why this absence might still prevail twenty-five years after John Caughey first called on us in the pages of the American Quarterly (AQ) to move in that direction.2 Second, I want to argue explicitly for what can be gained by investing our time, intellectual energy, financial resources, and institutional priorities to make the social sciences, and especially ethnography, more central to our practices. I will suggest that ethnography, as a research practice that demands we engage with communities and actually talk to people about their lives, is both ethically and epistemologically well-aligned with the priorities of American Studies. And finally, I want to consider some of the ways we might approach this transformation, including noting some exciting emergent practices, particularly at New York University (NYU) and University of Southern California (USC...


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pp. 27-56
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