Methodological hors d’oeuvre, II

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I have promised an ethnographic investigation into the “good life” in China and am still working out how such a promise should be delivered. Inevitably, this has led me to broach the question of knowledge, epistemology, and methodology, which can broadly be understood as the logos of knowledge-production.

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It was suggested in my second post that what we consider to constitute Knowledge is contingent on our presuppositions about the nature of Reality. To put matters simply, what we can potentially know about Reality is somewhat a function of what we think we already know about it. Hence, the allusion in my previous post to a “little knowledge being a dangerous thing”: the ever-looming threat to our understandings consists in hubris, in the certitudes about what we already know. It was previously also suggested that such intransigence tends to exist in the domain of Enlightenment-inspired Science, as per its claims to Universal Reason.

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In taking issue with popular but limited conceptions about our senses and intellectual faculties, we have seen Ken Robinson attempting to break the stranglehold of common, Enlightenment-based ideas about human intelligence. Against such a Modernist bias, Robinson is urging us to rethink the nature of intelligence by taking into account the entirety and tremendous diversity of human experience and accomplishment. The move he commends is one towards the holism of lived experience. It is a move that seeks to reconceptualise intelligence as a phenomenon not exclusively centred on the Mind but that includes the experiences of the Body. Since intelligence is not only cerebral but also somatic, he urges us to conceive of it more holistically.

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The metaphor of holism to describe our senses is fitting. It is also fecund. Conceiving of intelligence more holistically moves us from the realm of epistemology to that of ontology. It may be seen as an effort to deflate the privilege of (Eurocentric) Reason by moving from “knowing” exclusively as a cerebral act towards a way of being-in-the-world, for Knowing and Being are not independent but implicated in each other. The pretension of Universal Knowledge as being produced from the point-of-nowhere is, as such, farcical, for knowledge is always contextual. Hence, the sociological basis of knowledge is irrefragable, with knowledge always dependent on the particularity of time, culture, and clime. This is certainly one implication of Robinson’s point, but there is still another.

The message is not just that Knowing is contingent upon Being; it is also that the nature of Knowing-via-Being is sensory in all its forms, not just through the five senses commonly known to us. Knowledge comes about, in other words, by way of the entirety of human experience. We touch, see, hear, smell and taste, but we also anticipate, perceive, intuit and have premonitions: we apprehend the world through what we call “gut feelings”. Knowledge comes by way of a literal embodiment in the world around us.

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One can draw from these two insights (i.e. the sociological nature of knowledge and its multi-sensorial nature) some important practical implications for ethnographic work. In particular, if it can be agreed that ethnography is a form of writing about the lives of others based upon the ethnographer’s actual experience in the field, then it ought to attempt to encompass “experience” in all its different modes, in the complete sense of the term as discussed here.

Hence, the recognition that knowledge is sociologically produced in time and place implicates us – as living beings with very unique biographies – in its production. This is the first principle, the sin qua non, of ethnographic work. It demands the physicality of our presence, literally, amidst the phenomena we are intent on understanding.

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In addition, the embodied, multi-sensorial manner by which we experience the world makes further demands of us. Insofar as ethnographic work is a serious attempt to capture the sensibilities of other peoples as well as the rhythms of other places, it demands that we establish an enduring presence in the field. Certainly, ethnographies of adequate rigor are unlikely to be produced based upon single-day excursions to the places of our interest. If the totality of our interlocutors’ experience is to be even approximately approached, neither would the standard questionnaire.

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It follows, then, that ethnography, en generale, calls for nothing less than wholesale immersion: the immersion of the fieldworker in the phenomena of interest. A will and willingness to “throw” oneself into the place, time, and practices of Others a fonds perdu. My investigation of “good life” in contemporary China can therefore only begin with my being physically located in China. For me, it begins specifically in Shenzhen, for reasons that I will soon elaborate on.

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To be sure, the task is to investigate what a “good life” in China today consists of. But, if the above discussion should have any relevance, one has to begin by experiencing, in all its modalities, what life in today’s China is like in the first place. And such experience comes by first putting one in the way of the contemporary Chinese world.

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Although a limited representation confined to the sense of sight, the photos posted here are intended as an effort – my effort – to grasp and convey to the reader the rhythm and cadences of contemporary Shenzhen life. I hope these pictures evoke in the reader similar sensations and sentiments to those I experienced at the scene. In a future post, I shall address how/when one can feel to have succeeded in one’s efforts at immersion: Are there criteria; if so, what are they? When can one be said to have adequately immersed? Hence, what possibility of anthropology/ethnography as a “science” of objective valuations?

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