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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Prairie Ethnography (3a)—The Thousand-Ask Question-a

Bavaria 1                      Bavaria 2
I have been doing fieldwork for twenty-five years now, and one of the purposes of this series of posts on "Prairie Ethnography" is to show the manner in which it stays with a person, a little like a good liberal arts education, a substantial dinner...or a deer tick. I regard this as a good thing, and originally meant for the series to focus on the world "back home" in the Midwest—a world of lutefisk dinners, bowling, autumn football, and a little beer. As soon as I went to Germany this autumn, however, I realized that the series would have more to do with the Prairie Ethnographer than with the study of any particular area of the world. To be sure, I will spend a good deal of time thinking about local issues in this series. The posts under this topic will inevitably look at brief travels to other parts of the nation or globe, too. That's where Bavaria (er, Franconia) fits in.

[b] Hong Question RF
Today, we'll look a little more closely at a slice of Prairie Ethnographic methodology that you might find useful in your own reflections about life in the terrain you call home (or travel). I call it the thousand-ask question. There is a little bit of Chinese language playfulness built into the phrasing, so if it sounds odd, that is why.

"Thousand-ask" is not actually a phrase in Chinese. I made it up, you see. But if I write 千問, the reader will have a sense of "multiple asking." Several "counting" words in Chinese have a sense both of their particular number (hundred, thousand, ten-thousand) and "a lot." It is in this latter sense that I refer to the "thousand ask" question. I ask it over and over (and over), all over the place. I treasure "repeat" answers and the whack-o ones that seemingly come out of left (or right) field. I have probably learned more about my own and other cultures from this kind of question than any other kind. To be sure, the well-placed "specialist question" can move your work powerfully forward. On the other hand, the simplicity of "why do Germans 'applaud' by rapping their knuckles on the table?" opens whole series of further questions, interpretations, and insights. The very generality of the question holds its mysterious power.

[c] 問題 RF
It is very simple, but the most important thing to note is that the question must have a certain kind of spark or energy when it comes to cultural interpretation. My favorite example of a useless "thousand-ask" question goes something like this:

     What's this? It's a chair.
     What's that? It's a chair.
     What's this? It's a chair.

Budding young (or old) Wittgensteinians might want to argue with me over the potential richness of "chair" as concept. I am actually quite open to such an approach, and may well devote another post entirely to it (I once suggested that an excellent roundtable presentation for a dozen members of a history department would be for all the various specialists from American, Asian, African, European, Latin American and many other histories to discuss one word—and my suggestion was "chair").

Not here, though. Not in the thousand-ask question. As the center of an ethnographic method, the question must be supple. The two most important features are the potential diversity of answers (and subsequent clusters of answers) as well as its potential to generate further questions and discussions. Right now, you are capable of generating the kinds of questions that could keep you interested in the life around you, even if you are bored to death at work. You could ask questions all day long...and that is why "Prairie Ethnography" holds the keys to your happiness in an otherwise lackluster world of work.
[d] Cool RF
What's that? It's a water cooler.
What's this? It's a water cooler.
What's that? It's a water cooler. 

This ain't workin', you think to yourself. And of course you are right. It ain't. What if you changed the focus of your question ever-so-slightly, though? What if your question(s) became "Why do people chat around water coolers?" and "Why do people refer to some kinds of speech as 'water cooler conversation'...and what does that mean?"

Boom. Rush. Flush. Flowing water and thoughts.

Now you're on to (onto) something. Now you have whole bundles and clusters of questions and answers to consider. Now that boring sixth-floor office culture you inhabit looks just a little more interesting than it did ten minutes ago.

You are becoming a prairie ethnographer. Now start practicing your questions.

Thousand-Ask (a)                Thousand-Ask (b)                Thousand-Ask (c)

[e] Questions RF

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