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Friday, January 20, 2012

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

[a] Intertwined RF
Thousand-Ask (a)                Thousand-Ask (b)                Thousand-Ask (c)
While you hone your questions, I will tell a bit more about how this has developed for me in my own work. I have three examples—one from Taiwan in the mid-1980s, another from the United States in the last twenty years (observing a changing social and intellectual category), and, finally, another (tomorrow's post) from my current work on China's sacred mountains.

As readers of Round and Square can probably sense from my Fieldnotes from History posts, I was feeling my way around ethnographic methodology back in the mid-1980s (after college and before graduate school), as well as the nuts-and-bolts of Chinese history and culture. I had two problems, shared by almost all students at the beginnings of their careers. I didn't know how to proceed (I didn't understand "methodology") and I didn't know much stuff, either. It's not a good combination, but it is pretty much built-in to all learning. I didn't know how to learn more, and I didn't know much of anything to begin with. Not good.

[b] (En)treaty RF
I started by trying to understand the intellectual, rather than political (that was the subtext), position of Taiwan in relation to China. Today, I am startled by the "daring" nature of my question. I probably would not ask it today, not wanting to get into debates over matters of politics that go far beyond my desire to take sides. At the time, though, I think that the various people I asked were able to sense my sincere naivety. And that is how I remember it. The first question was "What is the relationship between Taiwan and China?" This is a most "dangerous" question, to be sure. That it never approached even hurt feelings is a result of my relative innocence at the time and my utter cluelessness about the depths of anger on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The answers were fascinating. They ranged from "The Republic of China is the legitimate bearer of political power in China; it happens to control one of the provinces at the current time" to "Taiwan has been the unhappy meeting ground of colonial powers from the Chinese in the twelfth century to the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese 1947." The answers "in-between" were just as interesting and, mulling them over even today, I have a slice-in-time of island politics and culture that will never be the same. I took notes back then. Careful ones. 
[c] Thousand-tell RF

Only a year into my stay, Taiwan (the Republic of China) held its first set of local elections. Utter chaos. But something was happening, and my "naive" question could not be asked even (mid-1986) in the same way that I had asked it in early-1985. Through my thousand-ask methodology, I was learning about history, too. Time was changing everything. The question that seemed sincere and well-scrubbed in the spring of 1985 looked calculated and increasingly mean by the summer of 1986.

I changed questions, but I had learned a lot already.

[d] So many questions RF
From that point on, my thousand-ask approaches took advantage of my growing knowledge. Once you learn enough about the world you wish to study and ask enough questions to "get" the methodology, so to speak, it is not even a very conscious approach. I asked especially about textbooks in Taiwan, a topic that had become increasingly riveting to me. In 1986, before the educational system became somewhat less centralized, everyone in the last thirty-five years had read "the same" textbooks." Since I had read them, too, I could ask questions about topics in the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade readers that often provoked far more intense socio-political ejaculations than anything people ever said about politics. 

Culture is like that.

These questions work everywhere. Starting graduate school in Chicago in 1987, I was struck by how divided American politics "felt" in the last years of the Reagan administration—on the eve of Iran-Contra, Robert Bork, Willie Horton, and Michael Dukakis mocked in helmet and tank. It probably is relevant that one of my professors at the University of Chicago was Allan Bloom, who had just written a bestseller about how divided we all were (and what was wrong with us). The thousand-ask methodology started to rev its gears; I erred on the side of basic questions.

          What's a liberal? Who is a liberal?
          What's a conservative? Who is a conservative?

[e] Governor RF
Whoa! This early-Limbaugh republic exploded with answers of a kind that are just not possible twenty-five years later, in an ossified intellectual cavern of strict constructionism and founding fathers. It was wide open, comparatively speaking, back then, and the answers I got are so much richer and more complex than what I get today that I truly wish I would have...

...written them down. Note to self and to any young ethnographer listening.   

Write it down, damnit. 

You'll remember (at least I do), but you won't have it there for your continued edification. It makes all the difference in the world. Comparatively speaking, I record my life and thoughts pretty well. I have drawers and binders and notebooks full of jottings. Still, I never thought to write down the answers to what was already becoming a "methodology" of thousand-ask questions. I finally woke up to this in 2002, and have been jotting again ever since. I lost fifteen years to mere memory, though, because (how common is this, historians?) I thought it was too obvious to write down, and I was dead wrong.

That is why we will never know anything about the past (more on that—and much more upbeat—later this year).

Conservatives. Liberals. The world was complicated and changing. Far more people were willing to call themselves the latter back then. Surprisingly, or not, far fewer people were willing to call themselves the former back then, either. Monsieur Rush had his work cut out for him. You had no idea...unless you are my age or older. 
[f] Questions RF

What's a conservative? What's a liberal? 

We're still asking these questions today. If you really listen to your "thousand" answers, you'll learn far more about our political culture and shared world than you ever could by asking about the future of the Federal Reserve or whether we should have an education department. 

Think about it, and we'll head to China's sacred mountains tomorrow for the last post in this miniseries.

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

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