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Thomas Yarrow

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781501738494

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501738494.001.0001

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Coda: An Argument for Description

Coda: An Argument for Description

(p.241) Coda: An Argument for Description

Thomas Yarrow

Cornell University Press

Les Back has written, “Our culture is one that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies, there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate, and to receive attention. It reduces ‘reality’ to revelation and voyeurism.”1 The move to privilege a particular form of theorized argument can be seen as part of this broader tendency. Back explicitly makes this connection, and cautions that the conditions that pull academics in this direction are the very ones that make it important to resist that pull. As a form of writing oriented more to listening than to speaking, ethnography acquires a broader value precisely in the face of changes that make it increasingly difficult to research, write, and publish in this way (discussed above in “A Note on Structure and Approach”). Because these truths are complex and difficult, they take time for the author and then the reader to understand—not just because quantitatively speaking there is a lot of detail, but more profoundly because others’ lives are shaped by ideas and practices other than our own, and the effort to grasp these is difficult and time consuming—for the researcher as for the reader. The world that marginalizes and devalues these slower, more complex, kinds of writing is arguably the world that gives them new and specific relevance. When all around there is a clamor to speak and be heard, ethnographic description is a way of recovering the less loudly proclaimed—even the silent, unsaid, and unstated—elements of the lives of those we describe. Descriptions allow us to pause and reflect, to dwell in details, to see the actual that exists beyond the manifest and obvious. Ethnographic description, in this predicament, is a kind of “recovery” of the everyday, those elements of life that get overlooked from the perspective of sound bites, meta-narratives, and polarized...

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