Why Ethnography Should be the Most Important Method in the Study of Human Development
Weisner, Thomas S. (1996)
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, In Jessor, R., Colby, A., and Shweder, R., (Eds.). Ethnography and human development. Context and meaning in social inquiry, pp. 305-324
The recognition of the cultural place as a powerfully important influence in development immediately suggests that there is no "one" important thing, and that development is multiply determined in cultural context. All of the influences which usually come to mind are important in every cultural place. Developmentally sensitive and appropriate interac¬tions are indeed crucial, ,for example, but the existence of those dyadic interactions is due to 'the 'everyday cultural routine of life and to shared understandings which surround and scaffold them. Self-understanding and esteem are important as well, but culturally provided settings and their meanings make these possible. Attachment and trust are important, but how do infants and Children experience strangers and learn whom to trust?
Ethnography brings the importance of the cultural place to the center of attention, transforming it from ground to figure. An important goal of ethnographic research is to describe and understand the cultural place and its influence on the everyday lives of its members. Whatever one's opinions are about epistemological and methodological concerns regarding ethnographically derived knowledge (and there surely are such concerns, as for all methods), the remarkable findings from ethnographic work re¬garding the varying cultural tools children use to develop in cultural places throughout the world alone provide sufficient reason for ethnography's deep incorporation into developmental work.
The chapters in this section offer interesting findings and their own models for how to integrate ethnography into developmental research. My comments on the chapters take advantage of their work to develop some general points about fieldwork and ethnography. First and foremost, eth¬nography and fieldwork get the researcher out into the cultural place of children and families. Once there, many ways of doing ethnography are possible and are illustrated in these chapters. Second, "methodocentrism,” the exclusive use of one method and fear of others, should be resisted as illustrated by these chapters. It is not plausible that any important question in developmental studies can be answered with a single method. Ethnography can and should be complementary with other methods. I suggest a way to talk about research methods different than the iconic qualitative/quantitative contrast, which seems to encourage polarizing discourse and is in any case not very useful or accurate. Third, ethnography is not limited only to early exploratory stages of research and to description of local meanings. It can and should be question driven; it provides valid evidence to test against our models of the world; and it produces findings, as these chapters demonstrate. Next, I suggest that ethnography is to the developmental sciences as siblings or cousins are to one another—a part of the same broad lineage in the naturalistic traditions of the social sciences. John Modell imagines ethnography and development as two fascinated and mutually dangerous lovers. Both metaphors are probably appropriate at times. Finally, I suggest that a number of salutary things would happier if fieldwork in another cultural place, like learning statistics, was a normal, expected part of every developmentalist's qualitative and mixed methods research training.