Generalization in ethnography: mission impossible?

Liubov Vetoshkina

Right now I am sitting on a train on my way from the Ethnography with a Twist conference – a conference, completely dedicated to ethnography as a method with no disciplinary boundaries. What one would expect from an ethnographic conference, even though it is “with a twist”? Of course, a lot of situatedness, thick descriptions, descriptive analyses and so on. It was there, one cannot avoid it. I also surprisingly bumped into an opposite tendency: a kind of positivist-style generalizations, using ethnographic and qualitative methods. For instance, an attempt to study a phenomenon at workplace, completely eliminating the entire context – even the type of work under study or expert interviews with no specific field of the experts.

Generalization in scientific inquiry supposes drawing broad conclusions from particular scientific results. It is one of the issues in “qualitative social sciences”, especially using situated approaches (like ethnography), as their goal is to provide a detailed and contextualized understanding of a certain phenomenon. In quantitative approaches in social sciences generalization is also an issue with own traps, but it is (a bit) more clear.

This how generalization happens in the qualitative paradigm

Various models and methods on generalization in qualitative studies exist. So why there are still attempts on applying quantitative models for generalization of results of qualitative inquiry? Should we blame the existing stereotype that quantitative methods are more “scientific”? Or is it dissatisfaction with the existing methods of generalization in qualitative approaches?

The dialectical understanding of generalization (which I discussed in my dissertation following work of my colleagues), discusses two types of generalization in science. First, suitable for quantitative paradigm, is abstract-empirical. It is useful for establishing cause-effect relationships when the relationships between variables and factors are stable. Another one, which is suitable for qualitative paradigm, is theoretical-genetic. It focuses on revealing the roots of phenomena and its’ functional relationships. The aim is to apply a new principle in a different context.

This is what ethnographic research should be after: revealing the inner workings of various phenomena, then expanding and applying both the revealed principles and the principles of how to reveal the inner workings to other fields.  Unfortunately, with this idea there is no pre-given method or recipe for generalization. We should craft it for each study, depending on field, data, theory and many other factors. The only universal thing for this type of generalization is research integrity – we need to be open about our research choices and research process. As simple as that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *