More Thoughts on Resistance and Refusal: A Conversation with Sherry Ortner

In 1995, Sherry Ortner published an essay in CSSH that continues to attract readers today. “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal” (37/1: 173-193), explored a trend, emergent at the time, in which resistance-oriented scholars were abandoning fine-grained accounts of local, subaltern worlds for critical analysis of external, impinging powers: the empire, the state, the global economy. The outcome, Ortner claimed, was superficial work inadequate to its own political ambitions. “Resistance studies are thin because they are ethnographically thin: thin on the internal politics of dominated groups, thin on the cultural richness of those groups, thin on the subjectivity – the intentions, desires, fears, projects – of the actors engaged in these dramas” (1995: 190).

In the following exchange with Andrew Shryock, Ortner discusses the positions she took in this essay, giving us a sense of where her ideas came from and how they have changed during two decades of subsequent scholarship.

AS: It’s great to talk to you about your work. It’s been a while since you last published in CSSH, but your essays are leading a very active life among our readers. You have a lock on positions 1 and 2 for our most cited articles. “Theory in Anthropology Since the 1960s” is as popular as ever, but it’s “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal” I’d like to discuss. It gets heavy traffic, no doubt because the problems you explore have not been resolved. Before we get to those, I’d like to know more about the context in which you wrote the essay. What was going on circa 1995 that motivated your argument?

SBO: Thank you so much for inviting me to have this discussion. It is very interesting to revisit a work that was written in a different moment, and to consider the ways in which it may be of continuing and/or new value in the present.

In 1995 I was still at the University of Michigan and was involved in the formation of an incredibly exciting interdisciplinary discussion group, Comparative Studies in Social Transformation or CSST (not to be confused with the journal CSSH!). CSST was populated by anthropologists, historians, and a few folks from other fields, with many shared theoretical interests (Marxism, culture theory, practice theory, feminism, Foucault, etc.) and with overlapping cultural and historical interests in – broadly speaking – issues of power, domination, and resistance. If you look at the acknowledgments of “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal” (and I am a big believer in looking at acknowledgments), you will see the names of many of the key participants in that group, and it is an amazing roll call of some of the leading anthropologists, historians, and other social and cultural thinkers of that generation.

AS: For the record, the list includes Fred Cooper, Fernando Coronil, Nick Dirks, Val Daniel, Geoff Eley, Ray Grew, Roger Rouse, Bill Sewell, Julie Skurski, Ann Stoler, and Terry McDonald.

SBO: A fair number of those people were involved in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History (CSSH), which was dedicated precisely to the intellectual integration of anthropology, history, and other approaches to social and cultural scholarship. If you look at the sources and references for that article you will see the great extent to which I was drawing on the interdisciplinary pool of references I was getting from the readings and talks in CSST.

But to your question, “what was going on circa 1995 that motivated [my] argument,” here I must go more specifically to anthropology. I had to think carefully about the answer, but I think it boils down to this: it seemed to me at the time that ethnography, the cornerstone of our discipline, was under attack. On the one hand there was the assault from Writing Culture (1986), which challenged the practice of ethnography as both fieldwork and writing from a variety of internal points of view, and which quite seriously shook up the field (including yours truly). At the same time there was the colonialism critique which can be traced back to Talal Asad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973) in anthropology, but which really took off with Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). The colonialism/orientalism critique for me actually had a double impact, on both anthropology/ethnography in general, and on feminist anthropology in particular.

All of this work seemed to say, or in fact sometimes did say, that anthropology, along with its core methodology of ethnography, was fundamentally illegitimate – a slave of a problematic culture concept, a vehicle for overblown ethnographic authority, a voyeuristic intruder into people’s lives, a handmaiden of colonialism, an imposition of the Western liberal imagination. Some of my colleagues gave up ethnographic research completely, and indeed began teaching against it. I too took these critiques extremely seriously. I think everything I’ve done since that period has had to pass through some version of the critical lenses of Writing Culture and Orientalism embedded in my brain.

At the same time I felt like I had to fight back. For all its faults, and there are many, anthropology is the only discipline that places primary value on trying to understand the point of view of people in other times, places, conditions, and positions. And for all its faults, ethnography, as both research and writing, is the primary vehicle for doing that. There are a lot of things going on in the “Resistance” article, and I’ll address some of them in other answers, but the critique of ethnography, from multiple directions, was probably the prime provocation.

AS: In exchange for that personal background, let me tell you what I was up to when I first read the essay. It was published when I was doing a lot of exhibition work among Arab/Muslim Americans in Detroit, and I was bumping into ”ethnographic refusal” every day. Public representation was tricky business, celebratory and defensive at once. It was all about multicultural recognition, not resistance, but the patterns you described in your essay were there, whether opposition or incorporation was the goal. So I immediately sensed you were on to something big.

It fell into place when I read your essay alongside Michael Herzfeld’s Cultural Intimacy (1997). He was describing a zone of experience ethnographers create and inhabit as they do fieldwork, one that signals belonging and is related to diverse forms of incorporation and exclusion in the larger world. Your essay was an early indication that folks who read and publish in CSSH were developing “intimacy issues,” that they were avoiding the kinds of interaction that would produce intimacy and its associated forms of knowledge, or they didn’t want to represent things internal or “sensitive” to the groups they studied. I liked that you saw this as a problem with moral implications. I remember nodding in agreement when you argued that ethnographic refusal wouldn’t necessarily protect vulnerable people, but that it would certainly impoverish analysis. I also recall the phrase “failure of nerve.”

Do you think, in the 22 years since you wrote “Ethnographic Refusal,” that anthropologists and historians have found effective ways of dealing with the syndrome you diagnosed? Is there more or less refusal going on nowadays? I ask because resistance and inclusion have new urgency in our current political moment. Important ethnography will be done under those headings.

SBO: I have to say first that I have become much more sympathetic to the ethnographic refusal position than when I wrote that article. I think there still is, and perhaps has to be, plenty of ethnographic refusal going on, as long as anthropologists study vulnerable groups. Ethnography is not exposé, and groups should not be exposed to ridicule or censure or worse because of – for lack of a better term – their “culture.” I still think some of the refusal is problematic, especially if it involves covering up systematic patterns of gender oppression, which is one of the most common reasons. On the whole, however, I do accept the ethical imperative behind ethnographic refusal in the sense of not exposing the people we study to harm.

But I think there is also a different kind of answer to your question, which has to do with the proliferation of new kinds of ethnographic objects. While of course many anthropologists still study people(s) who would count as vulnerable groups, there is a growing tendency to do research with groups who are more or less equal in power to the anthropologist – the type case is the NGO – and also with more powerful groups: various forms of “studying up.” In some ways this can serve as a workaround for the ethnographic refusal problem. Anthropologists can not only feel free to critique/expose some of these groups and their cultures/practices, but in fact can feel called upon to do so.

Yet studying sideways (as with NGOs) and studying up produce their own ethical dilemmas. Ethnography as a practice involves establishing some kind of sympathetic rapport with the people one studies, some kind of commitment to – again – trying to take their point of view. To critique them may involve a kind of betrayal of this rapport. But not to critique them involves complicity with their power. There are no good answers here, only a need for a lot of careful ethical and methodological thinking.

AS: One of the culprits you identify as responsible for ethnographic refusal is “thinning.” You make a strong case for the importance of thickness to good ethnography, but many social identities are now situated in public cultures that are thin and getting thinner. They are interchangeable in many ways; they have to replicate and circulate in mass mediated contexts that privilege compatibility of format, if not equality of status. Can we expect the same kinds of thickness under these conditions, or might we have to write about thinness in more suggestive ways?

SBO: You raise a number of important issues here. First, I would like get on a little bit of a hobby horse about public culture and argue – as you did in Off Stage/On Display (2004) – that this needs to be part of almost all forms of ethnographic research today. Virtually no one on the planet is out of reach of some form of media. Everyone lives in a world in which they are being told who they are, how to feel, and what it all means. They live in an already-interpreted world, and if we are to understand their lives, we must understand not only their point of view, but also the ways in which their point of view is constantly fashioned and re-fashioned in relation to public cultural representations. At the same time public culture itself is constantly being made and re-made by people on the ground. So from my point of view, the study of “media” or “public culture” should not be some niche subfield of anthropology, but rather an aspect of almost any ethnographic project. As for whether this produces further thinning, I would think just the opposite, as long as the study of public culture is not purely a study of texts, but is rather about their production, circulation, and consumption – their interaction with social and political life on the ground.

AS: I’ve noticed that analysis thickens up pretty quickly when the focus is on the actual production of public culture, on the specialized work that goes into making it. Take Arlene Davila’s Latinos, Inc. (2001), which is about ethnic marketing. It’s a superb book because it shows how complicated the work of advertising can be when it’s joined with the work of being, consuming, and desiring in ways imagined to be (generically) Latino. Davila grants the centrality of stereotypes to in-group representations of Latinidad, which gives her study its critical, counterintuitive punch. It allows her to show how producers of alternative advertising refuse, invert, and fixate on a particular range of hegemonic images. You explore similar themes in your work on independent filmmakers: creative difference, working around dominant media, alternative image construction as a way of recognizing and resisting power.

SBO: These are precisely the kinds of issues that were behind the project that became Not Hollywood (2013). I should say first that I originally intended to study Hollywood itself, the big studios, because I was interested in the production of what we would call the dominant culture. When I couldn’t get access to Hollywood proper, I turned to the world of independent film, which turned out to be Hollywood upside down. Where Hollywood movies embody (mostly) dominant American ideology, independent films go strongly against the grain, whether aesthetically, affectively, or politically, and frequently all of the above. Sometimes, as with political documentaries like the films of Michael Moore, or Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, they are overtly resistant to what’s going on in the world today. But more generally they are by definition resistant to mainstream culture as shaped by, among other things, Hollywood movies. So the study of independent film allowed me to think more about, among other things, the cultural dimensions of “resistance” – not just people on the barricades, but representations that force us to see and think in new ways.

AS: The ethnographic “thickness” that used to result from participant observation, and from nuanced accounts of cultural difference, comes now increasingly from engagement in shared projects. Today, many scholars see themselves as advocates for the people they study, not as knowers and representers of Others, and this shift brings with it a different politics (and ethics) of writing. You argued, back in 1995, that ethnography is a moral stance, and you affirm this claim in your recent essay, “Dark Anthropology and Its Others” (HAU 6/1: 47-73), but you’ve also said that you are more sympathetic to refusal. So what is the moral position at stake here?

SBO: I think there is no longer any neutral ground for ethnography, if indeed there ever was. We are either with or against our subjects. If we are with them (morally and/or politically), then we practice ethnographic refusal as needed, and we provide ethnographic insight into the harms to which they are subject and the projects which are important to them. Many of these projects would fall under the heading of “resistance,” but of course there is an almost infinite range of other ways in which people try to construct livable lives, and even some happiness, in a world of wildly unequal distributions of power and resources.

On the other hand, if we have serious ethical qualms about a group that we wish to study, then I would be inclined to study them at a distance. Establishing face-to-face rapport in an interview with someone for whom one has no respect, or actual contempt, involves a kind of falseness that I feel is incompatible with true ethnography. Similarly, one may find oneself liking some of these people as persons, despite their ethically problematic positions, and then one is then caught in a different kind of contradiction. In this media-saturated world, one can find plenty of material to provide near-ethnographic insight into many of these people/groups without face-to-face contact.
However, I don’t mean to be absolutist about this. It really depends on the nature of the project and the nature of the ethnographic subjects.

AS: I agree that one should avoid falseness and contempt, not to mention outright harm, but ethnographers have a long tradition of working across ethical, political, religious, and gender differences. That seems to be the whole point. Also, we usually work in societies that have structured patterns of conflict and a considerable diversity of views. It’s hard to be uniformly for or against our subjects when their own disagreements are important to them. I often see refusal creep into ethnography when the analyst takes a side, as if there were only one, when the more challenging task is to move between and across positions. I think Lara Deeb does this very well in her book on women’s activism among Hizbullah supporters in Lebanon, An Enchanted Modern (2006), and Susan Slyomovics pulls off an even more difficult move in Object of Memory (1998), when she describes village spaces claimed by Palestinians and the Israelis who displaced them.

Your idea of “study at a distance” suggests that ethnography can be done without rapport, and perhaps sometimes should be, for ethical reasons. Most people avoid that problem by doing fieldwork only with folks they like, but I think a growing block to ethnography, on the world stage, is the refusal imposed on ethnographers by governmental bodies and funding agencies that won’t let anthropologists work in areas the U.S. has defined as unsafe (often because we are bombing them, or trying to destabilize and isolate them). I’m struck by how variable, and multi-scalar, the relationship between resistance and ethnography can be.

SBO: As I said, it really depends on the project. First of all I agree wholeheartedly with the point that there are diverse points of view within the societies we study; that was a central point of “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal.” I just think there are some projects where you can get away with a balanced account of the various parties and positions, and stand above the fray, and there are other projects where you can’t. This is where, among other things, the whole question of “repugnant subjects” comes in. We do need to understand the mindset of bad and evil people, organizations, etc. I assume we cannot and should not avoid that. But that is different from treating them in some “balanced” or “neutral” way. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing (2013), is a good text to think with (or against) on this issue.

AS: I’d like to conclude with a question I have trouble formulating. Basically, it seems that the experience of ethnography is changing pervasively, as are the kinds of people who do ethnography. Back in 1995, when you lodged your initial complaint, ethnography was being taken up at Michigan by historians, and since then there have been several booms and busts in the market for ethnography in other disciplines. The demography of the disciplines is changing rapidly, too, and ethnographers are now more ethnoracially and nationally diverse than ever before, which is changing ethnography’s political profile for the better. If you felt your favorite methodology was under attack back in 1995, you can at least be happy that it has survived and is in reasonably good health.

Still, I’m amazed by what counts as ethnography in interdisciplinary circles: a few face-to-face interviews, actually visiting a place, interacting with lay people at public events. I’ve also detected, among anthropologists proper, a sense that the experience of ethnography is no longer transformative or even all that immersive. This is not just old fogey talk. Some of my young(er) colleagues in Middle East studies now worry in print about the overabundance of ethnographers who work in capital cities, with English-speaking NGO operatives. What do you make of all this? Do you see a deeper connection between these shifts and the problems you spotted back in 1995?

SBO: Here I think we have to start with the question of “thickness.” In “Thick Description,” Clifford Geertz presented the famous example of the twitch and the wink (and fake winks, etc.). The difference lay in the underlying meaning of the act: do you have a piece of dust in your eye, or are you actually communicating something with the wink? Thickness is not only about richness of detail (the common interpretation of his phrase), but about the meanings and values and intentions such richness helps one unearth. Good ethnography is “thick” in this double sense.
What’s wrong with a lot of so-called ethnography in other fields these days is not only that it is usually too short and superficial, but that it is often not aimed at thickness in the first place. It is simply a kind of storytelling or eye-witnessing. It says, “I went to this place and here is what I saw/heard.” But this doesn’t mean that only professional, academically trained anthropologists, and people in related fields (e.g., ethnomusicology), do thick ethnography. I would include a number of writers of long-form journalism in the club. My current favorite would be Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (2003) which, the overheated title aside, is an exceptional work of corporate ethnography, albeit done at a distance.

But if we define ethnography as the practice of producing thickness of knowledge and depth of insight into other worlds and other points of view, then almost any methodology can contribute to realizing this goal. There are of course a few basic rules. I still hold to the point that fieldwork must be long-term, though I also recognize that people’s lives are complex and they may have to break up their time in the field. I also hold to the imperative to work in the local language if at all possible. Beyond those two points, however, I subscribe to the methodological school of “whatever works”: participant observation, interviews, archives, public culture, published interviews when you can’t get to the interviewee, multi-sited fieldwork, textual analysis, “interface ethnography” (see my “Access: Reflections on Studying Up in Hollywood,” in Ethnography, 11/2: 211-233), and on and on.

As for the growing diversity of anthropology, of course I am very happy about that, and can only hope for more! At the same time I am becoming more and more alarmed about the labor stratification in the field, and in academia in general, between those of us privileged to have tenure and tenure-track jobs and the growing number of others who are scraping by as short-term adjuncts and visitors. We really need to start addressing this issue.”

Sherry B. Ortner is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. She is the author of numerous influential books and articles. Her recent monographs include New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of ’58, Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject, and Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream, all of them published by Duke University Press.