The Dramaturgy of Wolves
Here is my first new post in seven years, clearly showing that this blog is not dead, only resting, and pining for the fjords.
I did not manage to finish Timothy Pachirat's (2018) "Among Wolves: Ethnography and the Immersive Study of Power" in 2018--being reduced to reading the last few pages on New Year's Day. This is by no means an indictment of the book, though it is an indictment of my chronic lack of reading time.
"Among Wolves" is the most interesting book about ethnography I have read in quite a long time and, in presenting itself as a play in seven acts, ditches the traditional scholarly presentation of a methodological monograph. The play concerns, primarily, ten ethnographers gathering in a New York State lakeside barn to enact an ‘ethnographic trial’ of Alice Goffman, the author of a 2014 book “On the Run,” the publication of which caused a flurry of criticisms and denunciations of the book, the researcher, and ethnography as a valid scientific method. The bulk of Pachirat’s play (acts four and five, pages 22-131 in the 161 page text, excluding the reference list) depicts a detailed discussion of ethnographic research by its practitioners, with the trial itself and other plot points given much lesser eminence. The book is most certainly worth a read, and I will be heartily recommending it to my students. But it is also a glorious failure.
Writing the book in a format of a play invites the reader to judge it as such, and not just as a scholarly treatise. And in this regard, I am not convinced of its value. Some choices are simply eccentric: division into seven very unequal acts (each consisting of only one scene), quote epigraphs of uncertain status preceding each act (including nine different ones in act 7), one single explicitly theatrical direction ('Table 5.1 is projected onto the back of the stage', p. 123), the requirement for a speaking, walking, growling, howling, ear-cocking wolf-dog to be present on stage for most of the action. None of these preclude theatricality of the work, and that is even without getting into the argument of whether a play is primarily a performative or an inscriptional work of art. If Shakespeare could have Antigonus exit, pursued by a bear then four hundred years later Pachirat is certainly entitled to the wolfdog, particularly in a post-War Horse era of advanced puppetry and animatronics (and perhaps of actual thespian wolfdogs). But I hold that genres and forms of expression are important, and the content of the form (White, 1987/9) should be taken into consideration when examining any written work, be it a medieval chronicle or a contemporary methodological tract.
And it is here that we run into conundra that are not easily resolved and which, moreover, I do not find particularly productive. Dramatic mode allows for presentation of wildly divergent viewpoints, none of which need to be identified with those of the author. Even the resemblance of Timothy Pachirat the character to Timothy Pachirat the author remains conjectural. The problem of author’s embeddedness in the text is certainly not exclusive to drama: Umberto Eco’s (1992) “The Role of the Reader” remains my favourite resource in that regard. It is also taken up by Goffman’s critics and defendants, and by characters in the play. But it is particularly acute in dramatic mode, where obvious authorial voice is limited to a few simple stage directions. On the one hand, this can be assumed to allow the reader to make up her mind freely, without undue pressure from the other. But on the other, it exemplifies the very problem of Donna Haraway’s (1988) god’s eye view from nowhere (again, discussed by characters in the play) that presents authorial framing (found in even the most innocuous statements) as unproblematic and neutral. In staged productions, directorial choices allow a convenient entry point for the discussion of positional biases; in written plays, the reader is left with a relative paucity of resources enabling her to do so. Thus, the choice of the dramatic mode works against the ethnographers’ distaste with the third-person omniscient point of view (the three characters present in the conversation all share the same disdainful attitude towards its usefulness in ethnographic writing).
Then again, perhaps the lack of authorial positioning is not such an issue, because the characters spend most of the play agreeing with each other. While ostensibly based on actual researchers, and identifiable as individuals when presenting their fieldwork, they seem largely interchangeable when discussing general issues and difficulties found in ethnography: most such statements (particularly, all comments in act five) could be reattributed to another character and I, as a reader, would not notice any difference. And it’s not as if the positions expressed are uncontested, even among the ethnographic community. At one point Bronisław Malinowski is indicted for his collaboration with the colonialist project and opposed to Franz Boas’ much more courageous stance. Yet Malinowski’s status as an enemy alien (Austro-Hungarian citizen staying in British territory during World War I) is not raised as a possibly relevant factor. The erasure of the voice of black researchers and research participants is condemned alongside the unchallenged description of Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918) “The Polish Peasant” project as adequately described through Thomas’ agency and foresight. I understand that these two particular examples jumped out at me due to my own Polish background, yet I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that Pachirat’s book, for all its sensitivity to power relations, situates ethnography as a discipline practiced by researchers from American universities (there is one mention of the British context, noting the correspondence of Research Ethics Committees to Internal Review Boards). This is not to say that I expected the play to reflect the entire complexity of the global context, but for a book so concerned with the “immersive study of power” (the book’s subtitle), I would certainly welcome some acknowledgment of its characters’ firm placing within the global centre of (not only) academic power.
I found the characters not only largely indistinguishable, but also unnervingly superhuman. Their discussion of the research process revealed no mistakes: their reported research choices were difficult, but ultimately always right, gambles always paid off, serendipity appeared at the proper time (due to meticulous preparation). Alice Goffman, probably due to her position as a trial defendant, was the only present character acknowledged to have made mistakes (and that by other characters). Otherwise, only researchers not appearing as characters were criticized, like the aforementioned Malinowski, for their choices or stances. Since discussion among unaccompanied ethnographers constitutes such a large part of the play, some confessional tales (as John Van Maanen, 1988, named the warts-and-all accounts shared among researchers) might have been expected. None surface, and this, I believe, is the most serious obstacle to the book’s serving as a manual for budding scholars: dealing with mistakes, learning from them, and acknowledging them is central to building trustworthy ethnographic narratives.
Finally, there is the issue of dramatic construction of the plot. At the start of the book, numerous enticing (or preposterous, depending on the reading) McGuffins are presented to the reader: An one-eyed talking wolfdog of uncertain ontological/epistemological status; an invisibility potion developed by the American military; the issue of political empowerment of the ethnographer (as a judge, as a decider of the fate of research programmes). They slink into the background for an extended discussion of the discipline and its vicissitudes, and never manage to regain their promised narrative voice. Even the wolfdog, for all her growling and sneering, remains largely dormant and unexamined.
All the above demonstrate, I hope, why I think “Among Wolves” is a failure. But my claim is that is a glorious one, and that it should be recommended to research students. This is because in many ways it succeeds, and in others it opens up the possibility of further exploration and discussion. The ethnographic research process it presents, while largely idealized, does show many of the difficulties researchers grapple with when defining, conducting, and writing up their study. It presents many of the ways in which authors of acclaimed studies have successfully tackled serious problems, and what may be seen as particularly worthwhile about their studies. It also presents a vigorous defence of ethnography as a scientific mode of knowing, enabling contextualized insights not achievable (or, achievable only in a radically different form) through other research methods.
And it also tackles, head on, the problem of ossified representation of academic research. In a time where academic journals (and academic writing guides) increasingly channel its authors towards writing formulaic papers following a strict and unvaried structure, when new forms of expression are increasingly understood to mean tweets and youtube videos, it is important to see a good book presented differently. In a back-cover blurb, Shamus Khan asks “when is the last time you encountered a new scholastic format?,” implying Pachirat’s play does something unprecedented. There are two reasons why this is a slight overstatement. For one, academics continue to discuss the format of scholarly expression, and have done so for quite a long time. One of my favourite readings as a student was Margery Wolf’s (1992) A Thrice Told Tale: a book that shows how different modes of expression foreground and background different issues in the same ethnographic story. Myself an Monika Kostera (1999), in one of my earliest published texts, have tried our own hand at generic reframing of academic discussion. And, post-dating the publication of Pachirat’s book, an upcoming issue of Management Learning (edited by Sarah Gilmore, Nancy Harding, Jenny Helin, and Alison Pullen, and including, again, a text by myself and Monika Kostera, 2018) explores the possibility of Writing Differently. While one format of expression is currently dominant, others are certainly not dead yet. But “Among Wolves” most certainly forms a valuable exemplar for future work. It is, of course, not entirely novel and unprecedented: perhaps the closest generic counterpart to this book is not a standard play, but rather a rather distinguished academic format of a Platonic dialogue. Like Pachirat’s book, Plato’s dialogues lend themselves poorly to being presented on stage (as do Paul Feyerabend’s 1992 contemporary variations on the theme). Like “Among Wolves”, these texts are full of long blocks of speech likely to bore even the most steadfast viewer. Like “Among Wolves”, they carry enormous wealth of material ready for fruitful engagement by academic audience. Like “Among Wolves”, they need to be read thoughtfully, attentively, and critically.
Eco, Umberto (1979) The role of the reader: Explorations in the semiotics of texts (Lector in fabula). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Feyerabend, Paul (1992) Three dialogues on knowledge. Oxford: Blackwell.
Goffman, Alice (2014) On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Haraway, Donna (1988) “Situated knowledge: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.
Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy and Monika Kostera (1999) "Templates of ideas: The charm of storytelling in academic discourse," Knowledge Transfer 2/1: 49-69.
Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy and Monika Kostera (2018) "The body in the library: An investigative celebration of deviation, hesitation, and lack of closure," Management Learning.
Pachirat, Timothy (2018) Among wolves: Ethnography and the immersive study of power. New York: Routledge.
Thomas, William I. and Florian Znaniecki (1918) The Polish peasant in Europe and America. Boston: The Gorham Press.
Van Maanen, John (1988) Tales of the field: On writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
White, Hayden (1987/9) The content of the form: Narrative discourse and historical representation. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Wolf, Margery (1992) A thrice told tale: Feminism, postmodernism and ethnographic responsibility. Stanford: Stanford University Press.