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Working the Field: Rhetorical Studies and Ethnographic Methods

Seminar leaders:

Ralph Cintron, University of Illinois at Chicago
S. Scott Graham, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Gerard Hauser, University of Colorado, Boulder
Candice Rai, University of Washington, Seattle

Rhetoric scholars today are interested in all sorts of ethical, ontological, and epistemological matters, and we are quite promiscuous regarding the specific theories that interest us. We are likely to be as interested in objects before they take on a “meaning” as we are in traditional texts and their hermeneutic possibilities. Many rhetoricians are interested in the rhetorical performances of people as they determine policies regarding health care, affordable housing, or environmental use; others do fieldwork collaboratively with and as activists in order to co-produce arguments that might affect the public sector. While we are deeply invested in classical rhetoric and alternative rhetorical theories developed by other peoples, we must also settle on methodological approaches that will help us get inside what interests us so as to better understand rhetoric in everyday life.

One methodology is fieldwork. But working with ethnographic methods in a fieldsite entails numerous problems. Consider among others: (1) What does it mean to submit rhetorical inquiry to fieldwork and, correspondingly, to theorize the fieldsite? What rhetorical inquiries are most appropriate for field methods? To what extent does fieldwork answer and confound our theoretical questions? (2) How is coherence made in the texts that we write when fieldwork feels so incoherent? Are fieldsites coherent? When a person says x, how do we generalize to X? Where does a fieldworker’s insights come from and what do we do with them? When interviewees say, seemingly, the same thing, do they mean the same thing? (3) How does the idea of equality structure a fieldworker’s intentions and final text? Given that most real world situations entail power imbalances, how do fieldworkers negotiate their inclinations to advocate on behalf of those who have less power? How do we treat the beliefs of those we do not agree with?  

This seminar will address large questions regarding the relationship between fieldwork and theory, but also the specific techniques that constitute the doing of fieldwork: research design, access to a fieldsite, the ethics of fieldwork, interviewing, participant observation, fieldnote writing, coding, final write-up, and so on. The seminar will be pitched toward those who are contemplating doing fieldwork, or are already immersed in fieldwork, or moving from fieldwork to publication. One reason for having four co-leaders is to facilitate intense small-group work that will address the conceptual problems regarding each specific project and provide hands-on work regarding fieldwork techniques. The four co-leaders cover a wide-range of interests, including but not limited to: anthropology of democracy, political economy, minorities and race, urban studies, rhetorics of the everyday, material rhetorics, network theory, public sphere, theories of space and place, composition, medical rhetorics, science studies, new materialist/object-oriented rhetoric, vernacular rhetorics, theories of agency, and publication matters. The goal of the seminar is for each participant to walk out with a fieldwork plan for conducting their research or a better plan for weaving fieldwork data and rhetorical theory.

Questions should be directed to Ralph Cintron,

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