Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Dubious Text

So my talk for the “Dubious Ethnography” panel is out of the way – one down, one to go. I went through a particularly intense crisis of confidence about the whole thing yesterday, when the talk remained unwritten at 6 p.m., after an entire day filled with nothing but endless interruptions. It also didn’t seem promising that I have an intense sore throat and the beginnings of what feels like an ear infection – and, as I explained to the audience this morning, not being able to speak or hear seemed an unpromising beginning for a discussion…

In the end, though, I did enjoy giving the talk – and received some very good questions. Interestingly, the most positive and the most negative reactions related to my discussion of epistemology and critical judgment – which is somewhat amusing, as people generally just fall asleep when I discuss epistemology. Maybe I’m onto something with this narrative thing… ;-P

Some members of the audience really liked the notion of trying to understand the reasonableness of various positions in a local political conflict, while also trying to examine all of those positions critically for what they don’t quite grasp with reference to a more overarching and comprehensive vision of that context. One questioner in particular, though, was very unhappy with this proposal, really pressed me to declare a side – and then was unconvinced when I tried to explain that my main quarrel was not really with anything that was unfolding in the community where I research, but rather with certain frameworks with in the academic literature: that my main “side” was a critique of those academic positions.

I was challenged further to explain how this was an ethical position – don’t we ultimately all have to take sides with reference to what we are studying? Is it ethical to analyse the weaknesses in all competing positions without choosing a particular position we most strongly prefer? I suspect this is really, at base, not the universal and theoretical issue the questioner takes it to be, but more like an empirical and contingent question: depending on the conflict, it might be possible or impossible, ethical or unethical, to choose a side. My main purpose at the moment (not in this brief talk, which would be completely inadequate, but in the thesis) is to make plausible the notion that we can ground judgments in a recognition that some kinds of mistakes can be made by otherwise quite reasonable and moral people, who have seized upon a piece of their social context, confused that piece for the whole – and act as though everyone else has done the same… The context will then determine whether these judgments drive in favour of a form of political movement actually playing itself out on the ground in a particular dispute. I don’t think my answer was adequate – I’ll have to work on explaining what I mean.

Anyone who’d like a copy of the talk can email, with the caveat that, as always, the written version is not quite what I actually said – I tend to watch audiences, dwell on things that seem to get people nodding in agreement, and skip lightly over things that seem to get people nodding off… I’ll leave readers to guess which sections of the text fell into which categories…

Now I have to collect my thoughts for tomorrow’s talk – which, for local readers, will be delivered as part of the Environment & Planning Lunchtime Seminar series, in 8.7.6, at 12:30 (attendance is free; BYO food…).


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