"Your tax money at work!" Notes on the ethnography of the state
Educational Research Lab University of Teacher Education Thurgau Switzerland,
Social Work University of Applied Science Northwestern Switzerland Olten, Switzerland
Ethnographic research in modern societies often takes place in settings and organizations which refer to, or are run by the state in one way or the other. Research in prisons, welfare agencies, unemployment programs, hospitals, schools and the like is always closely linked to political structures and governmental organizations. Like an encompassing frame the state and its organizations embed and structure local practice and shared meanings in these ?street level bureaucracies? (Michael Lipsky) in many ways. ?Bringing the state back in? (Bob Jessop) seems an even more relevant challenge now that the current worldwide financial crisis has reestablished the state as an important actor shaping social processes. Yet, participant observation as the methodical cornerstone of the ethnographic endeavor does not lend itself easily to discover and discern ?invisible? social structures and forces beyond the local setting under scrutiny. The ethnographer cannot observe directly social systems, organizations, or the state, but only ?actual activities of actual people? (Dorothy Smith). How can we link local practice and social processes with external forces and power relations?
In our paper we will present and discuss different approaches in sociological ethnography of handling ?the big? (the state, political structures) in the ?small? (interaction, local practice, shared meaning). In a somewhat oversimplified way we can position these approaches between two poles. On one side we find ?dualistic? perspectives positing external factors impacting on a local situation, e.g. the different versions of Anselm Strauss? ?conditional matrix? or Michael Burawoy?s ?extended case method? which restricts ethnography to observing the immediate situation while resorting to decontextualized theory for explaining social forces beyond the local. On the opposite pole there are concepts like Dorothy Smith ?institutional ethnography? or Adele Clarke?s ?situational analysis? that claim that the sociologist must reconstruct any institutional order (thus also the state) from observable local practices. With empirical examples from our own current research (inter-institutional cooperation in the welfare system, schools) we will illustrate how we can practically handle the link between the locally observable and the macro-level of the state.