Accepted paper:

The forest and the trees: networks, comparisons and generalizations in ethnography


Benoît de L' Estoile (CNRS, Ecole normale supérieure PSL)

Paper short abstract:

How not to lose the forest for the trees? are the same processes operating at various scales ? Can we use the same tools ? In a fieldwork in rural Brazilian Nordeste, focusing on networks linking local and international scenes, comparisons and ‘native generalisations’ allows to move along scales.

Paper long abstract:

The first effect of fieldwork is to expose the fictional character of most generalisations produced by economists, journalists, or political scientists. In that sense, ethnography is dissolving of general propositions. At the same time, ethnography is challenged by others to justifying our claim that studying the trees allows us to better see the wood, i.e. that the localized processes we study illuminate more general processes. This unfolds into a double question : are the same processes operating at various scales ? Can we use the same tools for analysing them ? A long-term ethnography of daily life in land-reform settlements in the sugarcane Nordeste region is hard to reconcile with the picture produced at a higher scale, such as World Bank or governments' reports. Does this illuminate "Land reform in Brazil", "development" or the "Brazilian dilemma"? How can we link fieldwork observations such as the tendency to suspect any person in charge of « corruption », lying and cheating, with similar propositions widely held in Brazil? Ethnography entails as an essential component comparison, both by the actors and observers. The anthropologist's own generalisations must be compared with 'native generalisations,' about Nordeste, or Brazil, by local people as by actors at other levels. Actors' networks that link the various levels: micro-local, local, regional, national, international allow us to move along scales. Hopefully we can thus produce "grounded generalizations" that instead of appealing to magical explanations in terms of "neo-liberalism" or "globalization" allow us to give substance to such formulas.

panel W083
Social interaction, shifting scales of analysis and anthropological theory. Interaction sociale, jeux d'échelles analytiques et théorie anthropologique. atelier bilingue / bilingual workshop