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“How many bloody examples do you want?”: fieldwork and generalisation

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Abstract

The title of this paper comes from comments made by an ‘angry’ ethnographer during a debriefing session. It reflects his frustration with a certain analytic mentality that would have him justify his observations in terms of the number of times he had witnessed certain occurrences in the field. Concomitant to this was a concern with the amount of time he had spent in the field and the implication that the duration of fieldwork somehow justified the things that he had seen; the implication being that the more time he spent immersed in the study setting the more valid his findings and, conversely, the less time, the less valid they were. For his interlocutors, these issues speak to the grounds upon which we might draw general insights and lessons from ethnographic research regarding the social or collaborative organisation of human activities. However, the strong implication of the angry ethnographer’s response is that they are of no importance. This paper seeks to unpack his position and explicate what generalisation turns upon from the ethnographer’s perspective. The idea that human activities contain their own means of generalisation that cannot be reduced to extraneous criteria (numbers of observations, duration of fieldwork, sample size, etc.) is key to the exposition.