Andrew Finlay (1999)
''Whatever You Say Say Nothing': An Ethnographic Encounter in Northern
Ireland and its Sequel '
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/4/3/finlay.html>
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Received: 12/5/1999 Accepted: 15/9/1999 Published: 30/9/1999
'I'll tell you this much now, and I don't care if you are recording it or not. I'm not a bit ashamed. Now I don't want to hurt your feelings, [but] if you were a Protestant and no matter what mistake you made it was overlooked. Now I'm being honest and truthful... anything... anywhere in the factory, if you made a mistake, no matter how big it was, that was overlooked. But if you were a Catholic you were put out on your mouth and nose in the street if you made a mistake. And they had Protestants in high up jobs and [they] hadn't a brain in their head. And I'll tell you that much, making more mistakes than enough that people on the ground then... rectified when it came to our Department... They [i.e. Protestant workers] hadn't a call for a trade union you see. The firm was their trade union, they were their stand by'.
'I'll tell you this much now, and I don't care if you are recording it or not. I'm not a bit ashamed. Now I don't want to hurt your feelings... [but] if you were a Protestant and no matter what mistake you made it was overlooked. Now I'm being honest and truthful...'.
'so important is it... to be able to determine the allegiances of strangers that many Ulster people seem to have developed an extreme sensitivity to signs other than explicit badges that denote the affiliations of those that they meet. Each looks automatically for slight indications from another's name, physical appearance, expression and manner, style of dress and speech idiom to provide the clues that will enable the correct categorisation to be made.' (1986: 148)
'Religion's never mentioned here,' of course.
'You know them by their eyes,' and hold your tongue.
'One side's as bad as the other,' never worse.
Christ, it's near time that some small leak was sprung
In the great Dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable. The famous
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the 'wee six' I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.
Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule
That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,' (Heaney, 1990: 79).
'One set, usually held by sociologists, is that Northern Ireland has a core problem which hides beneath a veneer of superficial good relations. This core problem erupts at certain times and in certain places, and subsides beneath the veneer at others. The other set of assumptions, seemingly shared by most social anthropologists, is that Northern Irish society has a reasonable balance at its core, which is only temporarily disrupted by dramatic events.' (1983: 135)
'might derive from inappropriate methods. We pointed out in our introduction that we were not going to discuss research which used questionnaire surveys because they are too unreliable. However, even in the research carried out by more personalised methods, there are certain to be differences in emphasis. It is perfectly reasonable to conjecture that the tolerance and harmony to be found in many reports is simply a product of using interviews more than any research tool. Everyone in Northern Ireland knows that few people are willing to be frank and open about their strong opposition to the other side, especially seemingly educated researchers. The solution here is probably to carry out more research using the more informal methods and to be more explicit about the methods which are used'. (1983: 134-5).
'Once the fieldworker was categorized as conforming to the typification of a 'good' Catholic... then her religion was no longer as important as it appears at first sight, although the extent to which it had a residual effect is impossible to estimate. But it only remained of crucial importance to that small minority of bigoted constables who classify all Catholics as equally evil and nefarious ' (1991:25).
'This threat of danger which is endemic in Belfast underlines a second feature of telling: the way it can be used to create areas of trust. As Suttles poignantly illustrates, territorial segregation amongst ethnic groups has the seeming advantage of creating personal and local pools of predictability... Within one's own physical area there is a built in moral arena, a normative order, which helps to structure the possible types of interaction. The potential conflict in cross-ethnic interaction is limited by territory. I would suggest that telling, in a like manner, creates order in the anomic climate of a sectarian society. In one sense Protestants and Catholics do not know how to interact. Their restricted knowledge of each other prevents communication. Telling contributes to shutting out this anomie before it starts' (1978: 65-66).
'this labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.... I use the term emotional labor to mean the management of feeling... emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value... these same acts done in a private context... have a use value' (1983: 7).
'a political position and truth. In Marxist and feminist sociology the determining dynamics are characterised by conflict... Marxism... is not just a theory of the class struggle and conflict, it is a class theory - the theory of the subject of history. Thus Marxist sociologists authorise themselves by putting themselves in the movement of history, in the class narrative; and they are the voice of the narrative. Feminist sociologists have been critical of "male" sociologists who speak on behalf of the working class, but their authorisation is based on similar assumptions. While it is problematic for sociologists to speak for the working class, feminist sociologists, as women, can speak on behalf of women... this assumes a unity, women, and fails to acknowledge questions of difference and the production of the other to the subject of feminist knowledge' (1991: 24).
'I am... not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order' (quoted in Poster 1997: 152).
'between the social scientist and those whom he observes... Methodological Dualism calls for the separation of subject and object ... it enjoins the sociologist to be detached from the world he studies... Methodological Dualism is based on fear; but this is a fear not so much of those being studied as of the sociologist's own self... it assumes... that feeling is the blood enemy of intelligence... In effect, methodological dualism prohibits the sociologist from changing in response to the social worlds that he studies and knows best; it requires him to finish his research with the same self, the same biases and commitments with which he began it' (1970: 495-6).
'entails loose injunctions to "think about what we are doing". It is encouraged as a means of generating addenda to research reports, sometimes in the form of "fieldwork confessions", which provide the "inside story" on how the research was done' (1988: 22L).
'An exercise in introspection is usually concerned with improving the adequacy of the connections between the analyst's statements and the objects of those statements... far from raising any fundamental problem, this kind of reflexivity sustains and enhances the Scientific axiom of the research effort.' (1988: 22)
'there is no "civil society" in Northern Ireland. "Civil society" has collapsed into competing religio-political blocs. There are two "civil societies" which display many of the characteristics of what... Hannah Arendt called "communities of meaning". Such communities exist where each group shows a strong tendency to degenerate into mutually opposed self-absorbed worlds' (Patterson, 1999).
'So, I think my problem, and "our" problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own "semiotic technologies" for making meanings and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a "real" world, one that can be partially shared and is friendly to earthwide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness' (1988: 579, Haraway's emphasis).
'Not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibilities. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision. All western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibility. Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see' (1988: 583).
'The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular. The science question in feminism is about objectivity as positioned rationality. Its images are not the products of escape and transcendence of limits (the view from above) but the joining of partial views and halting voices into a collective subject position that promises a vision of the means of ongoing finite embodiment, of living within limits and contradictions - of views from somewhere' (1988: 590)
'Such preferred positioning is as hostile to various forms of relativism as to the most explicitly totalizing versions of claims to scientific authority. But the alternative to relativism is not totalization whose power depends on systematic narrowing and obscuring. The alternative to relativism is partial, locatable, critical knowledges sustaining the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology. Relativism is a way of being nowhere while claiming to be everywhere equally. The "equality" of positioning is a denial of responsibility and critical inquiry. Relativism is the perfect mirror twin of totalization in the ideologies of objectivity; both deny the stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective; both make it impossible to see well. Relativism and totalization are both "god tricks" promising vision from everywhere and nowhere equally and fully...' (1988: 584).
2Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) was published around the time of the events I describe. Here, Clifford mentions the virtues of 'narrating interpersonal confrontation' in ethnography; however, I did not read Writing Culture until later, and it is only recently that I have come across examples that resonate with my experience (e.g. Bowes 1996 and Song and Parker, 1995).
3Two recent publications (Miller 1998 and McVeigh 1995) have discussed the social composition of academics in Northern Ireland's universities and questioned their neutrality; however they are less concerned with the specific implications of this for social research, than with advancing an argument about the continuing relevance of British colonialism to explanations of the Northern Ireland conflict as against the prevalence in academic debate of the 'internal conflict model'.
4There is more to be said about the conflation of folk models and analytic models in the discourse of academics and policy makers. Arguably such a conflation has contributed to a tendency for the cultural categories, Protestant and Catholic, to be taken as givens - objectified and frozen - rather than being understood as actively constructed and contested. Such reification seems to have had a pernicious effect on cultural policies initiated by the British state in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985 (see Bell, 1998 and Rolston 1998b). However, my present concern is with the implications of Telling for social research.
5The failure on the part of social researchers to address the passions aroused by ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland conflict has been commented upon by other writers, notably Whyte (1983). I would not pretend that this failure can be reduced to the lack of reflexivity on the part of researchers; one would also need to consider, for example, the influence on social researchers of the tension in Enlightenment thought between reason and romanticism and the subsequent tendency to privilege rationality over emotion.
6It is difficult to explore the shifting power relations between myself and Ms Cosgrave at this remove. Moreover, we should be wary, as Rhodes has pointed out in relation to debates about white researchers interviewing black people, of the danger 'of confusing cultural misunderstanding with the unequal power relationships constructed around racial differentiation'(Rhodes 1994:55). However, there were clearly issues of power at stake, and the interview should be seen in light of the fact that Protestants in Ireland have, historically, held power at the expense of Catholics and that between 1921 and 1972, the duration of the Unionist regime, Derry was the place that the abuse of that power was at its most blatant. Ms Cosgrave may have subverted my 'authority' (in Anne Games' sense of the word) in the interview and the experience may have troubled me thereafter, but neither at the time of the interview, nor when writing-up my thesis did I explore why she said what she had said; rather, I assumed or re-assumed the authoritative voice of the objective researcher. As I have already indicated, I was, at the time, oblivious to the alternative writing strategies discussed by Clifford and Marcus (1986).
7The ineluctable nature of sectarian identities is captured in a well-worn local joke. The joke takes various forms, but most often it concerns a Jewish man who is stopped in the street by a menacing gang who challenge him to identify himself. He says, 'I'm Jewish'. The gang members reply: 'but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew'.
8As we have seen, 'critical reflexivity' involves confronting one's preconceptions, assessing the impact of these and of one's research practices on the findings. I should reiterate that this article was not conceived as an exercise in 'critical reflexivity'. If it had been, I would have discussed various aspects of the research process and aspects of my identity other than the fact that I come from a Northern Protestant background. For example, I would not deny that what transpired in my interviews was influenced by the fact that I was a young man and that most of my interviewees were elderly women. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, I think that the single-minded focus on ethnic identity is warranted. Harris has argued that in Northern Ireland 'religious affiliation is the most important characteristic of any individual, normally outweighing even that of sex' (Harris 1986: 148). A large claim, all I can say is that while gender loomed large in my thesis and the issue of reflexivity with respect to gender was raised by at least one social scientist who read a draft, my gender identity was never challenged in the way that Ms Cosgrave challenged my ethnic identity.
9As a panellist at the Trinity Week Symposium on Intercultural Communications (Trinity College, Dublin, 13 May 1999) I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with Professor Bhaba and other participants as part of a response to his earlier paper. He would, no doubt, still dispute my interpretation of his concept of hybridity; nevertheless the issues were unresolved and I think they might be usefully aired again here.
Verses from Whatever You Say Say Nothing by Seamus Heaney, taken from New Selected Poems 1966-1987, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1990. Copyright Seamus Heaney. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. The poem may not be reproduced without prior permission of the publisher.
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