In Tuesday’s discussion of Harris Berger’s Metal, Rock, and Jazz, the theme of reflexivity arose. As some of us in another class are currently reading an extremely reflexive ethnography, it seemed like a good time to delve into the issue a little more.
I understand the motivations behind reflexive ethnomusicology and anthropology, and I do agree that there is no such thing as true objectivity; the ethnographer will always have some influence on his or her encounters in the field. But this does not mean that attempts to understand information and concepts objectively are futile. I think good, useful ethnography constantly negotiates the continuum between reflexivity/subjectivity and objectivity.
Work that only pretends detached objectivity often gives good, detailed information, but ignores the author’s experiences and relationships with people in the field, all of which could contribute substantially to the ethnography. However, in overly subjective or reflexive ethnography, the author’s relationships with informants take precedence over information and broader historical and cultural themes. In such ethnographies, which can feel unstable or ungrounded, the danger is that the author himself/herself becomes the focus of the work (dare I mention the book many of us love to hate?)
Anyway, reading the Berger and the hyper-subjective ethnography in the other class, as well as discussing the Berger on Tuesday, motivated this post. I’m not bashing Berger at all here; I actually really enjoyed the book. We get a lot of good, detailed information about the Cleveland and Akron rock scenes, individual and group compositional techniques, and musicians’ conceptions of their own work. However, I did think the book was not quite reflexive enough. As just one illustration of this, look at the section entitled “Some people at the Agora” (37-39) in which he outlines a typology of clubgoers. Why not admit he was/is one of the Silent Men, as many of us suspected? Or, if not, why not tell us to which of the categories he belonged?
In a larger context, why did Berger not attempt to locate himself more within the study? I think it would have lent more credibility to the book, and would have made the chapters in which he engaged one-on-one with the musicians much more meaningful. According to Berger, in ethnography, “To ignore the subject’s experiences and their social context is to threaten the entire critical project,” (258). Perhaps, in Metal, Rock, and Jazz, he should have included himself as one of the subjects he refers to in the quote above.