Poker Faces and Subjectivity

May 2, 2014
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From the moment I entered their house, I picked up on the incredibly familiar surroundings — but not in a déjà vu sort of way. Rather, I experienced a feeling of belonging; if my family lived in this metropolitan area, we would probably choose a similar neighborhood, buy a similar house, and drive a similar car. This feeling only intensified once I began the interview. The couple (I’ll call them Scott and Michael) narrated their personal stories with a humor and ease that was disarming. And, even as the details of their upbringing and present lives differed in myriad ways from those of my husband and myself, so much was similar — from our socioeconomic status to our temperaments; and from our values and priorities to the ways in which we constructed and related to our gayness. As Scott and Michael discussed their reasons for choosing an open domestic adoption, their decision to send their child to a Jewish day school, and the way in which they navigated the December dilemma with Scott’s non-Jewish parents and extended family, I felt a level of camaraderie and kinship that was simultaneously delightful and disturbing.

Since I began interviewing subjects for a study on same-sex parenting within the Jewish community (with the help of two research assistants), I had managed to maintain an emotional distance between myself and my informants. To be sure, I readily acknowledged that my interest in the topic had an autobiographical component. My husband and I are parenting two children who joined our family as infants through open adoptions. My experiences interacting with family, community, and institutions focused my interpretive lens and informed the questions that animated my research. There is nothing unusual about a social scientist’s research agenda being propelled in part by his own experiences. In the context of American Jewish sociology, the precedents abound. One can reach back to the “dean” of Jewish sociologists, Marshall Sklare, whose work on Jews in suburban Chicago and the postwar ascendancy of the Conservative movement were informed directly by his childhood experiences and adult commitments.

The days when insider knowledge and identification were deemed as disqualifying in social science research are long gone — if they ever truly existed. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, when anthropology assumed geographic and cultural distance between the researcher and the subject, Franz Boas (1858-1942) advocated “the training of native anthropologists on the assumption that . . . it was the trained native who could best interpret native life from within.” And while the concept of auto-ethnography came into vogue in 1980s postmodernist academic circles, California State University anthropology professor David Hayano observed that it was probably first coined at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1956 by anthropologist Raymond Firth. Firth did so in the context of recounting a famous debate that had occurred more than 30 years earlier between paleontologist Louis Leakey (1903-1972) and Kenyan political activist and founding prime minister Jomo Kenyatta (1889-1978) about the impact of researchers’ “characteristics, interests and origin” on the efficacy and validity of their fieldwork.

Of course, to acknowledge that one’s research agenda is guided by past and present experiences and commitments is not to excuse the tendency of some researchers to allow their political commitments to drive the interpretation of their data. But those are often the easy cases to ferret out. Far more knotty are the cases where one’s subjectivity as a native becomes blinding, rendering the researcher incapable of assuming the necessary distance to facilitate sober evaluation. The case of Leakey and Kenyatta is instructive. They were arguing about Kenyatta’s ethnography of the Kikuyu people in Southeast Africa. Leakey’s critique of Kenyatta’s research did not begin and end with his Kikuyu identity. Leakey was the son of Christian missionaries who operated a mission near Nairobi. Raised among the Kikuyu, he was fluent in their language, and he wrote his own book about their culture. Leakey’s objection focused on the Kikuyu adult-initiation custom of female “circumcision.” In Kenyatta’s view, the rite comprised “the essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications, quite apart from the operation itself,” while Leakey (in line with the British missionaries and colonial officials) named it genital mutilation and viewed it as primitive and intrinsically harmful to the women and to Kikuyu culture.

Does the subjectivity that grounds auto-ethnography lead inexorably to an embrace of cultural relativism? Perhaps. But as I revisit the feelings I had as I interviewed Scott and Michael, I recognize that what concerned me more was being trapped by forms of essentialism and identity politics. I feared that my sense of recognition would unconsciously lull me into projection. I was concerned that if the boundary between myself and my informants became excessively porous, I would be handicapped and incapable of capturing the dynamism and fluidity of their queer/Jewish/queer-Jewish identities.

In his appendix to his ethnographic study Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players, Hayano describes how he was transformed into a native of casino culture through his utilization of participant observation methodology. No doubt, his insider status gave him insights into the world of high stakes gamblers and card sharks. But “going native” came at the price of blurring the distinction between researcher and subject, leading Hayano to wonder if he wasn’t “one of the people I wanted to study.” To the extent that this recognition encourages reflexivity, causing researchers to gaze at themselves gazing at others, exposing inherent power dynamics and underscoring the constructed nature of the ethnographic narrative, so much the better. On the other hand, one must take care that, as Northwestern University sociologist Gary Alan Fine puts it, the “intensive labor of field research” does not give way to “the armchair pleasures of ‘me-search.’”

His warning is worth heeding, and not only because the self-referential, confessional turn in academic writing is frequently self-absorbed and quickly becomes tiresome to the reader. If native researchers do not problematize
the process of collecting and representing authoritative knowledge about their own culture, they are merely trading their positive faith in objectivity for an insider knowledge that leans heavily on anecdote and that can easily become essentialist and reductionist. The discomfort I felt as I resisted the temptation to befriend Scott and Michael stemmed from a recognition that familiarity can dull one’s sense of discernment, and that identification breeds complacency.


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Jonathan Krasner is an associate professor of the American Jewish experience at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and a visiting scholar at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education in Waltham, Mass. His book, The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education, (Brandeis University Press, 2011) won a National Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. His article on same- sex parenting in the Jewish community will appear in a forthcoming volume entitled Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families Today, edited by Sylvia Barack Fishman.  

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