My notes on Burawoy, M. (2017). On Desmond: the limits of spontaneous sociology. Theory and Society, 46(4), 261-284.

The work of Matthew Desmond has won enormous acclaim in recent years, with Evicted being a book I recommend to anyone keen to understand the relevance of contemporary sociology. While recognising his talents as an ethnographer and writer, in this paper Michael  Burawoy takes issue with the methodological approach advocated by Desmond, arguing that it represents a form of what Bourdieu called ‘spontaneous sociology’: a return to the naive empiricism of the Chicago school era that confines truth to the field site, presented in the guise of a theoretical revolution. Desmond has made the case that ethnographic practice reminds mired in substantialism, being left behind by what Andrew Abbott describes as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the social sciences: a relational turn which overcomes a dominant tendency where “the object of study is confined to isolated places, bounded groups and homogeneous cultures” as Burawoy summarises the case against substantialism on pg 263.

Nonetheless, Burawoy argues that Desmond struggles to identify examples of substantialist ethnography, with this purportedly dominant approach servicing to obscure the distinction between what Burawoy sees as the two forms of relational ethnography: “empiricist transactional ethnography and a theoretically-grounded structural ethnography” (pg 263). The former’s rejection of prior theory and comparison (the first seen as getting in the way of a pragmatic ontology of the field site by leaving the analyst bogged down in theoretical debates, the second as inevitably involving groups or places and thus substantialism) render it unable to grasp “forces beyond the field site that can only be explored with theoretical frameworks and comparative logic” as in structural ethnography (pg 263). Not only are the effects of wider structures circumscribed by this methodological stance, it goes hand-in-hand with a slide into “old style inductive ethnography in which sociological insights emerge spontaneously from the data”. As Burawoy continues on pg 264:

As a follower of Bourdieu, Desmond insists on the importance of constructing a scientific object that breaks with common sense. Yet his own ethnographies, far from breaking with the common sense of his participants, faithfully reproduce it. His objects of study, such as eviction, spring directly from the experience of his subjects, so that his work exemplifies what Bourdieu et al. (1991, p. 38) condemn, namely a hyperempiricism that abdicates the right and duty of theoretical construction in favour of spontaneous sociology. Paradoxically, the spontaneous sociology of Evicted makes it highly effective as a public sociology of exposé, but it comes at the cost of a critical perspective that would break with common sense and generate convincing policy proposals.

This slide follows from the rejection of comparison and past theory, falling back on the “the inductivist view that the field reveals insights in and of itself without explicitly engaging relevant literature, which is either dismissed as wrong-headed or ignored”: the ethnographer “mimics the experiences of those he studies” because the resources to facilitate an epistemological break (from common sense) in the construction of the research object have been discarded (pg 266). If I understand him correctly, Burawoy is concerned with the scholarly practice which makes this break possible. If you limit truth to what emerges from the field site then how do you ensure a distance from common sense? I’m not sure if Burawoy is saying it’s impossible but it’s certainly difficult. As he puts it on pg 276, “Desmond departs from Durkheim and Bourdieu for whom prior theorizing is essential for an epistemological shift, a shift from spontaneous sociology to scientific sociology”. In this sense, he’s saying Desmond’s approach runs counter to Bourdieu’s in spite of his invocation of it. He goes on to offer a clear summary of Bourdieu’s approach on pg 277:

Bourdieu’s epistemological break is based on a two-fold truth—the truth of the participant and the truth of the scientist between which there is an unbridgeable divide. That is to say, participants cannot connect their own world to the scientific understanding of the sociologist. In the game metaphor Bourdieu often deploys, players develop a commitment (illusio) to a taken-for-granted set of all absorbing and incontrovertible principles (nomos) governing the play of the game—while the scientist observing the game from without can see the conditions that make the game possible, conditions that are invisible to the players.

It follows from this that Bourdieu is “skeptical of participant observation, as it only reveals a partial truth, the subjective truth of the participant, unable of itself to reach an objective truth” (pg 278). Objectivity necessitates distance from the field site of precisely the sort which Burawoy claims Desmond’s approach precludes.

In the final part of the paper, Burawoy compares the Bourdieu’s public sociology to Desmond’s. The former was predicated on an “epistemological break with the epistemological break” that “establishes the conditions for a public sociology, a sociology that engages the public”, something which the insistence on distance from subaltern common sense had previously precluded (pg 279).The latter involves a “synergy of public and professional sociology, each bolstering and inspiring the other”, seen in Desmond’s scientific follow ups to Evicted and his copious scholarly end notes coupled with huge dissemination through popular media (pg 280). Unfortunately, argues Burawoy, it leads to poor policy sociology, producing recommendations which fail to grasp the broader dynamics in place. He writes on pg 281 of the wider social forces which “are invisible in Desmond’s account—forces that have to be unveiled and tackled if there is to be any solution to the housing problem”.

His objection is that “Desmond’s public sociology, important as it is, is limited to an exposé of the lived experience of housing insecurity”: it can’t get beyond the field site and hence is restricted to disseminating the common sense that is found there. This serves a purpose but it is a limited one. Burawoy ends with a call that resonates with me, stressing on pg 282 that the ‘underlying dilemma of ethnography’ is one of broader importance when the academic workplace is under threat: how do we relate to those we study?

Especially today, when the academic work- place is threatened by forces beyond, the underlying dilemma of ethnography—that we are part of the world we study—is pressingly germane to all social science and the academic world more generally. So we have to develop an understanding of our relation to those we study. We cannot confine ourselves to processes within the field site but must recognize how they are tied to the past and thus to the future, as well as to social forces that establish their conditions of existence. We cannot broach these problems without inherited bodies of knowledge—theories—that we continually reconstruct. That is what gives meaning and distinctiveness to sociology.

Reflecting on this a day later, I feel I should stress how much I like Matthew Desmond’s work. I regret the slightly click-baity header I gave these notes, though it does seem appropriate for the point Burawoy is making in his critique of Desmond’s cultivated atheoreticism. It would also be interesting to link up the argument Burawoy is making here to the critique Archer and Donati make of Mustafa Emirbayer’s relational sociology, as there’s a lot of overlap.

These look fantastic. I’ve just this week been thinking that I need to start engaging with ethnographies of organisational life for the new book. But I had no idea where to start beyond the minute amount of tech literature like this I’m familiar with. But now I stumble across exactly what I was looking for, in the city I live in no less:

eminars for 2015/16
4pm – 5.30pm
MBS East Building, Room B5

Seminars will be instructional, incisive and analytical offerings to a select number of academics who register to attend these events. Spaces will be limited for attending these seminars with some worldclass ethnographers.

Dr Damian O’Doherty
Manchester Business School
University of Manchester

‘MAG Men’: Politics and the Corridors of Power in Corporate Organization’
Click here to read the abstract and further information

Professor Albena Yaneva
Manchester Architectural Research Centre
University of Manchester

‘Blinded by the Sun: Testing Glare, Crafting Cosmopolitical Designs

Professor Ann Cunliffe
Bradford Business School
University of Bradford

‘Generating Socially Robust Knowledge: The Possibilities and Challenges of Multi-sited Participatory Ethnography’

Professor Daniel Neyland
Goldsmiths, University of London
‘Studying the Market Ethnographically: Can Markets Solve Problems?’

Dr Amanda Peticca
Grenoble Ecole de Management
Studying Project Work Ethnographically

Jeremy Aroles
PhD Candidate, Manchester Business School
University of Manchester

An Ethnography of Organizational Facts
John Foster
PhD Candidate, Department of Social Anthropology
University of Manchester

‘The End of Work? An Ethnography of Manchester ‘Job Clubs’
Professor Bill Maurer
University of California, Irvine

‘Studying Money: Lateral Ethnography’
Dr Tiago Moreira
School of Applied Social Sciences
University of Durham

‘Unsettling Standards in Health Care: The Biological Age Controversy’
Dr Darren Thiele
Department of Sociology
University of Essex

‘Studying Construction Ethnographically’
May 11th
Sideeq Mohammed
PhD candidate, Manchester Business School
University of Manchester

‘The Trafford Centre: An Ethnography’
Oz Gore
PhD candidate, Manchester Business School
University of Manchester
‘Ethnographic Encounters with the Economy’


Pat Thompson has written a fascinating post reflecting on her use of blogging to record field notes during an ethnographic project at the Tate summer school. She stresses the ethical challenges of such an activity – particularly the need to negotiate consent with participants, including around photos, as well as the need for a framework for naming and recognition of potential harms – but argues that blogging in this context can provide a really useful ‘audit trail’: a record of what was done and in what order.

She makes a compelling case that the resulting posts offer many advantages compared to more traditional ways of recording field notes: it’s easier to discipline yourself to do the blog post, it’s easier to link out in ways susceptible to following up later and the need to make the posts accessible and interesting (e.g. not too long) necessitates editing/filtering which itself requires valuable evaluation of the events of the day. What I found most interesting though were the advantages this can have in terms of building connections, within and beyond the fieldwork site:

(5) participants and research partners like to read the posts each day too. It not only works for you but also works for them as a record of what’s gone on and what resources, people, organisations and “stuff” they used – so they can follow these up too.

(6) participants know more about what you’re doing. We all read our institutional ethics forms about checking with participants and keeping them informed, but this is often not taken very seriously IMHO. A daily post goes a little way to telling people what youre doing, and…

(7) a post can lead to good conversations with participants. if something is online, people can read it and then – tell you’ve got something wrong, or disagree with you, or discuss something further or tell you what they think. If your notes are locked away in your notebook, then this kind of responsive conversation is less easy to begin.

(8) the telling of the events as they’ve just happened has “live-ness” which is often missing from accounts which are heavily processed long after the event has happened (see “Live methods” by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar)

(9) blog readers may get some ideas of their own from reading about your work (I’ve just been contacted by one of my colleagues who is going to play with GIFs and zines on the back of yesterday’s post.)

This is a wonderful example of what I’ve tried to write about in the past as ‘continuous publishing’: the advantages that can accrue from doing work in the open that once would have been done in private. Getting the ideas out there in this way, making them public, means they begin to act instantaneously – in this case, in a way that feeds  back upon the process that is being documented through blogging.

In this interview I talk to Alex Smith (right) about the New Ethnographies book series he edits. I was interested in this series because of its deliberate intention to embrace and ferment the extension and productive growth of this most traditional of qualitative approaches. As Alex describes in the forward to the series which is quoted from below:

This includes the growing number of books that seek to apprehend the  ‘new’ ethnographic objects of a seemingly brave new world, some recent examples  of which have included auditing, democracy and elections, documents, financial  markets, human rights, assisted reproductive technologies and political activism. Analysing such objects has often demanded new skills and techniques from the ethnographer. As a result, this series will give voice to those using ethnographic methods across disciplines to innovate, such as through the application  of multi-sited fieldwork and the extended comparative case study method. Such  innovations have often challenged more traditional ethnographic approaches. New Ethnographies therefore seeks to provide a platform for emerging scholars  and their more established counterparts engaging with ethnographic methods in new and imaginative ways.