David’s motivation to get us social interaction folks talking with each other is very welcome. 🙂 I still have to finish reading Donal’s response, but the gist of this dialogue in the Quarterly Journal of Speech (1990-1991) is framed two ways. By Philipsen, as an example of two different ways of doing ethnography, and by Fiske, as consensus vs conflictual applications of social theory. Fiske is cogent on several of the questions I have about Donal’s approach, but there is also something quite compelling about Donal’s insistence on approaching ethnography with one’s assumptions bracketed. While I lean toward the conflictual versions (surprise? – not!) I also think they carry a huge risk of reifying the very thing they seek to change.
Claiming the ability to effectively bracket out assumption and be neutral and objective is an epistemology in its own right, one which has been severely misused historically and no doubt still. But the language of social conflict theories are just as liable to miss evidence of social change as the language of consensus is to mask power relations. If the assumptions of perpetual hierarchy and conflict govern social thinking and theory development, then the language used to describe and interpret how this occurs serves only to reinforce the dominant discourse and social structures through reenactment – thus preventing the very changes it seeks to invoke!
How do social conflict theories account for instances of equality, equity, and justice? Are these posed as anomalies? Too statistically rare to matter? How are developmental processes and interactions among and between individuals of diverse backgrounds and experiences who do learn how to engage each other on terms of mutual respect acknowledged? How can these forms gain acceptance and support if they are only understood against the historical, structural backdrop of oppression? For these new, socially just forms to come clearly into view, I think Donal’s approach is absolutely necessary, otherwise the significance and power (!) of these shifts in patterns of social relations are muted and diffused.