the Fiske-Carbaugh debate

David’s motivation to get us social interaction folks talking with each other is very welcome. ­čÖé 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.

3 thoughts on “the Fiske-Carbaugh debate”

  1. This is the brief summary of the grad meeting we had last Friday.
    ——————————–
    Grad meeting (March 4, 2005)
    Topic: the Carbaugh-Fiske debate
    Participants: Joanna, Matt, David (from start), Max, Steph (joined later)
    Brief outline of discussion
    A. Discussion of our initial impressions about the debate
    – Both Carbaugh and Fiske offer valuable insight in different ways. It appears that the two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive.
    – The debate nicely outlines some elementary differences between the Ethnography of Communication and Cultural Studies. So how come the exchange among Carbaugh, Fiske, and Philipsen is something we’ve not come across as readings assigned in our graduate classes?
    – It is interesting how both Carbaugh and Fiske perform a gesture of appropriation; both authors position the other as a rogue member of their own scientific communities. Fiske is positioned as an ethnographer who doesn’t pay adequate attention to the interpretive mode of cultural analysis, Carbaugh is portrayed as an ethnographer who neglects the very goal of critical analysis, criticism.
    B. Are the differences between the two authors real differences, or two ways of looking at the same thing, yielding different results?
    – Perhaps the stark differences presented by the authors are not so clear cut in the actual practice of ethnography.
    – Or are they? There seems to be a significant epistemological difference between Carbaugh/Philipsen and Fiske in terms of

  2. No, the recording won’t be gone. I have it on my computer and will try to post it again. I’m still just experimenting with dropload.

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