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Making a Vice of Our Virtues: Some Notes on Theory in Ethnography and History

Concern has frequently been registered, even by ethnographers themselves, about the ahistorical character of much ethnographic research. Stephen Ball, for example, has pointed out how we often neglect the temporal patterns operating in the settings we study and that this seriously threatens the validity of our accounts (Ball, 1983a). Others have pointed to the importance of biographical factors in sociological explanations (Pollard, 1982). Goodson (1983a) has noted how, over the last forty years, ethnography has come to be identified with participant observation, life history work suffering a serious decline. Fortunately though, there are now signs of a revival, Bertaux, 1981.) Lynch (1977) raises the issue in a particularly striking manner, criticizing ethnographers for a lack of interest in the 'future history' of the groups they study. He cites the case of Lofland's work on the 'Doomsday Cult' (Lofland, 1966), suggesting that we can now recognize the latter as having been one of the seed groups of 'The Moonies'. He bemoans the fact that we have no study of how this small cult was transformed into the widespread movement of today.