On the ethnographic

I’m currently in Brisbane for the CCI Winter School, and was very pleased this morning to see that our object ethnography workshop next week will be filled to capacity with bright and interesting people–even though very few participants have identified ethnographic research as part of their projects.

I found that last point rather curious, and was reminded of a blog post on Savage Minds last month that asked “What makes something ethnographic?“. In the post, Carole McGranahan compares Marcus and Cushman‘s list of things that characterised early 1980s ethnographic writing, with a new list compiled by her students that describes ethnography today. There were many similarities between the two lists–check them out–but I’m most interested in the three new things they considered instrumental to successful ethnography:

1) a transparency of the ethnographer as researcher; by this they meant not gratuitous reflexivity, but a clear and communicated sense of how knowledge was accumulated, of what the scholar’s relationships with the community were;

2) the presence of people in the text as characters who you get to know, people who appear as themselves, as real people; and

3) clear demonstration that the topic being studied matters; by this they meant mattered not only in an anthropological sense, but mattered and was relevant to the people in the community.

First, I love the distinction between “gratuitous reflexivity” and the clear identification of located research or situated knowledge. Anyone who has taught ethnographic subjectivity and reflexivity to undergraduate students–or those outside social and cultural anthropology–will be familiar with cultural writing that is, at best, largely irrelevant and, at worst, inappropriately confessional. For some, it seems, the task of rendering transparent one’s interests and activities becomes a solipsistic practice of writing the self. If ethnographic research seeks to provide thick description (and I think that remains one of its central objectives) then I believe that reflexivity must explicitly help the audience understand the researcher in relation to other people, practices and ideas. In other words, one researcher’s realities (or mental states) cannot be used to represent all people’s realities (or mental states).

Second, I really appreciate the explicit acknowledgement of research participants as real people with real lives. A successful ethnographic account, then, might employ any number of narrative strategies that encourage the subjects to resonate with us just as our favourite novel and film characters (both human and non-human) do. As I’ve expressed before, fictional stories–even science fiction stories– work because they ring true, because we care what happens next. And one of the ways to do this is to use first-person perspective, not in some sort of self-righteous move to allow “our” subjects to speak for themselves instead of being spoken for, but as a simple means of showing rather than telling.

And third, I personally place a lot of value on research being relevant or significant to everyone involved. That doesn’t mean we all need to (or even can) get the same thing out of it, but I do believe that successful ethnographic research cannot result from studies that exclusively address the interests and whims of the researcher–or the funding body. On the other hand, I also don’t believe that ethnographic research needs to always be applied, in the sense that it only solves “problems.” (We all know about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.)

In addition to these students’ excellent points, I think we still need to reiterate that ethnographic research involves multiple embodied and material practices. What I mean is that words have only ever been one of our tools, and “an ethnography” (or ethnographic monograph) only one of our research outputs. Images, objects and performances are also fundamental parts of the ethnographic toolkit–both in terms of doing our work and how we present it to others–and in that sense we have always been multimedia practitioners.

And finally, I think that bringing all these qualities of ethnographic research to the foreground allows us to become less precious about who can be a ethnographer, or what constitutes an appropriate amount of fieldwork–and all without losing sight of what constitutes successful (thick, real, trustworthy) ethnography.