The Ethnographic Researcher

This post is a response to the previous blogger who asked: How limited is ethnographic research by who the researcher is? Based on the rugby team example that was given, I understand this question as relating to the level of closeness (i.e. immersion into the social and cultural life) that a researcher can achieve with their participant group. In my opinion, how much "insider" information your participant group will be willing to share with you (through informal interviews, inclusion in group events and participant observation) is largely based on the type of person they perceive you to be. As Shaffir notes, the researcher is "a tabula rasa incarnate upon whom the mysteries or taken-for-granteds of the group would be writ" (1999, pg. 679). You’re a blank slate to your participant group, and they inscribe you (the researcher) with cultural, political and social symbols/signifiers that are filtered through their group's particular world view.

Also, your professional and academic position as a researcher means you will never completely erase the boundary between you and your participant group (Shaffir, 1999, pg.684). This is not necessarily a disadvantage. The researcher’s unique vantage point means they can analyze the taken for granted assumptions of their participant group through fresh eyes and this is what makes for rich and complex ethnographic research.



Devon said...

I think that quote from Shaffir is really interesting but I don't agree.
No one can be seen as a blank slate, with the possible exception of tiny babies. Researchers are people - I'm small, white, female, well educated, middle class, from a two parent home. I can't stop being any of those things, people I interact with know or learn those things quickly, and it could interfere with my interaction with the group I'm interested in.
But then again, it might be a good thing because it will always keep you segregated from the people you are studying, which, as you say, makes for complex research.

Ramona said...

I agree with you Devon, about how people usually infer who you are (i.e. the type of life experiences you’ve had) by your physical attributes, gender, socioeconomic class, family structure, etc. In that sense, nobody but newborns could be considered blank slates because we all carry some personal baggage with us that influence our daily interactions with others. While these factors do explain some aspects of your identity, people also use them to make generalizations and support stereotypes that they might have about you. And I think that is what the Shaffir quote is getting at.

For example, if you or I were studying a highly patriarchal society, our participant group would make assumptions about our intelligence, physical ability, moral character, etc. based on the fact that we’re female. In this sense, you and I as researchers are “tabula rasas” because our participant group does not recognize us as complex human beings but as outsiders who are far removed from their everyday experience of reality and whom they can project their cultural biases and fears onto.

However, I do think this gets more complicated when the participant group gets to know the researcher as a human being rather than a caricature, because they will likely find that the researcher’s behaviour will contradict the group’s assumptions.


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