Trying to over my anti-ethnographic attitudes

After reading and writing about The Ethnography of Infrastructure for INF 1001 (or was it INF 1003?) I really had a pretty bleak view of this particular information gathering technique. I had it more or less reduced to two points. 1) Although we should definitely study the ordinary, ethnography is long, boring and ultimately just a reflection of the bias of the ethnographer and 2) that it was mostly for British people in Colonel Mustard hats studying natives who found it amusing to live someone else's life for a while.
I think I'm starting to get over that, and to see how it can be used to gather information, to do studies and how important it is for the people who are using it to become really engaged in the lives of the people they are studying. It is worthwhile to notice the little things and see what they tell us about the world and the people in it. It's way more natural than an interview or a focus group could ever be. Some things, often important ones, aren't talked about outside of certain contexts.
I liked Luker's example of the baboon who hung around the fringes helping out until he made a few friends and got integrated into the family but I'm still a little hung up on something. That baboon was trying to get into a family group just like the one he'd left, he was already a baboon and it wasn't hard for him to learn the power structures because he was already familiar with them.
Somehow I can't see myself integrating so seamlessly into an all male rugby team for Morocco who were all really interested astrophysics.
So, how limited is ethnographic research by who the researcher is?


Cathy McRae said...

I am completely with you in terms of my initial views on ethnographic research. This area is one that I had not encountered at all throughout my undergraduate degree, and yet, I now find myself immersed in ethnographic readings in multiple courses (INF1001 & INF1003 as well).
I believe your question about how separated the researcher can be from the subjects of the study is a fair one. In this week's readings, Shaffir outlines his experience with ethnographic field research and personal struggle to truly become accepted within his community of study (Hasidic Jewish community). Shaffir maintains that a barrier was constantly present throughout his research, but that this is not a sign of his failure as an ethnographer, but rather the reality of the practice. The researcher can never truly become part of the community, which limits the potential of the results - but simply cannot be changed.
I feel that the conclusion to the article summarizes how I have now come to understand ethnography. The question is not what the purpose of ethnography is - nor is it a debate about whether it is 'science' the way we understand hard science. The practices that ethnography encompasses are simply the best (and inevitably flawed) system that exists for studying human behaviour.

Heather said...

I remember reading and learning about ethnographic studies after taking anthropology courses in during my undergrad. It was one of the research methods that fascinated me, as it could uncover human behaviours, ideas, and experiences quantitative research could never really get at. As for the question of how limited ethnographic research can be on the researcher’s part can be alleviated (somewhat) by the examples Stebbins gives, such as “fieldwork reciprocities” or displaying competencies in that the researcher had done some background research on the group being observed (p.107). Although this seems like something quite obvious to most people (i.e. – do background research of a group’s culture, provided it exists, so you’re not trying to figure things out in the field), some new researchers - like Luker’s student showing up to conduct a focus group wearing revealing clothing- may miss that important step. This could jeopardize the study, and there’s no chance to make a first impression again.

It seems one of the more tricky thing for a researcher embarking on ethnography is being able to fit in quickly, and be liked and accepted by the group to be studied. These key factors, where the answer as to ‘how do I do that?’ is so elusive may be why ethnographic research can appear flawed. There’s a science to constructing a properly worded questionnaire, but it’s an art getting a group to include you.
- Heather

Stephanie Lauren said...

Much like Heather, I feel like one of the more difficult (and inevitably unteachable) aspects of ethnography is being able to become accepted by the community you're studying. As Cathy already pointed out, Shaffir explains in his reading that you can't really become a part of the group per se, as that would require you becoming so fully immersed in the culture that it might jeopardize your ability to actually research your subjects.

Therefore you're always treading this fine balance between not becoming a part of the community you're studying, while also being able to still maintain the community's respect. It is definitely a difficult juggling act and one that takes a lot of introspection on the part of the researcher.

Amy. said...

You make a great point - and I'm particularly interested in how the conversation here has panned out so far!

Ethnographic research (and this is an assumption that I also developed last year), appears to be so convoluted that a person can get dizzy thinking about it. Essentially, a researcher must (quoting Stephanie) be able to manage the fine balance between maintaining a community's respect without falling into the community itself - but I see a benefit to this struggle. It is fascinating to not only learn from the observations of the researcher, but to observe how successful a researcher is in collecting their valuable data. While a researcher may observe a particular community, there is also potential for said researcher to reflect on his or her own actions while involved in the study. By looking back at how we as researchers delve into our work, I think we can learn much about ourselves as outsiders to a particular community.

To respond to your question: ethnography is likely affected by who the researcher is - but I doubt it is limited. Instead, the actions, personality, inhibitions, etc. of a particular researcher merely influences the conclusions of a study, which we as readers and fellow researchers (maybe?) should keep in mind.

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