The Ethnographer’s Dilemma

WordItOut-Word-cloud-222674My students are tying up their fieldwork this week–we’ve spent three weeks observing, photographing, interviewing and collecting documents and other ephemera that will be archived at the Library of Congress.  The “final” for the course is a public presentation that will take place at the theater of the  Women in Military Service for America Memorial at 2PM on June 19.  For most of Tuesday (at the cemetery) and Wednesday (in my office) students have discussed their plans and concerns for these presentations.

Their most common question is not “What should I include?” but “What can I possibly leave out?”

The most difficult decision a research ethnographer makes is what goes into his or her final product.  By necessity we collect as much material as possible.  “Be comprehensive,” I ask while insisting that they don’t self-censor.  In the course of fieldwork, every ethnographer encounters something that may not be appropriate to include in a collection.  Most often these are details that emerge as part of everyday life, but have no direct bearing on the collection.   These can be as simple as unsubstantiated rumors about people in the field site or community, or as complex as allegations of wrong doing.  (For the record, we’ve had neither during our time at ANC.)

Still, what should be the focus when you’ve found out a great deal and can’t present it all?

I’ve asked students to think about the entirety of their collection, then to narrow down the 2-3 major themes that have emerged during their fieldwork.  These are events and ideas that usually emerge several times over the course of the field study.  From there they should consider three things.  1) What they find most interesting; 2) what they believe would be the most appealing to the audience; and 3) what their informants see as most significant.

That last item is particularly important for a collaborative ethnography, which is the method I teach to my students.  Ethnographic projects are not (nor was it ever conceived of) one-sided endeavors.  While it is the ethnographer’s goal to learn about the community he or she studies, they are not the owners of the materials they collect.  They have been offered the privilege of insight into another’s community.  The decision about who and what is represented should be a collaborative decision between the researcher and the people he or she is working with.

To do this, students share their insights with the people they’ve observed and interviewed, and will discuss their findings and what they see as important.

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